O’Malley Sets a Model for Healing

National Catholic Reporter
September 19, 2003

The American judicial system is among the worst venues from which to seek justice for victims of clergy sex abuse.

It’s a purposefully confrontational structure, where attorneys for each side are charged with vigorously pursuing their client’s interest. Those interests, in our culture, too frequently boil down to the lowest common denominator: money. In the case of clergy sex abuse, that means diocesan lawyers (and attorneys for their insurance companies) seek to minimize payouts while enraged victims and their contingency-fee counsels seek top dollar.

The resulting recriminations and anger do little to achieve what should be the ultimate goal -- healing.

Boston’s new archbishop, Sean O’Malley, has turned that paradigm on its head.

Immediately after his installation, O’Malley replaced the archdiocese’s attorneys with an experienced straight-shooting lawyer, Thomas Hannigan, skilled at settling such cases.

Significantly, O’Malley removed the insurance companies from the equation. Rather than seek their heavy-handed advice on tactics or their approval for settlement offers, O’Malley decided to seek reimbursement from them after an agreement was achieved. Their veto and obstructionist tactics (these are the folks who wanted access to victim counseling records) was removed.

Then he got real about the money and put offers on the table.

Finally, at what appears to have been precisely the right moment, he personally intervened. Rolling up the sleeves of his brown Franciscan habit, O’Malley sat down with victims’ lawyers for six-and-a-half hours on a Sunday evening in September. He listened (they wanted more than money), he explained (the archdiocese’s pockets are only so deep), consulted with his advisers, and hammered out a deal.

The resulting settlement provides victims with awards of between $80,000 and $300,000. But significantly, and perhaps most important, it includes provisions that ensure that victims will continue to receive counseling at church expense, protects the confidentiality of counseling records, and provides a guarantee that abuse survivors will serve on church panels that deal with the issue.

The pragmatic consequences of settling the cases are great. Even in these most difficult of times, Boston is a wealthy church, but it will stretch its resources to settle the claims. Some victims will choose to ignore the settlement and pursue their own actions against the archdiocese. And the bitterness runs so deep among some that no amount of money, compassion or contrition will ever suffice.

The challenges O’Malley and his church face remain formidable. The clergy is fractured, frightened and quarrelsome. Fewer than 15 percent of Boston Catholics attend Sunday Mass, donations are down, and, according to a pre-O’Malley Boston Globe survey, 40 percent of the archdiocese’s Catholics think the local church should consider breaking from Rome.

But in less than two months, O’Malley has brought the Boston church to a place few thought possible prior to his installation. He did so by acting with intelligence, integrity and decency. By acting like a Christian leader.

It’s a model others in the church facing similar circumstances should emulate.


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