No doubt it is, as Tom Petty once sang, ‘good to be king’. But when ‘the kingmaker’ falls, those he has made cannot but seem tainted by association.
This was always going to be a document that encouraged what biblical scholars call ‘a hermeneutic of suspicion’. Word is that the Report has existed, in some form, for a good year or more. How many drafts did it go through? How many people got the chance to ‘fact check’ it? What ‘clarifications’ of ‘potentially misleading’ wording were ‘suggested’? What got left on the cutting room floor?
Certainly, some of this would have been done in good faith. Predators are often exceedingly good at exploiting people’s trust and covering their tracks. That’s how they operate. Among those that ‘Uncle Ted’ helped along the way, there are undoubtedly many good and honest laypeople, religious, priests, bishops, and/cardinals. Trouble is, one can’t help thinking that not all of them are – or, frankly, even could be. And those will be the ones who are, themselves, adept at seeming innocent. They’ll have learned from the master, after all.
Given the importance of the topic and the long time we’ve waited for the Report, a desire for instant ‘hot takes’ is natural. But a word of caution: anyone with something to hide knows that too.
Along with fellow researcher Giovanni Sadewo, I’ve spent a good deal of time over the past two years (far more, I dare say, than is probably mentally healthy) digging into McCarrick: and not just McCarrick himself, but the whole wider context in which he lived, moved, and had his being – a rather different one, it need hardly be said, than that described in Acts 17:28.
Accordingly, we’ve focused on the various networks – webs, with all their arachnid associations, might be a better metaphor – McCarrick was enmeshed in. We released some preliminary findings earlier this year. Now working with a bigger team, we’ve a great deal more, in terms of both breadth and depth, in the works.
Given the importance of the topic and the long time we’ve waited for the Report, a desire for instant ‘hot takes’ is natural. But a word of caution: anyone with something to hide knows that too. The Executive Summary and first few pages are, they’re well aware, where the headlines come from. Meanwhile the devil, literally so in this case, is hiding in the details. That’ll take longer to tease out fully: so be patient and stay tuned.
That caveat in place, what, on a first reading, does the Report really tell us? More to the point, what doesn’t it? Here are my own three still-warm takes.
First off, credit where it’s due. The Report provides a wealth of new detail – far more, I confess, than I and others had expected. Much of this fills in what was already known, or least credibly reported. (On that note, let’s publicly thank various journalists, especially at the New York Times, Washington Post, Catholic News Agency, and the Catholic Herald’s own Chris Altieri, for their dog-with-a-bone dedication). But the Report deepens our understanding of many critical events, providing much valuable behind-the-scenes information.
It feels a little convenient that, of all the US bishops who emerge from the Report, the ones most badly reflected upon are all already dead.
Let me give a single example: a week ago I openly mused on a curious fact. In September 2005, McCarrick reported in his weekly newspaper column that Pope Benedict had extended his DC tenure ‘probably for another two years or so’ after hitting retirement age. Yet by the following May, Wuerl was announced as his replacement. What, I wondered, had the Vatican learned in the meantime? Well, now we know, in the form of 15 pages of names, dates, and transcripts of key correspondence (pp. 231-46).
Secondly, let’s notice where details are oddly not forthcoming. McCarrick’s knack for fundraising is well-known, and is mentioned multiple times. So too is what the Report a little carefully refers to ‘his customary gift-giving’: a practice which of course requires other bishops’ ‘customary gift-taking’. What isn’t made explicit, however, is who received what and when. According to the Washington Post, McCarrick disbursed hundreds of thousands of dollars during his time in Washington from a personal (tax-exempt) ‘charity’ account, including to dozens of archbishops and cardinals (not excluding six-figure cheques to both John Paul II and Benedict XVI). The reader is assured that such financial wheel-greasing wasn’t a ‘determinative’ factor (note the careful language) in his being appointed to various high-ranking posts, nor did it play in any other ‘significant decisions’ regarding him.
[T]he devil, literally so in this case, is hiding in the details.
Now I’ve said it before, and no doubt I’ll say it again, but this bears repeating. I’d lay very good money of my own, that Dr McCarrick – oh yes, only the most upright of people pursue the noble path of a PhD in sociology – will be perfectly familiar with the classic literature around ‘gift economies’. And while they don’t usually involve a direct “we’d like you to do us a favour though…” style proposition, it still takes two to quid pro quo.
Thirdly and finally, call me cynical – I prefer ‘hard-bitten and worldly wise’, but I’ll take it – but it feels a little convenient that, of all the US bishops who emerge from the Report, the ones most badly reflected upon are all already dead. We learn, for instance, of three bishops (two of whom, Smith and McHugh, were made bishops while serving McCarrick in Newark; the third, Hughes, was his immediate successor in Metuchen) who seem certainly to have heard – and, in one case, seen – a good deal, and failed to divulge it when asked. The nuncio for much of the relevant period, Montalvo, also comes in for a rough ride (though not as rough a ride as the Report devotes to another former US Nuncio, I might add…): he too is dead.
Rest assured, every single other living US bishop is wholly inculpable, except perhaps for a few ‘lessons to learn’. Perhaps Buzzfeed might help them out with a “How to Spot the Warning Signs if Your Flatmate, For Whom You are Also an Auxiliary Bishop and Vicar-General, is a Serial Predator”-style listicle (see p. 235, fn. 935)?
Consulting editor for the Catholic Herald, Stephen Bullivant (@SSBullivant) is Professor of Theology and the Sociology of Religion at St Mary’s University, Twickenham.
This page is available to subscribers. Click here to sign in or get access.
Having been unable to sell in churches for well over a year due to the pandemic, we are now inviting readers to support the Herald by investing in our future. We have been a bold and influential voice in the church since 1888, standing up for traditional Catholic culture and values.
Please join us on our 130 year mission by supporting us. We are raising £250,000 to safeguard the Herald as a world-leading voice in Catholic journalism and teaching. For more information from our chairman on contributing to the Herald Patron's Fund, click here
Donors giving £500 or more will automatically become sponsor patrons of the Herald. This includes two complimentary print/digital gift subscriptions, invitations to Patron events, pilgrimages and dinners, and 6 gift subscriptions sent to priests, seminaries, Catholic schools, religious care homes and prison and university chaplaincies. Click here for more information on becoming a Patron Sponsor. Click here for more information about contributing to the Herald Patron's Fund