It’s true that in the years during which the McCarrick scandal came to light, there have also been multiple, high-profile investigations of sexually abusive behavior by powerful individuals in other religious communities and institutions, all around the world. The scope has widened from Catholic dioceses and parishes to non-Catholic churches and lay Catholic movements, among others, owing in part to greater public awareness of the plight of abuse victims, children and adult alike, spurred by #MeToo and similar movements. Still, there’s a specifically Catholic element to focus on: the episcopal hierarchy’s utter failure in handling abuse allegations, whether through negligence or through active efforts to silence victims and hide the truth—from the public, and from Church and secular authorities. Catholic bishops face a crisis of authority and reputation unlike at any time since the Protestant Reformation and Luther’s condemnation of the systemic corruption then ravaging the Catholic Church.
There is no simple way the papacy can divert responsibility or blame. After all, it’s been a long time since emperors and kings appointed bishops; now, almost all are directly appointed by the pope. There are exceptions, of course. Some cathedral chapters in German-speaking Europe retain the ancient right of electing bishops, though the pope must confirm those choices. Eastern Rite Catholic churches hold synodal elections, the results of which are subject to papal “assent.” Diplomatic arrangements old (such as with the Diocese of Strasbourg) and new (with China, since 2018) give governments the power to participate in the selection of a bishop. But for centuries now, the Holy See has done all it can to give popes as much freedom as possible in appointing bishops. Yes, that has created headaches for popes who have to deal with bishops appointed by their predecessors—appointments they might not have made themselves. But more significantly, it has over time also cemented a kind of institutional career system for episcopal hierarchs, a system with its own complicated history, inseparable from the history of the social and economic elite of Europe.
How does this help in understanding the institutional role in the abuse crisis? An article on the McCarrick case provides a helpful starting point. In “How McCarricks Happen,” Stephen Bullivant (a professor of theology and sociology of religion at St. Mary’s University, London) and Giovanni Sadewo (a research fellow in social-network analysis at the Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne) analyze the relative influence of bishops, with particular attention to that wielded by McCarrick. They do so by focusing on the idea of “network centrality” within the English-Welsh and American episcopates. According to the authors, McCarrick was at the center of a very powerful constellation of U.S. bishops, some retired but many still in office, and this allowed him to get away with what he was doing for so long. It’s a provocative way of looking at things, and it could be useful in assessing how network structures throughout the Catholic Church could impact (or limit) the usefulness of the metropolitan model in ending institutional cover-up of clerical sex abuse.
At the same time, Bullivant and Sadewo’s theory of network centrality may not be a precise fit with the Catholic hierarchical structure, which has a number of what might be considered peculiar characteristics. Their theory reflects a tendency to seek a single root cause for how the structure of an ecclesial culture might enable sexual abuse, or encourage negligence and coverup, when there may be a range of factors. A related shortcoming is that the network model is limited only to clergy, when in fact it would be helpful to consider the lay presence within or alongside such networks as well. It also doesn’t sufficiently take into account the vertical dimension of Catholic ecclesial networks—the fact that all the bishops in McCarrick’s network were appointed by a pope in a process shaped by other pope-appointed Church officials in a way that was either formally top-down (the apostolic nuncio) or informally top-down (other channels of influence and alliances that take shape well before promotion to the episcopate and generate much less of a paper trail).
So, as is almost always the case in making a contemporary assessment of the institutional Church, some Church history is helpful—especially since systems and mechanisms of patronage in the twenty-first century owe a debt to those established in early modern history.
One of the ways the Council of Trent (1545–1563) responded to the Reformation’s denunciation of corruption among the hierarchy was to impose a prohibition on nepotism (Session XXV, Canon 1 for the reform of the Church). But it was a fairly toothless injunction. The “golden age” of nepotism in papal Rome came to a close only with the formal decision of Pope Innocent XII in 1692 to eliminate the position of “cardinal nephew”—usually a member of the pope’s family. (Though it was abolished, it nevertheless served as something of a prototype for the Cardinal Secretary of State, a position that has since become the second-most powerful in the Vatican, after the pope.) Still, the mechanisms for consolidating clerical and ecclesiastical power, and for governing access to it, remained operative. They were established to ensure the creation of cardinals in a way that would bring stability to a system that was unstable by design: to prevent a hereditary monarchy, the papal monarchy was elective. Thus the model of the pope–cardinal nephew pair at the top was replicated down through the levels of the Church, ensuring the creation of episcopal elites throughout the Catholic world, but especially in Europe.
Yet even then, the pope–cardinal nephew pair was not the only thing that counted. Becoming a cardinal or bishop also required a vast and complicated network of patron-client relationships, consisting not only of clerics but also of powerful laypeople. Further, building a clerical career required the forging of various kinds of alliances. These included alliances of group solidarity among fellow clergy, as well as alliances of relational solidarity (family bloodlines, shared city or region of origin, education at the same school, membership in the same religious order). There was also the category of artificial solidarity—the kind of alliance created via sponsorship or, on the flipside, emerging out of corrupt relationships built on extortion and conspiracy. Finally, there were alliances of horizontal solidarity, including friendships and relationships among peers.
In the discourse over clericalism and corruption in the context of the abuse crisis, the moral failures of individuals are often highlighted, while the dynamics of the system to which those individuals belong don’t get nearly enough attention. Networking has never just been about acquiring power; it’s also essential in exercising power—for popes, for cardinals, and for bishops. To get a sense of the importance of networking in the exercise of power, consider what happens when an important diocese receives a new bishop, but the emeritus chooses to remain in the diocese. The former has nothing close to the kind of network (locally, nationally, or in Rome) that the latter has, having built it over many years while in charge. This situation has been exacerbated somewhat by the relatively new (post–Vatican II) norm that bishops present their resignation on reaching the age of seventy-five. More and more, this has led to overlaps of episcopal regimes as retired bishops remain on the scene after their successors are in place. What’s more, with the precedent established by Benedict XVI when he resigned in 2013, there are some bishops emeriti who have deliberately adopted his style of exerting continued influence after they officially step down.