Cardinal Seán O'Malley speaking at the Warsaw conference on Sunday Cardinal Seán O'Malley speaking at the Warsaw conference on Sunday 

Cardinal O’Malley: Pope Francis’ Vision of Pastoral Conversion

On Sunday afternoon, Cardinal Seán Patrick O'Malley, President of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, addressed participants in “Our Common Mission of Safeguarding God’s Children”, a regional conference on the protection of minors for Central and Eastern Europe, outlining the pastoral conversion necessary. What follows is an excerpt of his opening remarks.

By Cardinal Seán Patrick O'Malley

From the very beginning of his ministry, Pope Francis has emphasized the importance of pastoral conversion as a missionary path for the entire Church. Such conversion brings with it the type of transformation necessary to ensure that the Gospel reaches every person and every part of our lives. The Holy Father reminds us of the teaching of Pope Paul VI who called for a deep renewal at the personal level and on the part of the entire Church. Conversion at both the personal and institutional level is at the heart of the process of renewal and is essential for what Pope Francis calls a “missionary transformation” of the Church.

Pastoral conversion is important for us as we focus our efforts on renewing the Church in the face of sexual abuse. We must work for change that will be incorporated in all aspects of the Church’s life, combatting sexual abuse wherever it has occurred regardless of the status or office of the person who has committed the crime. It is my hope that the following steps may provide a guide for the ministry of safeguarding and caring for minors and vulnerable persons in our Church.


Pope Francis has called us to begin the journey of conversion by acknowledging the truth of what has happened. To do this, we must adopt the approach of a listening heart. Those who have heard the testimony of survivors know how difficult and challenging these experiences are. I have personally met with hundreds of survivors, their testimonies are heart wrenching, especially when they share that no one believed them when they first reported the abuse. We can only imagine, but in truth never fully understand, how much more difficult it has been for those who have been abused and forced to live with the consequences their whole lives.

When someone who has been abused by clergy, religious or other persons in the Church tells their story, we must receive them and their testimony with the utmost reverence. There need to be clear channels of communication and encounter by which survivors can contact the Church if they wish to. It is encouraging that many dioceses have a contact person or a dedicated phone service or email account for survivors or their family members to use. This is a good and important initiative. If a diocese does not receive much response after establishing these means of contact, it does not mean the reality of sexual abuse by clergy or religious is not present. A lack of response may be an indication that the established channels of communication are not adequate or appropriate for the particular circumstances of that diocese or that country. It is important that we all maintain a focus on providing accessible, welcoming and non-judgmental opportunities for survivors and their loved ones to contact and engage in dialogue with the local Church.

We must also be aware of the reality that there are many persons in our communities who have suffered the tragedy of sexual abuse in the Church and have never spoken to anyone about their experience.

Our colleague, Dr. Ewa Kusz, wrote about the complexity of the testimony of victims in an insightful article recently published in L’Osservatore Romano. She wrote:

“Those who have been wounded are speaking. Some demand their right to speak and be heard at the top of their lungs. Others speak about it timidly within the quiet of a psycho-therapeutic setting, or they confide only in their loved ones. Some scream. Others speak by remaining silent with their silence”….

Acknowledging Survivors

For us to achieve the pastoral conversion the Holy Father calls us to, we must provide honest and clear recognition of those who have been abused. Listening to the pain of others, to the sufferings of God’s people, leads to acknowledging the wrong done and the suffering inflicted. Pastoral conversion requires turning away from an inappropriate defensiveness that can be very harmful and hurtful, and embracing a deep listening to the survivor, with a willingness to understand more fully what they have experienced.

An obstacle to this recognition, especially for pastors, is what the Holy Father referred to in the video message he prepared for this conference as a “misguided concern for the reputation of the institutional Church”. Especially in those places where the Church was subjected to systematic persecution for a long time, a defensive response to accusations of abuse can often seem an instinctive response. While pastors do hold responsibility for the protection of the Church, and in many cases have suffered or given their lives in defense of the faith, a skeptical and sometimes even demeaning response to the testimony of abuse can cause serious damage to the people the Church is called to hold as a priority for pastoral care and concern, namely, those broken and wounded by abusive ministers within the Church itself.

The Holy Father recognizes that accepting the wrongs that have been committed by the Church’s ministers can, indeed, make us feel vulnerable. But vulnerability can also be lived as a moment of grace, a moment of kenosis, an experience of God’s action in our world that brings healing by shining a light on a place of darkness so that all people can live more freely as disciples and believers. It means we can continue to be dedicated co-workers in the Lord’s vineyard, while at the same time remaining honest about the abuse that has occurred among Christ’s faithful.

Seeking forgiveness

Acknowledging the truth of what has happened leads us further along the path of conversion and renewal. We cannot preach what we ourselves have not accepted as true. For pastors and others in leadership in the Church, listening to and affirming the reality of sexual abuse by the Church’s ministers engages us in a process of conversion. Following in the footsteps of Jesus who was moved when he saw the needs of the people, we cannot fail to be moved by what we hear and come to know….

If we situate this dynamic within the context of an encounter with Christ, we can see in the survivor someone who has been unjustly treated, who has been made to suffer and who, in many cases, has been rejected in their suffering by the Church itself. By adopting the role of protagonists in our communities, survivors can provide an important insight to Gospel truth that opens the way for a new evangelization, even of the Church itself. Such listening and acknowledging the reality of sexual abuse should lead to reconciliation with survivors. As Pope Francis urged us in his video message:

“Only by facing the truth of these evil practices and of humbly seeking pardon from victims and survivors will the Church find its way to a place where it can be relied upon once again as a place of welcome and safety for those in need.”

Providing survivors with a sincere apology is important. However, “seeking pardon” requires more than issuing a statement or holding a meeting. Rather, it is a process that is rarely achieved in one moment and sometimes may not be achieved at all. Every survivor’s experience and journey is deeply personal and different from that of any other person. As the Lord seeks out the lost and abandoned, so priests, religious and lay ministers must seek the pardon of those who have been harmed. For clergy and religious, the process of pastoral conversion is aided by our seeking pardon from all those impacted by sexual abuse. Clearly, this is not an easy path to walk, but walk it we must, together with victims and all those impacted….

Concrete Pathways of Reform

Listening to, acknowledging survivors and sincerely seeking their pardon are indispensable steps on this journey of renewal. They are part of the restoration that needs to take place if the Church is to recover credibility and promote healing. The community requires that just order be maintained, and the just order of the Church has been fractured by the crimes of some of its ministers.

Again, the Holy Father outlines the importance of this next step, as he tells us:

“Our expressions of sorrow must be converted into concrete pathways of reform to both prevent further abuse and to give confidence to others that our efforts will bring about real and reliable change.”

In this regard, the vital work of creating policies, procedures and guidelines must be undertaken and they should be reviewed and updated on a regular basis. Requirements for screening, training and mandatory reporting to civil authorities are crucial. Without clear and definite policies and procedures, people try to improvise, often with good intention, but the results are all too often disastrous. Yet we know that policies themselves are not enough. We need effective methods to audit compliance and monitor the implementation of policies. Training and background checks for Church personnel is essential, as well as undertaking safeguarding audits and ensuring our canonical and civil procedures are both up-to-date and in harmony with each other….


The journey of learning with regard to the crime and sin of sexual abuse in the life of the Church will be ongoing throughout our lives. We have a long way to go. With the assistance of dedicated and competent people like those gathered here and many others in the region who are committed to the process of healing and reconciliation, I am confident we are on the right path and can make meaningful progress, always putting concern for and the needs of the survivors first as we move forward.

I want to acknowledge and thank all survivors who continue to come forward to share their stories. It is because of their courage that protection and assistance services for minors and vulnerable adults are becoming central components in the life of our Church. Because of them, outreach is offered to others who have been gravely harmed by the Church, and others are spared from experiencing this horror….

20 September 2021, 14:30