Archdiocese names new 'safe environment' leader

Judge Timothy O'Malley
Archbishop Nienstedt has named Judge Timothy O'Malley to the newly created position as Director of Ministerial Standards and Safe Environment.
Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

Updated at 4:55 p.m.

Scorched by a sexual abuse scandal, the Twin Cities archdiocese has hired an outsider with extensive leadership in law enforcement to help win back the public's trust.

Tim O'Malley, an administrative law judge and former FBI agent who once headed up the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, will respond to allegations against priests.

Related: Betrayed by Silence | An MPR News Investigation

Grow the Future of Public Media

MPR News is supported by Members. Gifts from individuals power everything you find here. Make a gift of any amount today to become a Member!

Even critics of the Catholic Church acknowledge O'Malley has impeccable credentials. But they say the real question is: Will he have power to make true change?

O'Malley will serve as the director of ministerial standards and safe environment, a new position created in the wake of the clergy abuse scandal. He will be responsible for making sure the archdiocese complies with the law when abuse allegations arise.

In an interview Monday, O'Malley pledged to respond aggressively to allegations of clergy sex abuse, and to report the allegations to law enforcement.

In going to work for the archdiocese, O'Malley is entering a culture of secrecy. An MPR News investigation found that three archbishops, including John Nienstedt, hid the truth about clergy misconduct.

O'Malley, who worked as an agent for both the FBI and the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, said he understands the public's skepticism, but hopes to earn its trust over time by taking care of those who have suffered abuse.

And when a new allegation arises, he will act "purposely and aggressively to take care of the victim, to provide the services needed, to get to the truth, figure out what happened, and to hold people accountable," he said.

His new job was created by a task force that scrutinized how archdiocese officials have responded to allegations of sexual abuse by priests.

O'Malley counts himself as one of those troubled by the abuse. A former altar boy, he grew up in a Catholic family but hasn't seriously practiced the religion for about a decade — in part because of his disillusionment with how the church has dealt with reports of abuse.

The appointment of someone like O'Malley isn't unheard of. More than a decade ago, U.S. Catholic bishops tapped former FBI agent, federal prosecutor and Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating to clean up the sexual abuse scandal. He resigned in frustration with the church's reluctance to be investigated by law enforcement. Keating also compared some bishops to the Mafia.

O'Malley said if he isn't given the independence promised by Archbishop John Nienstedt, he might take a similar course.

"I would resign if I didn't believe I couldn't contribute and I didn't believe the Catholic Church wasn't genuine about serving the needs of victims," he said.

O'Malley said he has had blunt discussions with Nienstedt, and believes the archbishop truly wants straightforward advice. But O'Malley said he's not sure if his role will be to push the archdiocese to be more transparent.

Jeff Anderson, an attorney who represented people who have accused Twin Cities priests of abuse, said the archdiocese has taken a step in the right direction by hiring an outsider, rather than a clergy member, to respond to such allegations.

If the church fails to give O'Malley independence and full access to internal church files, the new post will only amount to a public-relations move, Anderson said.

"Do they keep him on the outside, or do they let him on the inside?" Anderson asked. "If they let him on the inside, they're making progress."

Nienstedt told MPR News that O'Malley will have complete access to the documents, which detail the allegations and response from church officials.

David Clohessy, national director of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, said the problem with such appointments is they play into the notion that children can be protected if only bishops were better educated.

"From the very get-go, bishops have gotten tremendously sound advice from a raft of smart people, like this judge," Chohessy said. "It's not that bishops get poor advice. It's that they don't take the good advice that they're given. And they don't take that good advice because they don't have to."

But O'Malley's supporters believe his forthrightness will help the church heal.

Among them is Erika Applebaum, who worked with O'Malley when he was the superintendent of the state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension and she led the Innocence Project of Minnesota. Applebaum said even though she was working to exonerate individuals placed behind bars by law enforcement, O'Malley was an ally who simply sought the truth.

That passion, she said, will take him far in his new role. "Even though he's hired by the church — people may say they're paying him, he's going to provide the answers they want — he's got an unbelievable amount of integrity," Applebaum said. "And if it's the right decision, it may be a hard decision, but he's going to make sure to do the right thing."

Yet the question for many likely will be how much of a difference one man, even a man of integrity, can make in an embattled archdiocese.

O'Malley acknowledges there's little he can say to persuade the public, including outraged lay Catholics, that his appointment amounts to anything more than window dressing.

"I don't know I can assure them as I sit here right now," he said. "I was skeptical years ago and even as I was applying for this job. I think the real test will be over time. I think people should pay attention to what we do. We need to prove that you should trust us."