Pope Francis is famously stubborn in the face of disagreement, especially when it comes from his own bishops. For more than a year he has refused to answer the four “dubia bishops” (two of whom have since died) who requested that he confirm the orthodoxy of certain passages of Amoris Laetitia that some theologians said were out of synch with Church teaching.

Nor was the Holy Father swayed by the warnings of the Chilean bishops’ conference when he appointed Bishop Juan Barros to the Diocese of Osorno in 2015. Chilean bishops suspected Barros of complicity in the sexual assaults perpetrated by Fr Fernando Karadima (Barros denies the allegations). When confronted by journalists, Francis accused the victims of “calumny”.

But the intervention of one man changed the Pope’s course on the Barros affair: Cardinal Seán O’Malley, the Archbishop of Boston. In a statement, O’Malley said that the Pope’s words “were a source of great pain for survivors of sexual abuse by clergy or any other perpetrator”, and that they “abandon those who have suffered reprehensible criminal violations of their human dignity and relegate survivors to discredited exile”.

Francis quickly backtracked. “I apologise to them if I hurt them without realising it, but it was a wound that I inflicted without meaning to,” he told journalists on his flight back to Rome. The Vatican then announced that it was appointing Archbishop Charles Scicluna, arguably the Church’s sharpest abuse investigator, to scrutinise the claims against Barros.

Shortly thereafter, one of Barros’s accusers said that O’Malley had hand-delivered his appeal to the Holy Father years earlier. Neither the Vatican nor the Archdiocese of Boston commented on the claim. Nevertheless, O’Malley’s reputation as an unflinching advocate for abuse victims continued to grow. It is a reputation he has earned over two gruelling decades fighting to purify the scandal-ridden Church in the United States.

O’Malley began his career as a fixer in the early 1990s and late 2000s, as Bishop of Fall River in Massachusetts. These were perhaps the darkest days in the history of the Church in that state. The Boston Globe began its damning “Spotlight” investigation into paedophile clerics. Dozens of priests were prosecuted following its reports. Hundreds of victims, whose pleas had been ignored by diocesan officials, finally found their voice. And, almost overnight, the people of Massachusetts turned against the Church.

​How to continue reading…

This article appears in the Catholic Herald magazine - to read it in full subscribe to our digital edition from just 30p a week

The Catholic Herald is your essential weekly guide to the Catholic world; latest news, incisive opinion, expert analysis and spiritual reflection