More than sixty years after his priestly ordination, nearly five decades after he began sexually abusing young men and boys, more than four decades after his episcopal consecration, and at least nineteen years after his preying on seminarians was first reported to the Vatican, Theodore McCarrick is – we are told – on the verge of being removed from the clerical state.
In one sense, laicization would bring McCarrick’s part in the saga of the clerical sex-abuse crisis in the Catholic Church to a deservedly ignominious end. He is an old man now, wretched and pitiable, whatever his crimes. But of course, the bitter fruits of his sins are still ripening to harvest.
First, of course, are his victims: those he abused and coerced and harassed. We know some of their names, others remain anonymous. They have suffered the most grievous, life-altering wounds. Suffering can be made redemptive, through God’s grace, but there is no promise that such wounds will ever fully heal.
Then there are those (too easily overlooked) who knew and admired McCarrick, who counted him as a genuine friend or mentor. He was not admired because of his sins, of course, but he was a man with many real gifts. McCarrick’s betrayal of his friends was double. It is one thing to come to grips with the duplicity and lies of a trusted friend or mentor; it is another kind of betrayal to be tainted by association with so notorious a man.
It is easy to say, “Oh, but McCarrick’s friends must have known!” No doubt some did. And there is good reason to ask hard questions of those closest to him, those who benefitted most from his friendship, patronage, and protection. But it is certainly not the case that everyone who admired or loved McCarrick – and there were many – did so knowing what kind of a man he was.
Much the same can be said of his priests, the men who were bound to him in holy orders and shared his ministry. In recent months, there has been much talk about the dangers of a clerical class that holds itself apart as though exempt from the ordinary rules and standards of moral conduct. But like most wicked things, this sort of clericalism is a perversion of something worthy and good, in this case the fraternal and paternal bond that exists between a bishop and his priests. What should be wholesome and edifying becomes, instead, a tool of sin and betrayal.
Then there are the bishops. Oh, the bishops! Who knew what and when? Even if there was no concrete allegation, no proof of abuse, why was McCarrick promoted again and again in the face of such widespread rumors? Those are good questions! And they should be repeated, loudly, until answers are forthcoming. But there are many bishops – especially younger bishops – who want answers to the same questions.
By my calculation, about half of the current bishops of the United State (bishops emeritus excluded) were not yet bishops in 2001, when McCarrick was moved to Washington and made a Cardinal. Without shifting blame away from real episcopal failures and malfeasance, both here and in Rome, many of the bishops now facing angry and distrusting flocks weren’t even bishops until after McCarrick had reached the pinnacle of his power and influence.
Life, as they say, ain’t fair. The shepherds are sworn to serve their flocks; they don’t get to choose what the needs of the flock will be.
There are many seminarians and young priests today who are ready to pledge their lives in service to Christ and His Church. They are being formed in the crucible of this crisis. They are, as a rule, neither naïve nor jaded. They are realistic, both about the challenges facing the Church in the coming decades and about the inadequacy of worldly “solutions.” They are, in my experience, very aware of the stakes, the nature of the enemy, and the weapons adequate to the fight. Twenty-five years from now, some of these men will be wearing miters, which should give us hope.
Finally, there are the rest of us. McCarrick is hardly the only guilty Catholic cleric, but how many millions of souls have suffered frustration, anger, betrayal, or doubt because of the sins and betrayal of just this one man? Even setting aside – if one can – the thousands of other instances of abuse we know have occurred, it is still possible to grasp the appalling magnitude of even one man’s sin.
The acts themselves were bad enough and caused tremendous harm. But what truly staggers is the realization that just a handful of discrete acts can become the font of so much misery. Sin –our sin – contaminates far more than the sinner. We’re fools if we think this is true for Theodore McCarrick, but not for ourselves.
A week from today, the heads of the world’s episcopal conferences will meet in Rome for a summit dedicated to the prevention of the sexual abuse of minors.
The Vatican has been trying (wisely, I think) to lower expectations that the meeting will produce a grand strategy for reform. Three or four days of meetings with (mostly) strangers are unlikely to produce anything close to that, whether they’re held in a spirit of genuine “synodality” or not. But lowering expectations for a grand solution leaves room to elevate our expectations in another way.
Last week at Catholic University, Cardinal DiNardo – who will represent the U.S. bishops in Rome next week – spoke frankly about the Cross as the perennial remedy for the Church, and about our need to look to it with more conviction: “The cross is the solution,” he said. “The cross is our only hope.”
“In general, in the United States, the cross is not upheld as the source of who we are. . .the cross is everything.” The Cross is everything; the only remedy to the enormity of sin and its awful fruits. That’s an expectation worth lifting high.
Stephen P. White is a fellow in Catholic Studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington.