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What clerical abuse victims expect from McCarrick trial

Theodore McCarrick will be arraigned in a Massachusetts courtroom this week on sexual assault charges.

Both victim-survivors of clerical sexual abuse and their advocates have told The Pillar that publicity surrounding the McCarrick trial will be difficult for some people who have been abused by clergy. But they say its outcome could offer some abuse victims a sense of justice, and the trial might ensure continued attention to the problems of sexual abuse and abuse of office within the Church.

Then-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick in Rome in 2013. Credit: Archdiocese of Boston via flickr. CC BY SA 2.0

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The hearing Friday will be the first time McCarrick is charged in American criminal court in connection with allegations of serial sexual abuse and coercion of minors. The former cardinal, who was laicized in 2019, is alleged to have sexually molested a teenager, a family friend, several times during a 1974 wedding reception.

McCarrick will be arraigned Sept. 3 for three counts of “indecent assault and battery in Massachusetts. His attorney has said McCarrick and his legal team “look forward to addressing this case in the courtroom.”

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‘It's emotionally impossible’

McCarrick’s upcoming trial “has a huge symbolic value for the Catholic Church,” according to Sara Larson, executive director of Awake Milwaukee, a Wisconsin organization that aims to address the “full reality of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church” and to promote healing in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, where the group is based.

“So many survivors I know struggle with holding on to hope that things in the Church and in our society will ever really change. The penalties that McCarrick has already faced offer some glimmer of hope that perhaps things are moving in the right direction, that power and money will no longer protect Church leaders from the consequences of their actions, that survivors’ voices do matter,” Larson said.

She added that when abuse is in the headlines, as it will be during McCarrick’s trial, “it can be difficult and triggering for some survivors who are struggling to cope with their own abuse. Survivors might need additional support as they process the news, however this trial unfolds.”

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Teresa Pitt Green, a survivor of clerical sexual abuse, agreed that a McCarrick trial will be hard for victim-survivors.

“I am absolutely sure the trial will trigger fellow survivors — and me. You know it'll be in the press. You grit your teeth and read, or you turn away and wonder. That is no easy choice. It’s emotionally impossible.”

"During the [2018] Summer of Shame, when revelations about the then-cardinal came out, almost every survivor with whom I work withdrew into a painful isolated place. They continued to function in the world, but they staggered around with private agony. It was an essential step for the Church to weed itself of abusers, at every level, but it exacts a price of us, too,” Pitt Green added.

Pitt Green is the co-founder of Spirit Fire, which calls itself a “fellowship of survivors,” which aims to use the principles of restorative justice to help other survivors “who seek healing, growth, and reconciliation.”  

She also cofounded The Healing Voices magazine, and hosts the Spirit Fire Global Broadcast Series, a course on history, models of care, and other issues connected to abuse.

Pitt Green told The Pillar she tends to be “press-shy” and to “eschew press,” in large part, she said, because the scandal of abuse can be too easily politicized in media coverage.

But she said the trial of McCarrick will require Catholics to acknowledge wounds caused to the Church by clerical abuse and misconduct— and that acknowledgment is important for healing, she said.

“My recovery process has shown me that the more we can acknowledge the evil of abuse in our past, the more fully we heal. This is true for individual victims, for victims' families, and for the family of God, the Church. If the trial helps Catholics who are still in denial that is good.”

‘In the cocoon of the Church’

Like Pitt Green, Larson also said she hopes the trial will keep Catholics focused on accountability and ecclesial reform. 

“Like many survivors I have spoken to, I hope that attention on this trial will reinvigorate the sense of conviction and even righteous anger that many Catholics felt when the revelations about McCarrick came to light in 2018. At that time, it felt like the whole Church — bishops, priests, lay leaders, people in the pews — was compelled to face the reality that abuse and cover up in our Church are not problems of the past. So many people were talking about this issue, asking hard questions, and demanding that our Church become more safe, accountable, and transparent.” 

“We made some real progress in that first year, but now it feels like most Catholics have moved on and progress has come to a standstill again. Every time an abuse story is in headline news again, my hope is that more Catholics will start paying attention and take an active role in supporting survivors and helping our Church be better,” Larson added.

“With this specific case, I also hope that we’ll give renewed attention to the sexual abuse of adults in the Catholic Church. It’s both a tragedy and a scandal that McCarrick was abusing adults for decades but only faced consequences when it was someone under age 18 who had been harmed.”

“While the Church has made great progress in preventing and responding to the abuse of children, we have barely begun to confront the abuse of adults, which I believe is much more common than many people realize,” she said.

Gina Barthel is a Minnesota Catholic who says she was sexually and spiritually abused as an adult by a priest who was her spiritual director.

She told The Pillar she hopes to see McCarrick face justice. She said she also hopes that if he is not convicted, Church officials will reconsider that the former cardinal is permitted to live in an ecclesiastical residence in Missouri.

“It has been hurtful that he lives within the Church. Even though he's apparently paying his own rent, he is still inside the Church and Church institutions.” 

“And for survivors, that he is still in the cocoon of the Church hurts.”

“For years I couldn't even step foot inside a Catholic Church, even though I wanted to. The sacraments are right there for him, and for years I couldn't go near them because I was hurting so badly. Maybe that seems unmerciful, but this situation doesn't seem just.”

Barthel also said she hopes the McCarrick trial will be a reminder that sexual abuse issues in the Church aren’t solved just because the Church has made “some steps forward” since the scandals of 2018.

"I think some dioceses have learned a lot since 2018, and made a lot of very big steps. But others haven't made changes. And so when I talk with survivors, what kind of help they'll get, and even whether they'll be heard, depends so much on where they live or where they were abused.” 

“And I hope this trial, with McCarrick, can just be a reminder of how many survivors are still hurting.”

‘People forgot’

For her part, Pitt Green said ecclesiastical attention to sexual abuse and coercion needs to consistent, and not tied to media coverage, lawsuits, or criminal trials. 

"I was struggling to return to the faith where I was harmed back in the 1980s, when lawsuits and reforms began. Then people forgot. I was around when the reforms were instituted in 2002. Most people, but fewer people, forgot. I think they were shocked but assumed that this was a problem and institutional leaders would fix it,” she told The Pillar.

"Meanwhile, the fact is you don't fix abuse, you heal from it — whether you're a victim, someone who loves and suffers with a victim, or a family of a victim, or the whole Church family. Here we are again. I see new crises arise and eclipse this as the target of public outrage.” 

“It seems cyclical,” she said.

"For Catholics, it comes down to choosing not just to remember, but also to be vigilant for the long haul. Just like everyone else harmed by the abusers and their enablers, Catholics need to choose to heal as a family. Reforming the institution isn't the final act. Will it be now? Will it be postponed again? I honestly don't know.”

“That’s why we have begun our broadcast - in hope for the former," Pitt Green added.

Larson and Barthel said McCarrick’s trial will be especially difficult for victim-survivors whose never saw an abuser face legal consequences.

Barthel noted that McCarrick will be tried in Massachusetts because of an apparently unusual provision of the state’s criminal statute of limitations: while the alleged crime took place decades ago, the time in which McCarrick spent outside of the state did not count against the possibility of its prosecution.

“I’m glad prosecutors found a way to try him. But I also think he is a good reminder of why the statute of limitations for crimes like this isn't fair: Because it means that survivors have to be in a certain place in their healing before the time runs out,” Barthel said.

“We don't have a statute of limitations on murder. And this is serious in the same way. That doesn't mean that the case shouldn't have to be proven; there needs to be evidence and fairness, and sure, over time, it might be more difficult to prove someone is guilty. But there are survivors who know they were abused, and because they weren't in a place to come forward before time ran out, there isn't any justice for them,” she added.

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‘When we turn to God’

Larson noted the trial also points to a sense of unfulfilled expectations that ecclesial leaders would be transparent about McCarrick’s own misdeeds.

“There are still many abusers who have faced no consequences for their actions, and many Church leaders who continue to approach this issue with the same secrecy and defensiveness that allowed McCarrick to remain in power.” 

“While McCarrick’s trial will bring much-needed attention to this issue, I don’t think that these proceedings will address the most important questions we need to be asking as a Church: How was McCarrick able to get away with abuse for so long? What systems and expectations prevented people from speaking up with concerns or being heard when they did? What role did money have in keeping this scandal quiet over the years? How can we know there aren’t other bishops still behaving in the same way today?” 

“And most importantly, how do we as a Church get better at listening to survivors, taking them seriously, and acting when they report?”

While a 2020 report from the Vatican answered some of those questions, it has been criticized for failing to adequately explain McCarrick’s alleged financial misconduct; the former cardinal had a large, unsupervised account when he served as Archbishop of Newark and Washington, from which he reportedly gave large cash gifts to Vatican and American Church officials.

It is not clear whether those details would come out in a criminal trial. Nor is it entirely certain McCarrick’s case will see a jury. After his arraignment Sept. 3, there will be several weeks before the next phase of the trial gets underway, and it is possible McCarrick could accept a plea bargain, or, at 91 years old, be judged unfit for trial.

Pitt Green was not optimistic that the trial would answer lingering questions about McCarrick. But she said, for herself, the important lesson amid the ongoing scandal of McCarrick’s behavior is a call to conversion. That, she said, is why she needs the Church, even after the pain she has experienced.

“I'm sure the outcome will bring a sense of justice to some survivors, but it's hard to see that as but a second-best justice. Here is where abuse and its enabling and its coverup for all those decades have led us. To a terrible circumstance, with no satisfying outcomes.” 

“That’s true in human terms, and it is why recovery, in my experience, becomes fully realized only when we turn to God, acknowledge what happened, repent where we were complicit or complacent, forgive when and in ways it is safe to do so and find new ways to be a healed family — and become yet again a beacon for the world that is full of sexual violence and abuse,” Pitt Green said. 

“Our Church's healing is more needed now than ever.”