The McCarrick case has revealed a defect in the system
If the allegations against Cardinal Theodore McCarrick are true, they represent a microcosm of the whole abuse crisis. A powerful cleric using his position to commit his crimes and sins; a cycle of abuse, in which victims become perpetrators; churchmen not themselves guilty of abuse who nevertheless fail to see, and when they are made to see, fail to act; a culture of corruption and violence that is deeply entrenched and global in scope.
A month after the Archdiocese of New York said that abuse claims against McCarrick were “credible and substantiated”, new allegations continue to appear in mainstream news outlets. One alleged victim, the son of a family friend of McCarrick’s, told the New York Times that McCarrick began to abuse him when he was 11 years old and that the abuse continued over two decades.
The Washington Post added to the story on Monday, building on the Times’s account of how one former priest, who alleges Cardinal McCarrick abused him when he was in seminary, says the abuse he suffered at McCarrick’s hands impelled him to touch two children inappropriately. When the man confessed his behaviour, the then Bishop of Metuchen, Edward Hughes, sent him to a Church-run facility for evaluation and treatment. Medical staff at the St John Vianney Center in Pennsylvania told Hughes they believed their patient was himself the victim of sexual abuse and believed his abuser to have been McCarrick. The Post goes on to report: “Hughes wrote back to the therapist saying that he found the allegations ‘very troubling’ but that he wasn’t sure he believed them. ‘At the present time, I do not have sufficient factual basis for making such a determination.’ ”
The Washington Post story also contained allegations from a Brazilian priest, who lodged a complaint against Cardinal McCarrick in 2011, which he withdrew after Metuchen sued the priest for misusing parish funds and distributing flyers alleging that senior churchmen were homosexuals. The Post quoted the priest’s complaint – filed in a New Jersey court – as saying: “Cardinal McCarrick, through manipulation, deception and fraud . . . attempted to convince the plaintiff that engaging in the sexual relationship with Cardinal McCarrick was a necessary and accepted practice in the Roman Catholic Church in the United States.”
If the correspondence this journalist has had with knowledgeable and committed members of the faithful – laity and clergy alike – is any indication, then the prevailing view of the crisis is that it is one rooted in protracted and disastrous failure of leadership.
The best defence any bishop anywhere can offer for himself is to say he did not know. But if the bishops did not know, they should have. It is their job to see. The very name of their office is derived from the Greek word, episkopos, which means “overseer”. Their role is primarily custodial, itself a term derived from the Latin word for guardian: custos. Even the word “pastor” is pregnant with all this meaning and more: it is the Latin word for shepherd.
The ones who knew something and did nothing cannot even hide behind the gossamer excuse of lower clerics: that they fear reprisal from the institutional machine. The bishops are the machine.
Pope Francis has said that he recognises his own part in the crisis and has promised action, though precious little in the way of concrete steps to address the crisis out of Rome has been forthcoming – and the Roman record on disciplining cardinals over the past several pontificates is not conspicuous, except perhaps by way of its weakness.
Indeed, it was Pope St John Paul II who promoted Archbishop McCarrick and gave him the red hat – although several warnings reached the Vatican – and Pope Benedict XVI who accepted McCarrick’s resignation at 75, letting him retire quietly and with honour.
That suggests a major defect in the system. In 2015, Fr Boniface Ramsey, a New York-based seminary professor, wrote to Pope Francis’s hand-picked point man for the protection of minors and vulnerable adults, Cardinal Seán O’Malley, to express surprise at seeing Cardinal McCarrick appearing in public in 2015. Fr Ramsey was surprised because he himself had informed the Vatican of his suspicions, through the nuncio to the United States. But Fr Ramsey received a letter from Cardinal O’Malley’s secretary saying in essence that such things were not Cardinal O’Malley’s responsibility.
Many Catholics suspect that bishops – and, even more so, cardinals – are given special treatment. The late Cardinal Keith O’Brien of St Andrew’s and Edinburgh, notwithstanding his resignation in disgrace after it emerged that he had misbehaved with seminarians, died in 2016 and was buried a Prince of the Church.
The Cardinal McCarrick story is far from over: he has not responded to the latest allegations. But how the authorities treat the cardinal – by seeking justice, or by trying to avoid the subject – will tell us a lot about how far the rot has spread.