Why Won’t Archbishop McCarrick Publicly Admit His Guilt?

COMMENTARY: To universalize the demand for public confession as a moral duty can infringe on the basic principle of innocence until proven guilty — a principle that really is being tested today.

Then-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick arrives at the Vatican March 5, 2013.
Then-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick arrives at the Vatican March 5, 2013. (photo: InterMirifica.net via CNA)

In recent weeks, we have heard many voices calling for former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick to admit in public the truth of the deeds of which he is accused, to clarify the air from the inside, so to speak. This call brings up a number of considerations about our obligation to the truth and how it is properly manifested before the world.

Many truths of ourselves and others are not the business of the public to know, even if we tell them in public. Only God knows everything about everyone.

To begin, I should briefly like to touch on the difference between the case of Cardinal George Pell and that of Archbishop McCarrick. From the beginning, Cardinal Pell was anxious to clear his name. He had no idea that the charges against him could be valid. He said so and asked to be judged on objective grounds. Most of the jurors agreed with him, but two preferred to side with his long-ago accusers.

I see no reason to doubt that Cardinal Pell told the public the truth about himself as he saw it. But telling the truth does not always succeed.

Archbishop McCarrick has not been formally in any court. He has not yet been required to swear under oath. I recall even seeing that he denied at least some of the allegations against him. What is he obliged to do?

The first thing to keep in mind is that he remains under the essence of Western law. Even if guilty, he need not incriminate himself. He can remain silent in a way that the Pope remains silent. In which case, the burden of proof against him is in the hands of courts that can make judgments based on the testimony of others.

The question of his subjective guilt or innocence, how he sees himself, falls within this context.

Anyone in court must swear that he will tell the truth. Penalties follow if one is caught lying. The accused, even if found guilty, does not have to make a public confession, however useful that might be for the record.

In Church history, we do hear of public confessions that were required for absolution. It may be that Archbishop McCarrick has privately confessed the sins about which he is accused. I would conclude that it might be good if he made a public confession. But I also think that the tradition that allows an accused to be silent, to be judged by peers in lieu of any self-declaration of guilt, should remain in place as a greater good.

Universalizing the demand for public confession as a moral duty can infringe on the basic principle of innocence until proven guilty — a principle that really is being tested today.

Yet the issue of the victims had really not been taken seriously enough, if at all, into consideration. We must not forget that our sins — even our confessed sins — have consequences. How those consequences redound in the world remains to be seen. Nonetheless, the intrinsic evil of intrinsically evil acts remains in our personal and collective stories.

We must not only cope with sin but with what flows from it. At some point, the perpetrators of sin have to be punished and, if contrite, absolved — but the victims of sins have also to forgive.

One ironic thing to note about the Archbishop McCarrick case is the disconnection between classic morality and what now is public positive law. In this and other countries, the activities of homosexual persons are not considered wrong in any way unless they harm others. Consenting adults do as they please.

At least some of the things Archbishop McCarrick is accused of doing were allegedly with adults. Adults cannot, by moral and civil law, impose themselves sexually on minors, even though the vast majority of abuse cases involve young men, not children.

There is some irony in the wrath shown to him in this regard. Logically, Archbishop McCarrick could plead that he is being discriminated against according to present public law. In the meantime, he is also judged by classic natural-law standards that see homosexuality as an aberration with its own disruptive consequences.

Let me return to the issue of voluntarily speaking the truth in public. Christ said that the truth shall make us free (John 8:23). The Eighth Commandment admonishes us not to lie, that is, to tell the truth. History is filled with instances in which a conflict between truth and lying is posed: The tyrant demands a lie of us or else he will kill our family. We may have to use our wit in a way so that we answer charges without hurting anyone else.

Some well-thought-of philosophers hold that we can lie in certain cases for a greater good. The notion of mental reservation, meaning we say one thing and mean another, has its point. Telling the truth about oneself to a public eager to condemn us is no easy requirement. The last bit of dignity we have is at stake.

Yet there is something noble about the man who does acknowledge his guilt. He need not do so. He can keep his sorrow to himself. When he does this keeping to himself, he lets the world judge him.

St. Thomas Aquinas said that the civil law does not reach our interior acts. Unless we affirm otherwise, only God and we ourselves can know what they are or how they appear to us. And often we do not know ourselves well enough to see the consequences of our own aberrant thoughts and deeds.

When properly asked and formulated, we do have a responsibility to state the truth in public. But this responsibility is not without its nuances and cautions, lest some greater truths be undermined. It is but a short step from urging us to tell the truth about ourselves in public to forcing us to do so.

Still, acknowledging our responsibility when we are responsible is a noble thing. We do put things in the world that ought not to be there. Not to know this truth is not to know ourselves.

Jesuit Father James Schall taught at Georgetown University for 35 years

 and now writes from Los Gatos, California.