The cardinal’s formidable record on abuse is being tested

In 2014, Pope Francis chose Cardinal Seán O’Malley of Boston to head the new Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, the Holy Father’s top council of advisors on the sexual abuse of minors by members of the clergy. When reports began piling up that Theodore McCarrick had abused several young men and at least two minors over the course of his priestly career, all eyes therefore turned towards O’Malley. How would he respond?

“While the Church in the United States has adopted a zero tolerance policy regarding the sexual abuse of minors by priests, we must have clearer procedures for cases involving bishops,” he said in a statement. “The Church needs a strong and comprehensive policy to address bishops’ violations of the vows of celibacy in cases of the criminal abuse of minors and in cases involving adults.”

It appears that Cardinal O’Malley was referring to the 2002 Charter for the Protection of Young People (commonly called the Dallas Charter), which was deliberately changed during the drafting process to remove a reference to “clerics”. Instead, the Charter only addresses abuse committed by “priests and deacons”. One of the bishops who sat on the drafting committee explained that disciplining “clerics” would include bishops, something that lay “beyond the purview of this document”.

The bishops agreed, but never explained exactly why. There are several possible reasons. Investigations into bishops are usually led by Vatican authorities – not the bishops’ colleagues in the national conference. This is how the Juan Barros affair was addressed. When the Chilean bishop was accused of complicity in clerical abuse, the Holy See dispatched Archbishop Charles Scicluna to investigate and determine the veracity of the accusations.

The US Conference of Catholic Bishops could have passed a resolution to ensure that substantial claims of abuse against bishops reached the Vatican as quickly as possible. They did not do so. Some commentators have suggested that they were more interested in shielding themselves from scandal, and that this was the real reason the word “clerics” disappeared from the document.

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