Catholic writer Ross Douthat comes out swinging hard against Cardinal McCarrick and his episcopal fraternity of covering up. Excerpts:

In other words, two decades after McCarrick should have been removed from his offices, defrocked and handed over to the civil authorities, he was instead wielding remarkable influence in the church … right up until the moment when a lifetime’s worth of crimes were finally dragged into the light.

I think this long and sickening narrative should clarify why the McCarrick case, though “only” about one abuser, merits an expansive and public accounting of the facts. Over the course of multiple decades, across a period in which not just crimes but cover-ups devastated the moral credibility of the church’s hierarchy, many important figures in Rome and the United States must have known that a man who embodied the official response to the scandal was as guilty as any of the priests whose conduct he pretended to deplore.

Someone, or indeed many someones, needs to be held accountable for this disaster. And that accountability requires more than self-exculpating statements from the cardinals involved. It requires judgment — which requires more certain knowledge — which requires investigation — which probably requires an investigator with a mandate from the pope himself.

Douthat notes a painful irony: that the very irrelevance that the Catholic bishops now have to Catholic life and public life both might enable them to get away with it:

The lukewarm in their flock simply ignore them; the zealous build new institutions specifically designed to evade their oversight. Their political interventions go unheeded by Catholic Democrats and Catholic Republicans alike. In far too many cases an office that once bestrode entire cities now belongs to invisible company men, embarrassed phantoms materializing via videotape for the annual appeal.

Thus the great irony of the McCarrick moment — that the kind of crimes once covered up because of the power and influence of bishops might now be swept under quickly because of the episcopacy’s obscurity and irrelevance.

Are church leaders happy with this? With managing decline? If so, says Douthat, we’ll get “more empty statements of concern.” If not, “there we will have an independent investigation.” The bishops cannot be trusted to investigate themselves.

Will the leaders of the Catholic Church choose to live, or to die via decline into obsolence and contempt. The choice, says Douthat, lies now with Pope Francis — who, we have been told, in the past considered McCarrick a “hero,” and has certainly given him his way regarding the appointment of new cardinals. Three US cardinals — Tobin, Cupich, and Farrell — owe their appointments in part to McCarrick’s influence.

Does Francis have the courage to stand up to the corrupt system? We shall see.

Read the whole thing.