What Would a Brother Bishop Say to Ex-Cardinal McCarrick?

COMMENTARY: God makes his mercy available to all without limit, but only the truly repentant can receive it.

Archbishop Theodore McCarrick
Archbishop Theodore McCarrick (photo: 2015 photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

In regards to Archbishop Theodore McCarrick, various bishops have begun to comment. Here is what I would hope one of them might privately say directly to the ex-cardinal, who should not be a passive actor in all of this.

Dear Ted,

I presume we can dispense with titles, especially now that you have dispensed with your cardinalatial one. In any case, I write to you as a brother bishop and fellow disciple, distraught on both counts at the events of the last weeks. The earth is moving beneath us, Ted, and I write today to ask you to do what is good for you as a disciple, and necessary for you as a shepherd of the flock entrusted to us.

My last note to you, back in May for the 60th anniversary of your priestly ordination, was full of warm wishes for the Lord’s blessing upon you. Yes, it was the customary greeting we send each other for jubilees. I had no idea at the time that I was writing to a brother I will never see again.

The Lord has given you a great blessing now, a grace that is difficult, but still a grace. This grace has come to you late in the evening of life. It is certainly undeserved, and perhaps undesired. But it is a grace to face all this in advance of the fearsome judgment you will face on the day of your death, which is coming sooner rather than later. There is little time left, and there are urgent matters to deal with.

Those who are close to you tell me that you are frail and it is not to be presumed that there will be a 61st anniversary next May. If these revelations had not come until after your death, you may well have gone to your judgment still unrepentant for grievous sins and still committed to maintaining the frauds you perpetuated for most of your priesthood.

Regardless of the particulars of a canonical trial, it is not possible for you to show your face in public again. Do not be mistaken, Ted. The very mention of your name these past weeks prompts sadness in all, disgust in most, and even revulsion in a great many very faithful Catholics — myself included.

I cannot bring myself to write here what some of my priests say about you, but make no mistake, they are saying it. What they are saying about us bishops as a whole is also devastating, and we have earned it for tolerating and celebrating your rise in our ranks. Yours is a disgrace in which we now all share.

You will live out your last days in seclusion; you will die in shame and be buried in ignominy. The grand funeral you would have otherwise had, with a brother cardinal preaching and a papal envoy on hand, with Joe Biden or Nancy Pelosi singing your praises, as you so often sang theirs — none of that will happen now. And I offer no sympathy to you for that, for it is hardly commensurate to the dishonor you brought upon the priesthood and damage you have done to the Church.

But those are only the consequences in this world. The horizon of eternity is more terrifying still, and the more important question is how you will spend the remaining time before you die. God makes his mercy available to all without limit, but only the truly repentant can receive it.

It’s time for confession, contrition and penance. Maybe you don’t remember the specific incident that the New York Review Board found “credible and substantiated,” but if you examine your conscience, you will remember plenty else. I trust that you have already, in these weeks, taken advantage of the painful grace of the revelations to make a general confession. But our priests and suffering laymen and women need to hear you say it clearly: Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa. I have sinned against God and against you.

Ted, do not attempt to ride this out like the rest of the prominent men accused in the #MeToo phenomenon. Lawyerly responses crafted by consultants that obscure more than reveal make things much worse. The sense of outrage among our Catholic people is high and justified; obfuscations and prevarications only serve as further provocations.

It is hard to imagine how you might begin to repair the damage you have done, but a forthright admission of guilt and contrition would be a step in that direction. There does remain, though, the key question that is preoccupying our faithful and that my own priests are asking me: How did you rise so high and go on for so long without anyone stopping you?

We know from the case of Marcial Maciel that even the most prominent of priests can perpetuate massive frauds for decades, fooling even those very close to him. Perhaps you did the same. Kevin Farrell has twice now summoned reporters to say that he knew nothing about your predatory behavior. Of course, no one believes him, given that he told Salt and Light TV last year that he knew “everything in Washington” — but apparently nothing about the cardinal he lived with.

That’s your legacy, Ted, that those closest to you denounce you and no one believes their denunciations.

Kevin is angry that you are making him look like either a fool or a liar or, even worse, complicit. So if you did manage to fool him and other people, tell us how you did it. You owe it to them and to us. Tell us how you handled the seminary rectors and vocation directors who had suspicions. Tell us how you intimidated the seminarians and priests. Tell us how the settlements you made in New Jersey were concealed from New York and Washington.

What did you say to John Myers in Newark and Paul Bootkoski in Metuchen when they made the payouts on your behalf? How did you prevent that news from reaching others? Was it reported to the papal nuncio? Did you prevent that? Did it get reported to Rome? Did you enlist friends there to make it go away? For God’s sake, tell us if only so your filth does not attach to the sainted memory of Cardinal Terence Cooke, your own mentor.

Tell us, Ted, because the ugly truth is going to come out. Myers and Bootkoski and Newark and Metuchen are keeping very quiet now, but that will not be permitted. We both know how Pope Francis handles these matters. When forced to act, he appoints a special investigator, as he did in Chile and Honduras. And then heads start to roll when the reports come back.

There will be an investigation. It may even come from our conference, rather than Rome. The righteous anger of the lay faithful will insist upon it. But that will take some time, and, meanwhile, we are already seeing Catholic commentators use your sins to discredit progressives of your kind, trying to turn this into some kind of battle between conservatives and liberals. And, of course, progressive commentators are replying in kind. That is not good for the Church. You are the only one who can do quickly what needs to be done, and will eventually be done.

We bishops made an informal pact back in 2002 when the scandals first hit. We would move effectively on the sexual abuse of minors, and we could do that as a united body. We would set off to the side questions that would divide us — sexual morality in general, priestly celibacy, priestly infidelity with adults and, above all, homosexuality in the priesthood. Now that question and that of homosexual predation are no longer avoidable. Pope Francis has made that clear in his response to Chile, and it is surfacing again in Honduras. I would encourage you to tell us what you can about that. Sexual infidelity with adults too must come out, and be purified.

In a few weeks, we will spend a few weeks in the breviary reading Augustine’s ferocious sermons on Ezekiel, denouncing the wicked shepherds who prey upon the sheep. What did you think of all these years when reading those texts? Let them shake you and move you to a deep and public repentance.

Ted, from the beginning, you were the great mover and shaker, without peer in vaulting ambition. Now, you are the moved and the shaken, without peer in humiliation. An undeserved grace is also now offered to you. Accept it, for the good of the lives you have damaged, for the good of the priesthood that you have betrayed, for the good of the Church that you have wounded, and for the good of your soul, which will face judgment.

Fraternally in Christ — Your brother bishop.

Father Raymond J. de Souza is the editor in chief of Convivium magazine.

This story was updated after posting.