Cardinal McCarrick, seminarians and abuse: how could this happen?
The revelations of Cardinal Theodore McCarrick’s disgusting predation of Catholic seminarians and young priests over the course of many years makes for truly disturbing reading. Over the past few years, I had heard stories about Cardinal (then Bishop and Archbishop) McCarrick’s summer home, where he would invite (or suborn or force) seminarians to share a bed with him, massage them and invite them to call him “Uncle Ted.” But at the time they were unsubstantiated rumors, and I knew no one with any first-hand knowledge. (Otherwise, I would have reported them.)
For the record, Cardinal McCarrick was also someone whom I, like many American Catholics, admired for both his pastoral work and social justice advocacy. Whenever I met him, he was also unfailingly kind, and I saw him extend that same kindness to others.
On a pilgrimage to Lourdes a decade ago, I watched someone badger him rudely and relentlessly, during a breakfast, about some fine point of theology, for almost a half hour. Cardinal McCarrick treated her with so much patience, dignity and care, as she continued to berate him, that afterward I asked him how was able to be so kind.
This case shows the mystifying complexity of the human person—or at least this human person.
By no means does this excuse what he did to the young seminarians and priests. Rather, it shows the mystifying complexity of the human person, or at least this human person.
So how could this have happened?
Here I want to focus on one particular aspect: the way that secrecy in the church shrouds cases of what you might call “adult abuse,” as distinguished from “child abuse.” In the case of child abuse, from what I understand (I’m not a psychiatrist or psychologist), the abused child may be too young, too confused or too frightened to be able to speak about the crimes of abuse, which explains why one often sees reports coming decades after the original abuse occurred.
Religious orders are also places where men in power can abuse power, even in sexual ways.
But how could adult seminarians and priests not report these things? Likewise, how could Bishop McCarrick rise in the ranks so easily? And here I will offer only a few explanations; there are many others, and this is not meant to be an exhaustive analysis.
To be clear, this kind of abusive behavior is not confined to diocesan seminaries. Religious orders are also places where men in power can abuse power, even in sexual ways. Also to be clear, at least in my experience, these situations are not common in either in diocesan life or religious life and are far from “rampant”—a word that one reporter used in a conversation with me recently. Cardinal McCarrick’s case should appall everyone, but it is not, at least as far as I know, the norm.
Let me answer the first question: How could seminarians and priests not report these things?
To ignore reports of this kind of abuse is sinful.
First, some did report them but were ignored. The Times reported that Boniface Ramsey, O.P., a well-respected Dominican priest, related these incidents to the papal nuncio (the official charged with recommending episcopal appointments to the Vatican). According to the Times, the nuncio encouraged Father Ramsey to send a letter to the Vatican, but Father Ramsey "said he never got a response." Why? For several possible reasons. As we saw in the clergy child abuse crisis, the tragic tendency was for church leaders to trust the person they knew. Bishop McCarrick may have been better known at the Vatican than was Father Ramsey. Also, at the time, these kinds of malign behaviors were often considered “moral problems,” that is, sins that one could apologize for, and be forgiven. (There is often a grossly misplaced emphasis on “forgiveness” in cases of abuse.) Finally, there may have been a discomfort or disgust with the homosexual or even sexual aspect of it, and therefore a desire for the charges to simply “go away.” Finally, sin: to ignore reports of this kind of abuse is sinful.
Second, there may have been a enormous amount of shame or embarrassment among the seminarians and priests who were forced into McCarrick’s embrace or bed. Perhaps the shame of it happening to a victim who is an adult—who might have been more physically able to “fend off” the advances—is greater than that of a child, who is incapable self-defense in this situation. Abuse is never the fault of the person who is abused or mistreated, but, nonetheless, the shame may persist. “Why didn’t they punch him in the face when he said that?” is a question I often hear about such cases. Likewise, there may be a sense of not being “man enough” to resist. Finally, if the victims are themselves gay, they may feel ashamed of their own sexuality. Taken together, these factors contribute to an overwhelming amount of shame.
Cardinal McCarrick was one of the most powerful men in the U.S. church. What could saying something about him do to your career?
Third, some of these former seminarians and young priests in these dioceses may still be in active pastoral ministry. Bringing up unsavory details about a powerful cleric may make them fear being seen as “trouble-makers” or “complainers” in their dioceses or among their brother priests. Cardinal McCarrick was also one of the most powerful men in the U.S. church, the bishop of one of the major sees in the universal church and a personal friend of several popes. What could saying something about him do to your career?
Likewise, many former seminarians might be hard to track down and want no part of the episode for the same reason: shame. The problem with reporting on this story, then, is twofold: the former seminarians may be hard to find and those who stayed are probably loath to discuss it. This makes the Times’ reporting all the more important.
All these explanations are not excuses. And, as I said, as far as I know, the kinds of egregious cases like Cardinal McCarrick’s are not the norm.
This brings me to the second question: How could he have risen so rapidly through the church’s ranks with these accusations leveled against him?
First, there is, again, the human tendency to accept the word of the person you know—here, the bishop over the seminarian or the newly ordained priest. (The same tendency contributed to the child abuse crisis: taking the word of the priest over the parent.) Second, the historic tendency for some church leaders to view these abuses primarily as “moral problems,” where an apology and a promise to repent and mend one’s ways suffices. Third, the discomfort with dealing with anything resembling homosexuality. Fourth, the reluctance among some members of the church hierarchy in dealing with sexuality in any way at all. Fifth, Bishop McCarrick’s talent, intellect and work ethic made him a “desirable” candidate for promotion to the Archdioceses of Newark and later Washington, D.C.
But finally the answer is sin. As I said, this is not a complete analysis, but any analysis must use this word. There is plenty of sin to go around: the sins of nuncios and all church leaders who disregarded, downplayed or simply ignored these reports, the sins of all those in power who turned a blind eye to years of the abuse of power, and, finally, the sins of Cardinal McCarrick himself, who became not a servant leader but an abusive one.
Editor's note: this article has been updated to include further detail on Father Ramsey's report to the nuncio.