By now the facts of the McCarrick Report, issued by the Vatican on November 10, have been well documented throughout the Catholic press. Disgraced former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick engaged in years of sexual abuse with minors and seminarians, yet managed to be promoted to the highest ranks of the church hierarchy. The scandal has implicated a score of church leaders, from local bishops all the way to Pope St. John Paul II himself, who willfully aided McCarrick’s advance despite numerous warnings of his improprieties.
Following the story, reading the key takeaways of the report, one is incensed in multiple ways. There is the brazenness of McCarrick’s criminal acts, summarized in the February 2019 canonical process that found him guilty of “solicitation in the sacrament of confession and sins against the Sixth Commandment with minors and with adults, with the aggravating factor of the abuse of power.” There is the wound inflicted on the Holy Mother Church right when it most needs to show itself as an agent of compassion, mercy, and justice in a disintegrated world. There is, above all, the suffering of the victims, the violation of their dignity, the exploitation of their trust by a man whose very vocation was supposed to be modeled on the noncoercive and self-sacrificing example of Christ.
As we dig deeper, other details come to light—at first they seem small, almost inconsequential in context of McCarrick’s larger pattern of abuse, but taken together reveal a culture of entitlement that can poison the clerical class. One thinks of the fact that the Newark Archdiocese purchased, in 1988 and 1997, two separate homes on the Jersey Shore for McCarrick’s personal use; the first of these homes, in the borough of Sea Girt, was the site where seminarians have alleged McCarrick sexually harassed them.
While the cost of the homes in the grand scheme of things isn’t much, there were surely better uses for the diocesan budget—aiding the unhoused population of Newark might have been a start. (It wasn’t the last time the Newark Archdiocese privileged the luxe life of its hierarchs over the needs of its flock: in 2014, Archbishop John J. Myers, McCarrick’s successor who passed away in September, was criticized for spending a half a million dollars on renovations to his planned 7,500-square-foot retirement “palace” in the affluent hamlet of Pittstown while shuttering a beloved elementary school for supposed lack of funds.)
Then there are the individual stories of the men who enabled McCarrick’s rise: the Polish Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz, who has been accused of hiding correspondence about McCarrick from John Paul II when he served as the pope’s secretary; Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, who ignored instructions from Cardinal Marc Ouellet to investigate a claim against McCarrick in 2012; and the anonymous New Jersey bishops, now deceased, who provided incomplete information about McCarrick when it was requested by the Vatican in 2000.
In disentangling these stories, what stands out is the evasiveness, the lack of accountability, that flows upward through the channels of power. Everyone is covering for himself; following through with an investigation is always somebody else’s responsibility. For an institution that speaks in sanctimonious tones about “moral courage,” little of it appears to have been demonstrated throughout the McCarrick saga.
Viganò’s case deserves to be singled out for closer scrutiny. From his position at the Vatican Secretariat of State, he wrote memos in 2006 and 2008 drawing attention to McCarrick’s alleged misconduct and suggesting the opening of a canonical process to uncover the truth. The process never began, and when the order to investigate McCarrick further came from Cardinal Ouellet in 2012, Viganò failed to take the necessary steps. In a long and somewhat tortured interview with EWTN’s Raymond Arroyo published at the National Catholic Register, Viganò denies this, though he indicates that he did not have the “precise direction of the Secretariat of State” to send written communications related to the investigation. (Mike Lewis of the website Where Peter Is has discovered evidence that this interview was likely pre-scripted, calling its journalistic integrity into question.)
Viganò’s equivocations might have been overlooked had he not chosen to weaponize the McCarrick case against Pope Francis in 2018. Recall Viganò’s 11-page document, released as the Holy Father was on his visit to Ireland, accusing Pope Francis of “lifting” sanctions placed on McCarrick by Benedict XVI and calling for his resignation. As the McCarrick Report now makes clear, there were no formal “sanctions” to speak of; rather, they were instructions from Vatican officials to McCarrick to cut down on travel and public appearances, and which McCarrick seems not to have followed. In fact, while serving as nuncio to the United States, Viganò continued to correspond with McCarrick and even invited him to various events while the travel restrictions were in place. In one internal memo from 2012, Viganò went so far as to call the restrictions a “dead letter”—which makes his decision to redeploy them in his crusade against Francis all the more dubious.
A central figure in this lamentable drama is John Paul II himself. It was he who, despite a strong warning from then–New York Cardinal John O’Connor about McCarrick’s alleged behavior, chose to promote McCarrick to the high-profile position of Archbishop of Washington, D.C., as well as create him a cardinal. While it is not clear how many of the accusations levied against McCarrick—including claims of child abuse from the 1980s that were found credible in 2018—made it to the pope, O’Connor’s letter spoke in no uncertain terms of the “grave scandal” McCarrick’s promotion could cause the church.
Other high-level advisers issued similar warnings, yet the pope stood by McCarrick, even getting personally involved in the procedural tasks of his appointment. One theory is that the pope was blinkered by his experience in Poland, where authorities would drum up false charges against the clergy. When McCarrick claimed his innocence in a handwritten letter in August 2000, it was all the proof the pope needed to secure his trust.
Pope Francis should be commended for ordering the McCarrick Report in 2018, as well as ensuring that McCarrick was removed from ministry and from the College of Cardinals in 2017. But there is still much work to be done. The unspoken sadness is that the report had to happen at all—that these men who were supposed to be paragons of moral rectitude were found to be guilty of the same “cowardice, coziness, and convenience” (to use Jed S. Rakoff’s phrase) that insulates the corporate class and prevents proper investigation of crimes at the highest levels, and that the church had to expend precious resources in order to discover this. If the report is not used as a tool of conversion and a template for greater transparency, accountability, and lay involvement as a way of “ventilating” the Vatican bureaucracy, the church will be condemned to keep commissioning the same circular investigations that reveal a self-protective clerical caste where Christ was self-emptying, a meritocracy based on fundraising prowess where Christ was for the poor, and a record of obfuscations, evasions, and misinformation where Christ’s words pierced the heart with their directness.
Editor, Today’s American Catholic