Investigating Theodore McCarrick Again? Unanswered Questions Have Some Saying the Catholic Church Should Do So
But Skeptics Say It’s Not Likely
At 93 and apparently suffering from dementia, former cardinal Theodore McCarrick is unlikely to be tried on criminal charges of sexual abuse. It’s likewise doubtful he’ll ever testify in court in pending civil lawsuits against him. And the Vatican seems to have moved on, having issued a long report about him almost three years ago, more than a year and a half after Pope Francis dismissed him from the clerical state.
But some Catholics remain frustrated with what they see as unanswered questions. Among them:
· Who helped McCarrick rise in the Church hierarchy?
· Which bishop candidates did he champion, and why?
· Who in the hierarchy knew about McCarrick’s behavior with teenagers and young men, when did they know it, and why didn’t they stop it?
In November 2020, the Vatican released a 449-page report on McCarrick that describes how the smooth-talking cleric rose through the ranks and consolidated his position through charm, talent and cash gifts.
It also states that reports were made to Church leaders as early as 1992 that McCarrick frequently used his position to manipulate overnight guests into unwanted sexual activity. Yet McCarrick remained active in the Church until public allegations surfaced in June 2018, almost 26 years later, during which time he reached the highest levels of the Catholic Church and frequently represented the Holy See abroad, even after his retirement as archbishop of Washington.
Some prominent Catholics in the United States are calling for an independent investigation, saying that neither the secular legal system nor the Church has provided enough answers.
One is Robert George, a professor of jurisprudence at Princeton University and frequent commenter on Catholic affairs, who raised the idea in late August, shortly after criminal charges against McCarrick were dismissed in a state district court in Massachusetts after a judge there found him mentally incompetent to stand trial.
The Register asked George if he considers the Vatican’s 2020 report on McCarrick deficient.
“Of course the report is deficient!” George said by email. “It’s deficient because it doesn’t provide the faithful with the information they are entitled to have: 1) how McCarrick acquired and maintained over decades the extraordinary influence he had — especially in respect to episcopal appointments and advancements; and 2) on whose behalf he brought that influence to bear, and why.”
“On top of that we need to know who in the hierarchy knew of McCarrick’s crimes and when they knew it. How high up the chain was it known that Theodore McCarrick was a predator and a fraud?” George said.
George said Church officials should not only cooperate fully with such an investigation, but that the Church should appoint someone from the laity — not a cleric — to lead it.
“We need — the faithful are entitled to — a thorough and independent investigation, with all files in Rome and in U.S. chanceries open to the investigator and his or her team. I would strongly urge that it be lay-led,” George said. “Now is the perfect time for Church officials who talk a good line against clericalism to show that they mean it.”
While other prominent figures in the Church have echoed George’s call, others believe it’s not realistic. Without the full cooperation of the Vatican and the U.S. hierarchy, they note, any lay body would lack authority to gain access to key witnesses and internal Church files.
More Information Needed?
The Register recently contacted more than two dozen U.S. Catholics who frequently comment publicly on Catholic matters, asking whether the Church should investigate McCarrick again. Several said they support the idea, at least in general terms.
“Robert George’s call for an independent investigation of how Theodore McCarrick was able to gain power in the Church and use it to inflict unspeakable harm on innocent victims should be taken up by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops at their fall meeting,” said Father Gerald Murray, a canon lawyer, pastor in New York City, and frequent television guest on EWTN (which owns the Register), by email.
A report by the U.S. bishops, Father Murray said, could supplement the Vatican’s 2020 report.
“The Holy See produced a report on McCarrick’s dealing with the Pope and the Roman Curia. The American bishops should engage in a similar public acknowledgement of the facts pertaining to how McCarrick was able to perpetrate such great evil over so many years while serving as a Catholic bishop and cardinal,” Father Murray said. “The victims of McCarrick’s depravity should be given the satisfaction of learning all the facts about what his fellow bishops knew about McCarrick and who, if anyone, covered up for him.”
Phyllis Zagano, who teaches religion at Hofstra University, said McCarrick’s rise could bear further scrutiny. “I think that would be an interesting investigation,” said Zagano, author of several books on women in the Church, including Women & Catholicism: Gender, Communion, and Authority (2011), by email. “The pernicious influence of money is evident in many of the Church’s ills, and I believe money was involved in Mr. McCarrick’s advances.”
Michael Pakaluk, a philosopher and professor of ethics at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., said the Church needs a cleansing and that bishops are the ones to do it.
“The stables need to be cleaned out, but it won’t be by a commission of laypersons,” Pakaluk said by email, suggesting that investigators need the authority to compel answers from clerics, something laypeople likely wouldn’t have. “We can pray that God in his wrath will strike down the evildoers.”
Charles Camosy, a moral theologian and professor of medical humanities at Creighton University School of Medicine, said a new investigation of McCarrick should transcend ideological differences within the Church.
“I would support this, but only if it refused to focus only on McCarrick in ways which would at least look as if it were not a political move,” Camosy said by email. “The entire Church needs to reckon with the sex-abuse crisis and blame can be laid at the feet of people right across the political and theological spectrum. This kind of investigation would be a key part of doing that, and while it would be difficult to imagine how anyone could be considered genuinely interested in getting to the bottom of the crisis without supporting a special investigation like this, it must be part of a broader effort to come to terms with what has happened.”
Would It Actually Happen?
The Vatican’s 2020 McCarrick report was unprecedented. A second report is unlikely, say skeptics.
“While I would favor the suggestion that Robbie George has made, I’m afraid there’s very little chance that it will happen,” said Phil Lawler, a columnist for CatholicCulture.org and author of 2018’s The Smoke of Satan: How Corrupt and Cowardly Bishops Betrayed Christ, His Church, and the Faithful, by email.
“The U.S. bishops have already backed away from a similar proposal, on orders from Rome. To launch a new investigation now, after the release of the Vatican report, would be a fairly clear indication of no confidence in current Vatican leadership. That lack of confidence would be very much deserved, but, unfortunately, to date, our bishops have been very reluctant to show it so openly.”
“On the other hand,” Lawler continued, “if a group of prominent lay Catholics took it upon themselves to undertake that sort of investigation, with or without their bishops’ support, they would have trouble making progress without the cooperation of precisely those bishops who were in a position to cover for McCarrick and to profit from his patronage.”
Dominican Father J. Boniface Ramsey, a parish administrator in New York City who reported McCarrick to Church authorities in 2000, noted that McCarrick’s fall is without precedent.
“The obloquy that he has been facing for the past five years is in itself a unique punishment in the history of the Church,” Father Ramsey told the Register by email.
“I’m okay with forming an investigative committee of laymen and laywomen … but I suspect it will get nowhere,” Father Ramsey said.
Views of Survivors
The Register also contacted several victims of clergy sex abuse.
Mark Joseph Williams, a forensic social worker and management consultant, who told the Register he was sexually abused by a Catholic-school teacher and a priest as a teenager, told the Register he doesn’t see a need for a second report because the 2020 Vatican report covered the essentials.
“I’m not sure, quite honestly, what an independent commission would do farther than what the report did,” Williams said in a telephone interview. “And I give all the credit in the world to Pope Francis for commissioning that report and the action he took to remove McCarrick. I just think that was monumental in the life of the Church.”
Williams, 66, serves as a special adviser to Cardinal Joseph Tobin, the archbishop of Newark, New Jersey, which McCarrick led from 1986 to 2000. In November 2022, Williams addressed the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, and later that month he was among about 20 clergy sexual-abuse survivors who met with Pope Francis at the Vatican.
He told the Register the Vatican’s report highlighted weaknesses in the institutional Church that led to McCarrick’s rise and kept him in power, even long after reports of his abusive behavior became known to many priests and bishops.
“For me, anyway, as a survivor reading that, there was certainly a credible conclusion you could make that people in Rome knew. And I just think it was a culture of silence and a culture of clericalism that has pervaded the Church for years,” Williams said. “Would an independent commission do more than that? Possibly. I’m not really sure we need to do more than that at this particular time. In my mind, I have found enough comfort in having what has happened to McCarrick and how the Church addressed it. And I think that the sort of decisions that were made need to continue within the Church.”
Ann Hagan White, a psychologist in Rhode Island and Massachusetts who has treated dozens of victims of clergy sex abuse, expressed skepticism that a second Church investigation would accomplish much.
“The Church has historically been loath to reveal its internal records, unless ordered to by law enforcement. No independent investigator will have the power to demand records they don’t want to give. I have no reason to believe that this would suddenly happen now,” said White, who told the Register she was sexually abused by a parish priest in Rhode Island while in elementary school, by email. “They have nothing to gain by being transparent to an investigator they hire.”
Two survivors expressed support for a second investigation.
One is Bob Hoatson, a voluntarily laicized priest and New Jersey resident who told the Register he was sexually abused as an adult by three members of the Irish Christian Brothers when he belonged to that order, before being ordained a priest in 1997 for the Archdiocese of Newark by then-Archbishop McCarrick.
“It’s a great idea. Any investigation is crucial,” said Hoatson, 71, who runs Road to Recovery, an organization that assists clergy-sex-abuse victims and their families. “The problem is getting anything out of the Church, as laypeople.”
McCarrick’s principal public accuser is James Grein, 65, who lives in Virginia and whose uncle was McCarrick’s best friend.
Grein, who says he has known McCarrick all his life, is the accuser in the criminal cases in Massachusetts and Wisconsin. He has also filed civil lawsuits against McCarrick in New York and New Jersey.
Grein told the Register a second Church investigation of McCarrick is needed.
“Having an independent report brings me great hope that something will change. It’s important for us to find an independent, nonpartisan, religious group of people to go forward and take charge,” Grein said. “I think that would be so beneficial to every Catholic in the world.”
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