Cardinal O’Malley: Pope Francis’ Vision of Pastoral Conversion



On Sunday afternoon, Cardinal Seán Patrick O’Malley, President of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, addressed the participants of “Our Common Mission to Safeguard the Children of God”, a regional conference on the protection of minors. minors for Central and Eastern Europe, describing the necessary pastoral conversion. The following is an excerpt from his opening remarks.

By Cardinal Seán Patrick O’Malley

From the start of his ministry, Pope Francis has stressed the importance of pastoral conversion as a missionary journey for the whole Church. Such a conversion brings with it the kind of transformation needed to ensure that the gospel reaches every person and every part of our life. The Holy Father reminds us of the teaching of Pope Paul VI which called for a profound renewal on a personal level and on the part of the whole Church. Conversion at both the personal and institutional levels is at the heart of the renewal process and is essential for what Pope Francis calls a “missionary transformation” of the Church.

Pastoral conversion is important to us as we focus our efforts on renewing the Church in the face of sexual abuse. We must work for a change that will be incorporated into all aspects of the life of the Church, addressing sexual abuse wherever it has occurred, regardless of the status or function of the person who committed the crime. . I hope that the following steps can serve as a guide for the ministry of safeguarding and caring for minors and vulnerable people in our Church.


Pope Francis called us to begin the journey of conversion by recognizing the truth of what happened. To do this, we must adopt the approach of a listening heart. Those who have heard the testimony of survivors know how difficult and trying these experiences are. I have personally met hundreds of survivors, their testimonies are heartbreaking, especially when they share that no one believed them when they first reported the abuse. We can only imagine, but in truth never understand, how much more difficult it has been for those who have been abused and forced to live with the consequences their entire lives.

When someone who has been mistreated by the clergy, religious, or other Church people tells their story, we should receive it and their testimony with the greatest reverence. There should be clear channels of communication and meeting through which survivors can contact the Church if they wish. It is encouraging that many dioceses have a dedicated contact person or telephone service or e-mail account that survivors or their family members can use. It is a good and important initiative. If a diocese does not receive many responses after establishing these means of contact, it does not mean that the reality of sexual abuse by clergy or religious is not present. A lack of response may be an indication that the established communication channels are not adequate or appropriate for the particular circumstances of that diocese or country. It is important that we all maintain the focus on providing accessible, welcoming and non-judgmental opportunities for survivors and their loved ones to contact and engage in dialogue with the local Church.

We also need to be aware of the reality that many people in our communities have suffered the tragedy of sexual abuse in the Church and have never told anyone about their experience.

Our colleague Dr Ewa Kutz wrote about the complexity of victims’ testimony in an insightful article recently published in L’Osservatore Romano. She wrote:

“Those who have been injured are speaking. Some claim the right to speak out and be heard at the top of their lungs. Others speak shyly in the calm of a psychotherapeutic setting, or confide only to their relatives. Some are screaming. Others speak silently with their silence ”….

Recognition of survivors

In order for us to achieve the pastoral conversion to which the Holy Father calls us, we must honestly and clearly recognize those who have been mistreated. Listening to the pain of others, the sufferings of God’s people, leads to recognizing the wrong done and the suffering inflicted. Pastoral conversion requires turning away from an inappropriate defensive attitude which can be very harmful and hurtful, and embracing a deep listening to the survivor, with a willingness to understand more fully what he has experienced.

An obstacle to this recognition, especially for pastors, is what the Holy Father referred to in the video message he prepared for this conference as a “misguided concern for the reputation of the institutional Church”. Especially in places where the Church has been subjected to systematic persecution for a long time, a defensive response to accusations of abuse can often seem like a knee-jerk response. While pastors are responsible for protecting the Church, and in many cases have suffered or given their lives in defense of the faith, a skeptical and sometimes even humiliating response to witnessing abuse can cause serious harm to people. that the Church is called to consider as a priority for pastoral care and concern, namely, those who are broken and hurt by abusive ministers within the Church itself.

The Holy Father recognizes that accepting the wrongs that have been committed by the ministers of the Church can, in fact, make us vulnerable. But vulnerability can also be experienced as a moment of grace, a moment of kenosis, an experience of God’s action in our world that brings healing by lighting up a place of darkness so that all can live more freely as disciples. and believers. This means that we can continue to be dedicated co-workers in the Lord’s vineyard, while remaining honest about the abuses that have occurred among Christ’s faithful.

Seeking forgiveness

Recognizing the truth of what happened takes us further on the path of conversion and renewal. We cannot preach what we ourselves have not accepted as true. For pastors and other Church leaders, listening to and affirming the reality of sexual abuse by Church ministers engages us in a process of conversion. As we follow in the footsteps of Jesus who was moved when he saw the needs of the people, we cannot but be moved by what we hear and come to know….

If we place this dynamic in the context of an encounter with Christ, we can see in the survivor someone who has been treated unfairly, who has been made to suffer and who, in many cases, has been rejected in his suffering. by the Church itself. . By embracing the role of protagonists in our communities, survivors can provide important insight into gospel truth that paves the way for a new evangelization, even of the Church itself. Such listening and recognition of the reality of sexual abuse should lead to reconciliation with survivors. As Pope Francis urged us in his video message:

“It is only by facing the truth of these perverse practices and humbly seeking forgiveness from the victims and survivors that the Church will find her way to a place where she can again count as a place of welcome and safety. for those who need it. “

It is important to offer a sincere apology to the survivors. However, “asking for forgiveness” requires more than making a statement or having a meeting. Rather, it is a process that is rarely done in a single instant and sometimes may not be done at all. The experience and journey of each survivor is deeply personal and different from that of any other person. As the Lord seeks the lost and abandoned, priests, religious and lay ministers must seek forgiveness from those who have been hurt. For clergy and religious, the process of pastoral conversion is facilitated by our search for forgiveness from all those affected by sexual abuse. Obviously, it is not an easy road to walk, but we have to walk it, with the victims and all who are affected….

Concrete ways of reform

Listening, recognizing the survivors and sincerely asking for their forgiveness are essential steps on this path of renewal. They are part of the restoration that must take place if the Church is to regain her credibility and promote healing. The community demands that a just order be maintained, and the just order of the Church has been shattered by the crimes of some of her ministers.

Once again, the Holy Father emphasizes the importance of this next step, as he tells us:

“Our expressions of sadness must be converted into concrete avenues of reform to both prevent further abuse and give confidence to others that our efforts will bring about real and reliable change. “

In this regard, the essential work of creating policies, procedures and guidelines should be undertaken and they should be reviewed and updated regularly. Requirements for testing, training and mandatory reporting to civil authorities are critical. Without clear and defined policies and procedures, people try to improvise, often with good intentions, but the results are too often disastrous. Yet we know that policies themselves are not enough. We need effective methods to verify compliance and monitor policy implementation. Training and background checks of Church personnel are essential, along with performing safeguard audits and ensuring that our canonical and civil procedures are both up to date and in harmony with one another….


The path of learning about the crime and sin of sexual abuse in the life of the Church will continue throughout our lives. We have a long way to go. With the help of dedicated and knowledgeable people like those gathered here and many others in the region who are engaged in the process of healing and reconciliation, I am confident that we are on the right track and can make progress. meaningful, always focusing on and the needs of survivors as we move forward.

I want to recognize and thank all of the survivors who continue to come forward to share their stories. It is thanks to their courage that the services of protection and assistance to minors and vulnerable adults become central elements in the life of our Church. Because of them, evangelism is offered to others who have been gravely injured by the Church, and others are spared this horror….


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