Theodore McCarrick the ex-cardinal has now been defrocked—just in time for the media coverage swirling around Pope Francis’s sex abuse summit this week. But McCarrick the kingmaker, McCarrick the narrative-spinner, still lives on—a spirit too towering to retire.
In 2002, McCarrick worked the media as the “attractive public face” of the sexual abuse crisis. The Washington Post dubbed him the Vatican’s “man of the hour”—even as he nuanced his way out of a strict “zero tolerance” policy. Nimbly, McCarrick suggested flexibility for past single instances of abuse—and greater leniency if the victim was an adolescent.
“If the person has been diagnosed as a pedophile, goodbye. But if he hasn’t been diagnosed as a pedophile and if there have been no other incidents, do you say, ‘One strike you’re out’? I don’t know the answer to that,” McCarrick said.
“I think [people] may feel that one act, even if it happened 30 years ago, should disqualify a man for continuing in the ministry. I’m not there yet,” McCarrick continually repeated. “You can have situations, say 30 years ago, where memories are not as accurate perhaps, or where people might have misinterpreted something,” he said in an interview still posted on the USCCB’s website on child and youth protection.
This was the McCarrick narrative on sexual abuse: zero tolerance only for “diagnosed” pedophiles or “future” abuses against minors—with zero discussion of the overwhelmingly homosexual nature of clerical predation on both minors and adults. And it was a narrative that McCarrick advanced as a principal writer of a 2002 Vatican communiqué that notably retreated from zero tolerance.
Another principal author of the communiqué was Cardinal Bertone, who, according to Archbishop Viganò, “notoriously favored promoting homosexuals into positions of responsibility.” While the communiqué acknowledged that most abuses were against adolescents and hence not “true cases of pedophilia,” it nevertheless advanced McCarrick’s “pedophilia” angle with talking points about how pedophilia wasn’t linked to celibacy. Meanwhile, it never spoke the word “homosexuality”—there was no inkling of the looming bombshell that 81 percent of US minor victims were males, 90 percent of whom were teenage boys.
As part of his media tour, McCarrick challenged enforcing a 1961 instruction against admitting men with homosexual inclinations into seminaries, arguing that the key was whether they had “tried” to be chaste. It was an artful way of dodging scrutiny into the Church’s homosexual networks and their role in the abuse crisis.
At the US bishops’ 2002 meeting in Dallas, McCarrick’s push against zero tolerance would fail; as he later recalled, the bishops had “had to listen” to their people even though he hadn’t been “happy” with the policy. But the rest of the McCarrick narrative would prevail as the bishops quashed the topics of homosexuality in the priesthood and sexual misconduct with adults. Later, as chairman of the USCCB’s Committee on Protection of Children and Young People, then-bishop Blase Cupich led a publicity tour brazenly denying the role of homosexuality in the abuse of minors. His argument was—as Phil Lawler put it—based on the “manufactured tautology” that “since the priests who molested teenage boys were not necessarily homosexuals…homosexuality was not an important factor.”
Seventeen years after Dallas, it was déjà vu as Pope Francis—accused by Viganò of knowingly rehabilitating McCarrick into a “trusted counselor”—handpicked Cupich, a top revolutionary on homosexuality and McCarrick protégé, as a lead organizer of this week’s sex abuse summit. Viganò has testified that McCarrick was behind Cupich’s ascent to the cardinalate. (Cupich confirmed this in 2014 when he said that you’re going to “have to ask” Viganò to find out who recommended his elevation.)
At the US bishops’ November meeting, Cupich voted against encouraging the Holy See to release all documents in the McCarrick case. Cupich also questioned whether clerical “consensual sex” could be reviewed in the same way as non-consensual sex—a remark that seemed to bespeak, as others have observed, “an unspoken desire to go soft on disciplining consensual homosexual activity among clerics.”
For Cupich, the question of homosexuality in the priesthood is a “diversion” from the “clericalism” that drives sexual abuse. His fellow abuse summit organizer, the Jesuit Fr. Hans Zollner, has likewise repeated the mantra that the abuse crisis concerns not homosexuality but “abuse of power”—despite previously admitting that “in most cases of [sex abuse] it is a question of homosexual abuse.” Zollner is, notably, an alumnus of a “shadow council” on legitimizing homosexual unions.
And so, in the lead-up to this week’s summit, Viganò has once again spoken up to challenge the lack of “genuine willingness to attend to the real causes of the present situation.” He powerfully articulates three lines of questioning:
(1.) “Why will the meeting focus exclusively on the abuse of minors? These crimes are indeed the most horrific, but the crises in the United States and Chile that have largely precipitated the upcoming summit have to do with abuses committed against young adults, including seminarians, not only against minors. Almost nothing has been said about sexual misconduct with adults, which is itself a grave abuse of pastoral authority, whether or not the relationship was ‘consensual.’”
(2.) “Why does the word ‘homosexuality’ never appear in recent official documents of the Holy See? This is by no means to suggest that most of those with a homosexual inclination are abusers, but the fact remains that the overwhelming majority of abuse has been inflicted on post-pubescent boys by homosexual clerics. It is mere hypocrisy to condemn the abuse and claim to sympathize with the victims without facing up to this fact honestly.”
(3.) “Why does Pope Francis keep and even call as his close collaborators people who are notorious homosexuals? Why has he refused to answer legitimate and sincere questions about these appointments? In doing so he has lost credibility on his real will to reform the Curia and fight the corruption.”
These are the questions that our leaders must honestly confront to finally expel the ghost of McCarrick. Pope Francis, especially, must still answer Viganò’s original testimony—not least because a new book by a liberal sociologist drops the bombshell that Pope Francis’s “entourage” confirmed that the pope knew about McCarrick’s homosexual relations with seminarians but still used him as an advisor for appointments like Cupich’s.
On the day of McCarrick’s laicization, James Grein, a McCarrick victim since age 11, poignantly articulated how McCarrick has “haunted” not only him but the entire Church “for the last 50 years.” This is painfully true. It is devastating that the shade of the ex-cardinal will still roam the sex abuse summit, infecting discourses with the McCarrick narrative, and haunting and hobbling our response to sexual abuse even now.