Last week a new scandal rocked the American Church. Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, the retired Archbishop of Washington DC, was suspended from public ministry after an abuse allegation against him was deemed “credible and substantiated”. The cardinal, now 87 and living in a nursing home, said he had no recollection of the alleged incidents involving an altar boy, which date back decades.
Church authorities also revealed that they had reached out-of-court settlements in two other cases involving adults. It then emerged that a group of Catholics had asked Rome not to appoint McCarrick to Washington in 2000, claiming that he had a history of misconduct with priests and seminarians.
The McCarrick case was immediately hailed as a turning point for the Church. Archbishop Mark Coleridge, president of the Australian bishops’ conference, said it marked a “major shift” in Catholic culture. “It’s not unrelated to the #MeToo phenomenon,” he told reporters in Rome. “There’s something going on in the culture. And one of the elements of that cultural shift is that people are prepared to speak up in a way that they would never have done before.”
Writing in the New York Times, Ross Douthat agreed. “With the exposure of systemic abuse in so many different institutions lately, it’s become possible for Catholics to regard this as a general purgation that our Church just went through first,” he noted. “But the grim truth is that the Catholic purgation was incomplete, because it was not quite #MeToo enough.”
The “#MeToo phenomenon”, which has dominated the news this year, dates back to 2006 when the African-American activist Tarana Burke used the phrase “Me Too” to encourage women to speak about their experiences of abuse. The words entered the public consciousness in 2017, when the actress Alyssa Milano urged social media users to use the hashtag #MeToo to show the extent of sexual assault after the exposure of Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein.
The McCarrick case is not just a “#MeToo moment”. It is also arguably a “Time’s Up” episode. The Time’s Up movement was founded in February, by Milano and other women, to highlight sexual harassment in the workplace. The allegations against Cardinal McCarrick underline the vulnerability of priests and seminarians in their “workplace”. While bosses wield considerable power over employees in the business world, their authority is as nothing compared with that of a bishop over his clergy. As Douthat puts it: “[Priests’] commitment to the Church is supernaturally absolute and life-defining, the power their superiors exercise is greater even than that of a Hollywood producer.”
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