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The McCarrick Report

The Vatican finally comes clean (it seems) on how Uncle Ted got away with it

Just before leaving for Nashville, I received a copy of the executive summary of The McCarrick Report, the result of the Vatican’s official investigation into former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, who was laicized a couple of years ago over sex abuse allegations. Very quickly, these are the highlights, at least the ones that stood out to me on first read:


  1. In 1999, Cardinal John O’Connor of New York warned Pope John Paul II, in writing, not to elevate McCarrick to the archbishopric because he was a sex abuser. O’Connor died of cancer that year. McCarrick later convinced the Pope that these were slanders — and John Paul believed him. In 2000, McCarrick was made Archbishop of Washington, then cardinal.
  2. Why did John Paul believe him? According to the report, the accusations were not airtight by the time they got to the Holy See. The bishops of New Jersey lied to the Pope to defend McCarrick. John Paul’s experience in Poland taught him that Communists often lied in specifically this way about clerics to discredit them. And John Paul trusted his own personal knowledge of McCarrick’s character, from having worked with him for years.
  3. In 2005, the new pope, Benedict XVI, tried to force McCarrick to resign over all this. The record shows that he and his top advisers met in Rome, but they declined to pursue a formal canonical process to get rid of McCarrick, hoping instead that he would take the hint and withdraw. McCarrick resigned as DC archbishop in 2006, and was replaced.
  4. From 2006 to 2008, more information about McCarrick’s abuse of seminarians and others made its way to the Vatican. Benedict XVI dithered about how to handle it. Meanwhile, McCarrick continued to work very publicly in the US. It appears that nobody in Rome wanted to act clearly and decisively against McCarrick.
  5. The report says that Pope Francis never received solid reports of McCarrick’s actions, and trusted that they were just rumors. The report says that Archbishop Vigano, the former Vatican ambassador to the US, claims that he told Francis about McCarrick, but this (says the report) cannot be substantiated.

Those are the main claims in the report’s executive summary. The entire 400+ page report can be read here.

The Catholic News Agency report is here.

So, the McCarrick Report blames the dead Pope and the retired Pope, but exonerates the current Pope by saying that he trusted the previous two popes. How convenient. I don’t believe it for a second. I believe this is likely a whitewash of Francis, though by no means does that put the blame entirely on him.

Nevertheless, the document paints a picture of Church corruption that is damning. We see an old boys network of churchmen who weren’t afraid to lie to the Pope to advance the career of McCarrick. McCarrick certainly wasn’t afraid to lie to the Pope about himself, and he even swore an oath that he was innocent. John Paul II’s judgment when it came to bishops was deficient — this we know. We see in this report evidence that he was blinded by deep clericalism.

I find it impossible to let JP2 off the hook because he was supposedly blinded by his Communist experience.  Cardinal O’Connor was one of the most conservative prelates in the Church, and he warned the Holy Father not to advance McCarrick. I think John Paul just did not want to believe these things. Cardinal Schönborn of Vienna has said that on a different case, that of an Austrian cardinal, Grör, who had abused many boys, John Paul simply did not want to accept the truth. Schönborn has said that he had to admonish John Paul to act.

Ultimately, Theodore McCarrick’s success in the Church is chiefly the fault of John Paul II. I wish it weren’t so, but there it is.

We see that Benedict XVI was more realistic than his predecessor, but he too was timid in the face of McCarrick’s defiance. This isn’t in the report, but I recall the words of the SSPX bishop Bernard Fellay, who met with the new Pope in 2005, and recalled asking him why he didn’t take stronger action against bad men in the Church hierarchy. He said Benedict pointed to the entrance to his office and said something like, “My authority ends at that door.” In other words, the Realpolitik of the Catholic Church meant that the Pope was a de facto figurehead, that the Curia would not obey him.

True or not, we see in this report a Catholic institutional system that really did not want to confront McCarrick. Whether it was by fear (of giving scandal, of facing the horrible truth about Church corruption, etc.) or laziness, or because McCarrick was blackmailing others in the hierarchy, we don’t know. It could well have been that the senior Church leadership just didn’t think what McCarrick was accused of was that big a deal. What we see in this report is that the Vatican knew since at least 1999 that Theodore McCarrick was damaged goods, yet promoted him all along the way, and did not meaningfully try to stop him until Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York came forward in 2018 with these allegations.

Don’t forget this social science work from earlier this year tracking McCarrick’s social network within the Catholic hierarchy. He knew everybody — and everybody knew about him. If you read the McCarrick Report with knowledge of the broader culture within the Catholic Church that has come out since the scandal broke big in 2002, you will not be surprised: it’s a culture that looks out after its own, that mistakes the good of its members for the good of the wider Church, that is more interested in keeping up appearances than in moral rectitude and spiritual integrity, and that cannot be trusted to govern itself.

For me, as a longtime admirer of John Paul II — whose leadership was instrumental in my conversion to Catholicism in 1993 — facing the truth about his terrible misgovernance of the Church is hard. I can’t say that the McCarrick Report is surprising — it is not new news that JP2 was a poor steward of episcopal appointments — but it is still a blow. We know that John Paul II was blind to the evil of Maciel Marcial, the founder of the Legionaries of Christ. I do not think John Paul was malicious. I think he was willfully blind — and culpably blind.

Nevertheless, we can’t put it all on John Paul II. If Benedict XVI — who acted decisively against Maciel when he succeeded JP2 — did little or nothing about McCarrick, how much can we count on the authority of any Pope? I’m certainly not trying to exonerate John Paul here, but it appears that the whole structure was to some degree rotten. Why did none of those other high-ranking cardinals, men who knew, or should have known, about McCarrick, never step in? What was stopping them?

Maybe the full report (I only read the executive summary) will offer more answers.

We have also seen, with Francis, a deep reluctance to face the ugly truth about sexual corruption among the clergy, especially the bishops. One cannot help wondering if the institutional Catholic Church, at the level of the hierarchy, is so far gone that it is incapable of reforming itself. The veteran Vatican reporter John Allen wrote this on the eve of the report’s release:

Beyond that, we know from the experience of the last thirty years that cases with a “smoking gun” proving conclusively the Vatican knew a given cleric or prelate was an abuser and covered it up anyway are hard to find. More often we’re in the “should have known” arena, meaning they got credible reports and claims and declined to pursue them, usually due to the willful ignorance of a clerical culture.

By “clerical culture,” what’s meant is a culture in which clerics get the benefit of the doubt, and the higher up the food chain you go, the more doubt you get. Further, it’s a culture in which the opinions and instincts of bishops count for more than either lay people or rank-and-file priests – so that if one bishop says another bishop is a great guy, that’s often worth 100 laity or 10 priests warning that something is off.

That culture may be crumbling fast, but it was in place for virtually the entire span of the saga this report seeks to document.

It would be easier, naturally, if what happened could be explained by a couple of cookie-cutter villains, so we knew who to blame. The less satisfying truth may be that an entire culture, skillfully exploited by a charming and resourceful prelate, induced otherwise decent people to ignore clear warning signs of danger.

That’s really useful. Everybody’s going to want to find a villain that suits their own preferences within the Church’s politics, but this thing Allen identifies is the greatest villain of all — and the hardest to fight. They lie — to themselves, and each other — because that’s who they are.

Do you remember the final scene in the film Fargo, in which a nonplussed Sheriff Marge is taking the murderer off to jail, and speaks her simple monologue to him (if you haven’t seen the movie, don’t watch this):

That’s how I feel about this report, when I think of Popes, cardinals, and bishops, and their culpable indifference to the sins and crimes of a Prince of the Church: “And for what?”

UPDATE: One more thing. Many of you who have followed my work for a while know that I first learned about McCarrick’s evil deeds in 2002. I knew of two laymen who had been part of an American private delegation to Rome, which had gone to urgently warn the Vatican not to move McCarrick to Washington and make him a cardinal, because he was a sex abuser. The first source told me it was true, but he wouldn’t go on the record. The second source reacted with shock when I asked him about it, and stammered that if it were true, he wouldn’t admit it “for the same reason Noah’s sons covered their father in his drunkenness.” In other words, to protect the Church.

I couldn’t write about the story without those men going on the record. But word got back to McCarrick, thanks to the priest who told me about those two trusting the wrong man, and McCarrick asked his private lawyer to call my boss and admitted that the story was true, but downplayed its significance, and asked to take me off the story. My boss refused, but there was no story anyway, because no one would go on the record. I did not have enough proof to write anything.

If either of those men — or any of the others, whose names are not known to me, on that mission to Rome — had come forward then, how different would things be today? What did they have to fear? They were laymen. No bishop was going to fire them, or harm them. Yet they kept their silence.

The hierarchy is chiefly to blame for McCarrick. But it’s not the only one at fault. The lack of moral courage of the laity is part of this story too.

UPDATE: I have arrived late in Nashville tonight after a day of driving. I want simply to point out that I saw something that the liberal Catholic writer and Francis biographer Austen Ivereigh Michael Sean Winters [I apologize to Ivereigh for my mistake — RD] wrote saying that St. John Paul II’s name should come off high schools because of this. That is preposterous, and, if you ask me, a rather obvious attempt to shunt blame away from Pope Francis for his role in this mess. Though I’m not Catholic, I have no doubt in my mind that John Paul II is a saint. Saints are those who either died for their faith (martyrs), or who in their life exhibited heroic virtue in Christ’s service. Can anyone possibly deny that John Paul was heroically virtuous, even holy? Saints are not always without sin. St. Jerome was said to have a terrific temper, for example. St. Olav, Norway’s great king, was a warrior.

A parish priest writes:

The difference between someone being malicious as opposed to culpably blind isn’t worth much on any moral scale. To blind oneself deliberately and with awareness of the evil involved is monstrous.
Even a saint can be a useless manager, a poor judge of character, or have blindspots due to culture. These can result, as all imperfections can, in massive harm to himself and others. It is, after all, a fallen world.
I’ve been reading through the McCarrick Report which, as we both know, is likely of only modest value despite its many eye-opening (or at least suspicion-confirming) revelations. The fact is that in cases like these, it’s not what’s in the documents that tells the tale, but what passed personally without record that would give the real story.
As laid out in the report, it seems that JP II’s intervention on behalf of McCarrick for Washington took place without any actual accusations having been brought to his attention or any media scrutiny being referenced. Instead, there is a 1999 letter from O’Connor who was concerned by a remark from JP II that he interpreted as the Pope thinking to advance McCarrick from Newark–perhaps to NYC. This letter reports vague rumors, but is careful to indicate that these do not involve sexual activities, that they are only rumors, and that the behavior ceased years ago.
O’Connor’s letter was followed by a broader review of the situation under the guidance of the Congregation for Bishops and the Nuncio (Montalvo, who was new). Eventually, it led to testimony from three NJ bishops who had direct knowledge of accusers, not rumors. Regrettably, they hid what they knew.
Nuncio Montalvo’s estimation of the O’Connor letter and the testimony from the NJ bishops was shared with the Congregation. Eventually, that led to seeking the opinion of Cacciavillan, the prior nuncio to the US. HIs evaluation is a classic piece of curial reasoning.
I may have missed something, but I didn’t note an actual report of sexual activity in the memos to JP II. Three bishops withheld crucial information.
Somehow, McCarrick learned he was being shelved. But he managed to get a handwritten note to JP II at Castel Gandolfo via the latter’s Polish personal secretary. He swore he was innocent and that seems to have tipped the balance.
While JP II was from Poland and had seen Nazi and Soviet propaganda at work, that doesn’t mean he was culturally incapable of realizing that there are bad priests. That he may have felt the media sensationalized things to the detriment of the Church doesn’t mean he was blind to evil in our midst.
It could be that his experience with government and media manipulations made him skeptical, but keep in mind that it was not the government or the media that was bringing any of this to his attention. It was members of the hierarchy. 
And JP II wouldn’t have been the only one to be taken in by a narcissistic/socio-pathic manipulator. My own sense is that narcissism/sociopathology is the key to McCarrick’s  dysfunction, not his sexual proclivities per se. In my experience, bishops don’t recognize readily or know how to deal with such men if they manifest as compliant and dutiful–which was McC’s MO with superiors (although certainly not with subordinates).
If you haven’t read M. Scott Peck’s “The People of the Lie” you really must. It’s a short work on narcissism and examines in some detail cases involving religious communities. They confuse people, harm them, and leave havoc in their wake.
In general, I’d be hesitant to accuse anyone of doing things culpably. It doesn’t add much to the conversation and requires that I pass judgment on the state of their soul. It’s enough to be able to say they seem to be doing x intentionally or not–whether that includes culpability I can leave to God.
As for JP II, I don’t know the details about Schoenborn’s claims or what JP II knew about Marciel at what point. But I know enough about the Vatican to suspect JP didn’t have unfiltered access to information.
Of course, I’ve always maintained that JP II and B16 would have been better served if they had created their own information gathering service, set up a proper investigative service, and then significantly sanctioned or removed clerics for serious violations of belief or practice. I mean, really, what can it mean to have removed the teaching licence from Curran, Kung, Schillebeckx, etc. and yet allow them to continue to preach, hear confessions, and give spiritual guidance as priests?!! That’s a major  failure in my book, but I don’t think culpable blindness accounts for it. These men were not afraid to face darkness in themselves, others, or the institutions of the Church.
Another parish priest:
I’m reading through the report. From my knowledge and experience everything really points to the same thing: homosexuals cover for each other over and over. For decades there are just far too many in positions of power.
UPDATE.2: Lee Podles, the Catholic writer whose book Sacrilege is absolutely gutting on the scandal, comments:

JPII’s record on handling sexual abuse is dismal.

After public pressure forced JPII to remove Groer from Vienna, the pope invited Groer to the Vatican during the consistory that made Groer’s successor, Schoenborn, a cardinal. Schoenborn was appalled.

Schoenborn personally informed me that during a private lunch with John Paul, he pleaded with the pope to take action against sexual abuse. John Paul refused, explaining “They won’t let me.” “They”?

There is also no excuse for JPII failure to take action against Maciel. The facts were incontrovertible, but JPII made a decision not to believe them. Why? Schoenborn had no idea, could think of no explanation.

Why do people turn their faces away from inconvenient facts? Even if this means that innocent people suffer and are irretrievably harmed. Why do Americans look away from the facts of abortion and persecute those who try to make them look? Why did Pilate ignore Jesus’ innocence? Why, why why?



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