It is useful to look at why the disclosures on next Tuesday may be received with greater shock and grief than other public revelations of clerical abuse. In 2002 the public became aware that abuse of minors by priests was a much more common practice than previously believed. For much of the twenty-first century, the identification of perpetrators was undertaken with varying degrees of foot-dragging. Reasons for hesitancy and even outright stonewalling of internal investigations ranged from embarrassment to the Church, potential payouts to victims, and loss of offertory revenue from disgruntled worshippers.
During those twenty years since the Boston Globe’s Spotlight on the problem of abusive clerics raised national consciousness, there has been more attention paid to the conspiratorial side of the abuse crisis, an organized pattern of diocesan behavior in which victims were quietly paid off for their silence and known serial perpetrators were knowingly transferred to other parishes by their bishops. It is not an exaggeration to say that this pattern was in many dioceses the norm; the result of such a strategy was the exposure of many more children to abuse and the exclusion of civil law enforcement in the protection of minors and removal of dangerous offenders from access to children and minors.
I cannot pinpoint the exact date, but some time after 2015 a number of high visibility civil law suits against a Catholic religious order drew so much attention in the State of Pennsylvania that in 2017 the state determined that the Church would not or could not manage itself in matters of youth safety. Attorney General Josh Shapiro demanded access to all clerical personnel files in chanceries across the state. The Pennsylvania Report of 2018 was a bombshell, particularly in terms of unreported priests and the large number of victims, over one thousand according to the New York Times. Both the numbers and the raw witness accounts from victims was of such a scale that about twenty attorney generals across the country almost immediately opened similar statewide investigations, including my own state, Florida. [The Florida Attorney General’s Office released my state’s findings a few days ago, including an analysis of the Orlando Diocese.]
The evolution of awakening to the abuse crisis has drifted more to those responsible for the hiding and the coverups of child abuse in the Church. To put it bluntly, attempts to hide and reassign abusive priests, particularly without warning the new parishes and pastors, can be a criminal conspiracy. A few bishops or chancery officials have actually served time in prison in the past decade here in the United States, but if Florida is typical of the nation, most of the perpetrators and their superiors are dead, or the statute of limitations has long expired.
In 2017, however, one of the highest-ranking prelates in the American Church—a cardinal who had voted in the conclave that elected Pope Benedict XVI—was called to face his past—and it would seem that he will take other prelates down with him. The life and church career of Theodore McCarrick covers so much ground that if you have never heard of him, you may find his biography in Wikipedia very useful, as it traces his journey up the clerical ladder [and down], and with a little insight one can decipher that young Father McCarrick, ordained a priest in 1958, enjoyed the favor of powerful friends and learned to cultivate them into four distinct episcopal promotions.
By 1977 he was consecrated an auxiliary bishop of New York by Cardinal Terence Cooke. In 1981 he was named first bishop of the Diocese of Metuchen, New Jersey; in 1986 Archbishop of Newark, New Jersey; in 2000 Archbishop of Washington, D.C. He submitted his mandatory retirement [age 75] in 2006 but maintained a powerful figure in the United States and Rome. His considerable skill set included fundraising for a wide swath of church enterprises.
However, by all accounts I have seen over the past two years, the ex-Cardinal’s personal habits were widely known in Church circles for many years. In February 2019, a Vatican trial found him guilty of sexual crimes and abuse of power and dismissed him from the priesthood. McCarrick’s penchant for seminarians and young priests is reflected in his choice of residences, seminaries, and in a notorious beach home he owned. When approached for favors by the Cardinal such as sleeping in his bed, seminarians, who naturally needed his approval for ordination, found themselves in impossible situations. Young priests who needed McCarrick’s blessing for such promotions as first pastorates found themselves in similar dilemmas.
McCarrick’s pattern of sexual coercion leads one to the old Watergate question of “what did they know and when did they know it?” in reference to the superiors who promoted him through the episcopacy and later his bishop colleagues who looked the other way on matters of his reputation and fitness. In 2018 Pope Francis realized that the McCarrick saga would never be put to rest unless the ex-Cardinal’s enablers were identified. Cardinal Shawn O’Malley, for example, lobbied for a thorough investigation of McCarrick’s career vetting. Such an investigation would involve American prelates, of course, but all episcopal appointments come from Rome ultimately, and appointments to the Archdioceses of Newark and particularly Washington, would get scrutiny from the very top.
This is the ultimate nightmare of the McCarrick investigation, and certainly an anguishing decision for Pope Francis, for most of McCarrick’s career successes were sanctioned by Pope John Paul II. If Pope Francis approves a full revelation of the McCarrick promotions, he may have to reveal, at the very least, some extremely poor judgments from a sainted predecessor. If Tuesday’s report is redacted, then Francis will be accused of prolonging a cover-up and his own papacy may be irretrievably damaged. As I say, Tuesday’s deed needs to be done, but it will cost.