I read Peyton Place  a few weeks ago, a novel about a 1940’s small town in New England where everybody knew everybody’s business until one thing led to another and the real village secrets came into the light with a fury that left no one the same. In 2018 Pope Francis ordered a thorough Vatican investigation of a living American Cardinal, a nearly 500-page report released this past Tuesday [November 10, 2020] and easily accessible to the public in English. “Report on the Holy See’s Institutional Knowledge and Decision-Making Related to Former Cardinal Theodore Edgar McCarrick [1930-2017]. The full text is here and on other websites. If you are starting from scratch or confused about Cardinal McCarrick’s career and behavior, there are good narratives including this one from America Magazine or a podcast from the same site.
Given that church ministers, catechists, and Catholic adults in the world are looked up to for answers about the Church, including its inner working, it is imperative that anyone in a church leadership role [say, as an adult education teacher] have accurate information at the ready, not hearsay. Every national dinner hour television news ran the McCarrick Report alongside the national Covid-19 spread and the election vote-counting on Tuesday evening. To get caught flatfooted by a fellow parishioner who is angry, distraught, or looking for information is unprofessional for a Catholic minister. On the other hand, as I review dozens of Catholic blogsites nearly daily to get the grass roots pulse, I see more posters upset about the election returns than the serious revelations of Pope John Paul II’s mismanagement of abusive bishops, though I have come across pockets of communities which advocate removing the name of the canonized pope from church entities.
How does a local catechist or pastor awaken and explain this current crisis in the Church? And trust me, it needs to be addressed. Too many good folks have left the institutional practice of Catholicism already because of an absence of transparency and honesty on the part of Church leaders. Some former brethren, sadly, are victims themselves of clerical perpetrators and the bishops who failed to address the problem. Many more are angry and perceive [often rightly] that portions of their offertory funds are being diverted from ministry to pay damages and lawyers, much of this information hidden in non-disclosure settlements. Before any meaningful ministry of evangelization can get off the ground, there must be a clearing of the air as well as institutional/attitudinal reform of the exercise of Church ministry.
First, how has your parish responded to the clergy abuse scandal since the story burst on to the American scene in 2002 with the Boston Globe’s investigative reporting, portrayed recently in the film “Spotlight?” My impression is that if abuse occurred in a parish [or in widespread numbers in a diocese], there is a much greater psychological and spiritual impact, and heightened publicity of abusive events such as new revelations about Cardinal McCarrick can trigger relapses and emotional discomfort. Parish staffs may want to keep an ear to the ground for distressed members in the current flurry of publicity.
Parishes such as mine, which have had no reported clerical abuse cases in its thirty-year history, may possess a blissfully ignorant congregation which has little grasp of the scope or the damage suffered by Catholics around the country and around the world. The risk of complacence, “that type of thing happens in Boston or Buffalo but not here,” sometimes needs a pastoral reminder or jolt that bad things can happen anywhere.
Second, Catholics need reminding that the narrative of clerical abuse has evolved over the years. In 2002 the Church was reeling from the sheer numbers of clergy and victims. Over the next decade the complicity of many bishops in cover-up became the focus, and a few were arrested and sent to jail. In 2017-2018 the tentacles of cover-up were discovered to reach higher than local bishops, into the highest ranks of the Church. In very recent years the influence of money for protection, promotion, and other favors came into general focus, such as the case of Bishop Bransfield of West Virginia  and of course McCarrick.
For some years now just about every diocese in the United States has developed strict protocols on the protection of minors and, in my own diocese, the handling of money at every level. While these painstaking steps should be applauded, it is painfully evident that no protocols exist for bishops, some of whom use cash gifts, promotion, and intimidation to buy favor and, evidently, protection if that was needed.
Third, clericalism at the very least hindered internal church discipline and gave many priests and bishops a false sense of security. I have read several hundred individual abuse investigation reports over the past two decades. One of the most common features of clerical-lay interactions in an abuse allegation is the contempt of clerics for lay persons seeking help. [There are several such examples in the McCarrick Report.] A common theme is a complaint made by the parents of a minor abuse victim to a local pastor or officer of the diocese about a specific priest. Often local dioceses use the old philosophical medieval maxim of “Ockham’s Razor,” which roughly translated means “the simplest answer is usually the right one.”
Thus, the local priest or chancery official consoles the parents/victims that “there must be a misunderstanding and I’ll have a good talk with Father X. You don’t need to worry about this anymore.” If the parents are not so easily dismissed, the pastor may appeal to their standing in the Church with reminders that “rumors like this can destroy the Body of Christ,” or in my classmate’s favorite phrase, “pious drivel.” If the parents or adult victims are adamant and litigious, they may get an interview with a diocesan official with promises of follow-up, and in a few cases, funds for counseling. Often, their complaints were buried. The grip of clericalism in hiding abuse was only broken when the clerical structure finally faced an immutable force, civil law enforcement.
Clericalism’s central pillar is an interpretation of Catholic theology that an ordained priest is, by nature of the Sacrament of Orders, a superior man. Sacramentally speaking, a priest is unique in the Church in the way he serves it, as leader and gatherer around the Eucharistic banquet and the other sacraments of life in the Apostolic tradition. Clericalism holds that a priest is better than a layman, period, in the natural order of things. Seminaries and certain devotional trends promote the idea that a priest as priest is superior to lay persons, the thinking goes, and the need to protect his elevated status in all circumstances supersedes any other considerations even when criminal activity is involved. The optic of the Church becomes the Roman collar, not the pouring of baptismal water which raises all the faithful to the priesthood of Christ.
John Paul II was a fierce defender of the image of the priesthood: in 1992 in Pastores Dabo Vobis [para. 20] [or “I will give you shepherds”] he wrote: “Therefore, since every priest in his own way represents the person of Christ himself, he is endowed with a special grace. By this grace the priest, through his service of the people committed to his care and all the People of God, is able the better to pursue the perfection of Christ, whose place he takes. The human weakness of his flesh is remedied by the holiness of him who became for us a high priest 'holy, innocent, undefiled, separated from sinners' (Heb. 7:26).” It is not unthinkable that Pope John Paul’s idealism regarding the image of the Church and the priesthood impacted his ability to separate the sheep from the goats, so to speak. As Cardinal Timothy Dolan wrote in 2011, we have many “John Paul II seminarians and priests” who identify with their uniqueness and do not grasp Pope Francis’ call for clerics to “smell like their sheep.”
It is also true that there is clericalism within clericalism. The crux of the McCarrick Report is John Paul’s appointment of McCarrick to the Archdiocese of Washington in November 2000 against the advice of laity, seminarians, priests, bishops and even Cardinal John O’Connor of New York. McCarrick had, by 2000, been refused three major promotions by the Vatican for his lifestyle [including the Washington, D.C., position which he ultimately attained after a second review.] While the November 10 report cites numerous examples of “bishops behaving badly” in McCarrick’s vetting, the pope elected to make the appointment by his own judgment, overriding both the brotherhood of the priesthood and the wisdom of the baptized faithful knowledgeable of the case.
Fourth, priests and parishioners need to understand the nature of their relationship, both in terms of Church Law [Canon Law] and, equally important, their day to day coexistence in parish life. A good way to start a conversation might be a parish-wide study and pulpit reflection on the nature of the parish, based upon Canon Law and a reasonably understand of what a parish is. [Over lunch yesterday with one of my old catechetical students, I complained that parishes should have been doing this kind of reflection during the Covid-19 restrictions when there was enforced time to stay home and pursue the important things in life we don’t usually address. “We’ve wasted a catechetical year,” I lamented, and worse, we have the technology to do this sort of thing and didn’t use it.]
For years I have heard the complaint that priests do not understand the challenges of the laity, and as a former pastor I will own that. But it is equally true that parish members do not understand the challenges to conscientious priests, either. There are two texts which strike me as honest descriptions of priestly parish life, a pair of studies of case histories of priests in the ministry. The National Opinion Research Center [NORC] undertook significant studies of Catholic priests in the context of Christian leadership for the new millennium. The first volume, The First Five Years of the Priesthood, was released in 2002, and Experiences of Priests Ordained Five to Nine Years arrived in 2006. Just slightly dated—the influx of international priests to pastorates in the United States has accelerated and, in some ways, compounded preexisting challenges—the works may open eyes to a healthy commiseration and trust that priests, as a rule, are disgusted with malfeasance by their bishops or the Vatican as much as their parishioners.
A good deal of local church conflict with pastors involves matters already set in stone. Parishes are bound by Canon Law to have a finance council to advise the pastor, who by the same law does have the last word on fiscal decisions. From experience I can say that a pastor is treading difficult terrain who ignores frank concerns of the parish family. While Canon Law states that Bishops may mandate parish councils throughout their dioceses, the last research, around 2010, indicates that about half of the U.S. Church operate with established pastoral or parish councils. More recent research has found that many priests, notably younger clergy, have difficulty dealing with the laity than in the earlier decades after Vatican II. Consequently, I put more hope in less structured and more personal and trusting interactions between the priests and people of any given parish.
With the demand for priests so high, some bishops are ordaining men with obvious personality disorders. These sorts of preconditions are not cured by prayer and experience. When combined with the hubris of an imperial theology of priesthood, honesty and transparency will lose every time. Congregations and, worse, individuals, can suffer significant disdain and wounds from poor pastoral interactions. We are past the time of grin and bear it. It is not a sacrilege to report first-hand poor pastoral interactions with a priest to a bishop or his delegate in the chancery. [I am assuming here that readers are already familiar with the civil obligations of reporting child abuse.] As a counselor I have advised such a course of action to a few patients who suffered from thoughtless pastoral insensitivity. The usual objection is that “they won’t take me seriously” or “nothing will be done.” The McCarrick Report is witness enough to that. But I reply that a complaint or a report makes the next complaint from another person much more believable.
This is the end of a rather long post, I will admit. I began it last Tuesday. I have added to it throughout the week while I am caring for my wife, Margaret. She was injured and somewhat incapacitated by a bicycling accident on October 24 that required surgery on November 3. She is doing well but still has significant therapy coming down the road. Keep her in your prayers. And I promise some upbeat posts coming along this week.
On Tuesday, November 10, at 2 PM Rome time the Vatican will release the so-called “McCarrick Report.” This mammoth document—minimally estimated at 600 pages by those few who have seen it—covers the entire priestly career of former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, who was ordained in 1930 and forced to retire from the College of Cardinals in 2018. The report is a multitiered analysis of a scandal that may seriously impact the reputations of present and past Church officers in the United States and in Rome, and possibly cast a shadow over at least one pope. Senior churchmen such as Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York and much of the national Catholic press have warned of its impact when released on Tuesday. [As a rule, such matters as those discussed here in this post are not featured in parish websites and Facebook pages sponsored by parishes.]
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.
On My Mind