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U.S. Cardinal Seán P. O’Malley: ‘A lot to be done’ in preventing, considering allegations of abuse in the Catholic church

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Cardinal Sean P. O'Malley of Boston exchanges greetings with Pope Benedict XVI as the pope meets for the last time with the College of Cardinals at the Vatican in this Feb. 28, 2013, file photo. Cardinal O'Malley spoke with Catholic News Service about his experience dealing with the abuse crises the past 40 years, the importance of Pope Benedict's critical support and what needs to happen next with safeguarding. (CNS photo/L'Osservatore Romano)

ROME — There can be no improvising or going it alone when it comes to preventing and handling cases of abuse in the Catholic Church, said U.S. Cardinal Seán P. O’Malley of Boston, president of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors.

Everything must be considered with an accusation: “the rights of victim, the rights of the accused, the civil authorities, the church, the parish, the families” and more, the cardinal told Catholic News Service in Rome Jan. 6.

“No matter how much good will a person has, if you’re just doing it on your own, you’re going to end up shooting yourself in the foot several times,” said the cardinal, looking back at his 40 years as a bishop, which spanned some of the most devastating years of the fallout of the abuse crisis in the United States.

He began at the Diocese of St. Thomas, which encompasses all of the U.S. Virgin Islands, from 1984 to 1992, followed by the Diocese of Fall River, Massachusetts, from 1992 to 2002, ending up at the Archdiocese of Boston in 2003 after nearly a year leading the Diocese of Palm Beach, Florida.

“When I became a bishop almost 40 years ago, I was told, ‘You wear the ring on the right hand, you carry the crosier in the left hand’ and you were launched, I mean, that was it,” he said.

Since then, the church has spent decades establishing, refining and seeking to clarify and enforce universal norms, guidelines and procedures for the proper handling of abuse allegations, the care of victims and prevention.

However, he said, there is still a lot to be done to help several bishops’ conferences, particularly in the global South, make sure required safeguarding policies are up to date and implemented, and that new mandates, such as publicly accessible reporting and training centers, are working as they should.

And it is up to the commission with its new mandate “to certify the adequacy of prevention policies and procedures across the church, focusing on bishops’ conferences and those in religious life,” Oblate Father Andrew Small, commission secretary, told CNS Jan. 9, when asked to provide further details about the commission’s new work.

The cardinal said the commission’s members are now divided into four regional groups: Europe, Asia-Oceania, Africa and the Americas. Father Small said this is “to ensure safeguarding practices that are culturally adapted. But instead of just presenting a series of requirements as in the past, the commission will help build capacity in those parts of the world where resources are scarce.”

For that reason, a series of “Memorare Centers” will be set up with the help of the pontifical commission, the cardinal said. About $5 million has been pledged from donors to fund these centers to help with training and capacity-building so that bishops’ conferences and religious congregations needing assistance can implement the church’s safeguarding mandates.

Father Small explained, “The commission will also be hiring ‘regional experts’ based in four regions — Europe, Asia-Oceania, Africa and Americas.” The regional advisers form a “network of safeguarding professionals who will help the local church establish services for victims” as well as training for all church personnel.

“The adequacy of these services will be verified by the regional groups and will be reported on in the annual report,” which Pope Francis has asked the commission to compile, he said.

Cardinal O’Malley, who has been president of the commission since its establishment in 2014, told CNS that the commission also remains active in promoting a “culture of safeguarding” within the Roman Curia and for newly-appointed bishops.

Each year, new bishops come to Rome for a week of meetings with Vatican officials, and the commission reminds new bishops of the church’s abuse guidelines and, when possible, offers direct testimony from survivors.

Cardinal O’Malley said he’s had bishops come up to him afterward who tell him, “That was the most important thing we heard all week,” and that the victim’s testimony was something they would “never forget.”

He said he urges bishops to meet directly with survivors and their families, saying it is “such a powerful experience and gives you a sense of urgency.”

“I think that too often people have no suspicion as to how much damage has been done to the victim,” and they focus too much on the perpetrator.

He said he tells the new bishops, “If we would have had someone talking to us about our responsibility and the dangers of this and the impact this has, and to listen to victims, I think the history of the church would be different.”

The cardinal recalled being sent to Fall River where the number of victims and severity of their abuse “was huge.” Just one priest, the late James Porter, admitted to sexually abusing at least 100 children.

“My first instincts were: be with the victims and remove the predators, and that’s what I did,” he said. “There was a lot of push back, I mean, zero tolerance, for a long time and even now there are places where they don’t want to hear about it.”

Cardinal O’Malley, who was in Rome for the Jan. 5 funeral of Pope Benedict XVI, recalled how much the late pope supported the early efforts by the U.S. bishops to deal with the abuse crisis.

“We were very grateful that Pope Benedict supported us in the United States because there was a lot of opposition to what we were trying to accomplish with the Dallas Charter and zero tolerance and review boards” in investigating and evaluating cases, he said.

The cardinal said such boards let dioceses get valuable input from outside experts and even victims. They can advise bishops on the credibility of an accusation, whether someone should be removed from ministry and how to restore the reputation of someone not found guilty.

The late pope was also very supportive in removing perpetrators from ministry. “He removed about 700 and, before his involvement, that was just not done,” the cardinal said.

The late pope also formalized into universal church law the possibility to waive or “suspend the statute of limitations” for the crime of the sexual abuse of a minor by clergy, if necessary, he said.

No matter when the abuse took place, he said, “the church has a responsibility to do something.”