The transparency of the damning McCarrick report is historic, but it leaves important questions unanswered

No one who knew Ted McCarrick comes off smelling like roses in the Vatican’s long-awaited report on how this sexual predator became a Cardinal.

This is the first time that investigators have been authorised to trawl through Vatican records. Pope Francis wanted their investigation of “institutional knowledge and decision-making” to be completely transparent. Although he is not quoted directly, it seems that he and Benedict XVI were interviewed as well, along with numerous cardinals, bishops, and priests, in Rome and in the United States. San Francisco-based Jeff Lena, the Vatican’s attorney in the US, is said to be the author, although his name does not appear on it.

Vatican expert John L. Allen Jr writes in Crux that “the McCarrick report may be remembered as the single most consequential step toward reform during the Francis papacy, not only because of what it reveals about this particular case, but the precedent it sets for how all future cases ought to be handled.”

McCarrick’s career is set out in painful detail: his abuse of seminarians and priests, rumours and gossip among clergy, the refusal of Church authorities to take allegations seriously, bishops who turned a blind eye to his crimes, and bumbling church bureaucracies.

Over the course of 460 pages and 1400 footnotes, the report documents how McCarrick managed to slither past all the gatekeepers and creep to the very peak of the Catholic hierarchy in his 60-year career. It answers some questions well, others poorly and others not at all.

Questions that the report answers

Was Pope Francis complicit in McCarrick’s abuse? In 2018 a former nuncio (Vatican ambassador) to the United States, Archbishop Carlo Viganò, released an open letter claiming that Pope Francis had ignored his warnings about McCarrick and had released him from the penalty of living a retired life of prayer and penance imposed on him by Benedict XVI in 2009 or 2010. “Although he knew that he was a corrupt man, he covered for him to the bitter end,” Viganò wrote in his extraordinarily bitter letter. The Pope’s behaviour was “grave, disconcerting and sinful” and he should resign.

Pope Francis ignored these allegations at the time, but they have been answered in the report. Two points among many convincingly refute Viganò. First, Benedict XVI never formally sanctioned McCarrick. Instead, he was strongly encouraged by the Vatican to keep a low profile after his retirement as archbishop of Washington DC. Although there was no proof of misconduct, rumours were accumulating. He was clearly told that it was highly imprudent to travel and appear at public events. McCarrick acknowledged this advice and then continued with his frantic activity. Francis never lifted sanctions, because they did not exist.

Second, Viganò himself was one of those who were at fault. Towards the end of the papacy of Benedict XVI, a Brazilian priest working in the Metuchen diocese, called “Priest 3” in the report, told Viganò that there had been overt sexual conduct between him and McCarrick in 1991. In 2012 Viganò was instructed to check the credibility of these allegations. He never did. “I was always waiting and thinking that [Viganò] was going to contact me. But he never contacted me,” the priest said.

Was John Paul II complicit in McCarrick’s abuse? It was John Paul II who appointed McCarrick Archbishop of Washington DC in 2001 and made him a Cardinal shortly thereafter. There is documentary evidence that he was aware of rumours about McCarrick -- so much so that he was passed over for Chicago, New York, and initially Washington. Cardinal John O’Connor, of New York, also strongly opposed his promotion.  

However, sometime in August or September 2000, the Pope changed his mind. Why? It is not fully documented, but there are at least three persuasive explanations. The Vatican asked four New Jersey bishops for their opinion and three of them “provided inaccurate and incomplete information to the Holy See regarding McCarrick’s sexual conduct with young adults”. Furthermore, there had never been any direct complaints from victims. And the Pope was not inclined to believe unsubstantiated rumours. Back in Poland, this had been a tactic used by Communists to discredit good men. “If they hate you they will accuse you of going with women. If they despise you they will accuse you of going with men,” remarked one prelate.

And most important, perhaps, was a letter from McCarrick responding to Cardinal O’Connor’s confidential note about the rumours. In it, he vehemently rejected everything that O’Connor had reported. He played the role of a virgin martyr suffering slander with heroic forbearance for the sake of the Church.

 … sure I have made mistakes and may have sometimes lacked in prudence, but in the seventy years of my life, I have never had sexual relations with any person, male or female, young or old, cleric or lay, nor have I ever abused another person or treated them with disrespect.

And humbly, ever so humbly, he added:

if His Holiness were to have lost confidence in me as a bishop, I would willingly resign my diocese and accept whatever ministry he would assign me. I know the regard the Holy Father has for me -- and I have great love for him. The most hurtful part of the matter for me is that it would sadden the Holy Father and let him feel that I had let him down.

He was lying. He was a world-class liar and John Paul II believed him. The Pope was a saint, but not a clairvoyant.

How did they miss it? In 1992 furious anonymous letters about the “sick bastard” McCarrick were sent to various bishops, including Cardinal O’Connor, who forwarded them to McCarrick, one of them with a note, “This stuff drives me crazy. I hate to send it to you, but would want you to do the same for me.” The letters were written in upper case, quoted Scripture, and contained no details. They were easily dismissed as the handiwork of a paranoid crank.  

There was widespread gossip that McCarrick shared a bed with seminarians at a beach house. But McCarrick was made of Teflon. He admitted openly that this had happened. He acknowledged that it had been imprudent, but denied that there had ever been sexual relations.

Then there were detailed complaints by some priests about horrific behaviour by McCarrick. However, these men were regarded as unreliable witnesses. “Priest 1” described McCarrick having sex with another priest and afterwards absolving him in Confession. But this man had abused minors himself and had been laicised. No one believed him. “Priest 3” had sex with McCarrick several times in 1991 and reported that McCarrick “tried to convince me that priests engaging in sexual activity with each other was normal and accepted in the United States.” When he reported this to his bishop, he was received coldly and advised to forget about it and to forgive McCarrick “for the good of the Church”. And later on, he was ignored by Viganò.

So all the Vatican bureaucracy had to go on were mounting rumours and gossip which were either deflected or flatly denied by McCarrick. His brazenness was amazing. He even denied it on CNN in an interview with Connie Chung. No one was prepared to denounce him. In one extraordinary incident, someone gave a reporter from the Newark-based Star-Ledger a printed list of the names and telephone numbers of seven former seminarians whom McCarrick had abused. The reporter rang all of them. None of them would say anything.

It took until June 2018 for victims to come forward.

Questions that the report does not answer

Was homosexuality or clericalism to blame for McCarrick’s rise? Archbishop Viganò, in his open letter, opted for homosexuality. Quoting American theologian Janet E. Smith, he declared: “The problem of clergy abuse cannot be resolved simply by the resignation of some bishops, and even less so by bureaucratic directives. The deeper problem lies in homosexual networks within the clergy which must be eradicated.”

However, while leaving it clear that McCarrick was a predatory homosexual, the assumption of the report is that clericalism – undue deference to priests and bishops – was to blame. This is Pope Francis’s take. As he wrote in 2018: “Clericalism, whether fostered by priests themselves or by lay persons, leads to an excision in the ecclesial body that supports and helps to perpetuate many of the evils that we are condemning today. To say ‘no’ to abuse is to say an emphatic ‘no’ to all forms of clericalism.” In McCarrick’s case, seminarians either feared him or sought to curry favour with him. Priests were afraid of him. Some bishops were not prepared to speak against him. Politicians loved him.

A footnote with testimony from “Priest 4” describes how McCarrick’s successor as bishop of Metuchen reacted when he told him of how he had been abused:

[Bishop] Hughes could not handle it. He did not want to accept that there was sex abuse in the Church, much less by a Bishop. And, as holy a man as he was, he was also a person who believed that nearly blind obedience to bishops was a foundational principle. So dealing with an issue like this with regard to the Archbishop of Newark would have opened a real crack in that foundation. It was not something that this man was ready to do.

And he reflected:

Bishops hold so much power over us and it is so easy for them to turn our lives upside down without just cause. This is real clericalism, the kind of power that may prevent others from coming forward.

But even if clericalism defined McCarrick’s incredible ability to ingratiate himself with powerful people, to manipulate superiors and to impose a code of omertà on bishops, priests and seminarians, surely there was a network of homosexual accomplices. Who were they? Are they still there? For years he took seminarians for weekends at the beach and forced them to sleep in the same bed. Did he corrupt a whole generation of priests? The report is silent.

What made McCarrick tick? “The secret of success is sincerity,” Groucho Marx reputedly said. “Once you can fake that you've got it made.” McCarrick’s entire life was built on that cynical maxim. What was going in the head of a talented man whose life was devoted to deception and manipulation? How could a priest be so cruel? For decades, he combined deviant sexuality with life as a bishop. He said Mass; he heard Confessions; he ordained priests; he preached the Gospel. For Catholics, this is unspeakably perverse, even, quite literally, diabolical.

But when a reporter interviewed him last year, McCarrick, defrocked, elderly and ailing, still played the virgin martyr. “I’m not as bad as they paint me,” he said. “I do not believe that I did the things that they accused me of.”

The report’s focus is solely legal responsibility, not sociology or psychology. It give readers no insight into McCarrick’s perversity.  

Could it happen again? The report treats sexual abuse among clergy as if it were unique to the Catholic Church. It’s not. Remember Harvey Weinstein, Jeffrey Epstein and Jimmy Savile? Like McCarrick, they were powerful, charismatic, manipulative and evil. Rumours abounded and no one did anything.

Sir Jimmy Savile, the British entertainer, abused hundreds of people for nearly 50 years, almost in plain sight, and died without ever being charged. After an investigation stretching over four years, Dame Janet Smith (an English judge, not the American theologian) produced a report in 2016 which is even longer than the Vatican’s. She identified serious problems which are very similar to those in the Catholic Church.

“There was a a culture within the BBC which made it difficult to complain or to say anything to management which might ‘rock the boat’,” she wrote. The “Talent”, the BBC’s stars, were virtually untouchable. One woman who had been assaulted by Savile was told by her boss: “Keep your mouth shut, he is a VIP”. There was no route for making complaints. BBC employees worked in silos, and different sections did not communicate. Under-age victims were ignored.

Dame Janet asked herself: even though the culture at the BBC has been transformed, could this happen again? Yes, she said, it could:

I do not think there is any organisation that can be completely confident that it does not harbour a child abuser. It must be recognised that child sex abusers can be highly intelligent, articulate and charismatic but manipulative people … Any organisation could be duped by such an individual … The power of celebrity and the trust we accord it, which show no real sign of diminishing in our society, make detection of a celebrity abuser even more difficult. Until a complaint is made, such people are likely to enjoy the confidence and approval of all those around them.

What is unique in the Catholic Church, at least for believers, is that it offers a path to “personal and communal conversion”. As this ground-breaking report shows, Pope Francis is serious about purging the “filth” of sexual abuse from the Church. #NeverAgain is hubristic, but #PleaseGodNeverAgain might work.


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