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Uncle Ted’s Social Network

Former Cardinal Ted McCarrick, in 2010 (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

Anybody who knows much of anything about the US Catholic Church and the abuse scandal knows that former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick was at the center of much of it. But until now, to my knowledge, no one has mapped his web of influence within the Catholic hierarchy. Well, here is something truly useful for the cause of understanding the Catholic sex abuse crisis, and understanding how the Church might be reformed: an academic paper using social science to identify the networks of influence throughout the Catholic hierarchy.

Its author is the prominent UK Catholic social scientist Stephen Bullivant, working with Australian postdoc researcher Giovanni Radhitio Putra Sadewo. Here’s the abstract:

Social Network Analysis (SNA) has shed powerful light on cultures where the influence of patronage, preferment, and reciprocal obligations are traditionally important. We argue here that episcopal appointments, culture, and governance within the Catholic Church are ideal topics for SNA interrogation. This paper presents preliminary findings, using original network data for the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. These show how a network-informed approach may help with the urgent task of understanding the ecclesiastical cultures in which sexual abuse occurs, and/or is enabled, ignored, and covered up. Particular reference is made to Theodore McCarrick, the former DC Archbishop recently “dismissed from the clerical state”. Commentators naturally use terms like “protégé”, “clique”, “network”, and “kingmaker” when discussing both the McCarrick affair and church politics more generally: precisely such folk-descriptions of social and political life that SNA is designed to quantify and explain.

In other words, these social scientists have created a map of how kingmakers within the Catholic hierarchy reproduce and extend their influence. What they have not done here, and it may not be possible to do, is to correlate the sexual identities of these prominent hierarchs with their influence. That is, they’ve created a map of what you might uncharitably call a “mafia” — but not necessarily the infamous “lavender mafia.”

Non-Catholics should know that within the Catholic Church, bishops play a key role in making other bishops. Only the Pope can name bishops, but he almost always chooses from among a short list of names submitted to him by the apostolic nuncio (Vatican ambassador) in a country. Those names have come to the nuncio from local archbishops. The Catholic hierarchical system reproduces itself from within. There’s nothing sinister in principle about this at all.

But as Bullivant & Sadewo observe, this system is unavoidably an old boys network, and ripe for exploitation and abuse:

Whatever the theological justifications for, and desirability of, these features, from the perspective of SNA one might plausibly hypothesize a number of potentially negative properties emerging from this situation. For example, these might include the potential for ambitious clergy (or seminarians) to actively seek the favour and patronage of their own (and/or other influential) bishops, or indeed for bishops to use the hope – or even promise – of preferment as a means of incentivizing or rewarding loyalty. It could result in certain “types” (in terms of personality, class, ethnic background, theological vision, etc.) of priests being favoured and/or formed, in line with the type of their own bishop, and perhaps of a wider episcopal “mould” or “culture”. This homophilizing tendency would then be intensified by the fact that “how to be a bishop” is learned, in very great measure, through a process of imitation and socialization. It might lead to the creation of identifiable “factions” or “cliques” of bishops, bound by mutual bonds of preferment and favour, who act – formally or informally – in concert, and who each support and promote each other’s protégés.

Furthermore, given all this, it might feasibly create shared senses of solidarity among particular groups of bishops, such that if “one falls, we all do”. To give a hypothetical example: suppose that the bishops in a given province had all served as vicars general, chancellors, and/or auxiliary bishops for each other, and had in turn (even absent direct or formal collusion; cf. Bourdieu, [1984] 1988:84-9 on similar dynamics at work within academic appointments) returned the favour by supporting the promotion of each other’s chancery favourites. Should one of the senior bishops in this group then be rumoured to have committed crimes while in office, it is not hard to imagine how others in the network might seek a “quiet” solution to the problem, to prevent either themselves or their patrons becoming implicated, even if by association, to varying degrees.

The paper quotes Bishop Robert Barron, an auxiliary bishop in Los Angeles, talking about how the hierarchical network protected its own. Bishop Barron said:

[I]t seems numerous bishops, archbishops, and cardinals, both in this country and in the Vatican, knew all about McCarrick’s outrageous behavior and did nothing in response to it; or, rather worse, they continued to advance him up the ecclesiastical ladder, from auxiliary bishop, to bishop of a diocese, to archbishop, and finally to cardinal. Even after he resigned from his post in Washington, DC, […] McCarrick continued to be a roving ambassador for the Church and a kingmaker in the American hierarchy – again, while everyone knew about his disturbing and abusive tendencies.

The paper includes charts showing the connections among key bishops and others, as well as a map indicating the personal connections between McCarrick and other bishops. The paper’s authors are careful to say that one should not assume guilt by association. It would be unfair to conclude that just because a bishop had close social ties to McCarrick that that same bishop knew about McCarrick’s dirty deeds, or covered them up.

Nevertheless, say the authors, you would have to be very naive to dismiss the role networks of silence played in concealing this terrible corruption:

A more-or-less standard pattern emerged: credible allegations against an abusive priest being kept quiet, with assurances made to the victims and their families; the priest in question being quietly reassigned, perhaps after a period of ‘successful’ counselling at one of a small group of Church-run treatment centres specializing in precisely this, or sent to another diocese with a glowing letter of recommendation; no thought whatsoever being given to this new set of young people being put into very serious harm’s way; and this process being repeated, multiple times, for years if not decades.

Bullivant and Sadewo theorize that nobody sat down and promulgated a strategy for covering up scandal, but rather these strategies emerged organically from within these closed networks, and were passed down through the system. They also talk about “very serious conflicts of interest” among bishops who owe their place in the hierarchy to older, more powerful bishops who godfathered their appointments. This, they say, is exactly what happened in the McCarrick case. The good thing about the system is that it allows for bishops to select other bishops whom they know have the qualities it takes to be a bishop. The bad thing is that it indebts younger bishops to older ones, incentivizing them to turn a blind eye to corruption.

Read the whole thing. The paper does not hold social network analysis up as a cure-all for the crisis of reform within the hierarchy, but simply points out how it is a helpful tool for those tasked with trying to make the system work better. The authors suggest other related areas of scholarly inquiry. One thing they don’t mention — something I did bring up above — is the role of sexual relationships and identity, and their roles in the episcopal process. I’m not simply talking about powerful bishops who advance sexual partners. I’m talking about men like three powerful archbishops I know of — all now deceased — who to my knowledge were not sexually active later in life, but who almost certainly did have gay sex lives as young priests. In their cases, it’s not that they promoted sexual partners, but that their pasts made them blackmailable.

The late scholar Richard Sipe knew very well how this worked. I don’t know who controls his archives, and what kind of access scholars have to it. But I would be willing to bet there is some interesting social network analysis to be done from his data.

Reading the paper, two thoughts occurred to me about the difficulty of reforming the system. I am thinking now of two sitting bishops — one the ordinary of a small diocese, the other the ordinary of a major archdiocese. I won’t say their names so I can speak frankly. Informed readers can easily guess the names of these two men, whom I’ll call Archbishop A and Bishop B. If you comment on this post, do not hazard a guess as to their identities. I will not publish those posts, simply because I don’t want to facilitate a guessing game. The point is not their identities, but the problems their cases represent.

Neither bishop emerged from their diocese’s local or regional episcopal culture. The Vatican sent them in from outside the network. When both arrived, they walked into a situation in which they were strangers, and their predecessors had established deep administrative cultures. They could not possibly have known much about their new assignments, and understandably had to rely on a local network of monsignors and church officers to guide them.

Both Archbishop A and Bishop B had to depend on help from well-entrenched bureaucrats who knew where the bodies were buried, so to speak, and who sought to acculturate the new ordinaries into the way of life in that diocese. In Archbishop A’s case, his new right-hand man was a very practiced and skillful gay priest of long experience in that archdiocese, and who was known to local church insiders as a key player in clerical gay culture. Monsignor X was the kind of man who knew everything about everybody. It took years, but his reputation finally caught up with Monsignor X, who was eased out. When Archbishop A took over that archdiocese, I knew that nothing there would ever change as long as Monsignor X stayed at the top of archdiocesan governance.

Let’s assume for the sake of argument that Archbishop A really did want to do the right thing — that he came to town with a clean personal record, and wanted to run a clean ship. Given the size of that archdiocese, and the intricacies of its networks and sub-networks, Archbishop A would have to depend on those who understood it, at least at first. It’s easy to imagine how he would eventually come to see things from the point of view of Monsignor X, who no doubt told him that things were the way they were there because they couldn’t have been otherwise.

Similarly, in the case of Bishop B, he had to depend on local monsignori to help him understand his new diocese. Years later, it emerged that Bishop B learned of homosexual activity among some clergy, and some instances of abuse. Bishop B did not act as he ought to have done when confronted by the evidence. Now it’s just a guess, but I don’t believe that Bishop B was compromised at all in his personal behavior. But I do believe it likely that Bishop B did what most of us would have done in his situation: assumed that the leadership team put in place by his predecessor was credible and trustworthy.

In fact, from what I have gathered, they had their own secrets to keep, and networks to protect. What I don’t know, and can’t plausibly speculate on, is the extent to which Bishop B “went native” — that is, came to adopt the insider views of the men on whom he depended as his guides to life in that diocese.

Again, let us assume that both Archbishop A and Bishop B arrived at their new assignments with clean personal records, and professing admirable ideals. But the realities of governing required them to rely on experienced local people who may have led them astray. Had they arrived with their own administrative team, think of how long it would have taken the newcomers to come to understand how the diocese works — and how entrenched sub-networks of bad actors could have taken advantage of their lack of experience and local knowledge.

It is hard to imagine the changes in administrative policy that could prevent this sort of thing from happening. The cliche is true: personnel is policy. In my life, the Catholic priests I have known who have been the kind of devout, morally strong men one would hope to have as bishops have almost always been priests who openly say that being a bishop is the last thing they would ever want.

It is vital to reform the church bureaucracy to make abuses of power that led to the sex abuse scandal less likely to occur. This new paper by Bullivant & Sadewo is a valuable contribution to that ongoing effort. But let’s be honest: it is impossible to come up with a plan of government, in a church or in any other organization, that does away with the need for men to be good.

As I was preparing to post this, and looking for a photo of Ted McCarrick to illustrate it, I discovered that Elizabeth Bruenig at The New York Times has just this afternoon published a piece about members of a single family targeted by the lecherous cardinal. Excerpts:

It was hard for Francis to describe what happened when it was his turn to sleep in Mr. McCarrick’s bed, which he estimated happened a dozen or more times, starting when he was 12 and trailing into his early adulthood. Francis looked down and spoke quietly when he said that Mr. McCarrick would usually offer to scratch his back and that he would sometimes press his body against Francis and slip his hands under the boy’s shirt or slide his fingers underneath the waistband of Francis’ underwear. While Mr. McCarrick was touching him, Francis said, he would murmur little entreaties: “You have to pray for your poor uncle,” Francis recalled his saying, as though it were Francis’ responsibility to reconcile the priest to God, even as he lay helpless and confused against him.


None of Francis’ four adult children describe themselves as practicing Catholics, in large part because of their father’s experience with Mr. McCarrick and the sex abuse crisis. Francis had been open — though not necessarily explicit — with them about Mr. McCarrick’s behavior; he never wanted to foster the climate of oppressive secrecy that had shrouded his childhood.

“Christianity is supposed to be about loving your fellow people and doing good and believing there’s good,” Francis’ older daughter told me. “None of that rings true in any of this.”

That network of bishops and clergy who knew all about (or enough about) what Uncle Ted was doing, but said nothing — they are complicit in this ruin. The social science paper lays it out in abstract detail; Elizabeth Bruenig’s story puts flesh and blood, heart and soul, onto the structure. Bullivant & Sadewo provide the map; Bruenig explores part of the territory. It is a harsh and pitiless land, let me tell you.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. A veteran of three decades of magazine and newspaper journalism, he has also written three New York Times bestsellers—Live Not By Lies, The Benedict Option, and The Little Way of Ruthie Lemingas well as Crunchy Cons and How Dante Can Save Your Life. Dreher lives in Baton Rouge, La.

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