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Boston Clergy Abuse Victims: Next Pope Faces Unfinished Work

This article is more than 9 years old.

Among those closely watching as Catholic cardinals gather in Rome to choose the next pope are clergy abuse survivors and their advocates in Boston.

Clergy abuse survivor Bernie McDaid meets Pope Benedict XVI in Boston in 2008. (Courtesy)
Clergy abuse survivor Bernie McDaid meets Pope Benedict XVI in Boston in 2008. (Courtesy)

The survivors say the next church leader faces unfinished work on the clergy abuse scandal since it first erupted in Boston 11 years ago. Some of them say that the man who led Boston through the crisis should go on to do the same as head of the world's Catholics.

Bernie McDaid was among the first clergy abuse survivors to meet directly with Pope Benedict XVI in 2008. McDaid says while that event was important, it was largely symbolic for survivors and for the pope.

"When I confronted him he grabbed my arms and he wouldn't respond to anything I said — he would just say 'Yes, yes, my son,' " McDaid said. "There was no dialogue. He was there in a spiritual fashion for his church and that's understandable, but that's not why I was there."

One of the reasons McDaid was there was because Boston Cardinal Sean O'Malley arranged the meeting, bringing not only survivors like McDaid but a book with the names of 1,000 survivors from Boston that he asked the pope to bless. McDaid says O'Malley's experience in Boston prompted the Vatican to appoint him to help with Ireland's abuse scandal in 2010.

McDaid says change has been slow in the 11 years since the scandal broke in Boston, but O'Malley has proven that he's the person who can lead the church through the continuing fallout of what is now a worldwide abuse problem.

"Cardinal O'Malley should be the next pope, not that I get along with him or like him. In fact I disagree with a lot of what he's done in Boston," McDaid said. "But he is in fact the only cardinal that has been in the private meetings with victims/survivors of the problem and he's now working in Ireland. He knows what he's up against and it's not going to go away. I believe the Vatican will put him in because they're under pressure because the crisis will not go away."

Clergy abuse survivor Bernie McDaid, front right, with Boston Cardinal Sean O'Malley in the background (Courtesy)
Clergy abuse survivor Bernie McDaid, front right, with Boston Cardinal Sean O'Malley in the background (Courtesy)

The crisis has not only not gone away, but exploded since 2003 when O'Malley replaced Cardinal Bernard Law, who left Boston because he covered up for abusive priests. Drawing on his experience handling abuse cases in churches in Fall River and Florida, O'Malley in Boston reached out to survivors, settled abuse lawsuits, and changed church policies, especially those on working with children. But his critics say O'Malley's actions are more public relations than substantive reform against abusive priests.

"This is a man who has a record of being brought in to the diocese in an uproar over sex abuse and of quieting the anger and restoring calm. He has restored calm but he has not been transparent," said Anne Barrett Doyle, with the group Her group started tracking abusive priests around the world once the scandal broke in Boston.

Barrett Doyle points out that it took years for O'Malley to release a list of accused abusive priests in Boston and when he did, in 2011, it was not complete.

"What's disturbing is that his public relations is so successful that he is now being considered as pope," she said. "As pope he would be nicer to victims but just as protective of accused priests."

Still others say the cardinals might look for other qualities in the next pope, beyond their experience in dealing with abuse. They point to the dwindling number of Catholics around the world and in the Boston archdiocese, where it's down from 2 million Catholics in 2004 to 1.8 million in 2011. And then there's the dismal 16 percent of Catholics who say they regularly attend Mass.

Boston Cardinal Sean O’Malley on a flight to Rome on Tuesday (Courtesy Gregory L. Tracy/The Pilot)
Boston Cardinal Sean O’Malley on a flight to Rome on Tuesday (Courtesy Gregory L. Tracy/The Pilot)

Peter Borre, with the Council of Parishes, a group that supports parishes facing closure, says O'Malley has neither the commanding personality nor the administrative experience to be the next pope.

"Cardinal O'Malley has many strong positive attributes, [such as] the number of dioceses in which he's been a leader and the difficult work he's done on clergy abuse, but he does not have any experience inside the Vatican bureaucracy," Borre said.

He believes that understanding the church hierarchy will be essential for the next leader of the world's Catholics because there have been new crises since the abuse scandal, such as what's called Vatileaks, the leak of sensitive information by someone inside the Vatican.

"As we saw last year in the Vatileaks scandal in some of the highest levels of the Vatican there are people working against one another, which is causing great embarrassment to the church," Borre said.

Borre leaves for Rome this weekend on a trip he arranged before Benedict's resignation. But he'll be closely watching, as he's something of a scholar of papal conclaves. Once the cardinals set the date for the conclave, Borre expects things will move quickly. He says since 1958 the longest conclave has taken just four days to elect a pope.

As for O'Malley himself, he is now in Rome to be among the 116 cardinals who will choose the next pope. He wrote on his blog this week that he has no plans to be Benedict's successor. He wrote that while everyone wants to root for the home team, and he's honored to be part of the process, no cardinal goes to the conclave with ambitions to be elected pope.

This program aired on February 28, 2013.

Deborah Becker Twitter Host/Reporter
Deborah Becker is a senior correspondent and host at WBUR. Her reporting focuses on mental health, criminal justice and education.



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