Amid increasing allegations of sexual abuse against the disgraced U.S. Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston, the Church’s most respected advocate for victims of clergy sexual abuse of minors, broke the episcopal silence and pledged that Pope Francis would take decisive action against Cardinal McCarrick and other prelates facing similar allegations.

The Church’s failure to act more quickly, he acknowledged, exposed a “major gap … in the Church’s policies on sexual conduct and sexual abuse.” And he called for a “strong and comprehensive policy” to address bishops’ violations of the vows of celibacy in cases of the criminal abuse of minors and in cases involving adults, outlining three important immediate goals.

Yet, after decades of cover-up and silence — tactics that both facilitated Cardinal McCarrick’s rise to the top of the U.S. hierarchy and also discouraged his victims and others with knowledge of his predatory behavior from speaking out — talk of policies and process seemed woefully inadequate.

The crisis that now threatens to engulf the leadership of the Church, from Rome to Santiago, Chile, and from Washington, D.C., to Tegucigalpa, Honduras, has exposed a clerical culture that in far too many instances has failed to stop homosexual predation and other forms of sexual immorality.

Cardinal O’Malley is rightly respected for his global efforts in clergy-abuse reforms, yet a recent news report showed that he, too, failed to act on a letter from a priest, detailing Cardinal McCarrick’s past sexual misconduct with seminarians.

Father Boniface Ramsey, in a reply from the Boston Archdiocese, was told the Boston archbishop could do nothing, as the matter fell outside his role as head of the Vatican’s sexual-abuse commission or his archdiocese.

Cardinal O’Malley’s explanation — an assistant had handled the letter — did not alter the general impression of episcopal complacency.

Cardinal Joseph Tobin of Newark, New Jersey, through a spokeswoman, sought to reassure Catholics that a high-level discussion about “standards” would happen quickly. He did not explain why new standards were needed and had already refused media queries about the two financial settlements with McCarrick’s victims, citing confidential agreements.

Cardinal Kevin Farrell, who shared a Washington, D.C., apartment with Cardinal McCarrick for six years and now serves as prefect of the Dicastery for Laity, Family and Life at the Vatican, said he was “shocked” by the abuse allegations against his friend, saying he only learned the truth with the rest of the public.

Such responses fall short in restoring our shepherds’ tattered credibility, or inspiring the conversion of heart that will transform our Church.

“High standards are in the Gospel, so I don’t quite know why there is a need to revise standards for behavior,” Janet Smith, a moral theologian at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit, told the Register in a candid and bracing response to the cardinals’ promises of change.

However, Smith did recognize the importance of establishing a clear path for “reporting immoral behavior” and for “eradicating the homosexual network in many dioceses and reportedly in the Curia itself.”

We couldn’t agree more with Smith’s passionate assessment.

Many Catholics who have followed the demoralizing spectacle of the past month want answers to urgent questions, beginning with who knew what, and when? Also in need of examination is the network of Church leaders who should have known, because of their proximity to McCarrick and the widespread whispers of his open secret. Did they fail to see the problem and ask the right questions because it would have violated some code of the current clerical culture? Finally, the faithful need to know how Church authorities could have stopped Cardinal McCarrick, if only they had the fortitude.

Pope Francis’ involvement in an investigation of McCarrick is vitally necessary if the Church is to guarantee protection for victims and clerical whistleblowers, who fear reprisals if they go public.

Once this investigation is completed, action from the Pope must be immediate, practical, systematic and deep.

The hoped-for result will be a sea change in how Church leaders address sexual immorality, including the grooming and victimization of adult seminarians and young priests by homosexuals within their ranks, in the priesthood and the episcopate as a whole.

Over the past two decades, even as the U.S. bishops sought to remove priests facing credible accusations of sexual abuse involving minors, there has been a tacit acceptance of sexual misconduct involving “adults” in many dioceses. This pattern reflects the corrosive impact of secular norms that tolerate nonmarital sexual behavior as long as it is “consensual.”

Smith and others in similar positions have heard plenty of stories from young priests that stir sympathy for Cardinal McCarrick’s alleged victims.

In one case, a recently ordained priest told Smith that he reported his pastor’s “sexual advances” to his superiors “and was told to be quiet since the pastor could ruin him.”

This story exposes the brutal truth, spelled out even more stunningly in the documents that accompanied the financial settlements for two of Cardinal McCarrick’s victims, that “consensual” sex is a sham in the skewed power dynamic between a bishop and young men under his authority.

Sexual purity is the only real protection for minors and vulnerable adults.

Father Thomas Berg, the vice-rector of St. Joseph’s Seminary in New York, explains why nothing short of chastity will resolve the problem of abuse.

“[O]ne fact that has been overlooked for too long is the connection between priests who abuse minors and priests who are sexually active with adults,” writes Father Berg in First Things. “Toleration of the latter sin has made it harder to detect, criticize and root out the former.” 

Likewise, J.D. Flynn, a canon lawyer and Catholic News Agency’s editor in chief, notes the toxic impact of a bishop’s immoral behavior on diocesan culture. “Priests and seminarians who object to [such behavior] leave quickly, or find themselves marginalized. Those who rise to leadership positions are those who are left.” Over time, toleration of this misbehavior engenders a culture of moral relativism, fueling “spiritual and catechetical decline across an entire diocese.”

An example of such a culture is visible in the Register's July 25 story that reports in detail the allegations of an active homosexual network at the archdiocesan seminary in Tegucigalpa, Honduras. These allegations have come from seminarians themselves, who, in a letter of protest to their formators, have issued a heartfelt call for courageous action.

“Please be truly father-custodians of unborn priests in the womb of the Church in this country,” the concerned seminarians appealed. “The seminary needs authentic custodians that fight with courage the poor formation that most of the seminarians suffer, with the measure that the Church proposes.”

The seminarians pointed to the standards that already exist in the Church for formation of priests and priestly celibacy, and they begged they be followed.

Today, we pray that the moral ambivalence that permitted and nurtured Cardinal McCarrick’s rise will be condemned and that Pope Francis, in concert with the U.S. bishops, will begin a much-needed purification of the Church.

Cardinal O’Malley has warned that, if our shepherds fail to act, they will “destroy the trust required for the Church to minister to Catholics and have a meaningful role in the wider civil society.”

The reality is a great amount of that trust already was destroyed by clergy abuse of minors. Now it faces near decimation, and it needs a complete rebuilding.

Cardinal McCarrick’s investigation is essential, but the decisions that flow from it must make changes great enough for a true renewal. Only then can our Church leaders serve as the beacons of Christ’s hope and healing for a wounded Church.