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Sam Sawyer, S.J.November 12, 2020
Then-Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick arrives in procession for the Mass for the Election of the Roman Pontiff in St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican in this March 12, 2013, file photo. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

People have been scouring the 461 pages of the McCarrick Report, looking for a smoking gun that definitively explains what went wrong and who should be held responsible for the church’s long-standing failure to take allegations of abuse by former cardinal Theodore McCarrick seriously. But there is no single smoking gun. Instead, the report documents decades worth of smoke during which almost no one went looking for the very real fire producing it. Even more, it gives us a close-up view of concentric layers of plausible deniability and culpable ignorance, powered by clericalism, that allowed McCarrick to evade discovery or accountability.

There are, to be sure, specific events in the report that are particularly shocking, most especially Pope John Paul II’s irresponsible decision to accept McCarrick’s protestations of innocence over the counsel of multiple advisors when transferring him to become archbishop of Washington, D.C. But even if John Paul II had refused to promote him, McCarrick would have remained the archbishop of Newark, with the hope—made explicit by those recommending against his appointment—that the rumors swirling around him would simply fade into the background, never to be further investigated.

There is no single smoking gun. Instead, the report documents decades worth of smoke during which almost no one went looking for the very real fire producing it.

This dark and deceptive hope, focused on avoiding scandal, is perhaps the single most common theme in the report. It shows up when McCarrick is passed over for appointment to Chicago and New York, when he is chosen for Washington and when the Vatican spends years unsuccessfully attempting to limit his public activity and travel. Over and over again, shepherds of the church, were faced with persistent and proliferating rumors and eventually even specific allegations that one of their brothers had abused and mistreated those entrusted to his care. But time and time again they asked themselves not whether members of the flock had been hurt and were in need of care but how likely the media was to notice and publicize the matter. To put it bluntly, the hope of those with responsibility over him was not that McCarrick had not done these things of which he was accused—a hope that might have led to investigations and oversight—but rather that it would be possible to avoid any definitive reckoning before the public about whether or not he had.

Of course, the reckoning came, one more imposed upon the church than responsibly sought. It came when a survivor who had been abused by McCarrick as a minor found the courage to make a formal accusation in 2017, an act that finally triggered a canonical process and civil reporting the church could not ignore and the then-cardinal could not evade. Even this extensive new report, an expression of transparency in stark contrast to ordinary Vatican stonewalling, was commissioned in response to Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò’s since discredited attempts to pin the blame for McCarrick primarily on Pope Francis.

[For a deep dive on clericalism and the abuse crisis, listen to Ep. 11 of the Deliver Us podcast]

But no matter the report’s genesis, its wealth of detail reinforces how deeply clericalism and ambition have propelled the church’s sexual abuse crisis. More than a story of individual bad actors, this report ought to resolve any doubt that the abuse crisis is a story of comprehensive failures of ecclesial governance. Worse, these failures are not just tragic accidents but the predictable outcome of the incentives and attitudes that have shaped the hierarchy of the Catholic Church.

One relatively early example of these failures included in the report captures this dynamic perfectly. In 1994, when planning was in progress for one of John Paul II’s visits to the United States, then-Archbishop McCarrick was working to include a stop in Newark onto the agenda for the trip (Section X.B. of the report). During this planning process, various reports and rumors swirling around McCarrick reached the nuncio. Note that the concern here, characteristically, was not whether or not McCarrick was a danger to anyone in his care but that a Newark stop during the papal visit increased the risk that rumors about McCarrick would come to light. The nuncio reached out to Cardinal James A. Hickey, then archbishop of Washington, D.C., for his advice.

These failures are not just tragic accidents but the predictable outcome of the incentives and attitudes that have shaped the hierarchy of the Catholic Church.

After praising McCarrick effusively, Cardinal Hickey suggests that reforms that he had been implementing in Newark may have “earned a few enemies along the way!” He then goes on to suggest that the lack of prior examples reduces the likelihood of McCarrick’s misconduct since such “tendencies...do not emerge in one’s 50’s or 60’s but rather in early adulthood. If the Archbishop had those tendencies it would be very surprising that no one had detected them until recently.”

But of course, what “no one had detected” means, in practice, is that no one had successfully managed to get church officials to take notice of concerns about McCarrick, which by 1994 had not only been reported in anonymous letters accusing him of pedophilia but also by multiple priests who told their bishops about the abuse they experienced from McCarrick in their seminary years. It is quite likely that Cardinal Hickey himself did not know about these other reports—but he did not know because other bishops had not dealt thoroughly with reports that came to them, and he treated that ignorance, itself a product of clerical self-protection, as evidence to justify ignoring the same claims again.

That pattern of clerical self-protection, the cultivation of ignorance and deniability, is also on display in Cardinal Hickey’s letter. In addition to speculating that these rumors were from “enemies” McCarrick had made in Newark, Cardinal Hickey casts aspersions on the priest whose report found its way to the nuncio, describing him as “doctrinally sound” but with a “strong ideological edge to his conversation” because he had criticized McCarrick without considering the possibility that the cardinal might know him.

The report also documents that the nuncio, after his conversation with Cardinal Hickey, emerged with the impression that the priest was possibly slandering or exaggerating his account and that a superior of a women’s religious community, who had notified the nuncio of the allegations, had done so because “she wanted to make herself appear important.” In other words, the substance of the allegations need not be further explored because the motives of those involved—actors on the edges of the church’s circles of power—had been impugned.

Cardinal Hickey then recommends to the nuncio that he not personally interview the priest making the allegation but instead have another staff member at the nunciature interview him under oath, and “if the accuser is unwilling to come forward,” he suggests the matter be dropped. But of course, this approach telegraphs to the accuser—who in this case was also McCarrick’s victim—that it is his reputation, not McCarrick’s, that is most at risk. (The prospect of interviewing McCarrick under oath about the allegation seems not to have been considered.)

Finally, Cardinal Hickey concludes that plans for the Newark visit should go forward and that McCarrick should be “presumed completely innocent in view of his many years of devoted service and his well-deserved reputation as a churchman beyond reproach.” There is a conflation here between the presumption of innocence owed to anyone who is accused and a presumption owed to McCarrick because of his clerical status.

What Cardinal Hickey—and Cardinal O’Connor and the nuncio and several other bishops who received reports—seemed unable to imagine is that McCarrick could be a devoted, talented, pastorally energetic churchman and at the same time still be guilty of preying on vulnerable people in his care. His success within the system of clerical incentives and values insulated him from any serious concern that his victims were telling the truth about how he had harmed them.

Cardinal Hickey is by no means the worst example of clericalism in the McCarrick Report. He simply happens to have crystallized the entire pattern in one relatively short letter on three pages (114-116) out of the more than 400 in the report. And that pattern does not have to be intentionally malicious in order to have devastating and evil effects. It simply needs to be insular, allowing those in power to reassure themselves that their own ignorance of a colleague’s faults is the same as lack of evidence, so they can dismiss concerns brought from “enemies” or detractors on the outside.

These “situations”—these crimes and abuses—were covered up and perpetuated not primarily through malice but through clerical self-interest and self-protection.

At the same time, this insularity serves to reinforce the superficial prudence of limited and partial “investigations,” which preserve the ability of the inner circle of clerics to feel like they have dealt with an accusation even while learning nothing of substance about it. And in and around it all, elliptical language about “tendencies” and “moral weakness,” rather than crimes, assault and abuse, serves to keep any recognition of the real damage being done to victims at arm’s length.

The McCarrick Report concludes by quoting Pope Francis’ 2018 letter “to the people of God,” in which he says “no effort must be spared to create a culture able to prevent such situations from happening, but also to prevent the possibility of their being covered up and perpetuated.” A culture of clericalism, built around the privilege and ambitions of the church’s priests and bishops, is exactly what made the cover-up and perpetuation of McCarrick’s abuse and lies about it possible. And if we as a church are truly committed to preventing that possibility in the future, we will need all the resources that can be mustered: better and more transparent processes with clear accountability especially for bishops; thorough spiritual conversion on the part of the whole church, clerics and laity alike, to reject clericalism; and perhaps most critically, the real involvement of laypeople when decisions about these cases and processes are made.

These “situations”—these crimes and abuses—were covered up and perpetuated not primarily through malice but through clerical self-interest and self-protection. They will not be eliminated until the needs of the whole people of God are better represented within the circles of clerical power in the church.

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