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USCCB meets with looming McCarrick anniversary

When the U.S. bishops meet in Orlando this week, they do so with the looming anniversary of an ignominious moment in the Church’s life. Next week will be five years since the Archdiocese of New York announced a credible allegation of child abuse against then-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, and a torrent of allegations against the prominent churchman followed.

Theodore Cardinal McCarrick.jpg
Former cardinal Theodore McCarrick. Credit: WEF/wikimedia. CC BY SA 2.0

It is not likely that McCarrick will be a topic of much discussion in Orlando — the bishops will probably make mention of his scandal when they talk about growing distrust of priests for their bishops, and journalists might ask a question or two about the criminal charges McCarrick now faces.

But for the most part, the conference agenda regards the McCarrick affair as a matter in the rearview mirror — once a topic of serious and urgent discussion, and now consigned to pages of history.

It is worth remembering the candid conversation of the bishops at their conference meetings in the months in which McCarrick’s scandal unfolded, in which pledges were made often — promises of reform and accountability.

Five years on from those promises, it’s worth considering how they’ve been kept, and who bears responsibility for carrying them on.

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In November 2018, just months after the McCarrick scandal had broken, the U.S. bishops were prepared to vote into policy a reform package for the U.S. that would have created an independent body of mostly lay people, charged with investigating allegations of episcopal misconduct and neglect of office — with ensuring that when Catholics brought to the Church their concerns about the behavior of men in miters, they would be looked into, with impartiality, professionalism, and transparency. 

The package was spiked by the Vatican, which dramatically suspended a scheduled vote on the conference floor, leaving conference president Cardinal Daniel DiNardo sputtering in disbelief and frustration. Soon, from the floor, a new plan was proffered. It had been developed by Cardinal Blase Cupich, in collaboration with Cardinal Donald Wuerl, and it placed responsibility for investigating bishops in the hands of the metropolitan archbishops with whom they regularly worked. 

That plan eventually formed the basis for Vos estis lux mundi, the signature abuse-reform package of the Francis papacy. 

Vos estis sees to it that complaints against diocesan bishops go through the Vatican to the metropolitan archbishop — or their senior suffragans — for investigations which are forwarded to Rome for decisions. The plan was promulgated temporarily in 2019, and earlier this year, Pope Francis made it permanent, having nibbled around the edges with a few changes. 

Its supporters say that Vos estis is properly ecclesial, creating mechanisms for complaints and investigations, while leaning on the Church’s existing hierarchical structures and institutions. But critics say that Vos estis is structurally flawed, that conflicts of interest call into question its credibility, that it is lacking detail on critical issues, and that it does not encourage transparency about investigations, or require even that they be publicly acknowledged. 

When conducted under the veil of secrecy, legal scholars say, any investigative process is rife with the possibility for corruption, unprofessionalism, or simple dysfunction. 

Those critics say the proof of the pudding is in the eating: Since Vos estis was promulgated, very few investigations have been officially acknowledged in the U.S., and only one has led to an episcopal resignation from office — and that came without a subsequent canonical trial, or even an official account of what the wrongdoing was, making it hard for the Church to develop policy or structural changes in response.

Several Catholics in recent months have told The Pillar that while they’ve filed complaints using the Vos estis system, they’ve not gotten any updates about their allegations of misconduct, or any formal resolution when cases are closed. And Vatican observers say that Vos estis exists in a climate in which law has been politicized, and is selectively applied, so that there are no clear expectations of how the Church’s governing apparatus will handle any particular case. The scandals surrounding Rupnik, Zanchetta, Ricard, and others indicate the plausibility of that claim. 


To be sure, Vos estis is not the only policy reform since the McCarrick scandal. New Vatican laws have strengthened the legal prohibition against the abuse of office, aimed to address spiritual and psychological abuse of “vulnerable persons,” and tightened norms regarding clerics possessing child pornography, and other serious sexual sins, both by clerics and lay people holding ecclesiastical positions.

The Holy See has also dramatically expanded the obligation of diocesan bishops to canonically prosecute sexual relationships between clerics and parishioners or other people with whom they have a spiritual or hierarchical relationship. 

The legal reforms are not perfect, and several of them have prompted questions from canonists about their meaning. But of greater concern is the consistency of their application — does it matter whether laws are promulgated if there is no discernible pattern to their application?

In short, if reform is the means by which the Church addresses in policy the lacuna made evident by the McCarrick scandal, it would be difficult to say that it has been accomplished. 

But can diocesan bishops do much about that?

Some in the U.S. — a few, really — have recognized since the McCarrick scandal their own prerogatives as legislators, and aimed to better establish particular law regarding the sexual misconduct of clerics, and especially regarding technology accountability, an acutely important issue in an era in which both pornography and anonymous sex are available on-demand, via app, nearly ubiquitously.

But even bishops have learned from the McCarrick scandal and ensuing issues how better to hold their own clergy to account, diocesan bishops can not control the policies of the Holy See — and the seemingly preferred approach of the U.S. bishops was shut down in 2018. 

On the other hand, other episcopal conferences have since that time established the kinds of independent review bodies originally preferred by the U.S. bishops, and it is within their purview to at least take up the question of doing the same, even if such a body would operate in tandem with the Vos estis procedure, as is the case in England and Wales.

Further, bishops could insist to the Holy See that inasmuch as Vos estis is the Church’s ius vivendi, it will only be perceived as a credible instrument with far greater transparency — and if they were unified on that front, the bishops would likely face little pushback from the Holy See if they simply committed to greater public disclosure of Vos estis investigations and their conclusions. 

That insistence, however, would require that the bishops be willing either to push more directly against the reflexive omerta culture of the Vatican’s approach to personnel matters, or to simply ignore it, and disclose for themselves both the existence of Vos estis investigations, and their conclusions. 

To date, the U.S. bishops have seemed to look to the Holy See for cues on how best to approach to Vos estis. It seems likely that if reform is to take greater root in the Church in the U.S., the bishops will need to begin taking the lead, rather than wait for Rome to set the tone.

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On accountability, it is not clear how much the bishops can do — but there are some things.

The McCarrick report is viewed in Rome as the definitive resolution to the scandal of the McCarrick affair; the public release of the report was unprecedented by its very existence, and that fact has made it seem in Rome like a major accomplishment, despite its deficits of substance — namely, its extremely limited scope of inquiry. 

Indeed, the McCarrick report is a major accomplishment, in the sense that the Holy See has rarely provided publicly a historical assessment of a scandalous situation. The pope’s decision to issue the report at all should not be unappreciated. 

But the report limited its scope to an inquest into the allegations received about McCarrick, and how they were handled. In that frame, the report cast blame for McCarrick’s rise and influence almost entirely on figures who are now dead — whether that is a matter of convenience for them depends, of course, on the disposition of their final inquest. 

The investigation which produced the report was studiously incurious about McCarrick’s effects on the Church and its hierarchy. It did not ask about the men formed by McCarrick, and it was pointedly unwilling to ask about McCarrick’s financial largesse among churchmen, despite the fact that the former cardinal’s penchant for cash gift-giving, and indeed the entire bustarella culture, seems an obvious factor in explaining how McCarrick was able to act so inappropriately, and for so long. 

Because the report did not ask those questions, no living contemporaries of the former cardinal have faced consequences for the prospect of having looked the other way, and no churchmen who served in secretarial, vicarious, or auxiliary roles to the former cardinal have been examined for the prospect of their complicity in McCarrick’s misdeeds, or even their possible enabling thereof. 

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The U.S. bishops can not do anything about the McCarrick Report. They could, on the other hand, do something about the transparency on financial and relational questions that it might have addressed. And indeed, in the immediate wake of the scandal, scores of bishops lined up to say they would accept nothing but a full accounting of things, and full transparency about that. But those calls have mostly muted now.

There are two bishops in the U.S. who are most equipped to provide clarity on the extent of McCarrick’s financial network: Cardinals Joseph Tobin and Wilton Gregory. 

Tobin, the archbishop of Newark, whose archdiocese seemingly possesses financial and travel records from McCarrick’s 14 years of leadership there, has said that he’s conducted internal investigations in Newark that aim at understanding how McCarrick built an influence network, and who was in it. 

But the cardinal has not released publicly any information from those investigations, which might help hold to account those who enabled McCarrick, and review the career of those who were formed or mentored by him. 

In 2019, Tobin told reporters that neither his archdiocese nor the neighboring Diocese of Metuchen, which was also led by McCarrick, was able to release records detailing McCarrick’s slush funds, and his gift-giving.

Tobin told reporters that “there are some impediments for us doing everything that we would like to do in two dioceses: in the Archdiocese of Newark and in the Diocese of Metuchen, because we’re also under a criminal investigation by the attorney general of New Jersey.”

“Any actions we take have to be vetted by [the attorney general’s] people as well,” the cardinal said, suggesting that a records release could be forthcoming after the conclusion of the state probe.

The cardinal did not disclose whether any specific legal requirement prohibited from releasing records during the course of the investigation.

But in the ensuing years, the attorney general’s investigation has stalled without formally concluding, leaving internal accountability in the Church in limbo. The Archdiocese of Newark had said for years that it was hamstrung by the attorney general’s office, and directed media questions there. But in recent months the archdiocese has also said it can’t answer questions about abuse because of pending litigation from abuse survivors. 

Indeed, it may well be legally prudent for Tobin and the Newark archdiocese to withhold the disclosures that could see accountability accomplished in the Church. But if the archdiocesan review of McCarrick’s financial records can point to sitting bishops who were complicit in McCarrick’s misdeeds — a possibility never actually ruled out — Tobin may well have to make a weighing exercise about the balance between legal prudence, and institutional self-protection, on the one hand, and the protection of vulnerable persons on the other. 

That weighing exercise likely should consider that the Church’s own credibility has suffered because a McCarrick auxiliary, now-Cardinal Kevin Farrell, has seen his own ecclesiastical responsibilities eclipse even those of McCarrick.

Given Farrell’s critical role as camerlengo of the College of Cardinals, it seems fair for his fellow churchmen to do all they can to protect his good name, if appropriate, or to address any potential influence McCarrick may have wielded through him. In either case, disclosure might well resolve the lingering questions that have been raised among observers about whether Farrell was aware or complicit in McCarrick’s misconduct.

The cardinal may be satisfied that he’s made that weighing exercise personally. But if the promise of 2018 was transparent accountability, an internal decision about what to release might not satisfy victims and their advocates, or do much to change the culture which enabled McCarrick in the first place.   

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When Wilton Gregory was in April 2019 appointed the Archbishop of Washington, he pledged to Catholics that “I will always tell you the truth.”

But despite that promise, the Washington archdiocese has not responded to multiple requests to release the financial records it possesses of McCarrick’s slush fund and gift-giving habits. McCarrick, famously, in Washington, foreswore a salary during his term of office there, living instead from a fund that he’d built up through the gifts and support of his benefactors. The archdiocese did not exercise control over that fund, but it reportedly helped McCarrick to administer it, and retains records which could point to the way McCarrick spent money in the years he engaged in abusive behavior. 

Gregory has not indicated why he is unwilling to release the records, or make them available for public scrutiny. 

The archbishop has in the past lamented clerical cover-ups. He told reporters in 2019 that “part of clericalism is circling the wagons so that the episcopacy won't call one another to task. I think this moment has shown the folly of that approach to episcopal governance and episcopal collegiality.”

If the moment of 2018 offered that lesson, it’s not yet clear it’s been learned. And the effect of that is clear. A survey last year showed that priests have declining trust in their bishops, and a growing cadre of lay voices suggests the same. While the McCarrick scandal might seem like yesterday’s problem to some bishops — eclipsed by synodality, COVID worries, ecclesiastical politics, or fights over the Eucharist — to many Catholics the scandal is still acute. For them, the wounds of five years ago are still fresh, and have not yet been assuaged.  

As the bishops reflect on McCarrick+5years, they still have time to consider how they can make good on the promises of years past. Given the occasion of the McCarrick anniversary, they seem presently to have an opportunity to assess for themselves, and for the Church, how they’ve done. 

And Archbishop Timothy Broglio, the conference’s new president, is an old hand at dealing with Vatican figures — and may well have the right stuff to let the Holy See know how American bishops would like to see reform efforts changed.

But whether he does so in Orlando — or any bishop even mentions McCarrick — remains to be seen.

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