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.”