One Year After McCarrick’s Fall: A Status Report on Bishop Accountability

The scandal has led to Theodore McCarrick’s laicization and Vatican norms designed to hold bishops accountable, but investigations into an alleged cover-up continue.

Then-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick
Then-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick (photo: 2005 photo, Marco Di Lauro/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON — Celebrating his 60th anniversary as a priest with fellow jubilarians in the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., then-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick received a standing ovation after he affirmed the need for priestly holiness during a May 2018 banquet address, with his successor, Cardinal Donald Wuerl, in attendance.

Yet, by then, both U.S. prelates knew McCarrick was under investigation, following an allegation that he had sexually abused a minor  more than 45 years earlier, when he was a priest in New York.

Within five weeks of the jubilee celebrations, Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York announced that the allegation against McCarrick was “credible and substantiated,” and he was suspended from public ministry.

A second disclosure, issued on the same day by Cardinal Joseph Tobin of Newark, New Jersey, divulged secrets that had long been rumored but never publicly confirmed by Church authorities: “This Archdiocese and the Diocese of Metuchen received three allegations of sexual misconduct with adults decades ago; two of these allegations resulted in settlements.”

A year after the revelations left Catholics stunned and angry, Archbishop Wilton Gregory has succeeded Cardinal Wuerl as the archbishop of Washington, multiple seminaries are under investigation, and the Vatican has issued norms that punish bishops who engaged in sexual misconduct or abuse of power. The U.S. bishops are also poised to approve reforms that will make bishops more accountable.

But Catholics still have not received a formal accounting that explains how McCarrick was able to rise to the highest levels of the Church and communicates which Church officials knew about his harassment of seminarians but said nothing.

Summing up the response of many Catholics in the pews, Vickie Schmidt, a victim-survivor of sexual abuse by a priest and the co-author of Soul Light for the Dark Night, told the Register: “I want to know how many people knew about McCarrick in the U.S. hierarchy and in Rome.”

Schmidt also vented her anguish at the shameful evidence of McCarrick’s double life and Church authorities’ failure to protect seminarians and young priests subject to his abuse.

“We are talking about people’s lives,” she said. “The Church is so concerned about priestly vocations, and then it allows something like this to go on in its seminaries.”


Waiting for a Report

The four U.S. dioceses where McCarrick previously served told the Register that they have completed their own investigation and forwarded the results to the Vatican. The Holy See is conducting its own forensic review of archival documents, but no formal report has been issued, nor timeline provided.

The release of a comprehensive and candid report detailing the failures that allowed McCarrick to remain in public ministry is crucial, said Dominican Father Pius Pietrzyk, a canonist at St. Patrick’s Seminary in Menlo Park, California. “You can’t implement a solution to fix a problem if you don’t know how the problem occurred,” Father Pietrzyk told the Register. “We know something, but not enough. And, so far, the Vatican has not given us any information.”

Almost a year after McCarrick’s suspension, whistleblowers within the Church — a former nuncio and alleged victims, New Jersey seminary professors and therapists — continue to provide an informal and fragmented account of the failures that kept McCarrick in the public eye. In late May, Msgr. Anthony Figueiredo, a former priest-secretary to McCarrick, published excerpts from the former prelate’s correspondence on his website.

The excerpts appear to substantiate several claims made by Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, the former apostolic nuncio to the United States who issued an August 2018 “testimony” that accused Pope Francis of lifting restrictions that had been placed on McCarrick’s public ministry by Pope Benedict XVI, despite having knowledge about some of McCarrick’s sexual misconduct.

Archbishop Viganò also alleged that Cardinal Wuerl, among other U.S. prelates and Vatican officials, knew of the sanctions but effectively ignored them. Cardinal Wuerl has repeatedly denied this claim, though other documents have since confirmed that in 2004 he forwarded a report about McCarrick’s misconduct to the apostolic nuncio in Washington.

“These facts show clearly that high-ranking prelates likely had knowledge of McCarrick’s actions and of restrictions imposed upon him during the pontificate of Benedict XVI. They also clearly show that these restrictions were not enforced even before the pontificate of Francis,” stated Msgr. Figueiredo’s report.

The latest headlines reveal that the McCarrick scandal remains an active news story and an open wound for Church leaders and lay Catholics. The ongoing revelations have established a new front in the battle to liberate the Church from predatory clerics, with the focus now shifting to bishop accountability and protections for seminarians.

“It is a pastoral imperative that we get to know what happened with McCarrick — not simply the conclusions of the [Vatican] report, but, as much as possible, the details,” Stephen White, the director of The Catholic Project at The Catholic University of America, told the Register. “The credibility of the bishops has been damaged over this.”


The U.S. Bishops

Last summer, Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), pledged that the bishops’ conference “will pursue the many questions surrounding Archbishop McCarrick’s conduct to the full extent of its authority; and where that authority finds its limits, the conference will advocate with those who do have the authority.”

He also acknowledged that the McCarrick scandal spotlighted festering problems at U.S. seminaries. By then, a Catholic seminary “#MeToo Moment” had gained traction, fueled by a passionate debate over the role that homosexual priests had played in the crisis.

Cardinal Seán O’Malley of Boston announced an investigation into St. John’s Seminary, following allegations made by two former seminarians. And Seton Hall University, home to Immaculate Conception Seminary and St. Andrew’s Hall college seminary, promised an independent review of allegations dating back to McCarrick’s tenure, as well as more recent reports of misconduct.

The U.S. bishops had originally planned to vote on new policies related to clergy sexual abuse, addressing the shortcomings that had come to light as a result of the McCarrick scandal, at their last assembly in November.

But that plan was delayed at the Vatican’s request, and Pope Francis called the presidents of national bishops’ conferences to Rome for a February 2019 summit to address the global scourge of clergy abuse, including the problem of unaccountable bishops. And in October, a Holy See Press Office communiqué stated that the Pope had approved a forensic review of relevant documents from the Vatican archives. On May 29, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican’s secretary of state, said that the McCarrick review was continuing and that a declaration about its findings would be issued following its completion. But he provided no information about when the investigation would be complete.


Signs of Progress

In the months since the Holy See and Cardinal DiNardo vowed to examine the systemic problems and unresolved questions posed by the McCarrick scandal, there have been real signs of progress.

Father Boniface Ramsey, a New York priest and former New Jersey seminary professor who warned the apostolic nuncio about McCarrick in 2000, told the Register that McCarrick’s conviction and subsequent laicization secured a major victory for his victims and a critical milestone in the campaign for bishop accountability.

“McCarrick’s laicization was the appropriate response, and anything short of that would have been a disappointment,” said Father Ramsey.

Of equal importance, Pope Francis’ newly released motu proprio on clergy sexual abuse, Vos Estis Lux Mundi, has been applauded by bishops and canonists who say it will offer a strong framework for the upcoming debate and vote on accountability reforms at the U.S. bishops’ June 11-14 meeting in Baltimore.

That’s good news for Cardinal DiNardo, who had planned to secure approval for key accountability reforms at the bishops’ previous meeting in November but was told by the Vatican to delay a vote until after the February abuse summit.

“In the motu proprio, the Holy Father provided clear direction … to all bishops regarding the handling of abuse and harassment allegations and makes clear that bishops are to be held accountable, not only for their actions, but also for their inaction,” Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore told the Register.

Father Pietrzyk, the canonist, noted that a “broad swathe of conduct, even broader than the code indicates, is now subject to mandatory reporting.”

Proscribed conduct includes superiors “using their office as a way to coerce others into sexual activity.” Some “will argue that this is already in the code, but the motu proprio makes it clear,” he said.

The motu proprio effectively bars the imposition of penalties on would-be whistleblowers, and that means it will be hard to bury a claim. The relevant Church authorities “know that the person making the report is free to go public if he is not satisfied with the manner in which his report is being dealt with,” Father Gerald Murray, a New York priest and canonist, told the Register.

There are other signs of progress, like one bishop’s timely investigation of a brother bishop and the adoption of independent reporting systems for receiving claims.

Last September, after Bishop Bransfield of Wheeling-Charleston was accused of sexually harassing seminarians and resigned from office,

Archbishop Lori was appointed apostolic administrator of the West Virginia diocese. He tapped lay experts to help with the investigation and contracted with EthicsPoint, an independent third-party reporting system, to receive additional allegations against Bishop Bransfield.

The probe was completed in five months, and with the findings forwarded to Rome, Pope Francis will make a final judgment.

But Archbishop Lori has already announced that the retired bishop is “not authorized to exercise any priestly or episcopal ministry either within the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston or within the Archdiocese of Baltimore.”

Both Archbishop Lori and Cardinal O’Malley have contracted with EthicsPoint to receive allegations against bishops in their own dioceses and forward them to the relevant authorities.

And this approach will draw support from Catholics who want the bishops to expand the role of lay experts.

“The most crucial variable in any plan” for making bishops more accountable “is the significant involvement of qualified laypeople,” papal biographer George Weigel told the Register.


Problem Areas

But along with the recent developments that have inspired a sense of hope among disheartened Catholics, there is also cause for disquiet.

The Register has been informed that the high-profile investigations into seminary misconduct in Boston and New Jersey are ongoing, and so no reports will be released for the time being.

Likewise, a USCCB spokeswoman could not confirm when the findings of the four U.S. diocesan investigations into McCarrick’s record and the Vatican review would be released.

Nor could she provide information about whether the bishops may review some details gleaned from the McCarrick investigations at their June meeting. Cardinal DiNardo did not respond to a separate interview request. Back in November, amid questions about the Vatican’s willingness to share documents flagged in its own probe with the USCCB, the bishops voted on a resolution designed to “encourage” Rome to take such action.  But Cardinal Tobin and others challenged this move as a sign of disrespect, and the measure was defeated.


‘Second Wave’

Asked whether the U.S. bishops might take up this matter when they convene in June, Archbishop Joseph Naumann of Kansas City, Kansas, suggested that he and his fellow bishops “will be primarily focused on what we are doing here in the U.S.”

The “second wave” of the abuse crisis, he said, has made bishops like him “hypervigilant” in their oversight and implementation of the original 2002 “Dallas Charter” and more recently expanded areas, like bishop-accountability measures.

But he promised that the conference will continue to “express to the Holy See our desire for transparency. I hope, for the health of the Church, that we will identify what happened and where the ball was dropped.”

And if a comprehensive report is not forthcoming, what recourse do the U.S. bishops have?

The Catholic Project’s Stephen White suggested, “Individual dioceses could release the findings of their investigations,” but he doubted they would take any unilateral action.

Short of that option, White concluded that the bishops could do little more. “The ball,” he said, “is squarely in the Pope’s court.”


Joan Frawley Desmond is a Register senior editor.

The towers of the Cathedral of Our Dear Lady are seen at night in Munich, Germany.

The Abuse of Abuse

EDITORIAL: The harshness of the attacks that were directed at Benedict XVI following the report’s publication is not justified by the actual evidence in the report, and seem strangely timed considering the recent German Synodal Way.