The world waits on tenterhooks for the announcement—expected, according to some sources, as early as Tuesday—of a verdict (and presumably a penal sentence) in the case of the disgraced former archbishop of Washington, DC, Theodore Edgar McCarrick.
That story will dominate headlines for a couple of days, at least, but the truth is: it doesn’t matter very much what Pope Francis decides to do with Uncle Ted. Where and how and in what state of life an 88-year-old pervert lives out his last days are less significant than what happens next.
Will he carry his secrets to the grave, or will he unburden himself? Will there be an investigation worth the name, into who knew what about McCarrick, and when, and where, and at what level of governance in the Church? Or will McCarrick be sent out into the desert as a scapegoat?
Patient and disciplined voices have grown strained, and some, strident. Usually as unimpeachably civil as she is forthright, Irish abuse-survivor and victim-advocate Marie Collins took to social media to lambaste McCarrick’s expected penal laicization, saying, “The Vatican believe [sic] it will be good publicity, convinced that ‘zero tolerance’ is being implemented when it is NOT and take the heat out of the questions about who knew and when — including the powers that be in the Vatican!” (the emphasis is Collins’).
Collins made her statement on Twitter as she retweeted John Allen’s latest analysis piece, in which the usually circumspect Crux editor bluntly stated, “If Francis and his advisers want the McCarrick case to be wrapped up before the summit later this month, therefore, just laicizing him won’t do the trick.” Allen went on to say, “They’ll also need to explain how we got to a point where such a move is necessary—and, of course, offer some reason to believe we won’t be here again.”
That essay followed one from February 7, which Allen closed by eviscerating the Pope’s attempts to deflate expectations surrounding the meeting of the heads of the world’s bishops’ conferences, on child protection: “Reasonable people likely would agree that expecting the pope to uphold his own public commitments hardly seems ‘inflated,’” Allen wrote. “In less than a month,” he concluded, “we’ll find out whether Francis thinks so too.”
Allen’s February 7 analysis was in one respect too generous to the powers at the Vatican.
“Twice now,” Allen wrote, “and with ascending levels of authority, we’ve been cautioned not to expect too much from the summit on clerical sexual abuse Pope Francis has called for Feb. 21-24 for the presidents of bishops’ conferences around the world.” That’s true, as far as the explicit warnings against expecting too much are concerned. However, the work to manage expectations began months ago, and has been transparently coordinated.
The fact is, the papal apparatchiks have been talking out of both sides of their mouths.
From one side, we hear, “[The February meeting] is a very important start of a global process which will take quite some time to perfect,” as Archbishop Charles Scicluna put it in an interview with America. From the other, we hear, “[T]his is not a ‘year-zero’ in the fight against abuse, because in the last 16 years many significant and concrete steps have been taken,” as Vatican Media’s editorial director, Andrea Tornielli, stated in a January 10 editorial for Vatican News. “The rules on how to respond have been established and strengthened by the will of recent popes,” Tornielli said.
“It’s important to note that by calling a global meeting he understands this to be a global issue, and he wants to reinforce our shared commitment as a church to establishing responsiveness, accountability, and transparency,” Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago—another senior member of the February meeting’s steering committee—told Crux in a November 23 interview.
Just today, the director of the Centre for Child Protection at the Pontifical Gregorian University, Father Hans Zöllner, SJ, told Crux, “[T]here can be no one-size-fits-all guideline for the whole Church, because our languages do not translate certain concepts, the law systems are completely different, the political and social situations are very diverse.”
That may be an academic point, since Pope Francis has already let it be known that new policy is not on the agenda at all.
There is no clear statement—because there does not appear to be any clear vision—of the nature or the scope of the meeting. The approach of the Vatican—and the Pope—has been almost completely opaque; this state of affairs may well serve the short-term purpose of so lowering expectations as to make any movement in any direction look like progress and provide the Vatican with the thinnest of pretexts for declaring the meeting successful.
Meanwhile, the reigning pontiff is personally implicated in the cover-up of gross immorality and other malfeasance—quite possibly criminal—allegedly committed by Gustavo Zanchetta, a man Francis made a bishop in his native Argentina. Francis quietly accepted Zanchetta’s resignation and created a position for him in a powerful department of the Roman Curia; it has been alleged that he did so after having seen evidence of Zanchetta’s misdeeds, which are said to include sexual impropriety with seminarians.
Before Pope Francis stands an ineluctable fact, with which he will have to reckon sooner or later: credibility—his own, and that of his office—is threatened not only by his heretofore disappointing record of leadership with regard to a crisis he largely inherited, but directly and immediately by his own involvement.
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