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Cardinal Seán Patrick O’Malley speaking during the Safeguarding conference Cardinal Seán Patrick O’Malley speaking during the Safeguarding conference 

Cardinal O’Malley: Safeguarding part of pastoral conversion in face of abuse crisis

The President of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, Cardinal Seán Patrick O’Malley, highlights the Church’s need for pastoral conversion in her response to the sexual abuse crisis, as a 4-day safeguarding conference concludes in Warsaw, Poland.

By Benedict Mayaki, SJ

Over the past few days, participants at a safeguarding conference organized by the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors from 19 – 22 September have reflected on the crisis of sexual abuse in the Church, in order to help her move forward in efforts to protect her most vulnerable members.

The four-day conference themed, “Our Common Mission of Safeguarding God’s Children,” was held in the Polish Capital of Warsaw, and saw the participation of Church representatives from about 20 different countries across Central and Eastern Europe, as well as experts in the field of safeguarding.

Cardinal Seán Patrick O’Malley, President of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors and Archbishop of Boston in the US, has been a key presence in the discussions at the conference.

He spoke to Vatican News' Johana Bronkova about his personal experience of witnessing the devastating effects of this crisis during his episcopal ministry and the Church’s ongoing efforts to respond to the situation.

Need for pastoral conversion, healing

Reflecting on his experience of being a bishop in four dioceses – three of which were facing serious challenges - Cardinal O’Malley said that confronting those situations, as frightening and unpleasant as they were, helped him in first steps towards his own pastoral conversion and have brought to the fore the importance of safeguarding.

He recalls meeting with the victims of abuse and their family members in the dioceses he has served and also when he was sent as a visitator to Dublin, Ireland, by Pope Benedict XVI. He remarks the devastating effect of the sexual abuse crisis on people’s “trust and faith in the Church”, which further emphasizes the importance of listening to the victims as part of the efforts to help them on their path toward healing.

He notes that several people are angry because they have been wronged, and they seek justice and healing. Many, he points out, are looking for a path back but they feel rejected and fear that they would not be believed or they would be considered trouble-makers. For this reason, many have lost their faith in the Church.

Highlighting that Jesus’s first priority was healing before announcing the Gospel, Cardinal O’Malley said the Church needs a pastoral conversion among priests and bishops that involves bringing healing and listening so that people may who have been hurt may be able to return to the Church.

“People are not going to believe the Gospel if they think we do not care about their children, if they think we are going to allow pedophile priests to be transferred from one place to another, endangering children,” the Cardinal said.

Church’s ongoing response

In the face of the situation, Cardinal O’Malley highlights the Church’s efforts geared towards ensuring the protection of God’s people, including the 4-day conference, which brings together Church leadership from different countries and shows that “there is a great desire to learn more to be able to respond to the needs of survivors.”

He says he has had the privilege of asking Pope Francis and his predecessor, Benedict XVI, to meet with victims of abuse and both of them found it to be “a this a very profound experience that marked their pontificates.” In fact, Pope Francis, since then, has met with many victims and corresponded with them, he added.

Formation of Bishops

As part of further efforts geared toward safeguarding, the Cardinal notes that, today, there are what he refers to as “Montessori classes” for new bishops to prepare them for their ministry. As part of that process, he explains, the Pontifical Commission gives talks, often accompanied with the first-hand testimony of a survivor of abuse, to further impress upon the bishops the importance of ensuring the protection of minors and vulnerable persons.

Cardinal O’Malley goes on to stress the importance of this formation for bishops, noting that if this formation was available in the past, “the history of the Church would have been different,” because a lot of the poor decisions by bishops and cover-ups in the past years would not have happened.

He adds that bishops are encouraged to lead efforts on safeguarding starting with prevention: to explore ways of making our schools, churches and communties the safest places for children and young people; as well as directing efforts toward “correcting the injustices and crimes of the past.”

Finally, Cardinal O’Malley reiterates the importance of the 4-day safeguarding conference, noting that it is a positive event that he is happy to be a part of.

Listen to a clip of the interview
22 September 2021, 13:02