It has now been two years since Pope Francis accepted Theodore McCarrick’s resignation from the College of Cardinals, shortly after allegations of his sexual abuse of a minor and evidence of other sexual exploitations first detonated into public view.
Yet after all this time, Catholics in the United States are still waiting for answers about which Church leaders, here and in Rome, knew about McCarrick’s scandalous situation but failed to take meaningful disciplinary and preventive actions — and possibly even facilitated and abetted his meteoric rise to prominence.
That’s far too long to wait. The delay only aggravates the severe damage caused by this unclarity and lack of episcopal accountability, further compromises the trust Catholics need to have in their shepherds, and prolongs the healing process for McCarrick’s victims. The whole ugly scandal seriously hampers the Church’s basic mission of evangelization and service.
“Why wasn’t this egregious situation addressed decades sooner and with justice?” That’s the urgent question asked in August 2018, two months after the public revelations about McCarrick, by Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, then president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), in a statement in which he vowed to pursue answers to the full extent of his authority and to advocate for answers beyond that.
At a meeting the next month with Pope Francis, a USCCB leadership delegation communicated “our situation in the United States — how the Body of Christ is lacerated by the evil of sexual abuse.” But despite that unequivocal message, since then it has been obvious Rome attaches far less importance than do the U.S. bishops to resolving the questions surrounding McCarrick.
It’s not that nothing has been done to improve the Church’s response globally to clergy sexual abuse and egregious episcopal mishandling of the situation. The Vatican summit in February 2019 was dedicated to increasing safeguards against this grave crime, with a focus on enhanced episcopal accountability. Pope Francis followed that event with his motu proprio, Vos Estis Lux Mundi (You Are the Light of the World), in which he stipulated the metropolitan model for investigations of allegations against bishops.
Vos Estis followed the earlier lead of U.S. bishops in expanding the Church’s sexual-abuse policies to include sexual activity between a bishop and adult seminarians — a central element of the allegations against McCarrick, alongside his alleged abuse of minors.
For their part, the U.S. bishops quickly augmented the new Vatican measures at their June 2019 assembly, implementing a range of new measures that included the metropolitan model, application of the provisions of the 2002 Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People to bishops, and a new national third-party reporting system for sexual-abuse complaints.
Necessary and welcome though these measures were, they provide no explanation as to how McCarrick’s misconduct went unpunished for so long — despite evidence that his damaging actions regarding seminarians apparently began to be provided to Vatican officials as early as the late 1980s.
Nor do they specify who in the United States and in Rome knew in considerable detail about McCarrick’s sexual predilections for young men, which apparently were an open secret among many Church insiders, even if there was no knowledge prior to 2018 that he was accused of sexual abuse of minors.
Aug. 25 will mark two years since Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, the former papal nuncio to Washington, first leveled his explosive accusation that senior Vatican officials, including Pope Francis himself, knew about McCarrick’s sexual misbehavior but chose to ignore it.
The Pope declined to respond directly to the archbishop’s allegations, instead inviting journalistic scrutiny of Archbishop Viganò’s account. But then in October 2018, the Holy Father authorized a “thorough study” of all relevant Vatican documentation to discern who in the Church knew about McCarrick, when they learned about it, and why no action was taken beyond the informal restrictions Benedict XVI is understood to have placed on McCarrick’s public actions around 2008.
That investigation conducted under the authority of Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican secretary of state, should have taken a few months to complete, at most. Indeed, it appears it was largely finished by last fall, given that Cardinal Seán O’Malley of Boston advised his impatient brother bishops at their November 2019 fall assembly that he had been informed, during his recent ad limina visit to Rome, that publication of the McCarrick report was imminent.
But here we are, nine months later, still with no report and no knowledge of when it will be released.
Sometimes the Vatican, courtesy of its global perspective, can have a broader understanding of what needs to be done about a given problem than does a local Church. But not in this case, where it’s the U.S. bishops who are intimately acquainted with the harm that is being caused to their own flocks and to their own reputations.
One comparison that might be employed, in this time of pandemic, is to view the unanswered questions as a kind of contagion. So long as the perception persists that the Vatican is delaying the release of its findings in order to protect the Church’s institutional reputation and to spare some key Church leaders from a public accounting, this “McCarrick virus” will continue to infect the Church in the U.S. The casualties include the injustice to McCarrick’s victims, the distrust of lay Catholics and of faithful priests, and the ongoing erosion of episcopal leadership.
In the last six months during the coronavirus shutdown, we have experienced the loss everywhere when the Church can’t fulfill her saving and healing work.
But this McCarrick infection from within, if unchecked, will do even greater damage.
The diagnosis — and the prescription for healing — must come soon, and it must be clear, concrete and credible.