Last week’s revelation that 87-year-old retired Cardinal Theodore McCarrick has been removed from public ministry on charges that he twice molested a teenage boy in New York in 1970 and 1971 marks a new low for the Catholic Church in the United States.
All these years, McCarrick apparently knew he was a ticking time bomb, a man with an alleged history of sexual predation who had heretofore avoided the hammer. At 87 years old, he’d almost made it too; he’d almost successfully run the gauntlet and avoided the reach of earthly justice. That is, until the Review Board of the Archdiocese of New York deemed an almost 50-year-old accusation of assault against a minor not just credible but substantiated. Compounding the news was the revelation from the archbishop of Newark, Cardinal Joseph Tobin, that there have been at least three accusations leveled in the past against McCarrick by adults, two of which were settled out of court (and perhaps contained clauses requiring the victims’ silence). Cardinal McCarrick has appealed the decision, but over the last week an increasing number of sordid stories about his sexual harassment of seminarians and other inappropriate actions have emerged.
Once again, the public’s trust is shattered, the reputation of the Church is harmed, another respected name is reduced to ashes of shame.
Cardinal McCarrick joins the ever-growing litany of prominent and powerful men who have fallen from grace in recent years upon allegations that they committed or covered up sexual predation: Bill Cosby, Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, Charlie Rose, Matt Lauer, Roger Ailes, Al Franken, Joe Paterno, Jimmy Savile, Marcel Maciel, Bernard Law.
Some of these men, like Cardinal McCarrick, first faced charges in the waning years of their lives. Others were at the peak of their careers when they were outed. The extent of the crimes of some, such as British television personality Jimmy Savile, were not exposed until after their deaths. And, as with so many of these men, the public may never know the full extent of their crimes.
One question that troubles me greatly is how many predators might there be who have not yet been exposed? How many prominent priests, bishops, and cardinals are hiding sex crimes from their pasts and hoping to avoid the public shame of having them revealed?
There’s a reason why Catholics have traditionally named buildings and institutions after saints. In due time, the Archdiocese of Washington will rename the McCarrick Center (home to Catholic Charities and a Spanish-language mission) in Silver Spring. At least no one has to worry about renaming McCarrick high school in New Jersey; it was already shut down in 2015.
McCarrick’s alleged actions and the failure of the Church to expose them has cast every other member of the clergy under a cloud of suspicion. Those close to Cardinal McCarrick especially bear the weight of this cloud. Deservedly so, for those who covered it up.
It’s not true that “everybody knew” the truth about Cardinal McCarrick. Some, like myself, had heard the rumors and come across them on the internet, but chose to trust the Church in this supposed era of improved vigilance and “no tolerance.”
The out-of-court settlements should have come to light 16 years ago, when we were promised that this would not happen again, if not before.
The Church can no longer depend on a culture of secrecy and concealment to hide the sins of its most powerful members.
There is a temptation to retreat into the comfort of the good things McCarrick did for the Church; but it’s impossible to ignore that he was a ticking time bomb throughout, and in a perfectly just system he would have been removed from ministry long before any of his celebrated accomplishments.
All of the accolades and achievements of Cardinal Theodore McCarrick are tarnished. Going forward, the public will view everything he’s done in his episcopal career, even the good things (and certainly there were many), as morally compromised.
This is somewhat personal for me. I have met Cardinal McCarrick several times, and each encounter was extremely positive. I encountered him in Rome after my brother’s diaconate ordination a few years ago, and he charmed the socks off my Methodist aunt — I thought she was going to convert on the spot. I last saw him maybe two years ago at the USCCB, when he was in the building for meetings and celebrated noon Mass for us. He was decidedly stooped, and slow in his movements, but I was deeply moved by his reverence and his apparent warmth.
From the time when he was announced as the new archbishop of Washington in 2000 until last Wednesday, I have always thought the best of him, to give him the respect he was due as a human being and as my cardinal. Last Wednesday was a “gut punch,” to say the least.
As a Church and society, we’ve had enough of the “ticking time bombs.” The later the truth comes to light, the more damage will have been done. It is a moral responsibility to expose a priest or bishop who has committed a sexual crime. Those in leadership positions in the Church have a moral obligation to listen to survivors and take their claims seriously. The Church must be more vigilant in investigating claims and rumors, especially when they are as well-known and widespread the rumors involving Cardinal McCarrick. Whistleblowers must be protected. Finally, the Church should offer real transparency and openness about these matters to the faithful.
I will conclude with a plea to all priests and bishops who have committed such crimes to resign your post, admit your guilt, and ask for forgiveness. There is nothing you can do that will help heal the Church more than to do so. Whatever else you have achieved as a member of the clergy will pale in comparison to this. Whatever damage this may do to your livelihood and reputation, God’s mercy is greater. And remember, even if you evade earthly justice, you will have to answer to your Father in Heaven.
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Mike Lewis is the founding managing editor of Where Peter Is. He and Jeannie Gaffigan co-host Field Hospital, a U.S. Catholic podcast.