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Why Does the Catholic Church Keep Failing on Sexual Abuse?

Cardinal Seán O'Malley has spent decades cleaning up after pedophile priests. Now he's once again found himself in the middle of a crisis.

A few years after Seán O’Malley took over the Archdiocese of Boston in 2003, at the peak of the clergy sexual-abuse crisis in America, he led novenas of penance at nine of the city’s most affected parishes. At each church he visited, he lay facedown on the floor before the altar, begging for forgiveness. This is how O’Malley has spent his life in ministry: cleaning up after pedophile priests and their apologists, and serving as the Catholic Church’s public face of repentance and reform.

Possibly more than any other cleric on Earth, O’Malley understands how deeply the Church’s errors on sexual abuse have damaged its mission and reputation. Today, he is one of Pope Francis’s closest advisers, the only American on a small committee of cardinals who meet regularly at the Vatican. He runs the pope’s special commission on the protection of minors. And he is a member of the influential Vatican office responsible for preserving and defending Catholic doctrine. He believes that the Church has changed, can change, and will change. But as the world’s top bishops prepare to meet later this month for an unprecedented summit on sexual abuse at the Vatican, O’Malley has found himself frustrated, unable to push reforms through at the top.

In an interview on a recent cold morning in Boston, the cardinal spoke about the progress he believes the Church, and Pope Francis, have made in recent years, and what’s still lacking. He detailed his proposal to establish Vatican tribunals to deal with bishops accused of wrongdoing—one of the major problems the Church has yet to address. The pope “was convinced to do it another way,” O’Malley said. “We’re still waiting for the procedures to be clearly articulated.” He often described problems in the Church passively, without directly assigning agency or fault. For example: American bishops have asked the Vatican for an investigation into Theodore McCarrick, the former cardinal who was consistently elevated despite widely acknowledged rumors of sexual misconduct, until he was removed from ministry last summer. After months of requests, an investigation appears to be under way. “Certainly, many of us have personally expressed to the Holy Father and the secretary of state the need to do something quickly,” O’Malley said. “I keep getting assurances. But we’re waiting for the documents to be produced.”

O’Malley believes that the pope understands how important the issue of sexual abuse is: “His encounter with victims has made a very profound impact on his life and his ministry,” the cardinal said. And yet, the Church faces enormous structural and cultural barriers to establishing worldwide policies and procedures to deal with abuse, which O’Malley acknowledged. As for the meeting in February, “My worry is that the expectations in the United States are that this meeting is going to address all of our local concerns here,” he said, “which is not necessarily the case.”

The majority of known child sexual-abuse cases in the U.S. Catholic Church took place in the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s. Major national news outlets began covering those stories by the early ’90s, around the time that O’Malley got assigned to his first troubled parish. The Boston Globe’s now famous Spotlight investigation in 2002 made it clear that clergy sexual abuse was endemic, and the cover-up extensive. Within months, the U.S. bishops’ conference had passed the first of a series of reforms that overhauled the way adults in Catholic spaces can interact with children.

But somehow, in terms of both technical reforms and moral reckoning, this issue remains unresolved. Nearly two decades after the Boston revelations, names of offenders and instances of abuse are still regularly being made public. It’s difficult to even know how many cases are still pending in the canon-law system, because the Vatican office in charge of overseeing sexual-abuse charges does not release those statistics. Some cases are known but haven’t been publicly acknowledged by the Church: Its disaggregated structure has enabled unevenness in how bishops address and publicize historical allegations of abuse. And a few Catholic leaders appear to have ignored or mishandled allegations, keeping accused clergy in ministry despite clear Church guidelines against that practice. Each time new revelations emerge, more survivors come forward: After a recent grand-jury report on the abuse was released in Pennsylvania, hundreds of people flooded a state clergy-abuse hotline with calls.

Church leaders have been apologizing for the sin—and crime—of sexual abuse for decades. Yet for all the documents promulgated and commissions convened, for all the years of regret and reforms, the Church is here again, in full crisis mode, facing shocked outrage from parishioners and the public. The past year has brought a nonstop series of devastating allegations, gaffes by top bishops and the pope, and delays in addressing abuse revelations that have recently come to light in news reports and other investigations. Frequently, the Catholic hierarchy has responded with ineptitude and infighting. The unfortunate effect is that the bishops, rather than the survivors, have become the center of the story.

“Every time we thought we were rounding a corner, there will be another explosion,” O’Malley told me, slumping a bit in an office chair. The cardinal looked out of place in his nondescript suburban office, a space more fit for petty bureaucrats and nameless CEOs than a Capuchin friar who wears a hooded brown robe and socks with sandals in winter. His manner was grave and guarded—except when he laughed, suddenly and without mirth, at the question of whether he has become impatient with the Church. “I realize,” he said, “there’s no quick fix.”

O’Malley is an old man now. In June, he will turn 75, the standard age at which bishops and cardinals submit a letter of retirement for the pope’s consideration. One by one, the prominent clergy of his generation have been fading from the public eye—either by stepping down or being felled by scandals of their own. It’s unlikely that O’Malley will leave his roles this summer, but he is slowing down. He travels constantly, and travels well, one of his aides told me. But he gets tired in the afternoons.

The cardinal’s critics believe that O’Malley cannot truly transform the Church; the Catholic hierarchy, they say, is incapable of policing itself. But even O’Malley’s friends and admirers have wondered aloud whether he is the man for this moment—whether this humble pastor has the political chops needed to wrestle through changes in Rome. The Catholic Church, and its most earnest American reformer, have been humbled low by the problem of clergy sexual abuse. O’Malley’s career, with all of its successes and frustrations, illuminates why the sex-abuse crisis has once again subsumed the Catholic Church—and why this institution, one of the world’s great moral authorities, has been incapable of solving one of the most morally straightforward problems of our time.

Even before O’Malley became the Church’s fixer on sexual abuse, his life story foreshadowed the future trajectory of some of the Church’s worst failings. He grew up in an Irish family outside of Pittsburgh in the 1940s, ’50s, and early ’60s—a time when, a 2018 grand-jury report revealed, numerous priests were raping and molesting children across Pennsylvania. As a young priest, O’Malley studied and taught in Washington, D.C., an archdiocese later led by McCarrick, the influential former cardinal who has been accused of abusing multiple minors and preying on seminarians, or young men studying to become priests. Donald Wuerl, McCarrick’s successor, resigned last fall amid widespread criticism over his handling of sex-abuse allegations in his prior role in Pennsylvania.

O’Malley became a bishop at just shy of 40 years old, when he got posted to the Virgin Islands. In a certain way, he said, it was the height of his career: He spent those years “minding my own business, very happy as a missionary bishop.” His superiors told him he was headed to Venezuela next. Instead, they sent him to Fall River, Massachusetts, near Cape Cod.

This was the early 1990s—long before the Catholic Church’s sex-abuse crisis had been named for what it is. Sexual abuse by clergy “was not something that was part of my vocabulary. I had never heard of any of these cases,” O’Malley said. A former priest confessed in a local television interview to molesting between 50 and 100 victims, and soon after, he pleaded guilty to sexually assaulting 28 children. When O’Malley arrived in the diocese, he asked to meet with the victims. Together with their families, they filled a small auditorium. He asked a fellow priest who went with him to “leave the motor running” on their car in case they “had to make a quick exit,” he told me, with another mirthless chuckle.

Fall River was O’Malley’s first experience of settling lawsuits and translating tragedy into child-protection policies. At that time, there were very few resources on child sexual abuse available within the larger Catholic context: Few dioceses had written policies, and many Catholic leaders had never been trained to look for abuse. Looking back now, O’Malley’s first attempt at reform seems almost quaint, compared with what was to come: His staff wrote up some draft language on safety practices and abuse reporting, and they published the proposals in the diocesan newspaper for comment. “I thought things were on a good path,” O’Malley said. But there were more revelations to come.

In 1998, Joseph Keith Symons was one of the first American bishops to resign from their post following allegations of child sexual abuse: He left Palm Beach and sought psychological treatment after admitting to molesting five boys. Four years later, another shocking development followed: Symons’s successor, Anthony O’Connell, had been appointed even though a lawsuit had previously been settled by the Missouri diocese over O’Connell molesting an underage seminarian. He later confessed to these accusations, with others following. Once again, the Church called on O’Malley—one of the few high-level members of the Catholic clergy who, at that time, had extensive experience dealing with the fallout of sexual abuse.

But as it happened, O’Malley would only spend a few months in Florida. A scandal of much greater scope and scale was unfolding in Boston—one that would have long-term, global consequences for the Church. The first installment of the Globe’s Spotlight report on clergy sexual abuse, published in January 2002 about the 130-plus victims of the pedophile priest John Geoghan, led hundreds of victims of sexual abuse to come forward about what had happened to them. The series was an inflection point: This was not just one or two wayward priests in an archdiocese, but dozens. And one of America’s top clerics, Bernard Law—a revered cardinal, who slept in a house that looked like a palace and rode around in a motorcade—had covered it all up.

The historically Catholic city was deeply shaken. When O’Malley arrived in Boston in the summer of 2003, “the diocese was in shambles, and people were suffering, and priests were very, very discouraged and disheartened,” O’Malley told me. Previously, the Archdiocese of Boston’s basic policy seemed to be public denial and disengagement: “Victims were enraged and desperate because the diocese would not really deal with them,” O’Malley said. Joseph Finn, a Boston accountant who served on the archdiocese’s finance council, said parish meetings about the revelations felt “as if somebody had lit off a time bomb.”

Cardinal Bernard Law, the former archbishop of Boston, signed off on the reassignment of priests who had been accused of molesting children. He eventually resigned. (Ken Lambert / AP)

In the American public imagination, this is the freeze-frame of the Catholic sex-abuse scandal. Boston raised basic questions of safety and decency: Was it safe for children to serve as altar boys, to participate in youth groups, to attend Catholic schools? Could priests, these men with a supposedly sacred calling, be trusted to report abuse to the police and deal fairly with victims? Catholics were “dreadfully shocked, scandalized, [and] perplexed,” says Thomas Groome, a former priest and a current professor at Boston College, a Jesuit school in the suburbs.

In recent months, it has sometimes seemed as though nothing has changed. This summer, parishioners used similar language to describe their reactions to the McCarrick revelations, and to the Pennsylvania grand-jury report that compiled evidence of alleged crimes against more than 1,000 children, committed by more than 300 priests. “It’s heartbreaking,” says Tiziana Dearing, a professor at Boston College who formerly served as the president of Catholic Charities in the city. “I think it would be hard to be human and not see Pennsylvania and just be sick … that we’re still in a place where we’re discovering the awfulness of what happened.”

These reactions speak to a fundamental truth: The moral failings of the global Catholic Church, in creating and covering up abuse-prone environments for young children, are still unfolding. There are still survivors who have received neither acknowledgment nor reparations. There are still perpetrators who have not been publicly named by Catholic leaders. And, in a few notable cases, there appear to be bishops who still refuse to cooperate with law enforcement and report wrongdoing in a fully transparent way. “The focus on the victims, the survivors, is the way out for the Church,” O’Malley said. “To understand the depth of the pain and the seriousness of our responsibility to address sexual abuse, and to do everything to eradicate it, and to establish the very safest environments for our own people.”

But the problems that faced the Church in 2002 are also fundamentally different from the ones it confronts today. Over the past 17 years, O’Malley and a handful of other powerful leaders in the Church have worked, often behind the scenes, to transform the Church’s child-protection policies in the U.S. and worldwide. Problem solving in the early years was all about crisis management: Acknowledge the wrongdoing. Remove the offenders and those who covered up their actions. Settle the lawsuits. Put local policies in place to keep children safe in the future.

The problems that have lingered since then are much more structural in nature, and arguably more intractable. This is the era that O’Malley and his generation of senior clergy will be remembered for: the years after the initial crisis, when even the sincerest reformers were often stymied by bureaucracy, reticence, and delay.

O’Malley’s manner of speaking is so distinctive that it invites imitation: During interviews for this article, people who know the cardinal regularly launched, unprompted, into practiced O’Malley impersonations. He has the deep voice of a bass singer and keeps a slow, metronomic pace. His slight lilt betrays his Irish heritage.

The other noticeable quality of O’Malley’s manner is how practiced he is at speaking on the issue of sexual abuse. He refers to the Church’s failings routinely and frankly. He answers questions about the present with stories about the past, reflexively bringing up a document called the Dallas Charter. This document, written in 2002, established reporting practices, disciplinary standards, and safeguards against future sexual abuse. Church officials believe that it has been effective. “We have everything in place to stop [abuse]—to prevent it, and if it does happen, to stop it,” says Vivian Soper, the director of the Office of Pastoral Support and Child Protection at the Archdiocese of Boston. “If I didn’t believe those things, I would walk away.” The problem, O’Malley repeatedly suggested, is mostly fixed in the U.S. It just requires tinkering around the edges.

Perhaps the most pressing problem for the Church is how it deals with failures at the very top—and in other countries where abuse cases are only now beginning to surface. “The lacuna in the Charter is around accountability of bishops,” O’Malley said. This is the first in a long list of problems that have bedeviled Church leaders and exacerbated mistrust among survivors and parishioners. Bishops, whose leadership role in the Church is supposedly modeled after Jesus’s apostles, often serve as the highest-ranking Catholic officials located in a given area. But even senior clergy have little ability to exercise control over one another. Currently, there is no formal mechanism in place for punishing or removing one of the thousands of Catholic bishops across the world when he is accused of wrongdoing, short of the intervention of the pope.

Problems with accountability are rooted in the structure of the Church itself. Dioceses, or local areas of governance, are like fiefdoms: Each one is organized in a slightly different way, with little centralized oversight above the level of the bishops or archbishop assigned to that region. Confusingly, many dioceses are also full of semiautonomous groups: Members of religious orders, for example, report not to bishops but to the heads of their organizations.

All of this exacerbates mistrust and confusion around the issue of clergy sexual abuse, because different dioceses and orders have all chosen to handle allegations in different ways. Some, such as the Archdiocese of Boston, have agreed to engage and potentially settle with any alleged victim, even if the legal statute of limitations on the abuse has long passed. Others, such as the Archdiocese of New York, spent years lobbying aggressively against state legislation to extend the statute of limitations on child-sexual-abuse claims, which passed in late January.

Some dioceses and orders have also been hesitant to do a public, historical reckoning, making wildly different choices about disclosing past crimes committed by priests. To this day, many still haven’t released a comprehensive list of credibly accused priests or other leaders who served in their institutions; there’s no consensus within the Church on how to balance justice for survivors with the rights of the accused. “I, for one, don’t exactly see why we should, because the names are already out there,” Timothy Dolan, the cardinal of New York, told The New York Times last fall.

But even in Boston, where the archdiocese released a list of credibly accused priests in 2011, the disclosures have been controversial and confusing. For one thing, abusive priests serving in the Boston area who belonged to religious orders, such as the Jesuits, were not included on the archdiocese’s 2011 list. According to O’Malley’s letter from the time, “the Boston Archdiocese does not determine the outcome in such cases; that is the responsibility of the priest’s order or diocese.” The cardinal expressed “hope that other dioceses and religious orders will review our new policy and consider making similar information available to the public.” Many of these organizations, which are all accountable to different civil laws, have still not done so.

O’Malley also decided to exclude dozens of predominantly dead priests who had never been fully investigated or publicly accused. This choice was contested, even within the archdiocese. Barbara Thorp and Father John Connolly both worked for O’Malley in the direct aftermath of the 2002 revelations: Thorp was the head of the Office of Pastoral Support and Child Protection, and Connolly was O’Malley’s special assistant. The two, along with another official, spearheaded the 2011 list of accused priests, they told me in a recent joint interview. “We made recommendations that went further than what was ultimately decided,” Connolly said. “This is very crass, but … here’s what I know: Dead priests, or dead anybody, they don’t feel anything … Compare that to the pain of survivors, especially survivors who are just looking for a little acknowledgment—this is an easy call for me.”

The dysfunction in how sexual-abuse issues are handled within the U.S. is multiplied at the global level, even on seemingly simple questions. In 2014, Pope Francis put O’Malley in charge of the newly formed Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors—a special Vatican group dedicated to developing sexual-abuse-related reforms. One of the group’s recommendations was simple: If any Vatican office receives a letter from a survivor, that letter must be acknowledged. Even though the pope approved this measure, at least one Vatican department, the influential Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, apparently declined to cooperate, arguing that local priests were better suited to address victims’ concerns. In 2017, the prominent sexual-abuse survivor and advocate Marie Collins resigned from the commission in protest. “I find it impossible to listen to public statements about the deep concern in the Church [for abuse victims],” she said at the time, “yet to watch privately as a congregation in the Vatican refuses to even acknowledge their letters!”

This small example captures the larger problem of trying to reform the Catholic Church: Over and over again, human suffering has been sublimated by long-standing norms, inscrutable bureaucracy, and disorganization. “Most people think that the Church is highly centralized,” O’Malley said. In reality, “the Holy See has a small and not terribly efficient bureaucracy to oversee over a billion Catholics.” That structure “makes it very difficult for the Holy See to have the kind of impact in all these different jurisdictions that they would like to.”

One of the most harmful consequences is that some sexual-abuse survivors have been left without any resolution to their cases, especially those hamstrung by civil statutes of limitation. For these people, the Church might be the only place where they can seek justice. At the very least, survivors hope, they can get vindication through a canonical proceeding, which involves an investigation by a Church body into accused priests.

Many of these sexual-abuse cases have stalled in Rome, however. The canon-law system arguably disincentivizes quick or decisive action to discipline priests, in part because it can be difficult for Church officials to fully investigate claims that took place decades ago. Canon lawyers are keen to protect the rights of the accused, but that focus has also contributed to cultural problems in the Church. “In the terrible days before the Church came to face this crisis, the missing piece was that understanding of the damage that was done to victims,” O’Malley told me. “All of the attention was on the perpetrator—send them off to a psychiatric facility, and the psychiatrist would then say, ‘He’s cured, you can put him back in ministry.’” And cases are often processed slowly: Even some of the Boston cases are still pending, 17 years later. “It’s like a parallel universe of understanding or function or structure,” Thorp said. “We used to use the term glacial. Now we call it just ‘frozen.’”

When O’Malley describes problems such as these, he is in some ways right to use the passive voice: The Catholic Church is a vast, ancient entity with a convoluted org chart and opaque laws and practices that are often obstacles to change. But there are also real actors, with real agency, who have failed in ways large and small. O’Malley does not deny these failures. He seems resigned to them.

There are leaders such as Bishop Richard Malone of Buffalo, who reportedly withheld the names of dozens of credibly accused priests from public lists—and, according to the local television station WKBW, kept several of these priests in ministry. (“My handling of recent claims ... has fallen short of the standard to which you hold us, and to which we hold ourselves,” Malone said in a statement this fall. But “the shepherd does not desert the flock at a difficult time.”)

When I asked O’Malley about Malone, along with a New York Times story about an accused priest kept in ministry in New York, he said, “I think all of us in the bishops’ conference, when we hear about these kinds of blatant violations of our commitments to safeguarding—[it] is very, very painful, and very frustrating.”

There’s the U.S. bishops’ conference, which, in November, could not agree on even a symbolic nod toward the need for accountability. Clergy were split over a proposal encouraging the Holy See to release all documents related to McCarrick’s alleged misconduct; some apparently thought this would be redundant. “That failed resolution, to me, was a mystery,” O’Malley told me. “I think to express the urgency of doing it now, rather than later, would have been appropriate, and I’m sorry that they didn’t.”

And there’s Pope Francis, who, just a year ago, made serious missteps of his own: He accused Chilean survivors of “slander” when they accused a bishop of covering up the crimes of their abuser. O’Malley, in a rare move for one of the pope’s closest advisers, issued public rebuke: Words like these, he said at the time, “relegate survivors to discredited exile.” The pope has since apologized, and hosted Chilean survivors of sexual abuse in Rome.

The common theme in all of this is the inadequacy of Church processes in the face of the moral demands of pain and sin. The Church has not provided quick, satisfying, commonsense resolutions to long-standing sexual-abuse allegations because it is not set up to move fast or to make sense. Because of this, the Church is constitutionally unable to provide full justice to all of its victims.

In August, shortly after the Pennsylvania grand-jury report came out, O’Malley released a stark video statement. “The clock is ticking for all of us in the Church leadership,” he said: “Catholics have lost patience,” and the public has lost what remaining respect it had for the Church. Soon, O’Malley will once again head to Rome, to make another attempt at fixing the Church from within.

Starting on February 21, the most powerful bishops in the world will visit the Vatican for the first major gathering of the heads of episcopal conferences from around the world on the issue of sexual abuse. While the four-day meeting is technically for the heads of each country’s bishops’ conference, O’Malley got an invitation. He will come prepared with ideas: His commission hopes to put in place a global auditing process, requiring bishops from every country to report on the status of child safety in their area every five years. “My hope is that [each bishop] will go away owning the problem,” O’Malley said, “committed to making sure that the policies that they have in their national bishops’ conferences are adequate and are being observed.”

That’s the positive take. But O’Malley, along with other Church officials and observers, is also wary that the meeting has been overhyped. Catholic bishops have found it challenging enough to address clergy abuse comprehensively in the U.S., let alone around the world. As O’Malley pointed out, clergy from the developing world—where Catholicism is growing most quickly—have much less exposure to this issue than clergy from countries such as the U.S., Ireland, or Germany, which have all been rocked by extensive abuse scandals. Church leaders are much less likely to want to report abuse to civil authorities in countries with authoritarian or hostile governments. And it is highly unlikely that a four-day meeting will yield anything close to a panacea.

Rather, the pope’s meeting is another modest, incremental move: It is premised on the belief that the Church can work within its current form, with its current leaders, to address the issue of sexual abuse. Above all, this is the hope that has sustained O’Malley’s ministry. “I think he is a genuinely good person,” says Donna Doucette, the executive director of Voice of the Faithful, a group that formed in 2002 in Wellesley, Massachusetts, in part to support survivors of sexual abuse. “I also think he’s a creature of the clerical culture and cannot escape that mindset in any way, shape, or form.”

In the U.S., and in Boston, a different attitude is taking hold among civil authorities, lay Catholics, and even men and women religious. The Pennsylvania grand-jury report inspired local prosecutors all over the country to open investigations into dioceses in their states. And for the first time, federal prosecutors have initiated their own inquiry into the abuse.

Protesters outside the Cathedral of the Holy Cross in Boston in April 2002 (William B. Plowman / Getty)

In our interview, O’Malley bristled, in his mild-mannered way, at these latest outside interventions. He believes firmly in the principle set out in the Dallas Charter: Dioceses must report allegations of abuse to the civil authorities and cooperate with law-enforcement officials on investigations. “Reporting is what is going to change everything going forward,” he said. These new investigations across the country, including the Pennsylvania grand-jury report, largely address decades-old claims, but they have “given the public a sense that all of this is taking place right now,” he said. “I think rather than giving the public an accurate picture, it gives them a distorted picture of what has taken place in the Church.”

He expressed frustration, and skepticism, about prosecutors’ motivations “if they’re not going to prosecute these old cases, if there’s not a willingness to contextualize the old cases versus what has happened since the [Dallas] Charter has been implemented.” He said he was not aware of any possible attorney-general investigations in Boston, though a spokesperson for the Massachusetts attorney general, Maura Healey, told me via email that it’s “fair to say that we are evaluating our next steps.”

In O’Malley’s city, the most significant defections are among the well-established Catholic elite: former heads of Catholic nonprofits, big-name donors, influential priests. In varying degrees, many people seem to share doubts about whether the Church is capable of governing itself—and whether O’Malley should remain the public face of this issue.

For one thing, the scandal has recently ended up in O’Malley’s backyard, showing the limits of working only within Church strictures. In 2015, a New York priest named Boniface Ramsey sent a letter to O’Malley, warning him, as the head of the pope’s child-protection commission, that then-Cardinal McCarrick had acted inappropriately with seminarians. O’Malley’s secretary, however, did not pass the letter on to O’Malley, explaining to Ramsey that the accusation fell outside of the specific mandate of the Vatican commission. When the interaction was made public in August, O’Malley apologized.

Around the same time, two former seminary students came forward with allegations of sexual misconduct at their Boston-area school, St. John’s. The rector agreed to go on sabbatical, and O’Malley announced an independent investigation, which he eventually broadened to all three of the area’s seminaries. Several current and former Boston-area seminarians told me they were frustrated by the culture of these Catholic institutions, where priests and professors are still treated as all-powerful—the same culture that arguably enabled McCarrick’s years-long abuse. (In a statement released this summer, McCarrick said, “While I have absolutely no recollection of this reported abuse, and believe in my innocence, I am sorry for the pain the person who brought the charges has gone through, as well as for the scandal such charges cause our people.”)

Through all of this, O’Malley has been stretched across continents, trying to keep the pope focused on this issue and push through reforms in Rome. Even his fans admit that he has not necessarily succeeded in navigating drama at the Vatican, where cardinals are constantly competing for power. “People don’t say, ‘Oh, I think he is a politically adept leader.’ People think he’s a charismatic, thoughtful, compassionate priest,” said Father Jim Keenan, a Jesuit at Boston College who was one of the original clergy to call for Cardinal Law’s resignation in 2002. “Right now, these are bold times that are filled with real challenges. I think [O’Malley] would welcome other people coming forward who are more artful at negotiating competitive views as to how to proceed.”

Fundamentally, there is a gap between the way the Catholic hierarchy seems to imagine the solution to the sex-abuse crisis and what the public—even Catholic laypeople—sees as possible ways forward: radical changes to the priesthood, including eliminating the requirement of celibacy, and greater roles for women and laypeople in the hierarchy. “It may be at a point now where, regardless of how ancient [the Church] is, for it to survive, it’s going to need to be willing to consider changes … to the way the organization runs,” says Helen Drinan, the president of Simmons University and the former senior vice president for human resources at Caritas Christi, a now defunct Roman Catholic hospital system that was once the second-largest health-care provider in New England.

Many Catholic dioceses are multimillion-dollar entities with hundreds of employees; in 2017, the Archdiocese of Boston reported $710 million in assets. It doesn’t make sense, Drinan says, for priests to run organizations that are essentially large nonprofits—they’ve shown they cannot hold one another accountable. “I have been able to reconcile myself to the imperfections of the institutional Church, and they are grand imperfections,” she says. “But I’m not willing to give this up because of the power that is being exercised by some very entitled, mostly white, men.”

When I asked O’Malley whether he sees a contrast between the sense of urgency around this issue among the Catholic faithful and the seeming lack of urgency among the Catholic hierarchy, he said, “I think that’s an apt description … there certainly is, yes.”

Many of the Boston Catholics I spoke with seem to feel an irreconcilable tension between their faith, to which they remain committed, and the vast institution of the Church. “I bought into this as a kid, because of the life of Christ. So I’m in. But I’m not drinking any Kool-Aid,” says Jack Connors, an influential Boston-area businessman and Catholic donor. “One of the fundamental tenets of our religion is forgiveness. But one of the tenets is not ‘Drag the bullshit out as long as you can.’”

Barbara Thorp, who, for a decade, served as O’Malley’s right-hand woman on pastoral outreach to sexual-abuse survivors, keeps a book on the table next to her favorite chair at home. On first glance, it looks like it could be someone’s scrapbook, with royal-toned paper and swirling fonts. In reality, it is a copy of one of the most consequential documents in recent Catholic history.

In 2008, Pope Benedict XVI made his first and only visit to the U.S. His advisers were wary of making sexual abuse one of the central issues of his trip, but O’Malley persuaded them to arrange a meeting between the pope and a group of survivors—the first-ever meeting of its kind. There, Benedict was presented with this book as a testament to the far reach of the crimes clergy had committed. Inside, there are simply pages and pages of names.

Popes lead the global Roman Catholic Church, and yet on the issue of sexual abuse, they have often been among the last to recognize the full gravity of the problem, or to act. Perhaps this is a function of insulation, and caution by Roman advisers. Perhaps this was compounded by the bias, held erroneously for so long in the Church, that sexual abuse is an American problem, and is effectively a local concern. It has taken nearly two decades since the revelations in Boston for a pope to bring top clergy together for an extensive discussion on sexual abuse. But even Francis has cautioned against “inflated expectations” for the February meeting: “The problem of abuse will continue,” the pope said at a recent press conference.

Pope Francis will bring together top bishops from around the world this month to discuss the issue of clergy sexual abuse. (Stefano Rellandini / Reuters)

Thorp left the Archdiocese of Boston in 2012, and later took a job helping to distribute funds to victims of the Boston Marathon bombing and their families. But she cannot put the issue of clergy sexual abuse down. When she left, “this was totally unfinished,” she told me. “We still had not really addressed this, here in Boston, and globally.”

I met Thorp on the same day as I met O’Malley. Where he was calm and slightly weary, she sounded close to tears. Where he saw incremental steps forward, she saw crisis.

“I have this image of, God forbid, there was this horrific fire at St. Peter’s Basilica,” she told me. “Starts at like five in the morning, it’s electrical things gone crazy, and all of a sudden, there’s not the white smoke coming out of the Sistine,” as happens when a new pope is elected, “but real smoke.” Her eyes were wide, expression incredulous. “People would pour in there, from everywhere. No one would even have to think. You’d have to run in, despite the danger, to put the fire out and to save all that is precious within the Basilica.

“Why isn’t there that same reaction, that same sense of urgency?” she asked. “What could be more precious than our children?”

Barbara Thorp is anguished at her Church. She is frustrated that cases are still unresolved, that bishops are bickering, that the hierarchy’s responses to terrible revelations have been halting and tone-deaf.

When someone shares a story of being abused, “it takes ahold of your heart in a way that has a real claim on you,” she said. “I can see these people in front of me—their faces, they’re so beautiful, and they’re so hidden, in a way. They have experienced so much shame, and so much that’s impacted them far into their adult lives.”

Gold crosses are scattered throughout the pages of Thorp’s book: six here, one there, in neat and tiny print next to hand-calligraphed names. They are memorials to drug overdose and suicide, to the fact that clergy sexual abuse is not a historical artifact, but a living trauma. No policy, no system, and no reform can take away the fact that some victims do not survive.