By Inés San Martín, Special to The Tablet
LIMA, Peru – It’s not every day that a close ally and adviser to a pope, not to mention a cardinal of the Catholic Church, distances himself from that pope. So when Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston said Saturday night it was “understandable” that Pope Francis’s language in Chile about abuse victims accusing a bishop of a cover-up had caused “great pain,” it was bound to stir reaction.
Peter Saunders, a survivor of clerical sexual abuse and a former member of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors – an advisory body created by Pope Francis in 2014, with Cardinal O’Malley as its head – offered perhaps the boldest response: He wants Cardinal O’Malley, not Pope Francis, to be pope.
In an email he sent to several people, including Cardinal O’Malley and The Tablet, Saunders put “#FumataBiancaPapaPioOMalley” in the subject line, in a reference to the white smoke that’s released from a Vatican chimney when a new pope is elected.
“Pope Francis’s attack on the victims of Karadima has lost him more friends than he can begin to imagine,” Saunders wrote, referring to the name of a Chile’s most notorious pedophile priest. “He is certainly not the man I thought he was.”
Speaking with The Tablet, he expanded on it, saying that Cardinal O’Malley had “little choice” but to issue a “mild rebuke of his boss.”
“Deep down I think Cardinal O’Malley would like to take action, and if he were pope I think we would be seeing a different world, but first and foremost, he is an obedient servant – to his boss the pope, not to those he serves,” Saunders said.
Pope Francis opened his visit to Chile with an apology for the “irreparable damage” clerical sexual abuse has caused, and met with survivors in private. Yet before saying Mass in Iquique in northern Chile on the last day of his visit, Pope Francis approached a group of journalists to thank them for the work they’d done covering his visit. As he was greeting them, one asked about Bishop Juan Barros from Osorno, one of three bishops accused of covering up for Father Fernando Karadima.
Father Karadima has been found guilty by the Vatican of sexually abusing minors, and sentenced to a life of penitence and prayer. Bishop Barros, who was transferred from the military chaplaincy to Osorno by Pope Francis in 2015, has always insisted on his innocence, saying that he knew nothing of the abuse.
Pope Francis said there’s no proof against Bishop Barros, and that the accusations against him are “all a calumny.”
Fallout from that remark led to Cardinal O’Malley’s statement on Saturday, in which he said it’s understandable that the pontiff’s words were a “source of great pain for survivors of sexual abuse by clergy or any other perpetrator.”
“Words that convey the message ‘if you cannot prove your claims, then you will not be believed’ abandon those who have suffered reprehensible criminal violations of their human dignity and relegate survivors to discredited exile,” Cardinal O’Malley said.
The cardinal said he didn’t have the details regarding the pope’s statement, so he couldn’t address the words used by Pope Francis.
“What I do know, however, is that Pope Francis fully recognizes the egregious failures of the Church and its clergy who abused children and the devastating impact those crimes have had on survivors and their loved ones,” Cardinal O’Malley wrote.
As the statement was released, the cardinal was headed to Peru, where Pope Francis is closing his sixth Latin American tour on Sunday. The archdiocese said Cardinal O’Malley’s trip had been scheduled since last year, and that he’s coming to participate in the 60th anniversary of the St. James Society.
Speaking with The Tablet, Saunders questioned Pope Francis’s commitment to protecting children: “Doesn’t he understand the devastation these crimes cause to victims?”
“It happened to me a long time ago but I still live with the consequences and pain,” he said. “But I have a friend who comforts me, Jesus.”
In the past month, questions have been raised about the state of the pope’s advisory body, since the term of the current members was up Dec. 17 and no new members have been appointed. A source close to the cardinal told The Tablet that Cardinal O’Malley’s still serving as the president, and that the commission had decided to present Pope Francis with a series of recommendations before its term was up, including a set of new names as commission members.
The source said about half of those who were appointed until December 2017 will continue in their roles, to guarantee continuity, and another half will be replaced, to include members from regions that were represented before.
Juan Carlos Claret Pool, representing an association of lay men and women of Osorno, told The Tablet that they value Cardinal O’Malley’s statement, calling the cardinal’s statement “courageous,” suggesting that his comments were well thought-out.
“The cardinal is putting pressure on Pope Francis for him to take ownership of his words,” he said. “In 2015 [Francis] called us fools and lefties, and never apologized. Now, on the last day, he throws a bomb and leaves.”
Claret said that the pope’s words are “serious” because they discourage other victims from coming forward, showing that regardless of the ruling of the local or Vatican justice systems, “for the pope they will continue to be liars.”
“This is why we thank O’Malley for having answered the pope,” Claret said.
Luis Badilla, writing in the well-known Italian blog “Il Sismografo”, often labeled as close to the Vatican, published a piece Sunday calling for Bishop Barros’s resignation and for the pope to “promptly” accept it, saying that it’s not only the Chilean church that is suffering from the “Bishop Barros War” but the whole Church.
Joelle Casteix, of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests in the United States, told The Tablet that with his comments, Pope Francis had made a “fatal error,” because he “let people know how he truly feels about survivors of abuse and the scandal in general.”
“I am sure that Cardinal O’Malley – as the leader of the now-suspended commission – and other high-ranking church officials who are tasked with dealing with clergy sex abuse went into crisis mode,” Casteix said.
She believes that Cardinal O’Malley had no choice but to speak up to try to placate the anger of Catholics worldwide, because even though Pope Francis doesn’t have to deal with the fallout of his words, the cardinal does.
“He had no choice but to appeal to common human decency,” Casteix said of Cardinal O’Malley.
National Correspondent Christopher White contributed to this report.