The Vatican Report on Mr. McCarrick

Perhaps lost in the tsunami of news coverage for the 2020 Presidential election, came the release of the Vatican’s report recounting the 30-year history of accusations against former Cardinal Theodore Edgar McCarrick – and the reporting of such accusations “up the chain of command” across the pontificates of Popes John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and Francis. The report is 449 pages long and appears to be thorough in its accounting of the internal correspondence and reporting within Church channels (as near as one all tell such things.) The report is exhaustive and at times exhausting. Not only were over 90 interviews conducted, but extensive quotations from relevant Vatican correspondence and documents reveal the internal back and forth between individuals and offices. 

Before reading the report, I took a long period of time to pray for all victims of sexual abuse, those abused within the Catholic Church, and their families and loved ones who continue to deal with the consequences of the sins and crimes of these predators. I prayed for their ongoing healing. I prayed too that we as the faithful of the Church will never forget and no matter our role in the Church, we will respond in a way that protects victims and those who report these sins/crimes. I prayed for myself. I took my first vows as a Franciscan in the same year the Boston Post reports broke open the scandals. I had no illusions. I had faith and a calling. But, it has been almost 20 years…so I keep praying. 

The report is long, detailed, repetitive and seemingly thorough – but who can know. I read the tome over several days. Would I recommend reading the report? If you find hope that the report is an example that the long arc of human activity bends towards justice, then read it. If you would find despair that the arc took so long, then be prepared for heartbreak. In reading the report one can easily find sorrow/outrage that what was consistently rumored and reported was allowed to continue for 20+ years. To my mind it was a sad reminder that all organizations internally work in a way that each level of a hierarchy will “circle the wagons” to protect itself against a lower level and insulate themselves from an upper level becoming aware.  

In 2002 the US Bishops began a process that began to address a long hidden history of sexual abuse against children, teens and young adults by it priests. Within just a few years many active and retired priests were removed from the priesthood, civil authorities began to pursue criminal charges and civil suits were initiated, diocese were sometimes shielded by statute of limitation laws, they were sometimes bankrupted, and all the while more histories of abuse came forward in time. The diocese and religious orders put new plans and safeguards in place. The number of cases that have occurred post-2002 are fewrecognizing safeguards are in place and working, but not perfect. Even one occurrence is too many. 

But in the 18 years since, the Church has rarely sanctioned and removed from office church leaders who failed to report the abuse, covered it up, or even worse simply transferred the criminal/priest to another parish or diocese (for the pre-2002 cases). Granted here in 2020 most of those prelates are out of office, retired and a good number have gone to meet their Maker. But I still wonder. Bishop Finn of Kansas City-St Jospeh diocese was convicted in 2011 of criminal charges for failure to report a priest under his charge who was trafficking in child pornography. The Vatican did not begin an investigation until 2014.  

In October 2018, Pope Francis ordered an investigation into the history surrounding the accusations against the former Catholic cardinal, Theodore Edgar McCarrick Recently the Vatican released a 400+ page report, investigating the charges against McCarrick, the history of the reporting of the accusations against McCarrick to the Vatican, the history of inaction, and evaluating the role that senior Vatican officials and Popes played in allowing and even promoting McCarrick in the light of accusations. 

In January 2019 McCarrick was tried in an ecclesial court in Rome. An ecclesial court has no civil jurisdiction and its authority/punishment is limited to removal from office, in the case of priest (bishops and cardinals) removal from the priesthood, and in matters of the faith, excommunication. Civil prosecution is the province of the courts in the United States.  

On January 11th, a panel of the Congregation for Doctrine of the Faith found him guilty. McCarrick appealed the decision, but the appeal was rejected February 13th by the congregation. On the 15th Pope Francis “recognized the definitive nature of this decision made in accord with [eccelsial/canon] law,” making a further appeal impossible. 

What can be learned from all this? In truth, I think there are far more insightful and wise people to draw conclusion of what it all means and where to go from here. All I can do is to share some initial thoughts to leave with you. 

One of the problems facing those in the reporting structure (bishops, rectors, papal nuncios, dicastery (department) heads in the Vatican, and the Pope) is that for 20+ year there were mostly anonymous unsigned letters bringing accusations against McCarrick. Accusations that were at great odds with the person they knew – or thought they knew. Their initial reaction was that this was the work of a malicious person with their own agenda. One of the earliest written reports was from a mother who describes McCarrick’s behavior with her sons in terms that (today) scream sexual predator grooming. Her letters were anonymous. So many of the early accusations were such – but not all. There were reports that named names, dates and places. But there always seemed to be a reason to dismiss the accusations. But the accusations continued to arrive. And McCarrick’s behavior with seminarians was almost common knowledge. 

Cursory inquiries followed and each one of the inquires revealed an ongoing pattern of way-inappropriate behaviors with seminarians, priests, and cannot help but remind one of the Harvey Weinstein-like wielding of power within an organization.  It is not hard to imagine those seminarians afraid to speak up in fear of never being ordained. It is not hard to imagine those priests afraid to speak up in fear of being relegated to distant assignments or even being dismissed from the priesthood.  And yet seminarians did speak up and report questionable behaviors and circumstances to their seminary rectors and spiritual directors. Other seminarians confirmed the surrounding context of the accusations: beach houses, fishing trips, and overseas jaunts. It seems that in almost all cases the reports rose to the next higher level where it all just seemed to languish – not die – but languish in this never ending circular of letters between bishops, papal nuncios, discastery heads, and popes (JP II through Francis) – more than 20 years. 

What is difficult for me to understand is why “inquiry” never rose to the level of “investigation.” A friend of mine, a retired USAF judge advocate (lawyer), noted the difference is that the investigation keeps “pulling the thread.”  In McCarrick’s case that would mean not just talking to fellow bishops but talking to the other seminarians and priests. While some reacted with shock to a report released Nov. 10 by the Vatican detailing how church officials ignored former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick’s long history of sexual abuse, one group was not surprised: those who went through seminary for the Archdiocese of Newark, New Jersey, during McCarrick’s tenure as archbishop from 1986 to 2000. They already knew the story, with the Vatican report simply validating their experiences. One seminarian, not interviewed, Bob Hoatson remembers that as summer weekends approached, “Uncle Ted,” as McCarrick called himself, would send out invitations to a select crew of students. They would number just beyond the number of beds available at McCarrick’s New Jersey beach house. McCarrick, according to the report, would then invite a seminarian to share a bed with him. Those selected for the beach house trips knew “you had to go,” because they feared repercussions with the archbishop, who had ultimate authority over their future careers as priests.

The persistent rumors were also known within the circle of dedicated Catholic and Vatican journalists, e.g., John L. Allen Jr. Allen who was interviewed for the report (p.223). He noted that while rumors were rampant, the reports were all second and third hand. He also noted: “The Church is full of people using gossip to trash each other and McCarrick definitely had his share of enemies so there were good reasons to be skeptical.”  Allen also noted that McCarrick was connected, insightful, smart and willing to be open to the press, and so journalists too found it hard to believe he would “be doing something so stupid as sleeping in the same bed with seminarians.”

Perhaps no “smoking gun” would have been found, but it seems to me that after reading the report the circumstantial evidence would have become overwhelming. Overwhelming enough that he never would have been promoted to the ranks of bishop much less archbishop or cardinal. Overwhelming enough that he would have been removed from active ministry. 

In 2017 an accusation arose against McCarrick that his abuse involved a minor. The information presented was found to be credible and only then did the Church mechanisms quickly move to action. But even then McCarrick, while not involved in pastoral endeavors, was still engaged in commissions, panels and the such that represented the Catholic Church. My read of the report was that he was being told to “stand down” and remove himself from public life but was always feigning compliance and moving ahead in other circles. The bad penny that keeps turning up. 

What are the possible reasons for the languishing and failing to investigate along the way? Church culture, lethargy, super reliance on Rome? One wonders if that culture and lethargy remains in pockets of the Church. Was he too good a fund raiser? Was he too connected? Was he too useful? Too charismatic? Too …. who knows? In 2006, at an unusual time of year, my Franciscan province needed a bishop to ordain me as a deacon. They called upon McCarrick. I had not thought about that at all until I ran across a picture while packing to move to Virginia.

Ecclesial reckoning finally arrived for McCarrick. Will criminal or civil reckoning reach him? We’ll see. 

What concerns me is the “Bishop Finn” effect. Almost 10 years past the Dallas Charter, a bishop convicted in criminal court, of failing to act to protect minors, failing to take the necessary ecclesial actions, and in general failing…and it is hard to find another bishop who spoke up. It is hard to understand why it took another three years for the Vatican to remove him from office. It is hard for me to understand why he could continue to serve as bishop, when at the same time he would not be cleared to be catechist in any parish. 

I have listened to three podcasts by bishops regarding the McCarrick report. All of them were fine, addressed the crime and sin, expressed repentance and sorrow, asked for forgiveness and more – and for that they are to be commended. All addressed additional Church directives which in its way made clear there was now a process and consequences if bishops did not act as “mandatory reporters” of sexual abuse, civilly and ecclesially,  and laid out norms and penalties for failure to report. But when I hear the term “my brother bishops” I wonder if the natural inclination to silence within ranks prevails. In this week’s USCCB meetings, a bishop noted that it was not their job “to slap the hands of other bishops.”

To be fair, the bishops that were involved in the silence (or even cover up) are mostly gone from office, retired or have passed away. The current lineup of bishops came to their roles in a different era when “see something, say something” is (hopefully) the norm. So I am hopeful. 

Yet, two significant questions still remain for me – and I have to say they are only questions that arise from the context of the report – logical next questions. One involves money. The report and correspondence from McCarrick indicate that he never drew salary from his episcopal appointments. Yet he seems to have personally owned a beach house, a NYC apartment, an upstate NY lake-side cabin, and traveled extensively. Perhaps McCarrick was personally wealthy from inheritance, which is fine since he is not under a vow of poverty. Was he free to receive monetary gifts form benefactors? Yes, but still, I have this deja-vu sense of “follow the money.” While the report says McCarrick did not buy his appointments to office it is hard to simply accept that assertion since no one seemingly looked into it. Later when McCarrick was being considered for appointment to New York or Washington (both episcopal sees in which the cardinal’s red hat is expected), Cardinal Cook was quite emphatic that he should not be considered. The report also seemed to say he was ranked 16th on the recommendation list (I am unfamiliar with the recommendation process and so I was left with another open question). Without details the report seems to indicate that McCarrick largesse was spread around in the form of gifts to many church officials that in retrospect raise ethical concerns.  

Also disturbing is that there were many seminarians and priests in the dioceses where McCarrick served who had firsthand knowledge of what happened at his beach house because they were there too. What has happened to those men? Have they continued to remain silent? Were they interviewed? Were they ignored? It is one thing to decide that their testimony was not needed in that what was uncovered was sufficient, it is another if this tell us about the culture that may still remain? Like many large and not particularly efficient organizations, the church is a series of silos (as the report makes very clear), inhibiting close communication and collaboration. Also, like large organizations, it is inherently cautious and self-protective. Add to this the deference given to rank and hierarchy, and it is too easy to see how the default response “for the good of the church” was to explain away, ignore or hide. 

Was the report the completely transparent last word on the scandal? Not likely. While many people credit the Boston Globe for shining the light on the systemic problem within the Church, in truth Peter Stienfels of the New York Time was writing about this extensively between 1992 and 1997. Granted the awareness of the faithful on abuse is completely different. The press is vigilant. But is this the last word. Not likely. 

Did the report go far enough? Not likely. Are there more lingering questions that more insightful minds will raise? I think so. But I will leave that inquiry and investigation to others.  

Are there lessons to be learned? I am hopeful that all the procedures, screening, and especially, awareness within the laity are indicators that a great deal of lessons are already incorporated. For me a question closer to home is whether we will remain mindful of the lessons learned. When one reads the report, there were too many times one reads in the report’s cited correspondence or in interviews, the expression “for the good of the Church” (or phrases similar).  We simply need to ask ourselves how that worked out.

We need to be mindful that the Church has the protection of the Holy Spirit and does not need ours. So, see something, say something, never report anonymously, remember we are mandatory reporters inside/outside the Church, and stay vigilant. Let our vigilance be exhaustive even if it is exhausting. 

7 thoughts on “The Vatican Report on Mr. McCarrick

  1. Fr. George:
    May I add my thanks for the analysis. I think it is important that this topic is openly discussed.
    I can imagine it was a tough slog to get through and thoughtfully summarize. I am sometimes asked my opinion by non catholic friends and this is most helpful background for a thoughtful response. BTW, we miss you. Hope you are getting settled and glad you have a little “down time” as well.

  2. Being a victim of abuse prior to converting to Catholicism years ago as a child, it is very hard to read those words “For the good of the Church.” I am very grateful I am Catholic.

    Surely, somewhere, somehow, more of the abusers should have been held accountable for their actions, within the hierarchy of the Church and civilly. These are crimes they have committed.

    Maybe, the Church has made inroads of insuring that future abuses are not likely to occur (as you have stated), but some would say that it is a little too late for all those who have been abused by the clergy. It is awful to know that many victims were not taken seriously, and the guilty party was knowingly transferred by his superiors to yet another parish where there were potentially “fresh victims” at his disposal.

    Thank you for taking the time to tell us about the report and its findings. With the Holy Spirit at work, there is hope for a brighter future for the Church and all those that she shepherds.

    • My post this afternoon has troubled me all afternoon. Even though I meant well for the concern of those abused, my comments were not proper as I was not privy to what happened jn the past and how the Church may or may not handled this situation. I would appreciate it if you would delete my original comment and this one. I meant no harm. Honestly. Thank you.

  3. Thanks for sharing this Fr. George. The temptation of wanting too read this report is diminished by its length. But knowing your need too be thorough I feel comfortable with your observations.

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