The Vatican Protects Its Own
A report on sexual abuse acknowledges wrongdoing and cover-up. But now what?
The Vatican has finally released the long-awaited “Report on the Holy See’s Institutional Knowledge and Decision-Making Related to Former Cardinal Theodore Edgar McCarrick,” detailing its official investigation into ex-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick’s decades of sexual abuse and the cover-up that attended it. It resembles the report complied by DOJ Inspector General Michael Horowitz — it acknowledges serious wrongdoing, but makes it ultimately clear no genuine repercussions for that wrongdoing will be forthcoming.
The story is a sordid one. In 1999, New York Cardinal John O'Connor wrote a letter to Pope John Paul II, warning him not to make McCarrick an archbishop because he was a sex abuser. O'Connor died of cancer that same year. McCarrick insisted it was all lies and John Paul believed him because, as the report states, New Jersey bishops lied to protect McCarrick, and the pope’s personal experience with communists in Poland who told similar stories to discredit clerics, as well as his own relationship with McCarrick, made him skeptical of the allegations.
In 2000, McCarrick was made archbishop of Washington. He was subsequently elevated to the rank of cardinal.
In 2005, the new pope, Benedict XVI, tried to force McCarrick to resign. But while Benedict and his top advisers met to discuss the issue in Rome, they declined to pursue anything formal to engender that resignation. McCarrick resigned as DC archbishop in 2006, but for the next two years, he continued to work publicly, despite Benedict having received more information about the cleric’s sexually predatory behavior. Finally, last year, Pope Francis defrocked the 90-year-old McCarrick — but only after a separate Vatican investigation found that he sexually abused children as well as adults.
Thus, like those who perpetrated the “17 significant errors or omissions” in the Carter Page FISA applications revealed by the Horowitz report, McCarrick was never held truly accountable for his actions. SNAP, a network representing survivors of sex abuse by clergy, illuminates the similarities. “This report contains no punishments, no concrete steps to prevent future crimes, and consequently gives us no faith that this investigation was conducted in earnest,” the group said in a statement.
Pope Francis? The report insists he never received solid reports of McCarrick’s actions and thus was satisfied they were nothing more than rumors. The report acknowledges that Archbishop Vigano, the former Vatican ambassador to the U.S., claims that he told Francis about McCarrick, but that those claims cannot be substantiated.
Those claims are an obvious reference to the 2018 letter Vigano wrote calling on Francis to resign. In it, Vigano also listed a number of top church officials who he insisted also covered up sexual misconduct. The Washington Post, noting that Vigano had named names but offered no concrete evidence to back up his assertions, characterized the letter as “a stunning break in protocol in a church built on clerical loyalty and hierarchy.”
It’s precisely that clerical loyalty and hierarchy that provided cover not only for McCarrick but also for hundreds of predator priests who sexually abused thousands of victims all over the world over the course of decades.
Catholic columnist Rod Dreher accurately sums up the mindset of the culture that hierarchy produced. “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,” he asserts. “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.”
And then there’s the money. McCarrick was known as a “prodigious fundraiser.” Yet the report asserts, “Although McCarrick’s fundraising skills were weighed heavily, they were not determinative with respect to major decisions made relating to McCarrick, including his appointment to Washington in 2000. In addition, the examination did not reveal evidence that McCarrick’s customary gift-giving and donations impacted significant decisions made by the Holy See regarding McCarrick during any period.”
In short, nothing to see here; move along.
Last Wednesday, following the release of the report the day before, Pope Francis promised to make things right. “I renew my closeness to victims of any abuse and commitment of the church to eradicate this evil,” he stated during his weekly general audience.
Such an assurance rings exceedingly hollow. “Why was McCarrick — so well-known for his reputation — living at a seminary in his retirement?” columnist Michael Brendan Dougherty rightly asks. “Why was he one day hastily moved out into another parish rectory? What exactly did Cardinal Donald Wuerl, then archbishop of Washington, D.C., know? What about the multiple houses on the Jersey shore? Why did Vatican inquiries into seminaries during these decades not uncover the widespread culture of sexual license and abuse in many of them, which anyone who talks to churchmen knows about, and which is the subject of salacious books, and the bleedingly obvious reason for the dropout of many candidates for the priesthood?”
Because the Church’s hierarchy has been corrupted in precisely the same manner as the secular institutions against which it was supposed to stand in stark contrast. In 2018, as a damning 884-page grand jury report out of Pennsylvania reveals, “All victims were brushed aside, in every part of the state, by church leaders who preferred to protect the abusers and their institution above all. The main thing was not to help children, but to avoid scandal. Priests were raping little boys and girls and the men of God who were responsible for them not only did nothing: they hid it all.”
“Raping little boys and girls” is somewhat misleading. A 2004 report issued by the National Review Board of the American Catholic bishops revealed that approximately 81% of the victims were young adult males, taken advantage of by those they often admired or considered mentors. A 2013 article in Vanity Fair that takes a celebratory tone with regard to gays in the priesthood notes that Jesuits, who count the current pope among its members, “developed a reputation for tolerating and even protecting their gay brethren.”
In a 2018 column, Hillsdale College professor Paul A. Rahe offered his assessment of the Catholic hierarchy: “The Lavender Mafia controls the Papacy and the Vatican overall, and Pope Francis is packing the College of Cardinals, who will elect the next Pope, with sympathizers.”
In other words, the Church has its very own version of a deep state. One that has produced a report Dougherty accurately describes as a “kind of prophylactic against a real investigation.” And much like America’s equally corrupt FBI and DOJ, the Church has seemingly created adequate firewalls to prevent the truth — and the consequences it ought to engender — from emerging.
A slight paraphrasing of a quote from Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises neatly sums up the Church’s current leadership: “How did you go [morally] bankrupt? Two ways. Gradually, then suddenly.”