The Catholic Church cannot pretend to be shocked about the pattern of sexual abuse of adult seminarians by Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, recently detailed in a comprehensive story in The New York Times. As The Times made clear in its reporting, many church leaders had received multiple notices of the cardinal’s behavior. Local dioceses had been told; the papal nuncio in Washington, D.C., had been told; and, eventually, even Pope Benedict XVI had been told.
But none of these reports interrupted Cardinal McCarrick’s rise through the ranks nor his appointment as cardinal nor his eventual retirement in 2006 as a respected leader of the U.S. church. Nor did these reports lead to his removal last month from public ministry, which finally resulted from a credible allegation of abuse of a minor almost 50 years ago, recently revealed and acted on by the Archdiocese of New York.
Many church leaders had received multiple notices of the cardinal’s behavior.
It is true that none of the earlier reports of abuse alleged criminal behavior with minors, but they were serious enough that Cardinal McCarrick should have been called to account for the terrible misuse of his office and authority. The church and its leaders should be ashamed of their failure to do so. The slow and halting progress the church has made by way of reforms adopted in response to the sexual abuse of children, for example through the Dallas charter, has been called into question by the revelation of its ongoing failures to deal with other reports of abuse. Nor should the media, including us in Catholic media (Cardinal McCarrick was a longtime friend of this magazine and delivered the homily at our centennial celebration in 2009), be absolved of responsibility for any failure to take these and other rumors and reports as seriously as was required. To demand accountability only of the hierarchy is itself hypocrisy.
The church also cannot pretend that this is an isolated incident. There are very likely similar reports involving other bishops and church leaders who have abused their authority or committed sexual offenses that have been ignored over past decades. As societies around the world reckon with the unfolding of the #MeToo movement and victims of sexual abuse and harassment find their voices, the church must not pretend that this is merely a regrettable episode that will soon be over.
In all likelihood, there are more reports still to come that will show this situation is worse than is now known. The church should remember that real improvement consists not in the cessation of bad press for the church but in the development of a culture in which powerful leaders do not expect their misdeeds to be silently covered up and in which victims of abuse and harassment feel supported in their decisions to confront those who have mistreated them.
What can the church do to help build that culture?
First, the church must establish once and for all its willingness to hear reports of abuse and misuse of power that have been quietly ignored or “dealt with” in the past. Bishops’ conferences should establish clear procedures for reporting concerns for those who cannot go through the local diocesan structures that answer to the very bishop whose conduct may be in question.
As societies around the world reckon with the unfolding of the #MeToo movement, the church must not pretend that this is merely a regrettable episode that will soon be over.
Second, Pope Francis and the Vatican must show that they are willing to remove bishops and other church leaders who are guilty of any form of abuse, not only the sexual abuse of children. One way to do this would be to expand the process for disciplining bishops for negligence in response to abuse of minors, which Pope Francis defined in 2016, to include other forms of abuse. But an even more important reform would be greater transparency in investigating and rendering decisions in cases involving bishops. In other words, when a bishop is removed, the Vatican needs to state publicly why he is being removed.
Third, even before action from Rome, the bishops can make substantive efforts to seek justice for victims and the church community even at the cost of institutional resources and reputation. The decision of two New Jersey dioceses to release one of Cardinal McCarrick’s accusers from confidentiality agreements is a good first step. Bishops—or indeed any ministers who misuse their office by pressuring people under their authority into sexual activity—do violence both to individual victims and to the community that has invested its trust in them. The spiritual and psychological harm—to individuals and the people of God—caused by such abuse is incalculable and long-lasting.
The best way the church can begin to repent for the sins of leaders like Cardinal McCarrick and all those who turned a blind eye to his wrongdoing is for bishops to call their brother bishops and other leaders within the church to account. It would be a significant, though sadly belated, statement of pastoral commitment for the bishops together to call upon all who have misused their ecclesial office by sexually abusing someone under their authority or pastoral care to take responsibility for their failure and submit their resignation. Another story of episcopal abuse may break in the media at any time. It would be a prophetic witness to God’s grace for the church to embrace this opportunity for repentance and the hope for reconciliation now rather than passively waiting for more secrets to be revealed.
Jesus told his disciples that it would be better for someone to have a millstone tied around his neck and be cast into the sea than to “put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me” (Mt 18:6). Surely it would be better for the church to lead the way in listening to people who have been harmed than to continue defending, even through silence, the authority and reputation of leaders who have already betrayed their pastoral responsibilities.