Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley of Boston has come out swinging on both the Catholic sex abuse scandals and a Vatican crackdown on American nuns, showing remarkable candor in an interview that will enhance his profile as a leading voice of the Pope Francis era in American Catholicism.
In provocative comments to air Sunday night on “60 Minutes,” O’Malley said that controversial Bishop Robert Finn of Kansas City, Mo., wouldn’t even be allowed to teach Sunday school in O’Malley’s archdiocese.
Two years ago, Finn became the lone US bishop to be criminally convicted for failing to report a suspected abuser to police, making him a symbol of what critics see as a lack of accountability in Catholicism in the leaders’ attempt to make their “zero tolerance” policy stick.
“It’s a question the Holy See needs to address urgently,” O’Malley said, according to excerpts released in advance by “60 Minutes,” adding “there’s a recognition of that from Pope Francis.”
Presumably, O’Malley’s reference was to the pontiff’s decision this year to dispatch a Vatican investigator to Kansas City, which is often a prelude to removing the bishop under review.
O’Malley is the president of Francis’s new Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, designed to lead the recovery effort from the abuse scandals.
Although he has said before that holding bishops accountable is a key piece of unfinished business, this is the first time O’Malley has commented specifically on the Finn case.
(Related: Globe interview with O’Malley in February)
Likewise on the investigation of American nuns, O’Malley bluntly called the Vatican-ordered review a “disaster.”
O’Malley has used such vocabulary before in describing the move against the nuns. In 2012, for instance, he called it a “debacle.”
In general, his point has not been that concerns over doctrinal orthodoxy in some circles of women’s religious orders are invalid, but rather that this sort of disciplinary process simply feeds narratives about a male-dominated hierarchy trying to put women in their place.
Still, it’s one thing to say that in a print interview with a small news agency and quite another to broadcast it to CBS’s massive “60 Minutes” audience.
What accounts for O’Malley speaking out so boldly and with such candor right now?
For one thing, it isn’t “right now,” in the sense that the “60 Minutes” interview has been in the works for more than a year. Many of the eyebrow-raising lines were delivered months ago.
Further, he isn’t a Johnny-come-lately to these positions. They track with things he’s been saying for years, even if he seems to be saying them now with a bit more swagger.
The “60 Minutes” interview is also expected to focus on O’Malley’s work with immigrants and follows him to a Mass on the Mexican border with Arizona, and to Rome.
Many Church-watchers will be tempted to suppose that O’Malley has been emboldened by Francis, and there’s probably some truth to that. O’Malley is the American cardinal whom Francis knows best, and he is the lone American to sit on the pope’s council of nine cardinal advisers from around the world.
If that doesn’t quite make him “bulletproof” in terms of being able to speak his mind, it’s probably the next best thing.
Two notes of caution are in order, however, when proclaiming Sunday’s interview the latest measure of the “Francis effect.”
First, don’t expect O’Malley to do this all the time. He’s not an exhibitionist or a grandstander, and aides say he has no intention of becoming a moderate version of Cardinal Raymond Burke, the American prelate who emerged as the outspoken leader of the conservative opposition at the recent Synod of Bishops.
Second, the explanation for O’Malley’s outspokenness may have as much to do with Boston as it does with Rome.
He has been the archbishop of Boston now for more than a decade, with the earlier phases of his career largely occupied with putting out local fires. He inherited a Chernobyl-style situation on the sex-abuse front, and for years afterward he faced a series of financial and managerial headaches, including selling off the archbishop’s residence and a painful series of parish and school closings.
Only recently has O’Malley found himself in a position where the local situation, if not completely under control, at least seems less tumultuous and all-consuming. Further, he turned 70 in June and is conscious that the retirement age for cardinals isn’t that far away at 75.
What we’re witnessing in the growing self-confidence of Sean O’Malley, therefore, probably is only to a minor degree about the pope. It’s likely more about O’Malley himself — his perceived freedom to engage bigger issues now, and his consciousness that his time to make a mark isn’t infinite.
Some Catholic observers lately have speculated that with the installation of Francis’ hand-picked choice as the new archbishop of Chicago on Tuesday, Blase Cupich, perhaps the American center of leadership under this pope would shift to the Windy City.
In that light, the “60 Minutes” interview offers a timely reminder that Boston’s star of the show isn’t heading for the exits anytime soon.