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What might happen for McCarrick, and for the Church in the US

by JD Flynn

Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick, retired archbishop of Washington, is pictured during a reception for new cardinals at the Vatican Feb. 22, 2014. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

Washington D.C., Jul 31, 2018 / 12:01 pm (CNA).- The 2014 movie “Calvary” is a reflection on mercy, sacrifice, and the difficulties that the sexual abuse crises of recent years have caused for those priests and bishops who have nothing to hide, but are now viewed with suspicion.

During a sobering scene in the film, an Irish priest- a pastor played by Brendan Gleeson- shares a brief moment of friendship with a young girl he has met as they both walk along the same stretch of country road.

The moment is interrupted when a car screeches to a halt in front of them, and the girl’s father emerges, yelling insults at the priest before driving away with his daughter. The priest is left standing alone on the road, not trusted enough for even an innocent conversation with a child.

The Irish reaction to Ireland’s sexual abuse crisis was sharper and more profound than reaction to the crisis in the United States. After detailed reports of sexual abuse by Irish clerics and religious began emerging in the early 2000s, Mass attendance dropped sharply and suddenly, and Irish anti-clericalism became vocal and commonplace. Of course, other factors have contributed to the decline of Catholic practice in Ireland, but the impact of the sexual abuse crisis was obvious and severe.

The American sexual abuse crisis has also been a serious issue for Catholics, and has had an obvious cultural effect on the Church in the United States. But its effect on the habits and attitudes of Church-going Catholics has not been as apparent, or as visceral.

Gallup polls showed a sharp dip in American Mass attendance in 2002 and 2003, the years the crisis came into full public view, but Mass attendance rates actually rose in 2004, before resuming the steady decline that began all the way back in 1955.

Of course, there has been a measurable and sustained decline in Catholic identity and Mass attendance among Catholics in the US for decades. But it is not immediately clear how much of recent declines can be attributed directly to the sexual abuse crisis. Instead, polls generally attribute declines to broader cultural trends toward secularization, and increasing popular disagreement with Catholic doctrinal issues, particularly with regard to sexual morality.

Many Catholic commentators predict that the McCarrick scandal might change that. Catholics across ideological, theological, and political divides are unified in anger and disappointment over the charge that high-ranking bishops knew of, and even tolerated, serious sexual malfeasance by a cardinal. That anger has led to calls for transparency, repentance, and spiritual renewal.

It seems entirely possible that the McCarrick scandal will become a bright line in American Catholic history, and have long-lasting and dramatic effect on the future of Catholic Church in the United States.

The kinds of changes that might be coming are not yet clear, but what happens next- for McCarrick, for the bishops, and for ordinary Catholics- will begin to demonstrate whether this crisis point will lead to a sharp period of decline, or to a period of renewal.

So what will happen next?

With regard to McCarrick himself, the Vatican has implied that the archbishop could face a canonical trial.

As is well known, in June a process in the Archdiocese of New York reached the conclusion that an allegation McCarrick sexually abused a teenager was “credible and substantiated.” That process, however, was only the first phase of the Church’s canonical process- the phase referred to as the “preliminary investigation.” A formal trial would be the next step.

While a trial has not been scheduled, the possibility of one was implied on Saturday, when Pope Francis accepted McCarrick’s resignation from the College of Cardinals. At that time, the pope also consigned the archbishop to a life of prayer and penance until, the Vatican said, until the conclusion of a canonical trial addressing the allegation.

But several complicating factors make a trial unlikely.

At the moment, McCarrick is only facing canonical charges for one of the sexually abusive relationships he is alleged to have had, and some aspects of that case could make it difficult to try- most notably the fact that the alleged victim was 16 at the time the abuse began, and therefore not considered a minor by the canonical standards in force at the time- the standards by which McCarrick would be tried. While he could face charges in that case for other, related, canonical crimes, they make the prospect of a trial more difficult.

Of course, it is plausible that McCarrick could be tried for other, more straightforward charges of abuse, given the number of allegations that have been made against him in the press. But the Archdiocese of Washington noted Sunday that although several alleged victims of abuse by McCarrick have spoken with the media in the last month, few have filed complaints directly with Church officials. Ordinarily, reports made directly to a diocese are the triggering event for Church investigations, and so it is unlikely that McCarrick will face additional canonical charges unless some of his alleged victims make such reports.

It is possible that a bishop- most likely Cardinal Donald Wuerl in Washington- could begin a preliminary investigation into the allegations that have been reported in the press even without direct complaints. Though that would an unusual move, Wuerl might judge it to be warranted in this case- especially if he had support from the Vatican to do so.

Still, there are additional complications.

Given McCarrick’s long tenure in Church leadership, and his wide network of friends around the world, it is not immediately apparent that the Vatican has a sufficient number of qualified personnel, without personal ties to McCarrick, available to assist in a trial.

Furthermore, several sources have told CNA that if McCarrick does face a trial, the pope would personally oversee it, as he has reportedly decided to do in several other high-profile cases involving bishops. Since the pope is apparently already involved in those cases, and since trials are time-consuming and he has only a finite amount of time, it seems probable that his direct involvement in McCarrick’s trial will keep it from getting off the ground anytime soon.

McCarrick is 88. Even under the best circumstances, canonical penal processes can take years. These circumstances are not the best. Barring unusually swift action from the Holy See to begin a complicated trial and bring it completion, or unusual longevity for McCarrick, he is unlikely to live long enough to see a canonical resolution to his case.

Instead, he is likely to see his name taken down from parish halls, his episcopal crest removed from cathedrals, and the visible signs of his leadership and influence scrubbed away. This week Catholic University of America rescinded an honorary degree he’d been given, and other colleges will likely do the same.

He is also, of course, unlikely to face criminal charges in the United States, unless allegations which have not yet reached a statute of limitations are made against him.

Sources say he is now living in a Church facility in Washington, and he is likely to remain there, or in some other discreet place, waiting for his case to be judged by the Vicar of Christ.

Regardless of what trial McCarrick faces, the dioceses, religious communities, and even the foundations he has been affiliated with are now facing serious questions. So are the bishops who succeeded him in the dioceses he led: Metuchen, Newark, and Washington, along with the auxiliary bishops and other advisors who worked for him in those places.

Of particular importance are questions about the 2005 and 2007 settlements with priests who claimed McCarrick abused them, and especially about who was, and was not, informed about them. Cardinal Wuerl said last week that he was never informed that those settlements had been reached. If that is true, why did Bishop Paul Bootkoski of Metuchen and Archbishop John Myers of Newark neglect to inform Wuerl that a cardinal living in Wuerl’s diocese had been accused of serious malfeasance?

Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston has also faced criticism for not reporting to the pope a letter his office received about McCarrick in 2015. Likewise the apostolic nuncio- the pope’s ambassador to the United States- could also face questions about what, if anything, he knew about McCarrick, and about whether he was in communication with the Vatican about the matter.

CNA and other media outlets are pursuing those questions, and the media will likely begin to report findings soon. But media inquiries are not the same as official investigations.

There has been speculation that to probe those questions Francis might appoint a special investigator to the United States, as he did in Chile when scandals there become a media firestorm. Such an investigator would try to get clarity about who knew what about McCarrick, and when, and get a sense of how he advanced in an ecclesial career despite the persistence of rumors and complaints about him.

But it is also possible that the pope intends accepting McCarrick’s resignation from the College of Cardinals to be his last word on the subject.

While there is focus on this story now, and bishops are speaking out about it, media attention is fickle, and it’s possible that some large-scale disaster or political crisis could divert press attention. That could lead to a scaled-down response, in which the bishops at their November meeting issue a new set of policies or procedures, the pope offers some words of regret, and the Church’s leaders move on to the next issue.

Two things might tip the scales toward a robust response from the Vatican and U.S. bishops:

The first is continued reporting from the Catholic and secular press about McCarrick, and the web of questions surrounding his situation. There are many threads to be pulled, probably more threads than are reporters to work on the story. But if media executives and editors decide that attention should be focused elsewhere, or if readers tire of reports on the subject, it will be easier for Church leaders to weather a momentary storm without the thorough investigation- or official inquiry- that might lead to some systemic changes in administrative procedures.

The second thing that will lead to a thorough response is for lay, seminarian, religious, and priest victims of sexual abuse, harassment, assault, or coercion to continue coming forward. If McCarrick’s misdeeds were as widespread as they are rumored to be, dozens of priests might come forward to make official complaints, along with former seminarians and others. Volume speaks volumes, and demands a response.

At the same time the Vatican is deciding whether and how to conduct an investigation, plaintiffs’ lawyers are likely considering what lawsuits might be filed in response to the McCarrick scandal.

The threat of possible litigation will complicate the Church’s response to the McCarrick scandal. Bishops will, on the one hand, want to see victims by compensated for the harms done to them and, at the same time, want to ensure that parishes, schools, and charitable offices that had nothing to do with sexual abuse do not lose their assets. Many bishops will want to be transparent and pastoral, and, at the same time, be concerned about the effects in the courtroom of their pastoral gestures of penitence and contrition.

It is difficult to make prophetic responses to a tragedy in a litigious environment, and bishops will have to navigate that difficulty, as many of them had to do in the wave of litigation that followed the 2002 sexual abuse revelations. Some will do this well, and some, most likely, will not.

Perhaps the most significant questions have to do with the attitudes that Catholics will hold in the aftermath of this scandal, and how Church leaders will respond to those attitudes.

If lessons be learned from Ireland, and other places in which bishops have been implicated in serious negligence and misdeeds, trust in the hierarchy of the Church is likely to erode and stay eroded, and Mass attendance could drop precipitously.

Bishops have begun making pastoral statements, and more will likely come. But this crisis may prompt a greater sense of urgency about the overall decline in Catholic life in the United States, and prompt bishops to consider what mechanisms might lead to renewal.

A friend said this week that the McCarrick scandal might be the final nail in the coffin of “beige cultural Catholicism” in America.

He meant that the scandal could lead to much broader recognition that much about the current model of Church organization and parish management doesn’t seem to be working- that many people leave the practice of Catholicism because of a broad crisis in catechesis, formation, and community and parish life.

This idea was part of the thrust of John Paul II’s “new evangelization” paradigm, which called Catholics to “remake the Christian fabric of the ecclesial community itself.”

It is certainly true that the growth areas in the Catholic Church in America are those that seem to have a clear missionary identity, or a particularly focused or intentional approach to Catholic life. Movements like Communion and Liberation and the NeoCatechumenal Way are loci of growth and energy. So too are missionary groups like FOCUS, and the communities devoted to traditional liturgy that have sprung up in places like Clear Creek, Oklahoma.

Those movements are often lay-led, and developed at some distance from chancery and diocesan structures. That means that, if trust in the hierarchy is eroding, they may be seen by many Catholics as having the integrity, authenticity, or transparency that some see as lacking among hierarchs in the wake of the McCarrick scandal.

The question now is, if decline in more typical parishes continues or hastens, whether bishops will see those groups and movements as mechanism of the “new evangelization” and welcome them, even at the cost of relinquishing some institutional and structural control.

Much remains to be uncovered about the McCarrick scandal, and much remains to unfold. But the scandal has already begun to point to changes in American Catholic life. If handled well, great good could come from those changes. “To live is to change,” Blessed John Henry Newman wrote, “and to be perfect is to have changed often.”


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19 Comments

  1. Having done some work in Ireland over the years, I think it fair to say that the “precipitous” decline there was not really precipitous; nor was the sex abuse scandal the real cause. Truth be told, for decades, there was a strong, seething undercurrent of anti-clericalism in Ireland, due to the century-long arrogance of all too many clergy and to their desire to keep the faithful in the mode of “pay, pray and obey.” That may have worked for peasants but not for those who were educationally, socially and economically upwardly mobile. I believe the sex abuse issue was USED to justify what was ready to explode at any moment, but simply needed a catalyst.
    Regarding McCarrick’s trial, it is not the Holy See which is talking about a trial; it is McCarrick himself who, from the beginning, has said he intends to pursue that canonical route.

  2. The American bishops need to sincerely repent, then forcefully challenge the anti-Christian, anti-life, contracepting, human nature perverting, gender destroying, godless social engineering that threatens not only Christianity but all humanity as well.

    They will be ferociously hated, slandered and persecuted for doing so. Some Catholics will follow them, taking up the cross along with them and remembering that all that is happening to them is no more than what Christ promised would happen to His disciples. Then the Church, however small it then becomes, will have been restored and will be powerfully used by God to change the world. And it will be clear that it was God Who did it, not the weak sinners who finally took up their cross and followed Him.

  3. To avoid any possible misreading, Newman’s remark about “to change often” refers to the history of “a great idea” or a “philosophy or belief”, of which he said: “old principles reappear under new forms. It changes with them IN ORDER TO REMAIN THE SAME. In a higher world it is otherwise, but here below to live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often” (Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, Ch. 1, Sec. 1).

  4. Aug. 1st: As others have noted, Card. McCarrick is just the tip of the iceberg. There is and has been for decades a vast network of homosexual Priests and Bishops in high places who determine the direction of the Church, how issues are addressed, etc. And they have great power now because they have forged ahead unchallenged for the most part. Who among the hierarchy promoted McCarrick’s constant rise to the top. We see that homosexual Bishops promoted homosexual Priests and we know that this has infected the whole body. Cdl. Farrell says that although he lived with McCarrick for years, he had no idea of what was going on. Not possible!! This whole issue about the infiltration of a homosexual vanguard/Trojan horse is perhaps the reason why God has determined that McCarrick had to be confronted publicly. Now…if the Holy Father and others just let the whole thing disappear as irrelevant or seemingly impossible to address, then you will see an even greater diminishment of Catholics involved in the Church. This is a turning point. All Catholics who love and care for the Church should demand a clear and radical and extensive response to all this and a thorough investigation into the massive presence of active homosexuals among the clergy. And remember that evil thrives when good men and women do nothing. And those who are involved in this evil enterprise are not well served by their superiors when they are not challenged to cease and repent. We are all sinner in need of repentance – but what we see here is a pattern of insidious behavior and those in authority – especially the Shepherd of the Shepherds, need to work quickly and decisively to purge and heal these deep wounds before there are more and more victims.

  5. All those words from Flynn and he fails to mention the word homosexual. Not only are the Bishops themselves the problem, people like Flynn who aid and abet them are the problem. Stop ignoring the elephant in the room, JD.

    The solution is that the clergy must be purged of homosexuals who were ordained – most likely by homosexuals masquerading as Bishops – in violation of Church teaching. Then and only then will true conversion commence.

    • Exactly. CNA is part of the establishment catholic media, so they have to tow the line. The article repeats talking points & makes the issue into much of what it is not- abuse of minors, investigations, processes, etc. Just about all of McCarrick’s conduct was not with minors. And is Flynn actually serious when he asks things like getting a sense of how McCarrick advanced in an ecclesial career? Or is he trying to act like he’s posing “tough” questions? Don’t expect such persons and outlets to ask the real and tough questions.

  6. How prophetic was this article? Only yesterday morning, after hearing a FOCUS missionary ask for help at the end of Sunday Mass, I met with her to learn more about the FOCUS mission. Long story short, I decided to divert funds from the Diocese to monthly donations to her very real, on the ground, traditional cause (Saint John Paul II’s “new evangelization”). Sadly, yes, this was in part a reaction of mine to this latest abuse story…which reaches so far and wide that it makes me physically sick to think about it. Harry’s response says it best.

  7. One of things that was effective in bringing things to a head in Chile and forcing Rome to take a second look was public rallies. I think 10,000 people in front of the USCCB HDQ in DC, or in front of the Vatican Embassy, or both, would go a long way towards forcing a sustained, detailed discussion of the situation in the US church and preventing any attempt by the bishops to “move on” before fully addressing it. I suspect if it was well-planned with sufficient lead time folks would even travel cross country to take part.

    • If every Catholic who cares about the Church goes to the USCCB when they have a session and called the Bishops what they are : cowards, vile homosexuals and abusers and tell them that they are wolves in sheeps’ clothing, then maybe the bishops will listen. Abolish the USCCB so that the bishops no longer have anywhere to hide.

  8. What about the shenanigans of Cardinal Timothy Dolan? How long will it take to expose his actions? Considering that P. Francis has been so vocal about faithful cardinals, his silence on all of the sexual antics in the Vatican has been deafening.

  9. I have decided not to contribute to my diocese and any special collection envelope that originates with the UCCB. I will end my private boycott when 1.) the UCCB modifies the Dallas charter to include bishops and cardinals and 2.) when a code of conduct is required from each and every seminary in the US that provides a procedure for seminarians to report abuse without fear of reprisal and which provides for the expulsion of anyone who deviates from celibacy.

    • SC Dominican has the right idea! Respect for the bishops has been waning since the USCCB was issuing pastoral letters in the ’60s and 70’s that sounded like they were a wholly owned subsidiarity of the democratic party. The exposure of abuse only added to the loss of respect. If they don’t clean up the mess in a true and transparent manner it will only get worse.

  10. Impossible to say where McCarry presently stands with respect to his alleged actions wIth minors, with young adults under his power, and with consenting adults. Is it shame or pride that keeps him from publicly confessing and naming names, and in this manner allowing a purge to begin? And what about his sacramental confessors? Was there a determination to sin no more? Was absolution denied? Would that not have been enough to lead a sinner to sincerely repent? Would this not be the opportunity for the sinner to embrace the Light, put it all on paper, and ask for forgiveness, while accepting what he hopes would be only temporal punishment?

  11. Why should we expect vigorous action concerning the McCarrick affair without vocal support from the Vatican? The chaos in the Chilean Church had to reach deafening volume and include public demonstrations during his Santiago visit for Francis to take cation – after first accusing the victims of lying. Cardinal Errazuriz of Chile is retired and one of the active Chilean bishops that all tendered their resignation. Cardinal Errazuriz is a member of the Pope’s “Council of Nine”. Bishop Pineda of Honduras after well publicized scandal of long duration finally resigned. His superior, Cardinal Maradiaga has strongly defended rest of the Honduran Church, meaning that Pineda (Maradiaga’s top protege) was acting in complete isolation. Maradiaga is also a member of the Council of Nine and a long time close associate of the Pope. Don’t expect any serious help from the Vatican to clean American stables.

  12. Perhaps the time has come to establish a kind of Simon Wiesenthal Center in which the perverted and corrupt clergy are pursued and handed over to the US Department of Justice where a special prosecution unit could expedite their arrest and prosecution and without interference from any Church office. No matter where the clergy operate they are not above the law of the land, even if they imagine otherwise. It is an honorable and solemn duty of every citizen to drive out this evil from their land.

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