O’Malley says pontiff sought to end abuses

Issues ringing defense of pope in clergy cases

By Lisa Wangsness
Globe Staff / April 3, 2010

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Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley of Boston, joining a growing chorus of Catholic Church officials seeking to answer criticism of Pope Benedict XVI, yesterday offered a staunch defense of how Benedict handled sexual abuse cases in the years leading up to his papacy.

O’Malley, posting an entry in his blog just hours before leading a Good Friday liturgy at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross in Boston’s South End, wrote that “confusion and misinformation’’ in the news media have obscured the pope’s effectiveness in dealing with sexual abuse of children by clergy.

O’Malley praised Benedict’s actions, both during his tenure as pope and during his previous job as a ranking Vatican official, when he was known by his birth name, Joseph Ratzinger.

“What is very clear to me and I think to all who are fair-minded is that Cardinal Ratzinger and later Pope Benedict has been dedicated to eradicating sexual abuse in the church and trying to rectify the mistakes of the past,’’ wrote O’Malley, who was named a cardinal by Benedict in 2006.

“Until the sexual abuse crisis really became part of the consciousness of the church in Europe, there were many who were unsympathetic to our efforts in the US to deal with the problem in a transparent way and assure that our Catholic schools, parishes, and agencies would be safe for children,’’ O’Malley wrote. “During this period of at least a decade, the strongest ally we had in this effort was Cardinal Ratzinger.’’

The pope’s record on abuse issues has become controversial in recent days, amid global publicity over his handling of abusive priests during the years when Benedict served as archbishop of Munich and as head of a Vatican department. Critics have said Benedict acted too slowly to remove abusive priests from ministry; the Vatican has defended the pope’s record.

The controversy has escalated over the course of this Holy Week and has reverberated in Boston, where the sexual abuse crisis exploded in 2002.

Yesterday, as O’Malley prepared to lead Good Friday services, about two dozen members of Voice of the Faithful, an organization pushing for change in the Catholic Church, gathered outside to sing, pray, and express frustration that the church has found itself embroiled in the abuse issue once again.

The demonstrators, some with signs reading “Stop the Hiding: Start the Healing,’’ stood in a circle on the corner of Washington Street as trucks rumbled by. They sang hymns and reflected on the abuse crisis through a series of meditations and prayers based on the Stations of the Cross, the story of Jesus’ suffering, death, and burial.

“It is insufferable to me that, after eight years, I still see sexual abuse of minor children in the same sentence with my church,’’ said Anne Southwood of Marshfield, chairwoman of the group’s Boston-area chapter.

Joan Horgan, a 50-year-old college administrator who drove from Albany, N.Y., to participate, said, “This is a much more profound problem than has been admitted, and people haven’t had the stomach to stay with it.’’

Several of the protesters, though, praised O’Malley’s efforts to restore trust and stability in the Boston archdiocese, and said they sympathized with some aspects of his defense of the pope.

Rosemary Shaw, a longtime member of Voice of the Faithful who lives in Concord, pointed out that Benedict had changed the Vatican’s dismissive tone by meeting with abuse victims in 2008 and by removing from active ministry in 2006 the influential founder of the Catholic religious order Legion of Christ, the Rev. Marcial Maciel, because of allegations of sexual abuse.

But she said the pope “and his brother bishops need to listen to the laity, to their faithful’’ to alter the dynamic of too much concentrated power in the church.

The protesters were largely ignored by worshippers trickling into the 3 p.m. service, many of whom backed the pope.

“He is the leader of the church, and you need to support his position now and what he’s trying to do now,’’ said Jimmy Covino, a locomotive engineer from Billerica.

Others were not sure what to think. Camille Tortora, a grandmother from West Roxbury who works in the South End, said she has been reading about the sexual abuse crisis in Europe, particularly the allegations about the pope’s role in Munich.

“I just can’t believe that he knew’’ about the abusive priest who was reassigned, she said. “I just can’t fathom that he knew. And if he did, then God forgive him.’’

O’Malley’s defense of the pope echoed sentiments of other US and European bishops who have tried to counter criticism of Benedict’s handling of sexual abuse by Catholic clergy.

The US Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a statement on Tuesday expressing concern for the victims and shame for the church’s role in injuring them; they also praised the pope’s demonstrations of empathy to US victims during his 2008 trip.

An increasing number of other Catholic voices have also spoken up for Benedict, calling for a more nuanced appraisal of his record, even as criticism is also intensifying. Commonweal magazine, a liberal Catholic journal, released an editorial yesterday praising Benedict for having “demonstrated a real understanding of the nature and scope of the clergy sexual abuse crisis,’’ but also said “he came to that understanding much too slowly.’’

“Mistakes can be forgiven; what breeds mistrust and cynicism is the refusal to admit error,’’ the editorial said. “An act of penitence on the part of the pope and the world’s bishops, one that goes well beyond pro forma apologies to victims, is desperately needed.’’

Lisa Wangsness can be reached at

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