November 24, 2020 // Perspective

What the McCarrick report means for the Church

Two years ago, Pope Francis called for a full accounting of how Theodore McCarrick was able to rise through Church ranks, and he promised to make the report public. Some people disbelieved such a report would ever see the light of day. Others feared it would.

On Nov. 10, Pope Francis kept his word. The report is unprecedented, reading like no other Vatican document I can recall. It is not clothed in dense Church-speak or vague references to misdeeds. It is at times graphic and always revealing. As a whole, it is a devastating portrait of personal deception and institutional blindness, of opportunities missed and faith shattered.

For those of us who have experience with Vatican documents and Vatican investigations, the report is amazing in its efforts to be transparent. At 449 pages, the report is exhaustive and at times exhausting. Not only were over 90 interviews conducted, but extensive quotations from relevant Vatican correspondence and documents reveal the internal back and forth between individuals and offices.

There are heroes to be found, even in the unsettling story of how McCarrick rose through the ranks despite persistent rumors that he was sharing his bed with seminarians and priests. Cardinal John J. O’Connor, for one. He not only raised his concerns, he did so in writing, trying to stop McCarrick’s ascendancy to the cardinalate see of New York.

More courageous still were the victim survivors who tried to speak up, the mother who sought to protect her children, the counselors who warned of the allegations they were hearing.

Unfortunately, the lasting impression is that those who wanted to raise concerns were not listened to, and rumors were dismissed rather than investigated thoroughly.

Like many large and not particularly efficient organizations, the Church is a series of silos, inhibiting close communication and collaboration. Also like large organizations, it is inherently cautious and self-protective. Add to this the deference given to rank and hierarchy, and it is too easy to see how the default was to explain away, ignore or hide.

There are still elements that I wish had been explored further. One is the money trail. While the report says McCarrick did not buy his appointment to Washington, it makes clear that he was a prolific fundraiser and valued as such. He spread his largesse around in the form of gifts to many Church officials that in retrospect raise ethical concerns. An audit of the money trail seems in order.

Also disturbing is that there were many seminarians and priests in the dioceses where McCarrick served who had firsthand knowledge of what happened at his beach house because they were there, too. What has happened to those men? Have they continued to remain silent? If so, what does this tell us about the culture that may still remain?

The most important lesson may be simply this: If you see something, say something. Fear of retaliation, fear of being ignored, fear of authority can no longer govern laity or clergy. Even anonymous allegations must be paid attention to.

At the same time, an allegation is not a conviction. A man’s vocation cannot be ruined because of a rumor. Justice demands we do not simply convict by allegation, but it also demands that allegations not be ignored.

The sin of abuse, the sin of covering up or ignoring the abuse will not disappear with this report. Pope Francis, who himself failed to meet his own standards in places like Chile, knows the challenge. He must continue to press for accountability and transparency without fear or favor, and both laity and clergy must continue to press for reform and renewal.


Greg Erlandson, director and editor-in-chief of Catholic News Service, can be reached at [email protected].

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