The Catholic Church needs leaders who can purge corruption even among their own theological allies. The pope is failing that test.
During the Catholic Church’s synod on the family in Rome in 2015, a rough-and-tumble affair in which Pope Francis pushed the assembled bishops to liberalize Catholic teaching on remarriage and divorce, one of the attendees, by the pope’s own invitation, was the retired Belgian Cardinal Godfried Danneels.
Danneels was a natural pick in one sense: One of the church’s prominent liberals, he had been part of a circle that supported Jorge Bergoglio in the run-up to his election as Francis, and in a synodal fight with conservative bishops, the pope needed all the allies he could get.
.. In another sense, though, Danneels was a wildly inappropriate choice, because at the conclusion of his career he was caught on tape trying to persuade a young victim of sex abuse not to go public with allegations against the victim’s uncle, Bishop Roger Vangheluwe of Bruges, Belgium.
.. hauling a cover-up artist out of retirement for a synod on the family was a statement that ideological loyalties mattered more to him than personal misconduct: Sex abuse might be bad, but what really mattered was being on the correct side of the Catholic civil war.
.. after years of failed American attempts to get Rome to take action, Francis’ predecessor, Benedict XVI, placed the already retired McCarrick under some form of sanctions — moving him out of his residence, restricting contact with seminarians, limiting public appearances. It further claims that despite being told that McCarrick was a sexual predator, Francis removed those sanctions, raised McCarrick’s profile and relied on him for advice about major appointments.
.. noting that McCarrick appeared at many events, including with Benedict himself, in the period when he was supposedly under sanctions.
.. given the distracted and ineffectual way that the last pope ran the church, it’s very easy to imagine a distracted and ineffectual attempt to restrict McCarrick being subverted and ignored by the cardinal and his allies in the hierarchy.
.. In which case it’s also easy to imagine a scenario in which Francis didn’t technically “lift” those sanctions so much as acted in ignorance of them, or of their seriousness. He might have been given some knowledge, by Viganò and others, of the allegations against McCarrick but either assumed they couldn’t be that bad (at this point the cardinal mostly stood accused of imposing himself on seminarians, not teenage minors) or else chose to believe a denial from the accused cardinal himself. Why? In part because of perceived self-interest: Francis needed allies, McCarrick was sympathetic to the pope’s planned liberalizing push, and the pope wanted his help reshaping the ranks of American bishops.
.. In this scenario Francis would be guilty of self-deception and incuriosity but not as nakedly culpable as Viganò implies. And if it’s easy to imagine this scenario because of the Danneels example, it’s also easy to imagine because that’s how things have proceeded consistently in the church since the sex abuse scandals broke: If a given predator or enabler is “on side” for either conservatives or liberals, he will find defenders and protectors for as long as events and revelations permit.
- That’s a major reason John Paul II refused to investigate Father Marcel Maciel, the wicked founder of the Legionaries of Christ — because the Legionaries were conservative, and apparently a great success, and that was all that mattered.
- It’s why many conservative Catholics unwisely defended John Paul II-appointed prelates like Boston’s Bernard Law in the early 2000s.
- It’s why a notorious traditionalist priest, Father Carlos Urrutigoity, could find a welcome from conservative bishops in Pennsylvania and then Paraguay, despite a trail of abuse allegations.
.. Now it’s why certain organs and apostles of liberal Catholicism are running interference for McCarrick’s protectors — because Francis is their pope, the liberalizer they yearned for all through the John Paul and Benedict years, and all’s fair in the Catholic civil war.
.. But the inevitable, even providential irony is that this sort of team thinking never leads to theological victory, but only to exposure, shame, disaster. Indeed, the lesson of these bitter decades is that any faction hoping to lead Roman Catholicism out of crisis should begin with purges within its own ranks, with intolerance for any hint of corruption.
.. Francis, alas for everyone, did the opposite. Elected by cardinals eager for a cleanup at the Vatican, he wanted to be a theological change agent instead — which led him to tolerate the corrupt Roman old guard (whose names fill Viganò’s letter) and to rehabilitate liberal figures like Danneels, McCarrick and Cardinal Oscar Maradiaga of Honduras (a dubious figure with a predator among his underlings and a scandal at his seminary) who deserved the sidelines if not a penitent’s cell.
.. purge the corruption he has tolerated and to supply Catholicism with what it has lacked these many years: a leader willing to be zealous and uncompromising against what Benedict called the “filth” in the church, no matter how many heads must roll on his own side of the Catholic civil war.
It is hard to overestimate the storm that is brewing. Only penance and a complete housecleaning can restore credibility and trust.
I hope our bishops, especially the highest ranking and those closest to the epicenter of the Archbishop McCarrick case, hear just how angry the faithful are. I think it is hard to overestimate the storm that is brewing.
.. If any of our prelates think this latest storm will soon pass, they should ponder the more likely case that these are merely the outer bands of a Category 5 hurricane that is closing in and will likely make landfall in Baltimore at the November meeting of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB).
.. I have never seen people so serious and determined to take actions of their own. Frankly, as the faithful often remind us, their real power is the power of the purse—that and voting with their feet. I have usually dismissed plans to refuse to give to the Annual Bishop’s Appeal or other such collections as the threats of a few on the fringes, but I am now hearing such things from far more mainstream sources who say that it is the only way to get the bishops’ attention.
.. I have learned from Church history that reform almost never comes from the top; it comes from religious life and from the grass roots, from among God’s people. Please stay faithful to the Lord and His Body the Church. Pray as never before. Realize that the devil would like nothing more than for you to walk away from the sacraments.
.. feel freer than ever to confront Church leadership and insist upon reform
.. I encourage each of you to write personally to your bishop. It is not enough to sound off on social media or in comments sections on the internet. Be old-fashioned: write a physical letter to your bishop and request a written reply, at least acknowledging receipt. Be brief and charitable, but also be clear about the crisis of trust in episcopal and clerical authority and your deepening concerns over what this means if trust cannot be restored.
.. Remember, too, not every bishop or priest is equally to blame. Some are suffering as much as you are. However, no one, clergy or lay, should exempt himself from the task of summoning the Church to reform and greater holiness.
.. To those who are inclined to use financial withholding as an expression of concern, I ask that you remember that much of these collections go to help the poor. Please consider such a method as a kind of last recourse. Use it only if you must, and as a medicine not an expression of vengeance. I ask that you consider giving an equal amount directly to those who help the poor. Also, if you choose to do this, write to your bishop explaining what you are doing and why.
.. I am grateful that many lay faithful love the Church enough to be angry. Sometimes one must be angry enough to be willing to act for change and to persevere in that work. I hope you will honor your anger and use it to creative ends: to tirelessly demand real reform in all the ways God gives you to see. Be careful to target your anger and speak it in love and for the good of all.
It is church leadership, from the popes all the way down, that hasn’t been able to tell right from wrong. Yet how can this be, in an institution at least nominally dedicated to precisely that task? I think there are two interrelated reasons.
The first is an age-old problem. Since its alliance with the Roman Emperor Constantine in the 4th century, the Catholic hierarchy has been tempted by power. It has cloaked itself in mystery to rule by edict rather than by example. At root, this scandal springs from idolatry: Bishops employ secrecy and deceit to promote the heresy that the priesthood is superior to the people in the pews. The words of John A. Hardon, a Jesuit priest, are as true now as when he wrote them 20 years ago: “Most of the chaos in the Catholic Church today is due to the pride of priests.”
.. The second is the church’s unfortunate negative obsession with sex — a problem it shares with many conservative Protestant congregations. To a broken world they offer a gospel of no-nos. The church exalts, from the Virgin Mary to the parish priest, the sexless life, as though the very engine of God’s creation were a sign of spiritual failure and source of shame.
The Catholic Church needs an inquest into what the pederast cardinal’s colleagues knew, and when... The first written accusation (that we know of) was filed by one of his priests in 1994, addressed to McCarrick’s successor as the Bishop of Metuchen; the priest who complained was transferred to another diocese while his abuser’s rise continued.
By the end of that decade, McCarrick’s sexual misbehavior (if perhaps not its full scope) was known by enough people that a group of American laypeople went to Rome to petition against his appointment as archbishop of Washington, D.C., and at least one New York priest, Father Boniface Ramsey, sent a letter to the Vatican offering a similar warning.
.. the Washington archbishop became the avuncular, reassuring media point person for his fellow bishops, issuing statements of concern and condemnation that if he really feared the punishments of hell would have turned to ashes in his mouth.
.. Then in 2005 and again in 2007, two New Jersey dioceses settled privately with two men alleging abuse or harassment at McCarrick’s hands. This presumably expanded substantially the number of people who knew about his crimes. Yet nothing was said publicly by the church about these settlements; McCarrick retired with his reputation intact, and was even permitted to live at a seminary.
.. When Pope Francis was elected, he became an eminence grise, whose lobbying helped elevate several of the new pope’s choices for high office in the American church — including the new cardinal archbishop of Newark, Joseph Tobin, and the head of the Vatican dicastery for family life, Kevin Farrell, both of whom considered McCarrick a mentor.
.. In other words, two decades after McCarrick should have been removed from his offices, defrocked and handed over to the civil authorities, he was instead wielding remarkable influence in the church … right up until the moment when a lifetime’s worth of crimes were finally dragged into the light.
.. which probably requires an investigator with a mandate from the pope himself.
.. they can do only so much if the necessary witnesses still feel that the institutional church will not protect them, if they fear their superiors will punish them for telling all the truth.
.. the Catholic bishops are now somewhat protected from media scrutiny by virtue of their increasing unimportance.
.. There are a few American bishops still with media platforms, a few with intellectual chops. But many of the notional leaders of the church are important only within the bureaucracies they manage and as invisible to the average churchgoer as a Target regional vice president would be to the average weekend shopper at the superstore.
.. the kind of crimes once covered up because of the power and influence of bishops might now be swept under quickly because of the episcopacy’s obscurity and irrelevance.
.. whether they are happy with this settlement — happy to be ignored so long as they can also evade accountability for what’s still rotten in the church, happy to serve out their time as stewards of a declining institution rather than demanding the heads of the men whose culpable ignorance made the decline much steeper than it should have been.