Then-Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick in Rome, February 14, 2013 (CNS photo/Alessandro Bianchi, Reuters)

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.   

[Like what you're reading? Support our work today!]

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.

No report can tie up all loose ends, let alone ease the pain and anger of survivors or the dismay of American Catholics.
  • Factoring into this decision, according to the summary, were “inaccurate and incomplete” reports provided by three New Jersey bishops in response to a papal request for any further verification of the rumors. The summary leaves their names and details to the body of the report—no small matter and one demanding much more examination and emphasis. 
  • Five years later, in 2005, the newly elected Pope Benedict XVI received fresh, much more specific charges about McCarrick’s past behavior. He rescinded a decision to let McCarrick stay on as Washington’s cardinal for two years past retirement, and instead accepted his resignation at age seventy-five. But he also rejected the proposal from Viganò and others for a formal Church trial or sanction against McCarrick in favor of an “appeal to McCarrick’s conscience and ecclesial spirit” to keep a low profile. The request was not explicitly ordered by Benedict, and even when it was put into writing in 2008, McCarrick continued his diplomatic globetrotting and other very public activities. 
  • Pope Francis abided by this course after his election in 2013. Contrary to Viganò’s charge, according to Tornielli’s summary, Francis neither lifted nor enforced Benedict’s hoped-for restrictions; nor did he embrace McCarrick as a close advisor. The summary does not address Viganò’s claims of having warned the newly elected pope about McCarrick, but the report itself challenges them with the witness of other officials and even a video. It documents Viganò’s many inconsistencies and shortcomings in dealing with McCarrick.   
  • Finally, amid all its bureaucratic sleuthing, the report is emphatically frank about the Church’s failings. Tornielli’s summary is titled “McCarrick Report: A Sorrowful Page the Church Is Learning From.” “At the time of Theodore McCarrick’s appointment as Archbishop of Washington in 2000,” he begins, “the Holy See acted on the basis of partial and incomplete information. What has now come to light are omissions, underestimations, and choices that later proved to be wrong, due in part to the fact that, during the assessment process requested by Rome at the time, those questioned did not always disclose all they knew.” Alongside interviews with Church officials, the report features interviews with survivors and family members, especially those who tried in vain to alert Church leaders. 

Not surprisingly, the report has been welcomed by American prelates, who promise to study it in detail and who repeat their apologies and pledges of transparency and accountability. 

Personally meaningful to me was the first response of a friend: John Carr, former director of the Department of Justice, Peace, and Human Development at the U.S. Bishops Conference and now director of the Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life at Georgetown. John had worked closely with McCarrick and was shocked by the revelations of his “repeated abuse...constant lies and ongoing refusal to accept responsibility.” This led John to reveal his own victimization as a young seminarian and dedicate himself to ending “destructive clericalism” and “a culture of institutional corruption” that protected “both abusers and those who enabled them.” But not having read the full report, John understandably hesitated to “assess its adequacy.”

One can be sure that its adequacy will be challenged, and not necessarily by those who read it in full. To begin with, there are many who question, in principle, any investigation by the Church of itself. For them, only an independent investigation will suffice, although it is hard to imagine independent investigators who could elicit this degree of detail and documentation. 

Then the report’s generally positive treatment of the current pope will be suspect. Defenders of Viganò and John Paul II are already in the field, protesting that they are being scapegoated and vilified. And despite the report’s exhaustive length and detail—or even because of its length and detail—gaps and conflicts about what we know are likely to emerge.

The report can be linked to the 2019 motu proprio,“Vos estes lux mundi,” establishing new procedures for investigating accusations against bishops, or last summer’s document from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith on taking anonymous accusations seriously. But it will disappoint those looking for a concrete program of lessons learned or actionable reforms. 

Nor will it satisfy those who want an official list of episcopal and Vatican wrongdoers—and a purge of any still in office. Or those who emphatically insist that compensating victims financially should take priority in the Church’s allocation of its resources.    

Does this massive two-year investigation of a single shocking case really shed light on the larger challenge of preventing sexual abuse? What, in fact, are the lessons the Church can learn?

The report certainly raises consciousness about extending protection to vulnerable adults like McCarrick’s seminarians. It certainly implies that violations of celibacy, whether consensual or, as the Church teaches, always potentially forgivable, should be disqualifications to leadership.The report also indicates the need for a serious review of the process for selecting and vetting bishops, a process that now involves a complicated system of sending out confidential questionnaires, compiling and synthesizing responses by the nuncios representing the Vatican in each nation, and sending dossiers of possible candidates on to Rome. Who gets these questionnaires? Are the responses, particularly in the case of advancement from one bishopric to another, constrained by loyalty to an episcopal “old boys’ club”? What roles, if any, do lay people play in the process? If a higher-up, including the pope, chooses to interrupt or reach beyond this filtering, a typical practice of both John Paul II and Francis, should they put their reasons in writing? Such a review of the process should be thorough and thoughtful, and not so conditioned by the sex-abuse scandal as to obtain only “safe” and never brave or creative leaders.  

Unverified should not mean uninvestigated; anonymous should not mean unrecorded.

Does the report speak to the conflict between two contending theories of the roots of the sex-abuse crisis: That it is (a) the result of a homosexual network or “lavender mafia” within high Church ranks, and of toleration of homosexuality in general; or (b) that it is a reflection of a larger split between (presumably permissive) liberals and (presumably repressive or authoritarian) traditionalists? I doubt that evidence will dissuade adherents of theory (a), or that trustworthy evidence could be gathered in any case. And unless the full report lines up individual actors in patterns yet to be seen, it doesn’t seem likely to settle this background division. 

McCarrick himself was an ecclesiological amphibian, welcoming conservative movements to Newark, for example, but also rejecting the “ban John Kerry from Communion” advocates during the 2004 election. When the abuse scandal broke, both wings of the Church tried to identify him with the opposing wing and exaggerate his behind-the-scenes power. 

If the McCarrick case does not offer any clear Left/Right lesson for the larger sex-abuse scandal, it may offer one about personality and talent. Not a few abusers have hidden their sins behind undeniable personal talent and charisma. McCarrick had a soft-spoken, intimate manner that communicated sincerity and piety to many. Personally, I found this unctuous and off-putting, but always dismissed this as my shortcoming, not his. As the summary acknowledges, he was “a prelate possessing considerable intelligence and preparation, capable of weaving together many relationships both in the political as well as in the inter-religious level.” These gifts, we must learn, were perfectly compatible with wreaking unspeakable pain and suffering on others.

But how hidden were McCarrick sins anyway? When the credible charge of abusing a minor triggered his downfall, it was said, especially by Rod Dreher of Benedict Option fame, that when McCarrick was appointed to Washington “everybody knew” of his exploits with seminarians. When asked by fellow conservatives why Dreher himself had not reported what “everybody knew,” he sensibly replied that journalists could not responsibly report damning rumors without solid evidence that can be publicly verified.  The “everybody knew” charge lives on. It was repeated on the eve of the McCarrick report by a veteran Rome reporter for Reuters, who called McCarrick’s sexual misconduct “an open secret.” 

In fact, everybody did not know, certainly not back in 2000. I was writing about religion, though not just about Catholicism, for the New York Times, and I didn’t know. In 2003, an acquaintance I admired published a cloaked, unsourced account of a high-ranking prelate’s unsavory trips to a beach house with seminarians. I found the report, if true, appalling; I also found the report, lacking all verification, appalling if it were not true. Paul Baumann, then Commonweal’s editor, reviewed the book containing this account in the Washington Post, and likewise expressed frustration at this lack of verifiable sources. Although this was a moment when the Catholic sex-abuse crisis was front-page news, there is no indication that reporters pursued the story any more than Church leaders had previously—or if they did, had any success in verifying it. I was no longer a reporter and had another full-time job; still, I was no different. 

So the full McCarrick report should force serious reflection on how to handle anonymous or unverified accusations. (Bishops’ mailboxes, like those of reporters, contain not a few of them.) Unverified should not mean uninvestigated; anonymous should not mean unrecorded. This is not a simple question, however, as anyone aware of the toxic messages swamping social media must admit. 

There is perhaps one lesson of the McCarrick report that dare not be mentioned lest it elicit howls of protest—namely, that the admittedly imperfect system put into place by the American bishops in 2002, two years after McCarrick’s appointment to Washington, actually worked. When an accusation of abuse nearly fifty years old was brought forward, the archdiocese that McCarrick had departed more than thirty years ago deemed it credible, and a retired, popular cardinal was swiftly stripped of his red hat and defrocked. It appears to be in no one’s interest, liberals or conservatives, victims’ advocates, plaintiff’s lawyers, civil authorities, or journalists, to acknowledge that anything has really changed. But it is hard to imagine that McCarrick’s advancement would have occurred if the system that could act so decisively against such a prominent prelate had been put into place in 1992 instead of 2002. The tragedy is that it wasn’t. 

Few people, of any faith, can be expected to plow through the McCarrick report. And even those who do may be tempted to cherry-pick to reinforce their existing opinions. But we should all be on guard against those who rush to judgment. Transparency and accountability are not just slogans. They are hard work.

Peter Steinfels, a former editor of Commonweal and religion writer for the New York Times, is a University Professor Emeritus at Fordham University and author of A People Adrift: The Crisis of the Roman Catholic Church in America.

Also by this author

Please email comments to [email protected] and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

© 2024 Commonweal Magazine. All rights reserved. Design by Point Five. Site by Deck Fifty.