The McCarrick Report details Theodore McCarrick’s rise through the ranks of the Catholic Church while he sexually abused young men and minors and successfully covered up his crimes. The Report captures the horror of Theodore McCarrick’s sins in a glaringly dispassionate tone, and its matter-of-fact style is unsettling, especially in how it reveals various priests’ and bishops’ abject dereliction of duty to victims.
The publication of Report is a reminder to us not only to pray for the survivors of clerical abuse but also to commit ourselves to their defense, whatever that might entail. Preventing another McCarrick will require rigorous reforms aimed at clericalism and the glorification of power and influence. Many have pointed to the recently published Vos estis lux mundo and Vademecum as evidence of the Vatican’s new resolve to address abuse seriously, but are these guidelines enough and what else must the Church do?
While it is painful to admit, McCarrick escaped any real and lasting consequences due to the incompetence, cowardice, and a series of fumbled handoffs of responsibility of members of the hierarchy of the Catholic Church. In light of these documented failures, Vos estis lux mundi—the document promulgated in May of 2019 that establishes new procedural norms and standards of accountability for handling cases of sexual abuse—and the Vademecum on certain points of procedure in treating cases of sexual abuse of minors committed by clerics—described as a “manual” for investigating cases of sexual abuse—take on a new light. Both attempt to establish structural reforms on how to handle abuse cases. For example, Vos estis outlines clear paths of responsibility that seem designed to ensure no one can pass the buck and that allegations of abuse are addressed in a timely manner. The Vademecum provides guidance on punishments and demands that anonymous complaints are taken seriously.
These documents are designed to address some of the major shortcomings of the Church’s handling of McCarrick throughout the last few decades. In the case of Vos estis, for example, the most obvious improvement over the status quo ante is the procedures outlined to address the abuse of bishops themselves, even in cases where the bishop is a metropolitan. In most cases, the responsibility for handling abuse allegations against bishops are the responsibility of the region’s metropolitan (Art. 8, §1). When the metropolitan himself is accused, however, that responsibility falls to the senior suffragan bishop (the bishop with the next highest level of seniority in the region) and the Holy See is notified (Art. 8, §2). This seems to take situations like that of McCarrick into account, as he was a metropolitan archbishop in Newark and in Washington, DC.
Another problem that Vos estis tries to address is when there is a failure in a handoff of responsibility in a case from one bishop to another. There is a clear example of this type of failure in the Report (recounted in pp. 378-389). After Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò shared what he had learned from “Priest 3” with Cardinal Marc Ouellet, the Vatican prefect of the Congregation for Bishops. Cardinal Ouellet asked Viganò to follow up and conduct an inquiry. Viganò did not. While Viganò clearly failed in his responsibilities, it is also important to note that Ouellet did not follow up and McCarrick avoided disciplinary action.
Vos estis attempts to address this type of problem in the future by outlining the need for regular communication, including status updates every thirty days for every open investigation (Art. 12, §9). Had McCarrick’s case been formally documented in any way, as Vos estis now requires, the simple fact of following up would likely have yielded much fruit. Unfortunately, Cardinal Ouellet did not do this, and Viganò’s failure was allowed to go unchecked.
In addition to the new guidelines laid out in Vos Estis, the Vademecum formally outlines the new responsibilities and obligations in detail and connects them explicitly to canon law and other magisterial statements. As one example, the Vademecum states that it is important to treat anonymous reports seriously and not to simply dismiss them. This seems to respond to the Church’s handling of six anonymous letters received by Church officials in the early 1990s, implicating McCarrick in the abuse of young men (Report, pp. 95-111). Recipients of these anonymous letters forwarded them to McCarrick, who in turn flatly denied them and was believed. Here, the Report (p. 111) clearly suggests that this was a missed opportunity to investigate McCarrick’s conduct, if not a duty. In response, the Vademecum places the onus on ecclesial authorities not to dismiss anonymous reports out of hand.
Vos estis and the Vademecum are designed to correct the Church’s inability to police itself by providing clearer guidance and lines of canonical responsibility when handling abuse cases. But will these reforms prevent another “McCarrick”? Sadly, we cannot draw that conclusion on the basis of the documents alone. The problem is twofold.
First, the mere fact that these guidelines are in place does nothing to combat clericalism in the Church. The cultural and institutional manifestations of clericalism have made it impossible for independent authorities—and even the lay faithful—to hold priests and bishops accountable. Unless the Church follows through on a genuine commitment to combat clericalism, abuse will continue to happen and abusers will get away with it. The Report itself, which disabuses us of any trust we might have placed in priests and bishops, may ultimately be the catalyst in shifting clerical culture.
Over the last several months, we have seen the proliferation of other forms of abuse, including spiritual abuse, when priests and bishops pervert the Gospel and misuse their spiritual authority as a weapon in single-minded crusades, often against women and minorities. We have seen them threaten other Catholics with damnation if they don’t vote a certain way. We have heard them preach wild conspiracy theories from the pulpit in the guise of “telling the truth.” We have seen them undermine the legitimacy of their brother priests and bishops and even the pope himself. Until we can rely on bishops to speak out against abuse and clericalism in all its forms, discipline offending priests, and correct brother bishops, it will be hard to say that the Church is taking the issue seriously.
Secondly, these guidelines have not changed the fact that the Church is still self-policing. While in many dioceses, the increasing involvement of the laity in positions of authority is welcome and necessary, the Church will continue to be plagued by valid accusations of impropriety. As Christopher Lamb noted in a recent Peter’s Field Hospital podcast, more trust would have been engendered in the faithful had the Report been compiled by an independent auditor. Very few people today trust the hierarchy to do what’s right in cases of abuse, because as the Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report and the McCarrick Report indicate, they have failed in very significant ways.
Ultimately, these procedures are just procedures. Abuse cases will inevitably fall between the cracks, and new weaknesses in processes will be discovered. The best way to stop abusers is not to constantly create more extensive policies and procedures, although they will be needed. Real change requires virtuous priests and bishops who are judicious and determined to discern the best path forward, even if it is not clear at first what that may be. McCarrick was able to escape accountability for so long due to the cowardice and ineptitude of the clergy. To avoid those mistakes in the future will require the frequent self-examination by those responsible for overseeing the implementation of the guidelines, as well as receptivity to fraternal correction.
What is significant about the Report, Vos estis, and the Vademecum may not be so much the content of the documents themselves but that they have been made public and shared with the whole world. The unprecedented level of transparency, while still short of the ideal, indicates the recognition of the hierarchy’s responsibility to the Church as a whole—and is, in fact, a call for help. The laity, in particular, have a vital role in holding bishops accountable. Now we have greater resources with which to do just that. No, the laity cannot vote a bishop out of office, but we can express our concerns and hold bishops to these procedures. The hierarchy is in a precarious position. As Cardinal-designate Wilton Gregory wrote recently, “There are challenges to our integrity that must be overcome before we can move forward, and yet paradoxically it seems we can’t move meaningfully forward until that integrity is restored.”
Should bishops fail to listen to the laity or follow these directives, they will lose the one thing that some of them seem to value most: power over the faithful. People will simply stop caring about what they have to say. Even the most self-absorbed bishop does not want to become the center of negative attention in the press, to lose credibility, or to find the faithful of their diocese in revolt against him.
We must remain vigilant in our efforts to prevent and stop abuse in all forms. The temptation to sin and abuse does not simply go away because the Vatican reformed its procedures. It would be foolish not to anticipate that perpetrators will find new ways to inflict wounds on others, skirt the law, and exploit weaknesses. We are the Church and together we are responsible to care for each other, to protect each other, to come quickly to the defense of victims, and to ensure that these grave evils never happen again. The more the hierarchy involves the entire Church in that effort the more robust our response can be. The Report and related reforms are a step in the right direction, but more must be done.