McCarrick Report’s Silence on Key Issues Raises More Questions Than It Answers

Some see the report on the ex-cardinal as a product of the same type of institutional failure it sought to investigate.

Questions linger following the release of the McCarrick Report.
Questions linger following the release of the McCarrick Report. (photo: Photo by Abbasali Fendereski on Unsplash/filter added by the Register)

In many ways, the Vatican’s recently released report on the ascent of former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick through the ranks of Church leadership is an unprecedented exposition of the inner workings of ecclesial appointments, a process that failed repeatedly and catastrophically in allowing a known sexual abuser to become one of the most powerful clerics in the U.S.

But according to some Catholics, it’s what’s not included in the McCarrick Report’s voluminous contents that speaks the loudest. Those with this perspective say that the report neglects to address several critical questions, raising concerns that Church leadership has not learned its lesson from this shameful saga and that the McCarrick Report itself may be an instance of the type of self-preserving, institutional failure it claims to impartially investigate.

“If the faithful perceive that the hierarchy is committed to ‘business as usual,’ and that the McCarrick Report is the final word on this, it will be practically impossible to regain their trust,” Bishop Michael Olson of the Diocese of Fort Worth, Texas, told the Register, adding that a perceived lack of ecclesial transparency leads to doubt and confusion among the faithful, classically defined as scandal.

Chief among the questions that Bishop Olson has fielded from the faithful in his diocese is concern over how much McCarrick’s financial gift-giving to various organizations and individuals in Church leadership advanced his power and position. 

The report acknowledges McCarrick’s fundraising prowess and his extensive history of making cash gifts, but summarily denies that there is any evidence that these factors played a role in any of the Holy See’s decisions regarding his status. The document does not disclose the names of those to whom McCarrick gave and how much they received.

However, as Bishop Olson pointed out during remarks at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ recent general assembly, there is precedent for disclosing such financial details. For instance, leaked documents from a 2019 investigation of allegations of sexual harassment and financial impropriety against Michael Bransfield, the disgraced ex-bishop of the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston, West Virginia, and an associate of McCarrick’s, noted that the prelate doled out $350,000 to various clergyman, including both high-ranking cardinals and those he was accused of harassing. 

The aide who blew the whistle on Bransfield described this gift-giving as an effort “to purchase influence.” Other experts have noted that cash payments can also be used as a way of shielding a wrongdoer from accountability and create conflicts of interest for those who may be responsible for discipline or promotion.

“Money can be used to silence and conceal just as easily as money can be used to cajole and manipulate,” said Bishop Olson.

Concerns about something similar would seem especially applicable regarding a man as financially influential as McCarrick, who, for instance, gave more than $600,000 to fellow clerics after becoming archbishop of Washington, D.C., in 2001 and helped to establish the Papal Foundation in 1988, before serving as a longtime president of the nonprofit, which funds specific projects at the request of the Holy See. Bishop Olson says disclosing the recipients and amounts of McCarrick’s various cash gifts would go a long way in removing the “cloak of mystery” that surrounds the McCarrick affair and Vatican finances at large — a lack of transparency that he says can “obscure the Gospel” and the Church’s evangelical mission. 

Such disclosures themselves would of course not be imputations of guilt for those who may have received gifts from McCarrick, but would simply be a step toward greater financial accountability and transparency, which has been a stated goal of Pope Francis.


McCarrick’s ‘Alumni’

Also unanswered by the McCarrick Report are related questions about which fellow clerics the ex-cardinal may have personally championed. Stephen Bullivant, a theologian and sociologist who directs the Benedict XVI Centre for Religion and Society in London, says McCarrick was celebrated during his episcopacy as a “bishop-maker,” a well-connected cleric who could pull strings for those he favored and score them ecclesial advancements.

“He talks with pride about [how] his ‘alumni’ are now in positions of power,” including former secretaries, vicar generals and auxiliary bishops, said Bullivant, who is conducting a research project on McCarrick’s networks of influence and patronage. “This is a man who, if he champions you, you can go places. And this is how the system is set up.”

The difficulty, Bullivant says, is not that everyone who worked with McCarrick is corrupt — “some of them may be” — but that “once you’ve benefited from the patronage … there’s a sense that if he goes down, you go down, and you’re all tainted by association,” a dynamic likely to create silence and reticence to disclose the full truth among those who have been favored by him. 

Failure to investigate and disclose who McCarrick may have elevated amounts to a failure to disclose significant conflicts of interest, both during McCarrick’s tenure as an active bishop and even now in the investigation into his episcopal career.

Echoing Bishop Olson’s concerns about scandal, Bullivant notes that without a full accounting and greater transparency of who McCarrick helped to elevate and what role they may have played in investigations into him, it’s understandable if the lay faithful look at those who may have benefited from the ex-cardinal’s patronage with a “hermeneutic of suspicion.”


Other Unaddressed Issues

Other concerns that go unaddressed in the McCarrick Report include the purported existence of a clerical “gay lobby” within the Church, whose members tend to promote and protect each other. For instance, in a Nov. 10 analysis for Catholic Culture, longtime Church expert Phil Lawler notes that while the actual contents of the report lend support to the hypothesis that McCarrick was protected by a homosexual network, there is next to no questioning along these lines

Catholic psychiatrist Richard Fitzgibbons, who was interviewed for the McCarrick Report regarding his work with a seminarian who was abused by McCarrick in the 1990s, expressed disappointment in a Nov. 12 piece for Catholic World Report that the final product neglected to include his description of McCarrick’s “aggressive grooming behaviors” of seminarians and other young men he preyed upon.

“My opinion, based on over forty years of experience working with priests and religious (experience affirmed by an appointment as a consultant to the Congregation for the Clergy at the Vatican, 2008-2013), is that the massive cover-up of the homosexual abuse of minors, seminarians, and priests by those in authority positions in the Church, such as Theodore McCarrick, is present in a major way in the McCarrick Report,” wrote Fitzgibbons.

Others criticized the report for not interviewing Archbishop Carlo Viganò, the former papal nuncio to the United States who alleged that Pope Francis had lifted restrictions on McCarrick that had been put in place by Pope Benedict XVI, even after the Italian prelate had warned the Holy Father in 2013 of McCarrick’s misdeeds. 

While Archbishop Viganò — whose August 2018 “testimony” regarding the Church’s mishandling of McCarrick triggered the Pope’s subsequent decision to commission the Vatican investigation — says he was not even asked to participate in the report, the document nonetheless mentions him by name 306 times, exerting considerable effort to rebut his version of events.

Bill Donahue, president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, describes the failure to include Archbishop Viganò’s perspective as the document’s “one outstanding flaw.”

“What makes this truly astonishing is that persons who were mentioned only a few times were interviewed,” he said in an assessment of the report. “Thus, the decision not to interview Viganò was deliberate.”


No Independent Investigation

But perhaps even more significant than any questions that were or were not asked in the McCarrick Report is the matter of who was asking the questions. 

An overarching criticism of the investigation is that, in contrast to requests made by the USCCB in 2018, the Vatican-led effort lacked an independent investigator.

“As a result, areas of the McCarrick Report that seem opaque or defensive can cause readers (and certainly reporters) to wonder if every conclusion in the McCarrick Report’s 400-plus pages is offering a full disclosure of what Vatican officials knew,” wrote the editorial staff of America, the U.S. Jesuit review.

Jennifer Kane, an advocate for survivors of clerical abuse in the Diocese of Buffalo, New York, put it more bluntly.

“[The report] is written by the organization that perpetrated their own crisis,” Kane told the Register. “They wrote their own report on themselves. They cleverly point to the future, but they never address accountability of these guys today.”

During the USCCB general assembly Nov. 16-17, Bishop Shawn McKnight of Jefferson, Missouri, stressed the inability of a “closed system,” such as the Church hierarchy, to adequately investigate itself and urged greater involvement of the laity. 

These comments echo his statement at the general assembly two years ago, when he said that “an internal investigation of the McCarrick scandal without the use of competent and qualified lay investigators will hardly be considered transparent and credible.” 

Father John Lavers, a priest for the English Diocese of Portsmouth who led a 2012 investigation into allegations of homosexual activity at Holy Apostles College and Seminary in Connecticut, told the Register’s Edward Pentin that the lack of an independent investigation was “absolutely” a concern.

“It’s a big weakness in the document,” said Father Lavers, who has a background in law enforcement and national security. 

“What was the editorial application to various documents? We don’t know who are the key gatekeepers of the initial and critical data that came in to form the early drafts of the report. We don’t know what sort of filters have been applied to information that may have been gathered from the U.S., particularly, as well as what was in the archives.”

As a result, Father Lavers believes that, despite its thoroughness in some respects, the McCarrick Report ends up raising more questions than it answers.

“A lot of questions,” he said. “An awful lot of questions.” 


Unfinished Work

For the sake of the Church’s credibility and fidelity to the care of the souls entrusted to her, Bishop Olson would like to see those questions answered.

“I don’t think the work is complete, nor do I think the report made any claims that it was the last word,” said the bishop. 

Regarding the issue of McCarrick’s financial giving, Bishop Olson suggests that a next step could be to invite all clerics and organizations who received money from McCarrick to “simply come forward and identify what money they received and explain why they received it.” He suggests that, to be implemented, this type of policy would have to be discussed by the USCCB’s executive and administrative committees, or could be considered in dioceses where McCarrick was previously bishop, such as Metuchen and Newark, New Jersey, and Washington. 

Father Lavers says the McCarrick Report as it currently stands could serve as a basis for a further line of questioning by an independent investigation. His final report on Holy Apostles Seminary recommended something similar.

In order for any report to be objective and fully accountable, he says it needs to have both full jurisdiction within the Church and collaboration with an independent group.

“Right now, we don’t have that,” he said.

Ed Condon, Washington bureau chief of Catholic News Agency, wrote in a commentary for the Register that while those who produced the McCarrick Report may hope that it marks the end of concerns about Church leaders’ complicity in McCarrick’s rise, “it will not,” as new details will emerge, and questions unanswered in the report “will be taken up by others.”

Condon does not express confidence that the U.S. bishops will be able to provide answers to those questions as a formal body. 

Instead, he says “the first, best, possibly last hope of U.S. Catholics in their leaders is that some [bishops], as individuals, will be willing to break silence and break ranks.”

“What the U.S. bishops have now, again, is a narrow window to act first, to show individual moral leadership,” he concluded. “Will they take it, at last?”

Register staff writer 

Peter Jesserer Smith 

also contributed to 

this report.