Do the current child protection norms need a radical overhaul?

The scandal of Cardinal Theodore McCarrick’s alleged abuse has just become even more disturbing. The original allegations were made by men who were adults, or at least not pre-pubescent, at the time. A sexually active priest with a taste for younger men is detestable, but that’s not the same as being a child rapist.

It turns out we may have been too kind to McCarrick. On July 19, the New York Times published an interview with a 60-year-old man identified only as James who claims that “Uncle Ted”, who baptised him, began abusing him at the age of 11 and continued for two decades.

Before the Times story broke, several commentators pointed out that McCarrick was the architect of the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, more commonly known as the Dallas Charter. The revelation that he allegedly abused young men was supposed to throw the integrity of the Charter itself into question. But then McCarrick could easily have taken a strong stand against child abuse in order to deflect attention away from his sexual impropriety with adults.

The question now is whether James’s story changes that. After all, surely McCarrick wouldn’t design a trap clever enough to catch him. Should we scrap the Dallas Charter and start again? It’s relevant to ask whether McCarrick abused any children after James. According to the Times, he began molesting James around 1971. That’s the same year he allegedly molested the 16-year-old altar server – legally a minor, but not a child – in New York. It’s also more than three decades before the Dallas Charter was approved. No other allegations of child abuse have been made at the time of writing.

Based on current information, it seems that the claimed abuse ceased at some point in the 1970s, perhaps because McCarrick grew to understand the legal risks. As I wrote in these pages three weeks ago, McCarrick was able to escape scrutiny, with subordinates intimidated and alleged victims paid off, because nothing he did was technically illegal. The vast majority of his victims were adults, and the claims relate to the grey area between consent and non-consent.

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