As archbishop of Boston, Cardinal Seán P. O’Malley owns a newspaper, The Boston Pilot. That lets him respond when he feels done in, as in a media interview last Nov. 16. That seems to be the rationale of his Boston Pilot column posted online Nov. 19, when he followed up on his “60 Minutes” interview that aired last Sunday and which CBS hyped in the days leading up to it. His column was gentle. The serene churchman praised “60 Minutes” staff. He even said he was “privileged” to be on the program, perhaps the way one is privileged to undergo a root canal.
In a sure understatement, Cardinal O’Malley said he had spent more time speaking to reporter Norah O’Donnell than what aired on CBS and especially what was hyped to draw viewers. He spoke about embattled Bishop Robert Finn of Kansas City-St. Joseph, Missouri, who could not even teach religious education given his court conviction for not turning in a diocesan priest involved in child pornography.
“While it is the case that the sexual abuse policies adopted by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops would preclude someone convicted of not reporting a crime from teaching religious education or having any position supervising children, some of the advance reporting about this matter did not reflect the nuances of my answer to the question,” Cardinal O’Malley said on-line. “In response to Norah, I said that the Vatican must attend to this situation. The Holy Father is aware of the need, and recently an Episcopal Visitator was sent to Bishop Finn’s diocese. The Holy See had the sensitivity to send a Canadian bishop to conduct the visitation.”
He added that the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Children, of which he is president, wants accountability of bishops, “but the accountability has been sporadic.
“We need clear protocols that will replace the improvisation and inertia that has often been the response in these matters,” he said. “Bishops also deserve due process that allows them to have an opportunity for a fair hearing.”
Cardinal O’Malley said that “after all that American Catholics have been through in the past decade, survivors and the community at large understandably are demanding transparency and accountability. As a church the safety of children must be our priority. At the same time, we need to provide justice for all and avoid crowd-based condemnations.”
“60 Minutes” promotional people also hyped Cardinal O’Malley’s comment that the Vatican probes into U.S. religious orders and the Leadership Conference of Women Religious was “a disaster.” The column clarified that there are two different investigations by two different Vatican congregations, one that oversees religious orders, the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, headed when the investigation was launched by Cardinal Franc Rodé, who since has returned to his native Slovenia. The other comes under the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, headed by U.S. Cardinal William Levada when the investigation was called for. He is now succeeded by German Cardinal Gerhard Mueller. The report on the first visit reportedly is to be made public mid-December. The LCWR is still in dialogue with the CDF.
Said Cardinal O’Malley: “I trust that there were serious problems that gave rise to the visitations, but it would seem that better planning and wider participation of American religious and U.S. bishops would have been helpful. The Church personnel who carried out these assignments have done an admirable job under very difficult circumstances. Unfortunately many religious women have been alienated by the process and the bishops in this country have been blamed for shortfalls in communications and the process. Hopefully when the final report of the visitations is presented it will be a more positive experience that will contribute to healing in our church and helpful for the cause of religious life.”
Cardinal O’Malley was caught off-guard on the topic of ordination of women to the priesthood and Norah O’Donnell could not be persuaded that the church’s teaching is anything but a matter of simple discrimination. She was not about to hear that ordination of women to the priesthood is a matter of the church’s long and constant teaching. That is no small matter when it comes to development of Church doctrine. The church teaching also is too nuanced for a “60 Minutes” segment.
Ever the peaceful soul in a Capuchin habit, Cardinal O’Malley wrote a gentle column, but don’t expect him to do “60 Minutes” again. Let’s hope he gives TV a second chance, however, perhaps with in-depth, thoughtful reporters—think Charlie Rose, for example—and insightful editors who do not leave too much of a story on the cutting room floor. If there is no second chance, it will be a loss for both the church and journalism.
The church needs to get its message out. Media provide far-reaching vehicles, but as the “60 Minutes” interview showed, not just any vehicle will do.
Mary Ann Walsh, R.S.M., is a member of the Sisters of Mercy Northeast Community and U.S. Church Correspondent for America.