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Analysis: One year after McCarrick, what’s next for the Church?

By JD Flynn

Then-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., Jun 19, 2019 / 04:20 pm (CNA).- Exactly one year after revelations about the sexual abuse of then-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick were made public, the Church in the U.S. remains in a state of serious scandal, and Catholics remain angry and discouraged. But what’s next for the Church – what happens after McCarrick – depends as much on the decisions of ordinary Catholics as it does on the policy decisions of the U.S. bishops.

In 2002, McCarrick told the Washington Post in 2002 that to address the scourge of clerical sexual abuse that had been uncovered that year, “ieverybody has to have a plan, everybody has to have a procedure, everybody has to have a policy.”

His fellow bishops needed to begin “really tackling this in a more comprehensive way,” McCarrick told reporters.

It was April 2002 when McCarrick made those remarks. In the months that followed, he would become an architect, and a tireless promoter, of the U.S. bishops’ plans and policies to address clerical sexual abuse.

“I think we have to somehow make sure that our people know what we’re doing, that the people know that the bishops are taking this seriously.”

People did not, in fact, know what McCarrick had been doing. By April 2002, Theodore McCarrick had serially sexually abused at least two minors, and sexually coerced dozens of young priests and seminarians.

Knowing now what he knew then, it seems incredible that McCarrick was celebrated in the Post as a “national leader” on clerical sexual abuse.

But he was.

In 2002, a scholar from Notre Dame told the Washington Post that McCarrick “understands the depth of the problem and the need to address it transparently…If his style of leadership were emulated, I think the church would be in better shape.”

One year ago, one June 20, 2018, the Church learned far more than about McCarrick’s “style of leadership” than was expected. And the revelations about his decades of sexual abuse and coercion gave the Church a new look at the “depth of the problem.”

Since June 20, 2018, the Church in the U.S. has reeled from the Pennsylvania grand jury report, allegations of startling misconduct, neglect, or outright cover-up from many trusted or influential bishops, from the August letter of Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, international reports concerning Bishops Gustavo Zanchetta, Jose Pineda, and Franco Mulakkal, from revelations concerning large cash gifts proffered by a bishop abuser, and from a USCCB and Vatican response to these disclosures that, in the judgment of many observers and commentators, has been tepid, at best.

It seems likely, even now, that more scandals, especially regarding finances, are likely to emerge.

One year after McCarrick, what’s next? What will the Church face, and how will she face it?

It should be noted that the U.S. bishops’ conference has, despite multiple serious setbacks, passed some norms and policies intended to respond to this crisis. Those policies, are, in the view of many experts, a good start to policy reform in the Church, though only in the limited spheres they deign to address.

Those reforms have been panned by some critics as insufficient, merely reactionary, and totally inadequate to addressing an apparently complex constellation of problems, which includes immoral sexual activity, some of it coercive, by some priests and bishops, an apparent reluctance to stridently address those matters when they arise, a clerical culture that sometimes includes self-interest and self-protection, financial malfeasance, and a lack of accountability regarding those matters.

McCarrick called for policies in 2002, and in 2019, the bishops now have policies to address McCarrick.

But just as 2002’s policies did not stop the McCarrick or Bransfield scandals, the USCCB’s measures are insufficient to resolutely address the scandal’s cluster of problems.

The bishops would be wise to recognize more publicly and directly the limited impact of policies and procedures, and the importance of personal integrity, virtue, accountability, and personal holiness.

But many Catholics say that while they have heard some bishops articulate that sentiment, they remain skeptical about even the just implementation of the bishops’ own reform policies. And their discouragement over those norms reflects a broader shift.

In fact, the most striking effect of the Church’s year of scandal is the degree to which faithful and practicing Catholics – among them priests, religious, and lay ecclesial staffers – have become discouraged, demoralized, and hesitant to trust.

And it has become clear that the U.S. bishops are unlikely to regain that trust in one fell swoop – through one grand or dramatic gesture of transparency, accountability, contrition, or condemnation. They had an opportunity for such a gesture at their November 2018 meeting, when they considered a resolution calling for the Vatican to release all available material on McCarrick. But that resolution failed.

It is clear that reform, and holding malfeasant bishops to account, will be a long-term project of limited success. Catholics will continue to call for greater accountability, transparency, and for basic answers to basic questions, but it remains to be seen whether their calls will be answered. If they are not, the scandal will be prolonged, and Catholics will likely grow even more demoralized.

In the meantime, the Church will suffer the loss of some Catholics, who have or will become less engaged in the practice of the faith in the wake of this scandal.

Of course, it is not only bishops who are responsible for preserving the bonds of ecclesial communion.

The Church has before faced crises occasioned by the sinfulness of its leaders. In each of those crises, believers have had to decide whether or not to remain in the communion of the Church, and to work themselves for reform and renewal. This case, is no different.

No policies or procedures can overcome the reality of fallen humanity. Each Catholic must ask himself, in the wake of the McCarrick scandal, what it is reasonable and just to expect of a Church predicated on the premise that each of its members is a sinner in need of redemption.

This exercise should not make excuses for malfeasance and ineptitude, but it should be an honest assessment of the limits of all human endeavors for reform.

One year after the initial disappointment, and then the compounding disappointments of cover-ups, denials, and missed opportunities, Catholics must begin to ask themselves whether they will still commit to communion with a Church of woeful sinners, and whether they will commit to its mission.

And, in this moment, each Catholic must ask himself whether his righteous indignation has become self-righteous hubris. After the initial shock of the last year has worn off, a protracted hermeneutic of suspicion or reactive anticlericalism is not likely to contribute to a renewal of the Church in the United States. But it is a temptation.

Also a temptation is endless bureaucratic tinkering, empty promises, or covering-up for a culture of cover-up. Bishops must ask themselves how radically committed they are to their promises of reform.

In short, saints will move the Church forward, and each Catholic must ask himself whether he wishes to actually become a saint.

The project of the new evangelization is that of reproclaming in the Gospel in once Christian cultures. As the influence of the Church wanes – even on the moral and spiritual lives of Catholics – the secularity of American culture is, for many Catholics, laid clearly bare.

The McCarrick scandal could be the moment in which the Church steps back, to ask more fundamental questions about why so few people baptized as Catholics practice the faith into adulthood, and what can be done about it. Some bishops seem to have seriously taken up those questions in recent years, and others have not. Some bishops will see in this scandal the bigger picture, and others will not.

But nothing precludes laity, religious, and clerics aggrieved and angry about scandal to ask that question, and to look for answers that will bear more fruit than perduring fulmination against the failures of bishops.

Answers will be diverse. They should include ongoing and serious efforts for reform, but they should not be limited to those efforts.

Doubtless, some Catholics will say that a renewal of the Church will come from a resurgence of more traditional liturgical forms. Others will make mention of ecclesial movements like the NeoCatechumenal Way or Communion and Liberation. Still others will suggest evangelical initiatives like Focus or Word on Fire. That diversity – a motley flurry of evangelical activity – is likely the key to real renewal in the life of the Church in the U.S.

The history of the Church proves that there is not one methodology or program that has the corner on evangelization – that instead various spiritualities and movements can be fruitful, if they are rooted in the person of Jesus Christ.

That focus – which points toward a renewal far beyond hurried policy documents – is the key to a fruitful and living Church after the McCarrick scandal. Some bishops may lead on those fronts, while others disappoint, or seem to miss the mark. Some scandals will be addressed, while others may long go unresolved, and new ones will emerge. The life of the Church will be often messy, often disappointing, often frustrating, and always in need of renewal, reform, and conversion. Catholics, bishops included, will face the choice of working towards those ends, or not.

But a serious commitment to apostolic and evangelic activity- to the proclamation of the Gospel – is also the best prospect for reform. A holier Church, dedicated more zealously to mission, will also be a more just and less corrupt Church.

A great deal has changed in the aftermath of the McCarrick scandal. But sin, corruption, betrayal, and failure are not new to the Church. Nor is Jesus Christ, the source of grace, justice, and renewal, who is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow.

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  1. The USCCB – the toy plaything of McCarrick – exists to suffocate the Catholic faith…and it has been steadily killing it for 50 plus years.

    Conferences exist to deny Jesus to the world, and promote frauds, and confect the counterfeit Church of 2013.

  2. I am convinced now more than ever that the only weapon we have to counter malfeasance in the Catholic Church is to speak out about what we believe to be the unvarnished truth. It is said that the health of a family is measured by the degree of the secrets it harbors. The same holds true about our Catholic Church family – the Church will only heal when the secrets it strives to keep hidden are removed. Not until.

  3. I think the USCCB needs to give this issue their *complete* focus. I know there are many other issues that they delve into, some quite political, and that is a worthy thing (and sometimes, perhaps not). But for now, until they can take immediate, concrete, definitive action on this, and unambiguously and fearlessly lead us in accord with Catholic doctrine, I and many others fear their current agenda is simply delaying and distracting the faithful laity and clergy from what many of us consider the major attack on our Faith. We see this as a demonic attack from within – betrayal by our own leadership, from our parish priests to the very top. It is very difficult to be loyal when we do not know who we can trust. We are also getting conflicting leadership from our bishops and representatives of the Church on moral issues, such as homosexuality (looking at you, Fr. Martin, and wondering why he was rewarded with a responsible position in the Vatican after making statements clearly at odds with Church teaching). We want very much to support our Church and our parish priests, but the hierarchy must prove themselves worthy of our trust.

  4. Before we begin rebuilding everything about the church, lets do one thing first – the thing that no one has done up to now. The thing that synods and meetings and policies were supposed to divert our attention from.

    Let’s find out all about McCarrick, what he did, how he rose to power, who his promoters were, where did they get their money, how did they hide in plain site, how did they get their men appointed as secretaries to the great and powerful in order to keep info from getting to the Pope. That is where we start. You can rebuild the church in its entirety later

  5. Nothing will change with the problems in the Church until the Bishops can show that they have solidly turned their faces to Christ and start teaching the Gospel instead of spending their time looking for publicity when the comment on secular interests. We watch Dolan still allowing the Church to be involved with the gay pride parade and letting Cuomo and others to go their merry way while they pass laws to murder babies and then still call themselves Catholic. We see Cupich persecuting good priests and supporting those who promote his homosexual agenda. We watch Fr. Martin preach his love of sodomy without any interference and with Bishops actually supporting him. Until the Bishops undergo a true conversion and start taking on the real issues, the Church will continue to decline. They are not authentic shepherds anymore and they cannot draw anyone into a Church that they themselves are willing to stand by and watch be destroyed. The truly faithful will never leave because they do know who the Eucharist is and they do worship God. They are the ones however who will bear the burden of the evil in the Church.

  6. Symptoms vs. Cause: funny that everyone has a solution to … nothing but symptoms. How can you address something, anything, without knowing it’s trigger\cause?

  7. Let’s see … what’s happened over past the year since the McCarrick-induced Summer of Shame?
    1-lavendar mafia Cardinal Kevin Farrell has been promoted to Cardinal Camerlengo
    2-lavendar mafia Cardinal Joseph Tobin has been promoted to Prefect of the Congregation for Catholic Education
    3-lavendar mafia Cardinal Cupich was able to impose his self-serving, self-protecting “Metropolitan Plan” for the oversight of bishops at the expense of USCCB credibility
    4-D.C. has installed another lavendar mafia Archbishop to succeed Wuerl
    5-Since the fix is in on the Amazon Synod, Pope Bergoglio is on the verge of sanctifying “synodality” now that he’s stacked the deck.
    Unless the devil is asleep at the wheel, he’s going to be able capitalize big on having a chaos pope and a chaos (U.S.) president making a gargantuan messes at the same time.

  8. Matt. 16:23. Maybe this is blessing in disguise for the American Catholic faithful who were confused by the likes Martin and their calls for a Rainbow bridge – Turns out their was a heinous, clever, rotting-soul of a Troll living under that bridge named McCarrick.

  9. The author and the CNA, in general, seem very reluctant to step on the USCCB toes. McCarrick has been saved only by the time limits of law. He deserves to be in criminal court, nothing less.
    If the friars in Victoria, KS want to help an elderly man, they should go to any homeless shelter and have their pick.
    McCarrick is not poor. McCarrick is very well connected. He has apologized for absolutely nothing.
    Think on that, good friars.

  10. The Church must come under the governance of lay Boards at all levels–the Vatican, Diocesan, local church. These Boards would oversee the relevant Church entity in the same way 501c-3 organizations utilize Board members to oversee their operations. That the Church is not a 501-3 is irrelevant. Organizations that accept funding from donors must be held accountable for their spending and the pursuit of their missions. Just as in Hospitals, where doctors heal, but non-medical professionals manage and oversee, so must the Church be governed. Lay members would not make spiritual decisions, but would ensure compliance with all appropriate governmental laws. The Catholic Church has demonstrated it cannot govern itself

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