Cardinal McCarrick, seminarians and abuse: how could this happen?

Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick, retired archbishop of Washington, is pictured in a 2017 photo (CNS photo/Bob Roller) Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick, retired archbishop of Washington, is pictured in a 2017 photo (CNS photo/Bob Roller) 

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.

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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.

[Explore America’s in-depth coverage of the sex abuse crisis]

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.

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Mike Macrie
1 year 4 months ago

The first thing the Catholic Church should do is to completely disassociate itself from Bill Donahue and the Catholic Defense League. This guy has been an Apologist for Bishops and Priests on sexual abuse cases. He has turned the Catholic Defense League as an organization for the Republican Party.

Bonnie Weissman
1 year 4 months ago

Nothing will change until the culture of clericalism is curtailed. Little concern was shown for the seminarians and any other "little people" who were harmed. As long as this type of thing is allowed to go on with massive coverups, the hierarchy should NOT be surprised at the declining attendance at Masses or unwillingness to blindly follow everything they tell us. Their credibility is shaky, to put it mildly.

Ellen B
1 year 4 months ago

One of the reasons that was not mentioned by Fr Martin is that people within the church were aware that they had abusers in their midst & hid the fact "for the good of the church." (The exact words used by the bishop in the diocese where I grew up when he cleaned out a trust that had been left to the local parish school.)

So the onus is on the Catholic Church to show that they are worthy of trust. To do that they need to stop hiding "for the good of the church". Abuse victims who have signed non-disclosure agreements need to be released from the portion of the agreement that prevents them from talking. The church needs to publish the pay-off amounts, dates & names of the priests whose actions caused a pay off (but not the victims names). Only when the Church has fully confessed to the flock that they betrayed should the flock forgive. But even then, not forget as too many people who were intimately involved in the cover-up are still in positions of authority.

robertoriyadh@gmail.com
1 year 4 months ago

I see this from two perspectives: the spiritual and the human. I would like to clarify that I am not an expert on moral theology nor a lawyer. I don't consider myself a traditional or liberal Catholic. I am just a Catholic who goes to church every Sunday to a very poor but rich in faith Hispanic parish in middle America. Spiritually, I think the devil is working very smartly. I would like to know what we can do as Catholics about this: prayer? fasting? From the human perspective, the church is starting to self-destroy if they don't develop accountability. People relate Catholicism to sex deviation nowadays and that is sad. It is interesting that the people who bring shame to the church are the ones who studied and got paid with the money from it: the clerics and not the lay persons. Shame on them.

Anthony Noble
1 year 4 months ago

I agree with you here. What happened in the Chilean Church recently is a good model that the American Church and others should follow. I suggest to read up on it to get the full details but the upshot is this: An influential, conservative clerk was eventually condemned as a notorious sexual abuser and he was ensconced away from ministry to live a life of repentance - think Catholic prison. The subsequent scandal entailed Bishops who didn't abuse others but covered it up and denounced abuse victims who spoke out. Initially, Pope Francis questioned the cover-up by the bishops but then sent a Vatican team to Chile to investigate further. Pope Francis asked for forgiveness when the investigation confirm the testimony of the abused men. He invited these men to the Vatican and had private meetings with them asking for forgiveness, listening to their stories, and providing spiritual comfort. These men said afterwards that they were pleased with the meetings. Then the entire Chilean Conference of Bishops was summoned to the Vatican for a 3 day conference which focused on the scandal and how the bishops treated the abused. Every bishop publicly asked for forgiveness from the abused and gave their resignations to the Pope. The Pope accepted a number of resignations, including a bishop at the center of the cover-up and a Cardinal. This is what needs to be done within the entire Church.

Robert Lewis
1 year 4 months ago

Very serious charges made today against Pope John Paul II, Angelo Cardinal Sodano--and, perhaps, even Benedict XVI--at the column of the schismatic Rod Dreher:
http://www.theamericanconservative.com/dreher/mysterious-uncle-ted-mccarrick-catholic/#post-comments

Robert Lewis
1 year 4 months ago

Completely apart from the issue of a "lavender mafia" in the Church or of the legitimacy of the ordination of "same-sex-attracted" men, I think it is about time that ALL of us who call ourselves Catholic come to grips with what sexual predators do to human natures, as those natures are developing. Therefore, I want to suggest that we all read a novel about this that is tearing me up right now, and making me understand that it is our DUTY to do everything we can not only to stop this atrocity, but also to help others to heal from it. The book is "A Little Life," and the author is Hanya Hanaghira. I warn you, reading it will be a harrowing experience, but after having read it, you will understand what your duty is.

Anthony Noble
1 year 4 months ago

Hi Mr. Lewis,
I've read this book and had mixed feelings about it. It was a hard read; in addition to the sexual abuse, the self-cutting made me want to vomit. It's fiction but a few issues presented did not ring true. As a social worker who dealt with foster families, a minor would never be put in the care of a monk and there would be constant visits to check on the well-being of the child. In orphanage run by the clergy, sexual abuse within the institution is a real danger but that was not the situation in the novel. There were other problems in the novel, such as inexplicable character development but that's not germane to this discussion.

Robert Lewis
1 year 4 months ago

The only thing I found unbelievable in the novel was the depth and strength of the love of his friends for Jude. There were plenty of Catholic institutions in the past wherein sexual abuse of minors went on; just ask former students of Catholic boarding schools in the West, in which Native children were housed and abused.

Magdalene P
1 year 4 months ago

Even I knew about McCarrick years ago and the stories that are coming out (pun intended) are damning. All of his so called "pastoral" work was a cover for his filthy grooming of young men to satisfy his pervertedness. The betrayal of his vows, his betrayal of his office, his betrayal of Christ are no where near "pastoral". Rather this man hopefully will seek repentance for his many crimes over many years. He even abused family friends. A very sick person. And if the news is correct, he ordained other sick and unworthy men as well. Glad I do not live in one of his former dioceses.

Michael Newhouse
1 year 4 months ago

"Finally, if the victims are themselves gay, they may feel ashamed of their own sexuality."
Because if the victims are straight, they wouldn't feel ashamed of being molested by a man??
You also neglect to mention grooming. McCarrick, like most abusers, was adept at screening for people who would be least likely to resist or report.
There is also 'mutually assured destruction'. Once the abuse happened, to report it is to be tarred with the same brush. "You are both adults. He couldn't force himself on you. It must have been consensual."
And, naturally, you ignore the homosexuality angle. Abuse of sex and power is integral to homosexuality. The extremely high incidence of childhood sexual abuse among homosexuals as well as the high incidence of preying on teens among adult homosexuals are well documented, but ignored for political and ideological reasons.
We are deeply sexual. When something goes wrong with our sexual development, it often goes DEEPLY wrong - whether that is child abuse, masturbation, promiscuity, homosexuality, or infidelity.

Anthony Noble
1 year 4 months ago

Mr. Newhouse,
Like other commentators, you miss the fundamental evil of sexual abuse. It is the abuse of power over a vulnerable person, such as children and in this case, young adult men whose futures could be affected by a superior. This is the same as the actresses, news staff, and mostly female workers in every industry that are sexually abused by men in power and who can affect their livelihoods. And how many of these women have been dismissed, ignored, or not believed. Homosexuality or heterosexuality is not the problem. The problem is a person in power abusing a vulnerable person and a culture that systemically tries to ignore and dismiss the abused.

Anthony Noble
1 year 4 months ago

What happened in the Chilean Church recently is a good model that the American Church and others should follow. I suggest to read up on it to get the full details but the upshot is this: An influential, conservative clerk was eventually condemned as a notorious sexual abuser and he was ensconced away from ministry to live a life of repentance - think Catholic prison. The subsequent scandal entailed Bishops who didn't abuse others but covered it up and denounced abuse victims who spoke out. Initially, Pope Francis questioned the cover-up by the bishops but then sent a Vatican team to Chile to investigate further. Pope Francis asked for forgiveness when the investigation confirm the testimony of the abused men. He invited these men to the Vatican and had private meetings with them asking for forgiveness, listening to their stories, and providing spiritual comfort. These men said afterwards that they were pleased with the meetings. Then the entire Chilean Conference of Bishops was summoned to the Vatican for a 3 day conference which focused on the scandal and how the bishops treated the abused. Every bishop publicly asked for forgiveness from the abused and gave their resignations to the Pope. The Pope accepted a number of resignations, including a bishop at the center of the cover-up and a Cardinal. This is what needs to be done within the entire Church.

Robert Lewis
1 year 4 months ago

See below...

Robert Lewis
1 year 4 months ago

The most depressing thing about all of the commentary on these threads is that almost everybody here--including, sometimes, I regret to say, myself--seems to be pushing some agenda for the Church, rather than concentrating on what to do for the victims--on how to rescue children from the hands of predators and how to help the abused to heal. For some, it's "priestly celibacy"; for others, it's "women priests"; for others--including myself, too often--it's regularizing and accepting gay Catholics. But what about the children? What's to be done for them NOW? What's to be done to help the wounded to heal? Do folks writing here understand that the majority of teenage boys now living in homeless shelters in many of our major cities are gay youths who've been thrown out of their homes by homophobic parents? It's the truth; go check it out for yourselves. What do we do when we realize that those boys are the most prime candidates to be sexually trafficked by homosexual predators--including our most wicked priests? Are we to turn our backs on these children after they've been abandoned and then prostituted?

Dcn Cliff Britton
1 year 4 months ago

Fr. Martin focuses on the sin of abuse of power. How about the sin of homosexual activity or even the sin of a member of the clergy living unchastely? How about the sin of failing to teach (in his role as Bishop) the true teachings of the Church? These things are not written about by Fr. Martin. I wonder why....

Denise Mccarthy
1 year 4 months ago

Father Martin, I have read some of your books, and am a huge fan! In this editorial, the word crime is never mentioned. It is a crime to sexually abuse a child. Crimes, such as sex abuse of a minor, need to be reported to the police as soon as allegations are set forth. It is the job of the police Sex Crimes Units to investigate and possibly press charges. There is no other way to handle the abuse of children by Priests, Archbishops, Bishops, Cardinals, Parish Priests, parents, or other caregivers. Of course, the abuse of seminarians who are adults is different, but in some of these cases, crimes may have been committed.

Peter Francis
1 year 4 months ago

Why would the church want those struggling with a major evil become priests? That’s like allowing an addict work in a pharmacy. It takes a very strong and devout man to overcome even hetero urges let alone homosexual urges. People must also understand this: heterosexual priests aren’t attracted to males - not little boys - not teens - not men. Let’s not fool ourselves.

Mary Keane
1 year 4 months ago

There is no way on earth or in heaven that the rape of children and the sexual abuse of seminarians can be explained away by shame (that's precisely why the abuse is wrong) or careerism or the embrace of power or "moral issues" or the culture of forgiveness or (get this!) "sin." What nonsense. Stop depleting the church's resources with these inane self-serving justifications: this only compounds the disgrace of the Church.

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