The U.S. Catholic bishops’ system for responding to allegations of clergy sexual abuse of children has shown itself effective if it can act decisively on an accusation against a churchman who once stood near the apex of ecclesial power, Cardinal Theodore McCarrick. But the cardinal’s downfall also shows the need for better, more transparent ways for responding to what may be just as widespread a problem within the church: sexual harassment of adults.
With the disclosure of the child molestation claim, two New Jersey dioceses McCarrick once led acknowledged that they had received three allegations “purporting that he had engaged in sexual improprieties with adults during his time here; two of these resulted in settlements.” The Newark and Metuchen dioceses added that “all were reported to law enforcement at that time.”
On that basis, mainstream news media began reporting longstanding accusations about McCarrick’s alleged sexual pursuit of seminarians and young priests. Previously, a number of reporters for major newspapers had tried but failed to verify these allegations.
The charge that McCarrick sexually assaulted a teenaged altar boy in the sacristy of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York forty-seven years ago—which a review board at the New York archdiocese found to be “credible and substantiated”—will advance to the Vatican for further review. McCarrick, who at eighty-seven years old has been a sort of international ambassador for the church since his retirement as archbishop of Washington in 2006, is barred meanwhile from publicly exercising his ministry as a priest. He says he is innocent, and he will have a chance to present his case.
It’s all relatively transparent. But the cases involving adults—alleged “improprieties” deemed serious enough for church officials to refer them to law enforcement at the time they were received—remain a matter of secrecy and speculation. The two settlements were reached out of court, before a lawsuit was filed, so there is not an official court record.
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