Getting Closer to the Truth About McCarrick’s Misconduct

COMMENTARY: This week’s unusual removal of Bishop Martin Holley of Memphis underscores the need to know the full picture.

(photo: US Institute of Peace (CC BY NC 20))

The removal from office— rare in the extreme — of Bishop Martin Holley of Memphis on Oct. 24 underscored the importance of getting to the truth about former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick. Fortunately, other developments related to the third “testimony” of Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò have advanced the likelihood of getting at that truth. 

Bishop Holley was removed by Pope Francis, who had sent an apostolic visitation to Memphis in June, conducted by Archbishop Bernard Hebda of St. Paul and Archbishop Wilton Gregory of Atlanta. The visitation evidently turned in an assessment sufficiently negative for the Holy Father to remove Bishop Holley.

The Vatican announcement though did not give any reasons. It is widely suspected, given multiple reports over the last 18 months, that the cause of the visitation was a stream of complaints from priests and laity about arbitrary and spectacularly bad governance. When Holley arrived in Memphis just two years ago, the new bishop asked for the mass resignations of his pastors, after which he subsequently reassigned three-quarters of them.

However, while it seems likely that Bishop Holley was removed for bad governance, we don’t know that with any certainty. We do know with certainty that he was ordained an auxiliary bishop of Washington by Cardinal McCarrick in 2004, where he served for the subsequent 12 years. In the current environment, with Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington resigning over his handling of the McCarrick affair, questions were immediately raised: Was this part of the fallout of the McCarrick affair? Had Holley been guilty of sexual misconduct? Or negligence in handling sexual abuse cases?

An accusation of sexual misconduct against Holley over an incident said to have occurred decades ago did surface on the internet. There has been no indication that the accusation, first made in a blog post nearly 10 years ago, was deemed credible. Bishop Holley has denied the accusation played a role in his removal and Vatican spokesman Greg Burke said the resignation did not relate to allegations of sexual abuse. Nevertheless, the timing has prompted speculation precisely in that regard, in the secular press, but also in the Catholic press. Consider it another step on the toxic trail of Theodore McCarrick.

All of which underscores the importance of getting to the whole truth about Archbishop McCarrick. On Oct.19, Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò released his third “testimony” regarding what “sanctions” or “restrictions” were placed on then-Cardinal McCarrick in retirement, and who in the Vatican knew about them and when. 

The third Viganò text is much more measured, spiritual in its emphasis and focused on the documentary trail relating to McCarrick in Rome. Most importantly, Archbishop Viganò no longer calls upon the Holy Father to resign — a serious error in the first “testimony” — and instead asks him to correct his mistakes. 

Despite the vehement language in Viganò’s testimonies, and in the reply from Cardinal Marc Ouellet, prefect of the Congregations for Bishops, we are now getting much closer to finding out what happened in Rome. (The American bishops will be investigating on their own that which relates to McCarrick in the four dioceses in which he served: New York, Metuchen, Newark and Washington.)

The Holy See promised on Oct. 6 a reviewof the relative documentation in its possession. Archbishop Viganò has indicated, with dates and addressees, what the relevant documentation is. So it is now a rather straightforward matter to evaluate whether the Holy See releases the documents indicated in the Viganò testimonies, and whether they prove or disprove Viganò’s claims.

Indeed, the other big McCarrick-related news of this week also indicates a greater degree of agreement between the Holy See and the American bishops. At their Sept. 13 meetingin Rome, the leaders of the American bishops had asked Pope Francis to authorize an apostolic visitation to investigate fully the McCarrick affair. Given that the Holy Father had authorized just such a visitation a few months earlier in Memphis, they expected he would accommodate the request. 

Pope Francis turned the American bishops down flat. There would be no full investigation of that nature. Instead, he suggested that the American bishops cancel their November plenary meeting and have a common retreat instead. The American bishops turned that suggestion down flat.

So it seemed that there was an impasse. But only seemed. For within the month, the Holy See authorized a review of documentation; not an apostolic visitation, but not a refusal to investigate at all. And now the American bishops have agreed to a seven-day retreat in January, preached by Father Raniero Cantalamessa, preacher of the papal household for nearly 40 years.

The bishops will still have their November meeting, at which they plan to enact canonical reforms relating to bishops and sexual abuse, for which they will likely need Rome’s approval. If the Holy Father intended to forestall that, by proposing the November meeting be replaced by a retreat, he did not prevail. But he now has the retreat he asked for.

The upshot after two weeks of unexpected developments? The full truth about McCarrick is needed, as the uncertainty casts long shadows. And we are now at least closer to a full accounting than before. 

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