Will New Bishop Accountability Reforms Stop the Next McCarrick?

The McCarrick Report exposes the Church’s failure to effectively respond to allegations of sexual misconduct against the powerful prelate, but does it also show that new bishop accountability reforms are on the ‘right track’?

Experts say reform measures require proper implementation to be effective in the quest to combat abuse.
Experts say reform measures require proper implementation to be effective in the quest to combat abuse. (photo: Photo by Larisa Kisakova on Unsplash)

BALTIMORE — Two years after “credible and substantiated” allegations of sexual abuse involving a minor forced Theodore McCarrick’s removal from public ministry and resulted in a slew of bishop accountability reforms, fresh revelations in the Vatican’s McCarrick Report could help Church leaders and experts determine whether the new measures can stop future predators.

“The report shows that the reforms are on the right track, at least on paper,” Bishop Thomas Daly of Spokane, Washington, told the Register. Bishop Daly served on the U.S. bishops’ committee that had developed the new measures.

These new measures include steps taken in the wake of the 2018 disclosure of McCarrick’s decades-long pattern of sexual misconduct by both the U.S. bishops and the Vatican. Last year, reacting to claims that seminarians, priests and lay victims had not reported McCarrick’s sexual misconduct because they feared retaliation from Church leadership, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops established a national sex-abuse hotline run by an independent entity that would receive allegations of abuse, negligence and cover-up against bishops by telephone or an online link. 

In May 2019, Pope Francis also issued Vos Estis Lux Mundi, a document issued motu proprio (of the Pope’s own initiative) that lays out the procedure for a metropolitan bishop (or the senior suffragan bishop if the metropolitan bishop is accused) to receive and investigate allegations of sexual abuse and abuse of power against a bishop under his jurisdiction. Vos Estis also targets episcopal “cover-ups,” calling for an investigation of ”actions or omissions intended to interfere with or avoid civil investigations or canonical investigations, whether administrative or penal, against a cleric or a religious.” 

Bishop Daly said that the new national hotline and the Holy See’s procedures for receiving and investigating allegations against bishops were a “good start” for improving accountability. 

“To be credible, however, they have to involve lay experts,” he said, while noting that he was still pondering the report’s revelations and may have more to say in the future. 

During a Nov. 16 discussion about the report at the U.S. bishops’ annual fall assembly, which was virtual this year, Archbishop José Gomez of Los Angeles, the conference president, offered similar thoughts, while expressing his anguish over the damage wrought by McCarrick and by the Church authorities who failed to stop him. 

During the discussion, a number of bishops raised questions that await more complete answers, particularly regarding the source and impact of McCarrick’s large cash reserves, as well as his influence on episcopal appointments in the United States. Analysts have further noted that the report does not include the trial testimony that led to McCarrick’s ecclesiastical conviction and does not address claims that a homosexual subculture may have protected him, omissions that raise questions about the scope of the document and the degree to which it can help the Church build a better defense against other determined predators. 

However, other prelates at the meeting sought to defuse the bitterness that clouded the discussion and emphasized the unprecedented nature of the report, which they said signals a new level of transparency at the highest levels of the Church. 

“We have a long way to go, but I think it would be ungrateful — probably irresponsible — not to recognize what has been done,” Cardinal Joseph Tobin of Newark, New Jersey, where McCarrick was archbishop from 1986 to 2000, told the assembly, citing Vos Estis and the Vatican’s February 2019 sexual-abuse summit


Report Showcases Failures 

The 450-page McCarrick Report chronicles McCarrick’s rise from a hardworking and conspicuously ambitious New York priest to his appointment as the first bishop of Metuchen, New Jersey, from 1981 to 1986; his subsequent tenure as archbishop of Newark, ending in 2000, when he was named archbishop of Washington, D.C.; and his receiving of the cardinal’s hat in 2001 — all accomplished despite the prior decade of persistent rumors and warnings of McCarrick’s disturbingly inappropriate behavior with young men and seminarians and several concrete allegations of sexual harassment and abuse quietly fielded and discarded by his successor in Metuchen, Bishop Edward Hughes. 

The report ultimately showcases the failure of U.S. bishops, Curial officials and three popes to effectively investigate the claims, acknowledge the situation, remove McCarrick, and tend to the wounded Church, including the priests, seminarians and laypeople he left in his wake of transgression. 

The McCarrick Report cites a welter of warnings from parents, seminarians and priests, as well as signed statements from high-level prelates, seminary whistleblowers and therapists who tried to stop his rise to power as early as the 1990s. However, for the most part, these allegations were anonymous, unsubstantiated or incomplete. And McCarrick, when confronted about them, continued to assert his innocence both verbally and in writing, while Church authorities struggled to restrict his movements until, in 2017, they received the accusations involving a minor that were found to be credible.

The report notes, for example, that New York Cardinal John O’Connor wrote a 1999 letter to the U.S. apostolic nuncio, Archbishop Gabriel Montalvo, warning against McCarrick’s appointment to New York. The cardinal cited expert testimony from a psychologist who had treated a Metuchen priest and believed the patient had been “victimized” by McCarrick, who had a widely reported practice of requiring seminarians to share his bed during weekend trips to a beach house and other locations and had sexually harassed the accuser during one such instance, among other charges.

The cardinal’s letter also referenced a report that Bishop Hughes had entered into a secret settlement related to McCarrick.

But when the Vatican followed up by asking four New Jersey bishops to address potential issues regarding McCarrick’s moral character, three of them, including Bishop Hughes, Bishop John Smith and Bishop Vincent Breen, did not sound the alarm, despite having knowledge at that time of misconduct by McCarrick.


Greater Accountability

Almost two decades later, the shocking impact of McCarrick’s sudden fall from grace in 2018 jump-started the campaign for greater accountability for bishops. Though the 2002 Dallas Charter introduced a policy of “zero tolerance” for priests accused of sexually abusing minors, the new U.S. norms did not apply to bishops themselves, so questions remained about whether bishops fell under the same “zero-tolerance” framework and whether a bishop had the power to confront a brother bishop, especially one superior in rank. 

Experts who have reviewed the McCarrick Report said that it confirms the need for these measures, but they add that any reform is only as good as the people who oversee its implementation.

“Bishop Hughes had a great deal of knowledge of the accusations regarding adult seminarians,” said Dominican Father Pius Pietrzyk, a canon lawyer at St. Patrick’s Seminary in Menlo Park, California, “but he didn’t say, ‘I want to do something, but I can’t.’ He just didn’t convey full information.”

That problem, said Father Pietrzyk, was not the result of “a lack of procedural avenues to deal with misconduct.” Rather, “the report shows the unwillingness of people in positions of authority to use that process” when allegations were received.

Still, he underscored the value of Vos Estis, “which created a clear process and procedure” for handling allegations against bishops, thus replacing a more “informal” approach that allowed claims to fall between the cracks. Since its publication, Vos Estis has already been implemented in three cases in the U.S., with investigations underway to judge the credibility of allegations made against Bishop Michael Hoeppner of Crookston, Minnesota, Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio of Brooklyn, New York, and Bishop Oscar Cantú of San Jose, California.

“A written policy helps people in authority to take this seriously, follow it, and be held accountable,” said the priest-canon lawyer.


Different Outcomes Today

Pia de Solenni, a moral theologian and the president of the Global Institute of Church Management, pointed to one of the report’s most disturbing passages, in which an inebriated McCarrick harasses a young priest in full view of two New Jersey bishops, Bishop John McHugh and Bishop Smith, both now deceased, who fail to respond. She concluded that changes in Church law would likely produce a different outcome today.

“The McCarrick Report included testimony from Msgr. Dominic Bottino about a private dinner with McCarrick, two bishops, himself and a young cleric. Both Msgr. Bottino and the bishops witnessed McCarrick groping the young cleric in an overtly sexual manner,” she noted.

“If Vos Estis had been in place at the time, all three of the witnesses, especially the two bishops, would have had to report the incident to the Holy See since McCarrick was the metropolitan archbishop at the time,” she said. 

“While Vos Estis may not have prevented the incident in question, its application would have prevented McCarrick from further abuse of power in the form of sexual crimes.”

Father Boniface Ramsey, a priest in the New York Archdiocese who had served on the faculty at Immaculate Conception Seminary in Newark during McCarrick’s tenure and was among the few whistleblowers to repeatedly flag his misconduct, confirmed the need for the reforms.

“A seminary rector or a bishop will think twice before he does something [wrong or negligent], and that is good,” Father Ramsey told the Register. “There is a kind of curb on people’s actions that wasn’t there before.”

But he is still waiting to see if the new protections for vulnerable adults, like seminarians, will be “embraced and enforced,” and thus create a culture of trust that obviates the need for anonymous claims against superiors.


Hotline Help

Indeed, the McCarrick scandal has soberly reminded U.S. seminarians and young priests that an episcopal predator may still hold the power to doom their priestly vocation if they reject or expose him. The U.S. bishops’ national hotline attempts to defuse this threat by offering a new path for reporting that allows the accuser to mask their identity, but experts agree it does not fully overcome the limits of anonymous allegations.

“From a practical standpoint, anonymous reports are very challenging; each report must be assessed based on the information set forth in the complaint — in conjunction with other information that may be available regarding the incident or alleged offender,” said Kathleen McChesney, a former Federal Bureau of Investigation agent who established the USCCB’s Office of Child Protection and now oversees the Washington state dioceses’ hotline.  

McChesney described her new role as the “designated layperson” who ensures that calls to Conversant, the third-party contractor that receives allegations in “conjunction with the Catholic Bishop Abuse Reporting Service (CBAR),” are responded to and addressed. 

Outside experts like her, valued for their experience and independence from chancery politics, are now monitoring hotline calls across the country to segregate the process from potential interference. 

Church leaders and experts say the hotline program and Vos Estis reflect a crucial shift in the Church’s internal culture, similar to the seismic changes that followed the 2002 Dallas Charter’s zero-tolerance policy and the extensive training and education that helped Catholic dioceses, parishes and schools put the protection of minors first. 

“As far as bishop accountability goes, we have the mechanism in place, but we need to be constantly refreshed, as we are with ongoing safe-environment training,” Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco told the Register. 

“These procedures help create a vigilant mentality,” he added. “Seminaries need to form a culture in which allegations of abuse get reported” and seminarians “feel confident that their rights will be protected.” 


Vulnerabilities Remain

Archbishop Wilton Gregory of Washington, D.C., who will become a cardinal Nov. 28, suggested that the McCarrick Report, along with new procedures for reporting allegations against bishops, signaled a new beginning for the Church.

“Persons who communicated anonymously about McCarrick’s behavior must have feared retribution from the structures and persons that shielded him,” Archbishop Gregory suggested in a Nov.16 statement. “When harm is being done in the name of the Holy Catholic Church, one must never again feel constrained to come forward and speak out.” 

But the McCarrick Report also reveals the vulnerabilities of any program of protection and reform when a shepherd is especially brazen. McCarrick’s ability to skirt the rules, and trade on both his friendship with popes as well as his success with vocations, fundraising and high-stakes diplomacy, raises questions about episcopal culture and appointments, deepening mistrust at all levels of the Church. 

Reacting to the disturbing details in the report, Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore suggested during the bishops’ meeting that every member should be “spending an hour a day in prayer and reparation before the Blessed Sacrament and also committing ourselves to some form of fasting or penance during the course of each week.”

Said Archbishop Lori: “I say this because it is in those moments of prayer that the problems described in the McCarrick Report cease to be merely structural problems, cease to be a kind of a problem that is ‘out there’ to be solved by other people, but, rather, it is where we begin to take some personal responsibility for what has happened in the life of the Church.”

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