The McCarrick Report Tests the Catholic Church’s Accountability

COMMENTARY: The ideal remedy for trust abused is trust restored. But if trust has been abused for too long and too grievously, the more likely remedy is trust abolished.

A Vatican investigation into ex-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick was released Nov. 10.
A Vatican investigation into ex-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick was released Nov. 10. (photo: Photo by Moritz Kindler on Unsplash)

The McCarrick Report is, independent of its substance, an astonishing new reality. It lifts the veil on the long career of Theodore McCarrick — with hundreds of previously confidential details published — and on an entire ecclesial culture.

That culture of clerical privilege led to gross abuses being tolerated. The revelation of those abuses, especially over the last 20 or so years, broke down the trust between the faithful and their bishops, as the former were betrayed by the latter, especially those who were victims of known predatory priests. 

The chosen remedy — first adopted in Dallas by the American bishops in 2002 but then extended throughout the world — also broke down the trust between priests and bishops. Now the reforms aimed at correcting the McCarrick mistakes will break down the trust between bishops themselves, and between bishops and the Holy See. 

The McCarrick Report illustrated where the Church was and where she is now.

A note about the very unusual nature of the McCarrick case: While his strange behavior of sharing a bed with young men was known — and conceded by McCarrick himself — his sexually abusive behavior was not confirmed by anyone with the authority to stop him until quite late in the day. After the severity of his behavior was confirmed, what earlier appeared odd took on a sinister reality that could no longer be passed off as imprudent but potentially innocent. 

Most clerical abuse cases are not quite so complex; the offending behavior is clear, and the question is whether the cleric did it or not. McCarrick was skilled at using the complexities and ambiguities of his case to his advantage. Nevertheless, as unusual as the McCarrick case is, the light that the report sheds on the culture that enabled it is of great value, for it explains more than just the career of Theodore McCarrick.     

There is much to analyze, but perhaps the most urgent question — “How did McCarrick rise so high when there were so many rumors about him?” now has something of an answer. That answer, namely clerical culture, also indicates how much has changed since McCarrick was appointed archbishop of Washington, 20 years ago this month.

The episcopal culture of that time held that, short of incontrovertible proof, a bishop was to be believed. He was not given the benefit of the doubt as much as doubts were not entertained until an almost criminal standard of evidence was gathered.

That is the report’s summary finding. He was promoted to Washington by Pope St. John Paul II because McCarrick denied accusations of sexual misconduct and the Vatican didn’t have incontrovertible evidence otherwise. Also, the now-deceased New Jersey bishops who had fielded actual allegations from victims of McCarrick’s abuse did not present them to the Vatican when asked for “any factual information … relative to any serious moral weaknesses shown by Archbishop McCarrick.” 

McCarrick remains responsible for his abuse and his lies. He lied brazenly to the Holy Father. The New Jersey bishops who were asked are responsible for their own lies and omissions. Yet the culture of the time trusted those lies.

The report finds that as McCarrick rose to be auxiliary bishop of New York (1977), bishop of Metuchen, New Jersey (1981), and archbishop of Newark, New Jersey (1986), there were no allegations of sexual misconduct. A mother wrote anonymous letters making allegations about McCarrick’s inappropriate touching of her young sons to all the U.S. cardinals and the apostolic nuncio in Washington in the 1980s, but mass-distributed anonymous letters, devoid of names, dates and places, got nothing in response.

By the early 1990s, though, more rumors were circulating — not about sexual abuse of minors (that would not come until 2017) — but about the creepy habit “Uncle Ted” had of sharing a bed with adult seminarians at his beach house. McCarrick’s standard defense was that, while perhaps odd, there was nothing sexual about it. At this point, no victims had made public allegations with specific dates, times and places. There were at least two priests who made allegations of having been sexually assaulted or harassed by McCarrick to the New Jersey bishops, who did not pass on that information.

McCarrick was hardworking, popular and an apparent magnet for priestly vocations, and he raised money for causes domestic and abroad. He was on the cardinalatial track, considered for Chicago, New York and Washington. 

In October 1999, Cardinal John O’Connor of New York wrote a long letter to the apostolic nuncio — eventually read by John Paul — advising that it would be a mistake — too risky — to promote McCarrick, given the rumors. Cardinal O’Connor said that his sources were “impeccable” but that he had no hard evidence. He noted that McCarrick may not have had a chance to defend himself. 

John Paul, whose esteem for Cardinal O’Connor was immense, asked in November 1999 for the nuncio in Washington to investigate the claims Cardinal O’Connor had relayed. After Cardinal O’Connor’s untimely death in May 2000, the nuncio consulted the bishops of New Jersey about those allegations. Three of those four bishops reported back that there was no reason to doubt McCarrick’s integrity, responses that the McCarrick Report judges to be “incomplete and incorrect” based on the material in the report that gives evidence they knew of allegations of his misconduct. At this point, John Paul took McCarrick’s name off the list for Washington.

In August 2000, McCarrick himself, having somehow learned of Cardinal O’Connor’s confidential letter, wrote to the papal household, insisting on his innocence and claiming that never in his entire life had he ever had sexual relations with anyone.

So in the summer of 2000, Pope John Paul II had uncorroborated reports from the late Cardinal O’Connor against McCarrick’s absolute denial and the favorable testimonials of several bishops, including three from New Jersey. In a court of law, that amounts to an easy acquittal; McCarrick should therefore not be “punished” by disqualification for promotion if the case was not proven. Evidently John Paul thought so, and so he reinstated McCarrick as a candidate for Washington. 

All this took place not long after Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago was falsely accused of sexual abuse in a case that made global headlines. That a senior cleric could be falsely accused was not just a theoretical possibility, but already demonstrated. Cardinal O’Connor based his recommendation not on what he knew, but on what he had heard. After the Cardinal Bernardin case, was it possible that what he had heard was wrong, even maliciously so?

That culture of believing the cleric until there was a criminal standard of evidence otherwise that existed prior to 2002’s Dallas Charter applied to how bishops dealt with their priests. It applied doubly so to how bishops regarded each other, and this continued long after 2002.

That culture began to change just months after McCarrick got to Washington, as a long-developed reform was made by St. John Paul II in April 2001, centralizing the handling of all abuse cases in the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, headed by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. Then came the explosion of the sexual-abuse scandal in Boston in 2002, and the culture of credulous trust was abandoned by the U.S. bishops in Dallas later that year.

The Dallas norms effectively reversed the presumption of guilt. Any allegation against a priest, if remotely possible (not plausible), was to be taken as “credible.” There immediately followed “precautionary measures” that looked very much like punishment before trial; the priest was immediately stripped of his clerical clothing, expelled from his house, banned from Church property and barred from any priestly ministry. Notably, though, the Dallas norms did not apply to bishops.

The cultural revolution of 2002 was largely effective in rooting out clerical abusers and creating safe environments. It also destroyed trust between bishops and priests. It is the exception now that a priest believes that his bishop would, in a tight spot, help him out rather than throw him under the bus. Many bishops find that terribly untrue and unfair, but it is the new reality.

McCarrick’s predations came to light in 2018, just months after the Bishop Juan Barros affair in Chile came to a crescendo. Pope Francis so badly handled the case of that compromised bishop that the consequent conflagration consumed the entire Chilean hierarchy, with every single bishop submitting his resignation. That was extreme culture change, breaking the bonds of trust between bishops and between bishops and the Holy See.

The ideal remedy for trust abused is trust restored. But if trust has been abused for too long and too grievously, the more likely remedy is trust abolished. 

That is the path the Church has largely taken with regard to priests. The significant reforms of 2019, following on the Chile and McCarrick debacles, is now to abolish that same trust at the episcopal and Vatican level.

In 2019, Pope Francis instituted new laws aimed at investigating allegations about bishops, creating a process in which bishops can be investigated and judged. Notably, those reforms make it a canonical offense for a bishop not to take action if he hears something, even anonymously. Bishops are required to report on other bishops who do not take action. That was not the culture 20 years ago.

Pope Francis speaks often about how it is not sufficient to change laws and procedures, but how it is also necessary to convert hearts and change culture. 

The McCarrick Report is a detailed account of what that culture looked like in 2000. 

A new culture has already been born, a culture of accountability, a culture of care for victims, a culture of justice — and a culture where the word of a bishop is no longer considered trustworthy by his brother bishops, his priests, the lay faithful and the surrounding culture.