The Vatican has issued its report on the shocking case of former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick. Two years in the making, it is 449 pages long, names names, gives dates, and cites extensive documentation and more than ninety interviews, all anchored with 1,410 footnotes. Will it bring closure to questions about how the now-defrocked prelate could rise to the heights of the hierarchy despite rumors of sexual activity with adults and repeated machinations to bed seminarians?
Anyone who believes that must inhabit an alternative universe.
A universe not inhabited by innumerable victims in the United States and elsewhere still scarred by clerical sex abuse—along with their grieving families and disaffected fellow Catholics.
Also a universe not populated by the website Bishops Accountability, SNAP, Jeffrey Anderson, the Midas of lawsuits against the Church, Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò and similarly fierce critics of Pope Francis, and all the other media-certified sources of commentary—among them the required quota of Church leaders rightly and necessarily more concerned about voicing sorrow for Church misdeeds than getting into the weeds about who knew what, where, when, and how.
And finally an alternative universe not driven by deadlines and headlines. Good reporters from Rome—and I am following their lead—attributed many of their stories to the detailed summary by Andrea Tornielli, editorial director of the Vatican Dicastery for Communications. Some have managed their own swift plunges into the report’s hundreds of pages. It will take days, however, before those contents can be thoroughly digested. One wonders whether editors will still be interested in follow-up stories.
No report, in any case, can tie up all loose ends, let alone ease the pain and anger of survivors or the dismay of American Catholics shell-shocked by the spectacle of a retired cardinal defrocked in 2019 for abusing minors after years of dodging rumors about sexual misconduct with adults.
Nonetheless, some conclusions stand out.
- Pope John Paul II, canonized a saint in 2014, had the leading role in promoting McCarrick, first as the bishop of Metuchen (1981) and then Newark (1986) in New Jersey, when charges of abuse had yet to emerge, and finally to Washington D.C. (2000) and the College of Cardinals (2001). He did the latter despite strong warnings from New York’s Cardinal John O’Connor and several Vatican officials about multiple, but unproven, allegations. Such rumors and the consequent risk of scandal had previously kept John Paul II from considering McCarrick for the cardinalate sees of Chicago, New York, and, initially, Washington as well.
Why did the pope change his mind and overrule his advisors? The summary offers two reasons. First, a fervent, unqualified handwritten denial of all such rumors that McCarrick sent to Bishop Stanisław Dziwisz, the pope’s personal secretary; and second, John Paul II’s experience in Poland of the Communist regime’s use of spurious accusations to discredit priests and bishops.
Clearly, John Paul II had long appreciated McCarrick’s tireless and talented efforts in international troubleshooting and supporting religious freedom. He was also likely, though the report does not say so, simply determined to take what looked like a final opportunity to reward McCarrick with a red hat.