ROME – Pope Francis’s point man in the fight against sexual abuse insists that the Vatican remains committed to holding bishops accountable for enforcing zero tolerance, but conceded that “time will be the test” in terms of how, and whether, new procedures for imposing accountability actually work.

“I think Madre Amorevole [a document issued by Pope Francis in June 2016] has put the spotlight on the problem, and has publicly committed the Church to a course of action,” said Boston’s Cardinal Sean O’Malley in a Crux interview on Monday.

“Time will be the test of it, but I think it’s the first time there’s been that kind of a public commitment and a realization of the need for accountability,” he said.

“You need a clear process, from the point of view of the bishops, too,” he said. “Unfortunately, oftentimes in the past the way things were done is that if there was a lot of publicity around it, then the bishop just resigned. He never really had the chance to make his case. And if he were a bad actor and there wasn’t a lot of publicity, maybe nothing would happen.

“That’s not the way to run a railroad!” he said.

Asked if the Vatican now has such clear procedures, O’Malley said, “I hope we do, but we need to see how it’s going to work.”

O’Malley is the President of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, a body created by Pope Francis in 2013 to advise him on anti-abuse policies.

O’Malley has been in Rome since Wednesday, taking part in a plenary session of the commission. He also gave the opening remarks at a day-long workshop dedicated to the protection of minors in schools, organized by the PCPM and the Pontifical Gregorian University.

The March 24-26 plenary session of the PCPM was the first one since the resignation of abuse survivor Marie Collins, who announced she was resigning on March 1.

A founding member of the commission, Collins cited “frustrations with the Curia,” meaning the Church’s government in Rome. She pinpointed the Vatican’s doctrinal office, headed by Cardinal Gerhard Müller, which is responsible for processing cases against priests who’ve committed abuse.

O’Malley, however, told Crux that he believes Müller is “very personally committed to zero tolerance.”

On Sunday, the members of the commission released a statement expressing their “strong support for her and her continuing work to promote healing for victims of abuse and the prevention of all abuse of minors and vulnerable adults.”

They also expressed “particular gratitude” that Collins has agreed to continue working with the Commission’s educational programs, both with new bishops and the offices of the Roman Curia.

As O’Malley told Crux, one such training will take place next month, when both he and Collins will address Vatican officials. He also said the commission is now “grappling” with whether having publicly identified survivors as full members is the best way to ensure their voices are heard.

What follows are excerpts of Crux’s conversation with O’Malley.

Crux: Last Thursday, you opened an event at the Gregorian University with a strong defense of Pope Francis’s response to clerical sexual abuse. Why did you feel it was important to do that?

O’Malley: I think books like [Emiliano] Fittipaldi [author of Lussuria, meaning “lust”, devoted to the abuse scandals] have been challenging the Holy Father, so I thought it was necessary to try to clarify it from our point of view.

There’s no doubt in your mind that Pope Francis is 100 percent committed to the fight against child sexual abuse?

Quite so, I’m more than convinced.

This meeting of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors is taking place in the context of Marie Collins’s resignation. Have you had contact with her since that happened?

Yes, a couple of times.

You said initially she’ll continue to assist the commission in other ways. Is that still the case?

Yes, in fact next month she’ll be with me here in Rome to give one of the curial presentations. The relationship continues to be strong.

Collins and Cardinal Gerhard Müller have engaged in a public back-and-forth about the new tribunal section that was supposed to be created in the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to hold bishops accountable when they drop the ball. Müller said it was just an idea and that the Congregation for Bishops already has all the tools it needs, while Collins says it was more than an “idea” and sees failure to move forward as evidence of resistance.

What’s the real story?

The idea simply was to give the CDF the jurisdiction over these cases. I think our interpretation initially was that was going to be the direction, but obviously after we made our recommendation, the Holy Father had to present it to his staff, and that’s when it was altered. The intention was the same, to deal with the responsibility of bishops who had abused their authority by not attending to these cases, or by transferring priests who were pedophiles.

In any case, we couldn’t forecast exactly how everything was going to work. Our original plan, developed by one of our members who was also a member of the CDF, was that the responsibility would be there. In the meantime, something else was substituted for what we had asked for.

Ultimately, it probably doesn’t matter bureaucratically where responsibility is lodged. The question is, is somebody going to deal with these cases? Right now, what’s your understanding: If an accusation surfaces that a bishop has failed to act, who looks into it? Is it the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Congregation for Bishops, or who?

I think it would be the Congregation for Bishops that would do the initial investigation. That’s my understanding.

Do you have confidence that’s actually going to happen?

I think that Madre Amorevole [a document issued by Pope Francis in June 2016] has put the spotlight on the problem, and has publicly committed the Church to a course of action when these cases arise. Time will be the test of it, but I think it’s the first time there’s been that kind of a public commitment and a realization of the need for accountability.

Our point is that you need a clear process, from the point of view of the bishops, too. Unfortunately, oftentimes in the past the way things were done is that if there was a lot of publicity around it, then the bishop just resigned. He never really had the chance to make his case. And if he were a bad actor and there wasn’t a lot of publicity, maybe nothing would happen. That’s not the way to run a railroad!

In fairness to both the bishop and the people, we were looking for a process that would be open and defined.

Do you feel you have that now?

I hope we do, but we need to see how it’s going to work.

Along the way with the commission, you named two publicly identified survivors of clerical abuse as full members of the commission, Peter Saunders and Marie Collins, and under different circumstances, both are now gone.

In retrospect, should you have found some other way of ensuring that survivors’ voices are heard?

We’re grappling with that right now as a commission. Perhaps having survivors who were known as survivors was part of the reason they got so much attention.

Their cases were very, very different, so we’re talking apples and oranges. Peter, I think, had an entirely different notion of what his expectations as a member were. He saw his role as advocacy, and very much involved in individual cases.

One of our big challenges is to help the public and the press understand what our mandate is. So often people say, ‘Oh, you’re on the sex abuse commission!’ I didn’t know there was a sex abuse commission. The temptation is every time there’s an individual case or a scandal comes up, people immediately go to the commission. Well, we can have our private opinions on all of these things, but that’s not where our responsibility lies.

We advise the Holy Father to come up with best practices to help train Church leadership in child protection, to help get resources for local churches that don’t have child protection programs, and so on. To try to get that across has been a challenge. So much of what’s ‘newsworthy’ in this whole area is really the competence of the CDF.

Since you mentioned Peter Saunders, have you spoken with him lately?

Yes, I spoke with him a couple of weeks ago. He’s in a good place, he’s very much involved with this commission in England, and of course with his own agency there helping victims. He sounds good.

Is there any scenario in which he returns to being an active member?

That’s hard to forecast, but this particular commission only has one more plenary, so it’s unlikely.

What’s the future of the commission? The mandate was for three years, so have you started to talk about happens after that?

Yes, we’ve begun to discuss that. Our task is to come up with recommendations to give to the Holy Father, and it will be his decision as to what to do.

Do you think you need an extension?

Well, I think the challenge still exists, so the need for the commission has not gone away! We’re obviously going to suggest a path going forward, and then the Holy Father will decide.

[At this stage, Monsignor Robert Oliver, secretary of the commission, clarified that the mandate is not really for three years. “It’s like everybody else, the statues are ad experimentum but the mandate keeps going. It’s like all the other dicasteries.”]

In other words, you fully expect the commission will still be around, say, two years from now?

Oh yes, sure. What we don’t know is whether there will be a complete renewal [of members] as sometimes happens, or they’ll want to stagger it. The other thing is we still have holes to fill … for instance, the question of how the voice of victims will be represented is one we’re looking at, and there will be meetings during the summer about that so we’ll have some concrete resolutions for September. There’s still parts of the world from which we’d like to have more representation.

When they testified before the Australian Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, members of your commission complained about a lack of funding. How did you react to that?

I was kind of surprised by that. The truth is, we’ve never been denied anything we’ve asked for. I think they’d probably like to see more programs and things like that, but we’re dealing with that right now in the recommendations we’ll make on how the office should go forward and what are the priorities and the needs to be able to accomplish them.

But it is fair to say, isn’t it, that you’ve run into some bureaucratic inertia? It’s been difficult sometimes getting new hires approved, getting sign-offs on the appointment of new members, and so on, hasn’t it?

I don’t think we’ve had any more problems than any other dicastery.

If I were a commission member, I would be tempted to say that if this were a real priority, some of that bureaucratic inertia would be cut through a little bit …

It’s a new experience for people to be on this kind of commission, and also to have to deal with the Holy See’s regulations. Plus, it’s happening at a time when the Holy See is trying to professionalize the way they do things. They’re making more demands on all the offices and dicasteries.

Particularly in terms of budgeting …

Yes, in hiring, on whether you can bring people from outside. But even on that, they’ve been good to us, because we wanted some expertise that wouldn’t have been available in the pool of workers within the Vatican, and they allowed us to bring in Teresa Kattelkamp. But as I said, we’ve come along at a time when there are more demands being placed on all of the [offices].

At your Gregorian event the other day, the front row was mostly filled with cardinals who head Vatican dicasteries. How important was it that they were there?

I was gratified. I got there early, and I said, ‘maybe we should ask for a smaller room,’ and then, all of the sudden, the place is filled and all these cardinals were there. I was delighted. I think it was a great sign of solidarity, including the fact that the Congregation for Education was working with us on this.

When you think about it, 60 million students in Catholic schools … this is a huge venue where child protection needs to be front and center. So I was very, very pleased.

We had invited speakers from countries that have very large Catholic school systems to share their experiences, Mexico, Argentina, and Colombia. And then Francis Sullivan spoke about Australia too, which has a huge Catholic school system.

And also, he did so boldly … it was clear no one prepared the remarks for him, and he said what he wanted to say.

Oh yes, he always does!

You’ve recently been appointed to the CDF. How do you see your role?

Yes, I’m a member of the congregation. They’ve consulted me on things, and I’ve given them my thoughts on issues. My hope is that it would allow for better communication between the commission and the CDF. I’m very anxious for us to collaborate closely on the guidelines part of it, for instance. We’re anxious to make sure that countries have guidelines that are not just juridical ones, but also have a pastoral dimension and a prevention component.

I’m also very concerned about the CDF getting the resources that it needs to do its job. So many of the problems revolving around the sex abuse crisis, in terms of their solution, as far as the Holy See is concerned, is in that dicastery. They need to have the human resources and everything else to allow them to do [their job.]

Are you talking about having enough canon lawyers and so on?


Do you find it jarring that the CDF has been presented as the problem, when, at least during the Ratzinger years and until very recently, when you looked at the Holy See, the CDF was at the forefront of reform? They weren’t the problem, they were the solution.

Yes, I think that’s true. And we all have more confidence in the CDF than moving [responsibility for abuse cases] to another dicastery, where they are going to have to start over. And Cardinal Müller is, to my mind, very personally committed to zero tolerance and a lot of these things which are very important to us in the commission.

But the dimensions of the problem have grown so much, and the resources have not kept pace. So we’re very anxious to make sure that that happens.