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Hard lessons of the McCarrick Affair

Theodore McCarrick deceived many highly intelligent people, more than a few holy people, and a lot of the progressive U.S. Catholic world, for whom he was both hero and fundraiser.

Then-Archbishop Theodore E. McCarrick talks to the press in Washington Nov. 21, 2000, shortly after the announcement that he would succeed Cardinal James A. Hickey as archbishop of Washington. (CNS photo by Bob Roller)

From the day it was announced that the Vatican would conduct an investigation into the career of former Washington cardinal-archbishop Theodore McCarrick (compelled to renounce his cardinalate and subsequently laicized for sexual abuse and the abuse of power), it seemed unlikely that the McCarrick Report would fully please anyone. That intuition hardened as two years passed without any report. During that period, I also came to the view that, whatever the report reported about details, it would not alter the basic outline of this tawdry tale: Theodore McCarrick is a narcissistic, pathological liar; pathological liars fool people; Theodore McCarrick fooled a lot of people.

The McCarrick Report did not, it turns out, please everyone, even as the world press weirdly turned it into an assault on John Paul II. But it certainly underscored that McCarrick was a singularly accomplished deceiver.

Among those he deceived were many highly intelligent people, more than a few holy people, and a lot of the progressive U.S. Catholic world, for whom he was both hero and fundraiser – much as the similarly disgraced Marcial Maciel deceived many traditionally inclined Catholics for decades. There is no safe haven on the spectrum of Catholic opinion where one’s perceptions and judgments are armor-plated against deceivers. For their wickedness is a manifestation of the work of the Great Deceiver, whom St. John described as “deceiver of the whole world” (Revelation 12:9). It would be well to keep this common vulnerability to deception in mind in the future – and as some, alas, try to use the McCarrick Report as ammunition in various internecine Catholic struggles.

The shameful story of Theodore McCarrick illustrates more than the demonic power of deception, however. McCarrick’s deceptions operated within a cultural matrix that enabled him to avoid the consequences of his depredations for decades. That dysfunctional culture – a clerical caste system that is a betrayal of the integrity of the priesthood and episcopate – must be confronted and uprooted, as the Church purifies itself of the sin of clerical sexual abuse in order to get on with the mission of evangelization.

Theodore McCarrick knew the clerical caste system from the inside and used it assiduously. He used it, knowing that he would be unwittingly protected by decent men who simply could not imagine a priest or bishop behaving as he did. He used it, knowing the reluctance of seminarian-victims to jeopardize their hopes for priestly ordination by making his repulsive behavior known. He used it, knowing that many bishops deemed public “scandal” more damaging to the Church than sexual predation. He used it, knowing that other clergymen were ashamed of how they had strayed and had no stomach for confronting others, even after they had cooperated with God’s grace and returned to integrity of life. He used it, knowing that the New York presbyterate to which he belonged, and the American episcopate he sought (unsuccessfully) to dominate, often functioned as men’s clubs in which one simply did not call out the other members of the club, privately or publicly. He used it, knowing of the Vatican’s reluctance to take disciplinary action against cardinals.

As he gamed the system while climbing the hierarchical ladder, he also deployed his exceptional capacity for self-promotion. He was never really the all-powerful “kingmaker” he was thought to be. But he was quite willing to use that perception (which he cultivated) as protection, just as he used the equally bogus and self-promoting claim that he was some sort of secret Vatican diplomatic agent and was thus protected in Rome – a longstanding, auto-generated myth that the McCarrick Report demolishes, not least in regard to China.

The evangelical answer to the deep reform of the clerical caste system comes from the Lord himself: “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone…But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the Church” (Matthew 18:15-17). That ethic of fraternal challenge and correction must be inculcated in future priests in seminaries. Bishops must insist upon it with their presbyterates, making clear that evangelical, fraternal correction extends to priests challenging the bishop when conscience and the good of the Church demand it.

And that ethic must be lived within the episcopate itself. Without it, “collegiality” is a hollow slogan that enables betrayals of Christ and Christ’s people, whom the pastors are called to protect from the Great Deceiver and his accomplices.

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About George Weigel 484 Articles
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington's Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies. He is the author of over twenty books, including Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II (1999), The End and the Beginning: Pope John Paul II—The Victory of Freedom, the Last Years, the Legacy (2010), and The Irony of Modern Catholic History: How the Church Rediscovered Itself and Challenged the Modern World to Reform. His most recent books are The Next Pope: The Office of Peter and a Church in Mission (2020), Not Forgotten: Elegies for, and Reminiscences of, a Diverse Cast of Characters, Most of Them Admirable (Ignatius, 2021), and To Sanctify the World: The Vital Legacy of Vatican II (Basic Books, 2022).


    • Mr. Weigel is persisting in appealing for trust in the Church Establishment who, as witnessed by Dr. Fitzgibbons, have and continue to peddle “fabrications and falsehoods” and omissions.

      The definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over and predicting a different result.

    • McCarrick not a kingmaker? He was a good enough pope-maker, even if the pope he made was only made to wreck the RC Church by turning it over to red China.

  1. Another very good article. I’m starting to like this George Weigel (he desperately needs a new picture, however–the above is just too smug looking).

  2. On this site, on 11 November, Dr. Fitzgibbons condemned the authors of “the McCarrick Report” for “falsehoods and fabrications” and omissions.

    Mr. Weigel says “the McCarrick Report did not, it turns out, please everyone.” I take it that Mr. Weigel thinks more Catholics should be pleased with the McCarrick Report.

    Putting the above together, Mr. Weigel, by ignoring the warning of Dr. Fitzgibbons, is displaying bad judgment. He apparently is arguing that practicing Catholics should be satisfied with authors who are guilty of “falsehoods and fabrications” and omissions.

    Mr. Weigel, proceeding from bad judgment, goes on with bad diagnosis. Mr. Weigel has declared that the problems are a “dysfunctional cultural matrix” and “the clerical caste system,” and that these must be “rooted out.”

    Mr. Weigel thinks that the solution is “fraternal correction.”

    Is Me. Weigel trying to persuade serious Catholic adults that fraudulent men, false shepherds in control of the Church, who peddle in “falsehoods and fabrications” and omissions are now going to be “rooted out” by fraternal correction? That is a very bad prescription.

    Mr. Weigel is weaving thin narratives with ambiguous yarns like “dysfunctional cultural matrix” and “clerical caste systems,” Mr. Weigel is clinging to his narrative that we have “system failure,” which is his attempt to avoid dealing with the hard reality confronting Catholic parents..

    Dr. Fitzgibbons is warning us that the men and women in the Vatican (and of course this extends to Bishops and chanceries everywhere), under the now super-charged power of the Cardinal Secretary of State Parolin, who has been given immense bureaucratic control of the Church by the Pontiff Francis, have given the Church “falsehoods and fabrications” and omissions.

    In 1970, Pope Paul VI reorganized the Vatican Curia, and demoted the Congregation for the Faith, for centuries recognized by the Church as the most important Congregation, and promoted in its place Vatican Secretariat of State. At that moment, the Pontiff and the men of the Secretariat of State chose Mammon over the faith itself. In 2018 the Pontiff Francis magnified this monstrous distortion of the Church, and made the Vatican Secretariat of State a super-power in the now thoroughly corruptied hierarchy.

    The big sex abuse coverups of the John Paul II years, including the Maciel coverup and the McCarrick coverup and promotion, were all done by the Secretariat of State, which had jurisdiction over sex abuse investigations, until the very end of the JP2 pontificate, when Cardinal Ratzinger in the Congregation for the Faith convinced JP2 to take the authority for sex abuse investigations away from the Secretariat of State, whose members were covering everything up. Now, ominously, the Pontiff Francis has magnified the power of the same corrupt Secretariat of State,

    I suggest we desist from weaving ambiguous narratives about “the cultural matrix” and deal with real concrete problems.

    The Pontiff Francis should resign, having enabled the perpetuation of “falsehoods and fabrications” and omissions. Dismantle the Vatican Secretariat of State and demote it and replace its members. Demand the resignation of Bishops and Cardinals appointed by the Pontiff Francis by recommendation of McCarrick. Restore the Congregation for the Faith as the top-most Congregation in the Vatican.

    Those would be real reforms, which might result in an organization where “fraternal correction” wouldn’t get you on the enemies list.

  3. “That ethic of fraternal challenge and correction must be inculcated in future priests in seminaries. Bishops must insist upon it with their presbyterates, making clear that evangelical, fraternal correction extends to priests challenging the bishop when conscience and the good of the Church demand it.”

    Your term earlier in the article about uprooting the clerical caste system is a good start. Unfortunately, the only practical point you’ve made in this as well as your previous article on the matter in CWR is fraternal correction among clergy and the episcopate. That’s fine in and of itself, but abjectly insufficient. Yes, a big part of the problem is cultural, and that needs to change. George, perhaps you should lead by example and start calling out bishops that effect retribution against whistleblowers and those who speak out against episcopal corruption and cover-up–e.g., Fr. Mark White of Richmond and Fr. Biernat (spelling?) of Buffalo–each removed from ministry for daring to call out their bishop. Put a little bit of that repetitional capital you protect so much to good use.

    Second, fraternal correction is nothing without practical reforms of the manner of governance. That means a system of law and order and due process in practice as well as in name, not a culture in which a person can evade responsibility or consequences because of their status or favor with x, y, or z. Your lack of specificity in this area is seriously lacking. We need rules on gift giving between bishops, periodic and independent audits of finances, and independent juridical functions with the appropriate balance of transparency and privacy to handle not only sexual abuse but also financial scandals and sexual harassment of priests and seminarians. Further, it is an absolute scandal that the Vatican cannot submit itself to an independent financial audit, something every public corporation goes through, without curial officials throwing a hissy fit.

    It’s time to propose concrete reforms and get very specific. Speaking in vague generalities is getting us nowhere. Further, if you want to participate in this reform effectively, you need to start making bishops uncomfortable in a very specific way. That means, for instance, asking why Cardinal Mahoney was allowed to participate at the installation of the new archbishop of D.C., shining a light on why whistleblower priests are being suspended by their bishops etc… Oh, and by the way, why did you wait an entire *year* after Vigano’s original 2018 letter to reveal that he had previously relayed told you the same story about his interaction with Pope Francis on McCarrick?

  4. As I write I am only the third person to comment on George Weigel’s latest post – and I find it fair and balanced. It is also positive as ultimately a wake-up call for all of us Catholics, to remember that all that we say or do contributes to the way in which our beloved but currently much battered Church is regarded in the world. Incidentally, many of the comments on George Weigel’s earlier (No Smoking Gun)post seemed to be very unfair.

    • Mr. Jowitt –

      Mr. Weigel is ignoring the warning given by Dr. Fitzgibbons, the Catholic psychologist who reported McCarrick to the Congregation for Bishops in the 1990s.

      Fitzgibbons, on 11 November, published his warning to Catholics condemning the authors of Vatican Report for peddling “falsehoods and fabrications” and omissions.

      Mr. Weigel has proposed no serious changes whatsoever to the governance of the Church, which is now in control of the corrupt men of the Vatican Secretariat of State, the very same who covered up for both Maciel and McCarrick, and who actually ran the second selection process that over-ruled the original rejection of McCarrick, and got him promoted to Cardinal Archbishop of Washington.

      It is not serious for W to suggest that these corrupt Bishops in the Vatican and the USCCB are going to start “fraternal corrections.” That is a joke.

      These men need to resign, beginning with the Pontiff Francis, who restored and promoted McCarrick after B16 demanded McCarrick’s retirement.

  5. Can we expect any real consequences levied against those complicit in this whole affair? Anything published by supposed spokespersons so far (e.g. Barron) suggest otherwise. No wonder we end up with “catholics” such as Biden.

  6. The words – ‘he used it ‘ – 6 times in one paragraph in the above article , good focus too – in fidelity to the prophetic warning from St.John Paul 11 about the ‘user mentality ‘ , originating in contraception .. that has led to ‘ doing good things badly ‘ leading to hardening of hearts , loss of faith and desire for
    holiness , as revealed in the 24 Hour Passion Meditations to S.G .Louisa .

    The effects of such choices and attitudes , in the faithful , as well as of own families of origin of those in ministry , to be also seen as serious enough areas – very likely that our Father figures , in grief , have been and are well aware of these deep connections and have been making efforts to drain the swamp , in the manner The Spirt leads them .

    Tender words of the Holy Father , just on the same , on the struggle between the self will and Divine Will , where and how to get help –

    ‘ You are the man ‘ – words of the Prophet Nathan to David , to echo in all hearts too , for every occasion of the ‘user attitudes ‘ , to make all to run to The Mother and The Lord , pleading for their abundant enough merits , united with all to trust that there is no need to fall for such , that the Life Giving Water from The Temple alone can fill the thirst and hunger in all our hearts .

  7. ““If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone…But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you.”… That ethic of fraternal challenge and correction must be inculcated in future priests in seminaries.” Correction? Odd word choice here. And I’d add that if young seminarians need heavy training about whether or not to get into bed with a superior, they probably are poor fits for the priesthood, or at least too young to yet be in seminary.

    • It is about giving the seminary the protection when reporting abuse, harassment of a superior. You should understand that they don’t have the protection now, and neither do other clergy, please don’t confuse knowledge with protection, and pray for our Seminarians who live to preach the word of God.

    • Sexual abuse is not about homosexuality,it’s about heterosexual males using power, dominance over susceptibility of others. Just like the 93,000 young boys sexually abused by married heterosexual males in the Boy Scouts of America, until society admits this, it will continue.

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