Cardinal O’Malley reflects on 20 years at the helm of the Boston Archdiocese

Boston Globe

January 28, 2024

By Danny McDonald

For Cardinal Seán P. O’Malley, the tinted windows were the giveaway.

Back in 2003, the windows of the official car were darkened for the area’s highest-ranking Catholic priest so that passersby and protesters could not see who was inside. Recently, O’Malley admitted there is a metaphor there somewhere for the state of the church when he took over the once politically and socially powerful Boston Archdiocese, which was reeling from the uncovering of its botched handling of clergy sexual abuse.

“We were in a terrible crisis,” O’Malley told the Globe recently. “I think we’ve come a long way from there towards establishing a sense of peace.”

Boston, for so long a bastion of American Catholicism, was ground zero for what would be a global crisis. More than 1,400 people would come forward to say they were sexually abused by a priest, deacon, or nun in the archdiocese. Clergy sexual abuse triggered a massive reckoning for decades of egregious misconduct of church leadership, both locally and abroad. As the crisis unfolded over the years, many Catholics questioned the institution they had sought out for moral clarity throughout their lives. Many left the church over the scandal, never to return. Indeed, by multiple metrics, including a significant reduction in weekly church attendance and the number of parishes and Catholic schools, the church has never regained the cultural clout it once enjoyed in Eastern Massachusetts.

Additionally, the archdiocese was in financial free fall when O’Malley became archbishop. It had a $15 million deficit in its annual budget, would eventually owe $32 million to the Knights of Columbus because of a loan that helped settle abuse legal cases, and both the clergy and lay person pension funds for the archdiocese were failing. There were more than 1,000 pending lawsuits against the church.

Now, after more than 20 years at the helm of the Catholic Church in Greater Boston, O’Malley reflected on his tenure during a wide-ranging interview. He’s made his name as a crisis manager over those two decades; his main charge has been righting the ship of the archdiocese, culturally, morally, and fiscally, as it continued to be buffeted by the sexualabuse disaster. He’s technically past the age of retirement; he personally handed his resignation letter to the pope five years ago, as required by church law when bishops reach the age of 75. (It’s commonplace for bishops to continue working for several more years.) And this year he turns 80, a significant milestone in the life of a cardinal, as it means he is no longer part of the group that elects a new pope. He acknowledges he will likely depart his post “soon.”

In Boston, he succeeded Cardinal Bernard F. Law, whose 19-year tenure as head of the archdiocese ended in his resignation after it was revealed he had failed to remove from the ministrypriests who had sexually abused children. At O’Malley’s installation ceremony as archbishop, protesters demonstrated against the hypocrisy and systemic corruption of church officials outside the Mass at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross in Boston’s South End. This was the post O’Malley inherited, and 20 years into his tenure, close observers of the archdiocese agree that his approach and handling of the clergy sexual abuse crisis will be his lasting legacy, both in Boston and at the Vatican, where he has served as Pope Francis’ chief adviser on addressing the crisis.

“Cardinal O’Malley has been a godsend,” said Thomas Groome, a professor of theology and religious education at Boston College.

O’Malley, said Groome, held offending priests accountable and cared for victims of sexual abuse. He was the first and most aggressive church leader to address that issue, Groome said.

“He never tired of assuring us that we still had a rich, Christian faith … even while the institutional church failed in its responsibilities,” said Groome.

Eric MacLeish, a local attorney who has represented hundreds of sexual abuse victims, said that when Law departed Boston, he was asked who should take over. O’Malley was the clear choice, he said, because of his handling of clergy abuse when he was in charge of the Fall River archdiocese, where former priest James Porter admitted to molesting more than 100 children. MacLeish represented scores of Porter victims.

In his handling of the fallout from that crisis, O’Malley “was very compassionate,” said MacLeish.

“He met with all my clients,” said MacLeish. “He did the right thing.”

O’Malley’s leadership of the Archdiocese of Boston has represented a “significant improvement” over Law’s time in charge, MacLeish said.

“Significant resources have been devoted to resolving their claims,” said MacLeish. “I don’t think it’s enough, but at least it’s a process that’s relatively peaceful, unlike what we went through with Cardinal Law, where we always had to sue.”

But O’Malley has his critics. Terence McKiernan, president of, a Waltham-based watchdog group, said that above all else, O’Malley was a fixer for the church. In the case of Boston, that meant settling about 540 legal cases for $84 million in the first year of his tenure, a record sum at the time, but a figure that is paltry when compared to clergy sexual abuse settlements in other jurisdictions. (Ultimately, the direct settlement payments for the Archdiocese of Boston would top $170 million.)

“He was a person who straightened things out,” said McKiernan. “He was not an innovator.”

Indeed, before being named the sixth archbishop of Boston, O’Malley dealt with the fallout from clergy sexual abuse scandals as a bishop in two prior assignments: Fall River and Palm Beach, Fla. O’Malley, who speaks seven languages, also worked among poor immigrants in Washington, D.C., and opened homeless shelters and an AIDS hospice as the new bishop in the Virgin Islands in the 1980s.

McKiernan said the archdiocese’s own public list of credibly accused priests is “behind the curve,” missing names of priests who prompted the church to settle abuse claims. And Pope Francis has been disappointing on issues of clergy sexual abuse, according to McKiernan. Given that O’Malley is the pope’s “go-to guy on this subject” that reflects poorly on him, as well, he said. McKiernan pointed out that there were transparency complaints about the pontifical commission O’Malley heads for the protection of minors from a founding member of the panel.

“It’s not a horrible record but he could’ve done so much more,” said McKiernan.

The pontiff, meanwhile, has praised O’Malley’s work on the sexual abuse crisis on multiple occasions, once describing him as a “cardinal who was able to grasp a nettle such as Boston at that time, and go ahead, focusing his care not on the money but on the people and the hurt children.” Regarding the criticism from a German priest and papal adviser of the panel for the protection of children he heads, O’Malley said last year that he was “surprised, disappointed, and strongly disagree with his publicly-issued assertions challenging the Commission’s effectiveness.”

And the archdiocese, through a spokesperson, rejects any notion that O’Malley has not innovated as church leader, pointing to his coordination of the first meeting between the pope and survivors in 2008 and then again in 2015.

Born in Ohio, and raised in Pittsburgh, O’Malley was the second of four siblings. His father was an attorney, his mother a homemaker. He said he was first drawn to the priesthood because he had an uncle who was a man of the cloth. For O’Malley, St. Francis, the founder of the Franciscans, an order that emphasizes poverty and charity, was an exciting figure.

“His love for the poor, his simplicity, his joy, his sense of being a universal brother,” said O’Malley.

O’Malley professed his priestly vows at 19 and was made a bishop at 39 and a cardinal at 61, about three years after taking over in Boston. He now travels to Rome about once a month. He serves on the Council of Cardinals, an influential body formed in 2013 to advise Pope Francis on global issues affecting the Roman Catholic Church.

He spoke to the Globe while seated at the end of a boardroom table at the rectory of the Cathedral of the Holy Cross, the mother church of the archdiocese. He worethe brown robes of the Capuchins, an order of Franciscans who model their attire on that ofpoor people during the 13th century days of St. Francis. He drank his coffee with milk, no sugar. For just under an hour, he answered questions in a soft-spoken, even-keeled manner.

He made a case for the positive impact of the church. Catholic schools, he pointed out, have historically been a main conduit to the middle class for immigrants. On abortion, he hewed close to the party line: “We have a very consistent and coherent presentation of how important every human being is, made in the image and likeliness of God, from the first moment of conception to the moment of natural death and everything in between.”

Advocates have long criticized the church for ostracizing LGBTQ people, and O’Malley acknowledged that the church has historically had challenges serving such communities, adding that the pope, who last month formally approved letting priests bless same-sex couples, is trying to “point us in a direction of greater compassion.” (The pope’s announcement was met with criticism,with some saying it underscored that the church treated gay couples as inferior to straight ones.)

Regarding allowing women to become priests, he said whatever the church does with priest ordination, “The important thing is to ensure that women have greater leadership roles in the church.”

”The important thing is not being ordained or not ordained but to live a life of holiness,” he said.

What about allowing priests to marry? Celibacy, he said, has been a great strength in the ministry of the church, adding that he’s not sure allowing priests to marry would be a “panacea” for priest shortages.

He helms a huge organization with many facets. He lamented the country’s broken immigration system and highlighted the recent work the church has done to combat local food insecurity. Various arms of the Boston Archdiocese provide homes for 11,000 people and operate seven homeless shelters.

But reacting to the clergy sexual abuse crisis is what O’Malley is going to be remembered for, according to church observers. O’Malley appeared to be aware ofthe huge shadow it has cast on the church, both locally and abroad; he brought up the crisis before he was asked about it and was forthright about the church’s failures, sayingitsresponse was too focused on the church’s reputation and financial standing.

“The church in particular did not realize the damage that was done to the individuals who were abused,” he said.

Among the changes O’Malley made in response to clergy sexualabuse and its mishandling by church authorities was the establishment of clear protocols, he said. One policy requires all claims of abuse, even if the cleric is dead, to be reported tolaw enforcement, regardless of whether church officials deem them credible. Another saw O’Malley hire a former prosecutor to oversee claims of sexual abuse and ensure compliance withreporting requirements. The church pays for psychological help for those who were abused and their families, O’Malley said. According to archdiocese figures, it has paid $32 million for counseling and medications as of the end of 2023.

“What we have done to address the sexual abuse crisis here is better than what anyone else has done,” said O’Malley.

Still, the church has continued to face a decline in interest.

In 2003, weekly church attendance numbers in the archdiocese topped 316,000. In 2019, before the COVID-19 crisis, that number shrank to 201,000. The most recent statistics available, from 2022, are even lower — just under 127,000 — although an archdiocese spokesperson says that figure comes with a huge caveat: Parishes were still returning to normal operations after the pandemic.

The sexual abuse crisis contributed to that dip, O’Malley acknowledged. But he added thathow big of a factor is hard to say. He noted that the secularization of the Northeast presents “a huge challenge” for the church, and added that the decline “exposes the weakness of a cultural Catholicism that is being replaced by a more intentional religiosity.”

“People are making a choice; it’s not just because they’re Irish or they’re Italian they’re going to be Catholics,” he said.

When O’Malley took over, there were 160 Catholic schools in the Bostonarchdiocese, with an enrollment of 55,000. Today, there are 92 schools with an enrollment of 32,000. But financially, the archdiocese is no longer cratering.

Last fiscal year, the organization was operationally in the black, reporting total operating revenues of $365 million, a nearly 5 percent year-over-year increase, against just under $353 million in expenses. The archdiocese reported a $36.3 million, or 4 percent, increase in net assets. But offertory and tuition revenues were both flat, and those are the main recurring sources of revenue for the church.

The number of parishes in the archdiocese, which stretches north to the New Hampshire border, south to Plymouth, and west to Marlborough, has also shrunk. In 2003, there were 357 parishes. There are now 249.

The elimination of some parishes, O’Malley admitted, is something that “perhaps we could’ve done better.” More parish closures in the next five years, he said, is a “possibility but that will very much depend on the needs and decisions of the local community.”

O’Malley will turn 80 in late June. He does not have a timeline for when he will retire fromhis seat as head of the archdiocese, nor does he know his replacement, although he allows that his departure will likely be sooner rather than later. Smiling, he pointed out that he handed in his resignation to the pope five years ago.

“I’m sure it’ll be soon,” he said of his departure. “But I don’t know who or when.”

Jeremiah Manion of Globe staff contributed to this report.