In 2002, Pope John Paul II sent O’Malley to Palm Beach, Fla., where two previous bishops had resigned after admitting they had molested young people. Then he sent him to Boston.
O’Malley has his critics in Boston and elsewhere.
A series of church closings he announced in the archdiocese brought angry protests by parishioners and around-the-clock sit-ins. Some parishioners hired canon lawyers and brought their complaints to the Vatican. And in 2002, a Massachusetts prosecutor, Paul Walsh of Bristol County, publicly released the names of about 20 Fall River priests accused of molesting children in the 1960s and 1970s, who had never been criminally charged.
Walsh said he did so out of frustration with recalcitrant church officials. O’Malley said in a statement at the time that when he arrived in Fall River, he had been focused on the Porter case and had no indication that prosecutors were interested in investigating old allegations.
Marco Politi, a papal biographer, said O’Malley is benefiting from the Italian love for Franciscans and from the desire for a pope from another country, who Italians believe will not get involved in Italian politics. At least one profile of O’Malley in Italian media noted that in 2010, he criticized Italian Cardinal Angelo Sodano, who had dismissed victims’ criticism of the church as “petty gossip” just as the crisis was erupting in Europe.
“O’Malley comes across as a humble man in robes who communicates well,” Politi said. “They admire him for selling off the expensive archbishop’s palace to pay debts, and that he lives in a simple home.”
O’Malley, a native of Lakewood, Ohio, studied at a Franciscan seminary, then joined the religious order and was ordained at 26. A graduate student at the Catholic University of America, he earned a master’s degree in religious education and a doctorate in Spanish and Portuguese literature. O’Malley now speaks eight languages, including Italian, Portuguese and Haitian Creole, according to his spokesman Terrence Donilon. He asks parishioners to address him informally as “Cardinal Sean.”