Emerging details about the scope and duration of Cardinal Theodore McCarrick’s sexually abusive behavior once more underscore the fact that an institutional sickness afflicts the Catholic Church. A predator priest can ascend to princely rank only if the clerical culture around him enables those who are complicit by their silence and failure to act.
The behavior of “Uncle Ted,” as the cardinal insisted he be called by his preferred victims, was something of an open secret at elite levels of the church. As the New York Times noted, multiple reports about McCarrick’s sexual encounters with seminary students were made between 1994 and 2008—to American bishops, to the pope’s representative in Washington, and even to Pope Benedict XVI. Two dioceses secretly made settlement payments to alleged victims. This didn’t slow a swift rise: McCarrick became a global ambassador dispatched to conflict zones, a prolific fundraiser, and the honoree of numerous Catholic institutions eager to present him with awards. He even played a prominent role as a spokesperson for the church’s “zero-tolerance” policy on sexual abuse.
The causes of clerical abuse are complex and multilayered. Some Catholic conservatives and others on the right seem not to take this sufficiently into account. [*] First Things senior editor Matthew Schmitz recently tweeted: “It will be impossible to address sexual abuse in the Church if bishops and priests do not clearly affirm the Church’s teaching on sex, including same-sex activity. Treating affirmations of that teaching as uncivil, unhelpful, or distracting risks making things worse.” And then there was this from Matt Walsh (@MattWalshBlog): “The pedophile scandal in the Catholic Church is not a pedophile scandal. The vast majority of victims are post-pubescent teens and young men. The real problem in the Church that everyone sees and few will say out loud: gay priests.”
This is an agenda in search of facts. A 300-page report, prepared by researchers at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice at the request of the U.S. bishops seven years ago, found no statistical evidence that gay priests were more likely to abuse minors. What’s more, researchers found that the uptick in the number of gay priests from the late 1970s corresponded with “a decreased incidence of abuse-not an increased incidence of abuse.” The disproportionate number of adolescent male victims, according to the report, was linked to opportunity, not to preference or pathology.