The professed intent of the McCarrick Report, released yesterday after much delay, is to shed some light on just how this man managed to rise to such status and power within the Church, all while his habit of sexual abuse were known to so many of his brother-bishops. In another time, in other circumstances, that might have been a worthwhile endeavor. But in 2020 just about any sensible observer can conclude, without reading a word of the report, that no explanation is necessary. There are no surprises here.
The real, dramatic moral rot is relatively rare. Men like McCarrick are the epicenter of such crises, but they are not the bulk of them. It’s the secondary sins that are significant to us, because these are the ones that are institutional—that speak to the ill health of our Church more than the evil of one man. McCarrick’s allies lying to one pope to protect one of their own. That pope’s refusal to believe, even in the face of evidence. The next pope’s failure to take decisive action. The McCarrick story is as much about the weakness of our leaders, and about a corrosive kind of in-group loyalty among them—I refuse to call it “clericalism,” but it’s something like what people mean by that term, on the occasions that it’s used in good faith—as it is about abuse.
This is no great revelation. This is the Church we have come to know.
McCarrick’s misdeeds became public knowledge over two years ago. They were private knowledge in certain circles—a sort of open secret—since before I was born. Yet the Vatican’s heel-dragging on the release of the report has kept the scandal very much alive up through the present day. While he had mostly faded from the public eye after his laicization in February of last year, the highly anticipated report has given the story a second life of sorts. This revival has made it so that the McCarrick scandal overlaps with yet another tale of curial misdeeds: the ongoing imbroglio in the Secretariat of State, centered on a troubling real-estate deal made last year, which seems to be approaching a climax.
It’s no mere coincidence that these two stories come to us at the same time. It’s a matter of course: the same institutions that enabled Theodore McCarrick also enabled Giovanni Cardinal Becciu. Powerful forces (or, rather, very weak forces) allow evil to rise like smoke to the utmost heights of the Church. That evil runs the gamut, from material greed to sexual abuse.
There will always be bad men who seek power for ill. In McCarrick’s case, it’s apparent that power for him was a means to sexual exploitation. In Becciu’s, it seems that power was a gateway to wealth and influence. In both cases, the men were protected and promoted by a host of others apparently driven far more by apathy than malice.
In the scandal at the Secretariat of State, for instance, Monsignor Mauro Carlino has just responded through a lawyer last week to charges on his involvement. Monsignor Carlino was one of five officials suspended last fall after a raid on the Secretariat’s offices. One of a number of half-hearted excuses provided by the Monsignor’s lawyer is that negotiations on the deal had already been planned before Carlino was assigned to spearhead them. Is he then absolved of his involvement? Would we entertain this line for a second—that it’s not his fault because he joined in after it started—on any matter of more dramatic moral substance? Will corruption be allowed to continue by sheer force of inertia?
It is to the Holy Father’s credit that he has ordered all financial holdings transferred out of the Secretariat of State. This may prove key to limiting the massive power of the Vatican’s most formidable organ. It may also help to check the ambitions of Cardinal Parolin, the current Secretary of State and erstwhile frontrunner to succeed Francis as supreme pontiff. Most of all, it has a chance of shaking up the tendency toward corruption that seems to have taken hold there, of breaking the inertia. But will it be successful? The recent history of popes’ struggles with corruption does not bode well for Francis.
Cardinal Viganó’s now-famous “testimony” on McCarrick was one of the first to reveal that the prelate’s pattern of misconduct had been known for nearly as long as it had been going on. But such reports do not just implicate the usual suspects: one of the most troubling details was that Pope Benedict XVI had been aware, and while he tried to implement some sanctions against McCarrick, he seems not to have tried terribly hard.
Likewise, this latest report from the Vatican confirms the fears of many that John Paul II was aware of the allegations against McCarrick—and yet still gave him to the Archdiocese of Washington and elevated him to the Sacred College. According to the report, John Paul believed McCarrick’s fellow New Jersey bishops when they swore that the allegations were false. Even when the late John Cardinal O’Connor, Archbishop of New York, wrote to the pope insisting that the allegations disqualified McCarrick, John Paul refused to believe.
Soon after the big breaks in the McCarrick story back in 2018, I was back home in Massachusetts visiting with a young priest I knew well. He asked me how I felt, and the honest answer was that the revelation of abuse was not what hurt me most. The horrible truth is that Catholics of my generation are desensitized to it. I was not yet three years old when The Boston Globe began its famous coverage of the crisis in our diocese. The only Church I have ever known is one constantly plagued by scandal.
But what really wounded me, what really threatened my faith, was the realization that men I had always admired—John Paul and Benedict in particular—were tied up in it all. As time has gone on and more has come to light, the picture here has only worsened. John Paul could have done something. At the very least he could have neglected to advance McCarrick, to say nothing of punishment. But he didn’t. This fundamental weakness, which clearly affects even our saints, is the major cause of the corruption in our Church—not the evil of men like McCarrick. Such men cannot do harm if they are not allowed to. The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil…
It will not be easy for the faithful (myself included) to reckon with the fact that a man of such terrible strength was also a man of such terrible weakness. There is no rationalizing that. There is no way to work through it, no way to explain it and move forward. That is the great tragedy here for the Church at large—though it does not, of course, outweigh the tragedies of the immediate victims.
No small number of our leaders seem unwilling to meet the challenges we face. That a number of bishops would vouch for McCarrick attests to this unhappy truth. But even those few who are willing, and even those fewer who are truly great—such men as can literally tear down the great powers of the world—seem not to have strength enough to do so. For proof of that we can look to John Paul and to Cardinal Pell: the one who failed to face the reality, and the other who tried, only to be met by vicious persecution.
Such horrible reality can only be met by faith. We know that the Church will prevail, we must believe that it will, the Lord told us that it will. Here I borrow from William F. Buckley, on a matter much less grave: “But to suppose that it will is the most difficult act of faith I have ever been called upon to make, because it tears against the perceptions of all my senses.”
[Photo credit: Marco Di Lauro/Getty Images News]