The bearded, soft-spoken cardinal has even earned a nickname, a play on his status as a Capuchin: the cappuccino priest.
“Give me the cappuccino priest, not the Italians,” said Giuliana Piaella, 57, a waitress serving lunch at a Rome restaurant. “He’s a clean-looking guy, perfect age, and has a serious face. He has a calm face, full of self-confidence. He wears open sandals which show his humility. Catholics don’t do that anymore. We need someone who’s close to the people.”
It took O’Malley just six weeks from the time he was installed in Boston to settle hundreds of sex abuse claims that had kept the archdiocese in crisis. His predecessor, Cardinal Bernard Law, had resigned as archbishop in December 2002, after a Massachusetts judge unsealed the files of one predator priest kept in parish assignments by church officials without warning parents or police. The revelations sparked a crisis that spread through every American diocese and beyond.
The day after he took over in Boston, he revamped the legal team representing the archdiocese, hiring an attorney who had helped him settle abuse claims when he led the Diocese of Fall River, Mass., a decade ago. O’Malley was personally involved in the Boston negotiations, spending hours with victims’ attorneys to reach the $85 million deal for 552 plaintiffs. Attorneys for victims credited him with showing compassion that other church officials had not.
In the Diocese of Fall River, a southern New England city of fishermen and shuttered textile mills, O’Malley had inherited the damage from one of the most notorious pedophiles in the American clergy crisis. Former priest James Porter was accused of raping children in five states in the 1960s and 1970s. He pleaded guilty in 1993 to 41 counts of molestation.
It was a time when the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops was only starting to confront the national scope of the abuse crisis. O’Malley is credited with instituting a policy that almost no other diocese at the time had. Abuse allegations would be referred to a social worker outside the church. A board of mental health and legal professionals reviewed how each case was handled and church workers were required to alert civil authorities about any allegation that a child had been abused.