VATICAN CITY — The archbishop of Boston, dressed more often in the humble brown robe of his religious order than a cardinal’s regalia, has emerged as an unlikely star amid the drama unfolding in Rome.
Vatican analysts for the leading Italian newspapers have repeatedly listed Cardinal Sean O’Malley as one of the favorite contenders for the papacy.
As recently as two weeks ago, O’Malley hadn’t appeared on the lists of papabili, or cardinals with papal potential, that church watchers pore over each morning like sports scores, even though only the cardinal-electors know how they will vote. Vatican observers said no American cardinal could win: A superpower pope risked mixing church and U.S. interests. O’Malley is also a Capuchin Franciscan, and few members of religious orders have led the church.
But O’Malley arrived to a country in an anti-establishment mood. A comedian, Beppe Grillo, had grabbed a quarter of the parliamentary vote, leaving the political leadership of Italy in limbo.
The Vatican central administration, or Curia, had been weathering a string of scandals. Benedict XVI’s own butler had leaked the former pontiff’s private papers, revealing feuding, corruption and cronyism at the highest levels of the bureaucracy. The secretive Vatican bank had recently ousted a president for incompetence and is under pressure for greater financial transparency.
In the cardinal, Italians saw a white knight. The 68-year-old O’Malley has spent his career as a bishop cleaning up dioceses shattered by child sex abuse. From O’Malley’s lengthy track record, one story seems to have captured the most attention: after he arrived in Boston in 2003, then the epicenter of the church scandal, O’Malley decided to sell the Italian Renaissance mansion that had been home to the previous four Boston archbishops. The millions of dollars from the sale would help pay settlements to victims.
The bearded, soft-spoken cardinal has even earned a nickname — the cappuccino priest — a play on the Italian name for his order, the same word for the coffee drink.
“Give me the cappuccino priest, not the Italians,” said Giuliana Piaella, 57, a waitress serving lunch at a Rome restaurant. “He’s a clean-looking guy, perfect age, and has a serious face. He has a calm face, full of self-confidence. He wears open sandals, which show his humility. Catholics don’t do that anymore. We need someone who’s close to the people.”
It took O’Malley just six weeks from the time he was installed in Boston to settle hundreds of sex abuse claims that had kept the archdiocese in crisis. His predecessor, Cardinal Bernard Law, had resigned as archbishop in December 2002, after a Massachusetts judge unsealed the files of one predator priest kept in parish assignments by church officials without warning parents or police. The revelations sparked a crisis that spread through every American diocese and beyond.
The day after he took over in Boston, he revamped the legal team representing the archdiocese, hiring an attorney who had helped him settle abuse claims when he led the Diocese of Fall River, Mass., a decade ago. O’Malley was personally involved in the Boston negotiations, spending hours with victims’ attorneys to reach the $85 million deal for 552 plaintiffs. Attorneys for victims credited him with showing compassion that other church officials had not.
In the Diocese of Fall River, a southern New England city of fishermen and shuttered textile mills, O’Malley had inherited the damage from one of the most notorious pedophiles in the American clergy crisis. Former priest James Porter was accused of raping children in five states in the 1960s and 1970s. He pleaded guilty in 1993 to 41 counts of molestation.
It was a time when the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops was only starting to confront the national scope of the abuse crisis. O’Malley is credited with instituting a policy that almost no other diocese at the time had. Abuse allegations would be referred to a social worker outside the church. A board of mental health and legal professionals reviewed how each case was handled and church workers were required to alert civil authorities about any allegation that a child had been abused.
In 2002, Pope John Paul II sent O’Malley to Palm Beach, Fla., where two previous bishops had resigned after admitting they had molested young people. Then he sent him to Boston.
O’Malley has his critics in Boston and elsewhere.
A series of church closings he announced in the archdiocese brought angry protests by parishioners and around-the-clock sit-ins. Some parishioners hired canon lawyers and brought their complaints to the Vatican. And in 2002, a Massachusetts prosecutor, Paul Walsh of Bristol County, publicly released the names of about 20 Fall River priests accused of molesting children in the 1960s and 1970s, who had never been criminally charged.
Walsh said he did so out of frustration with recalcitrant church officials. O’Malley said in a statement at the time that when he arrived in Fall River, he had been focused on the Porter case and had no indication that prosecutors were interested in investigating old allegations.
Marco Politi, a papal biographer, said O’Malley is benefiting from the Italian love for Franciscans and from the desire for a pope from another country, who Italians believe will not get involved in Italian politics. At least one profile of O’Malley in Italian media noted that in 2010, he criticized Italian Cardinal Angelo Sodano, who had dismissed victims’ criticism of the church as “petty gossip” just as the crisis was erupting in Europe.
“O’Malley comes across as a humble man in robes who communicates well,” Politi said. “They admire him for selling off the expensive archbishop’s palace to pay debts, and that he lives in a simple home.”
O’Malley, a native of Lakewood, Ohio, studied at a Franciscan seminary, then joined the religious order and was ordained at 26. A graduate student at the Catholic University of America, he earned a master’s degree in religious education and a doctorate in Spanish and Portuguese literature.
O’Malley now speaks eight languages, including Italian, Portuguese and Haitian Creole, according to his spokesman Terrence Donilon. He asks parishioners to address him informally as “Cardinal Sean.”
Despite all the attention, Donilon said Tuesday the cardinal “expects to be going home.”
Speaking last week at the North American College, the prominent seminary for American priests in Rome, O’Malley played down his prospects, pointing to his brown robe.
“I’ve worn this uniform for over 40 years and I presume I will wear it until I die,” he said. “Because I don’t expect to be elected pope, so I don’t expect to have a change of wardrobe.”