One year ago today, Theodore McCarrick woke up as a cardinal of the Catholic Church, a busy informal diplomatic trouble-shooter on behalf of the Vatican and someone perceived as a friend of the reigning pope, Francis. By the time he went to bed he’d been removed from public ministry, starting a cascade of abuse allegations that led to his being expelled from the College of Cardinals and, eventually, from the priesthood.
McCarrick, who’ll turn 89 on July 7, now lives in disgrace in a small Capuchin friary on the plains of Western Kansas.
As we reach the one-year milestone of the McCarrick saga, it’s a good time to examine where things stand. In essence, it’s a tale typical of the Catholic Church, full of both lights and shadows, hope aroused and business left undone.
On the one hand, Pope Francis came into office vowing there would be no “daddy’s boys” on his watch, meaning clergy so senior or sheltered by powerful patrons as to be beyond reach should they commit a crime. McCarrick certainly proved he meant business, since this was not only a Prince of the Church but someone who, by multiple accounts, campaigned actively for the election of then-Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina in 2013 and was instrumental in delivering some share of votes to the new pontiff.
Further, McCarrick also played a valuable back-channel diplomatic role for Francis, most recently in the negotiations that led to an historic (and controversial) deal with China over the appointment of bishops.
Granted, McCarrick long had enemies in the Church for his political and theological positions, but he enjoyed the favor of the pope and was as good a candidate for impunity as anyone. To see him shorn of his cardinal’s red hat and then his priesthood, therefore, was a shot heard ‘round the world about personal accountability for wrongdoing.
This must not be underestimated: Francis has confirmed for all time that no matter how high up the food chain you may be in the Church, if you abuse a minor, you’re finished.
It’s worth noting that the body which reviewed the allegation against McCarrick in New York was composed of laity, as were the investigators who pursued it. Much like the case of Bishop Robert Finn in Kansas City, for whom an abuser priest was initially flagged by someone who had received the U.S. bishops’ anti-abuse training, these scandals thus also show reform measures working.
Further, the McCarrick scandal and everything that followed from it - including the sensational allegation from Italian Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, a former papal envoy in the U.S., that Francis was briefed in 2013 on the McCarrick charges and did nothing - has spurred a season of reform in the Church at all levels.
Without the McCarrick affair, it’s hard to imagine that Francis would have summoned the presidents of all the world’s bishops’ conferences to Rome last February for a summit on fighting abuse, or that he would have issued a new motu proprio, Vox Estis Lux Mundi, featuring new protocols for reporting abuse and violence in every diocese, holding bishops and religious superiors accountable for their actions, and including the obligation for clerics and religious to report abuse.
Nor is it likely that without fallout from the McCarrick scandal to spur them on, the U.S. bishops would have recently adopted new accountability measure for themselves, working through the Church’s traditional metropolitan archbishop structure and featuring promises of extensive lay involvement.
All of that is undeniable progress, part of a long history of scandal breeding reform.
And yet, the story is by no means finished at the one-year mark, and not merely because we still have to see how these brave new accountability measures function in practice.
The McCarrick story perfectly captures the unfinished business of reform, because it’s a story not merely of crime but cover-up. The burning question isn’t what McCarrick did with minors and adult seminarians, which, by now, has been fairly clearly established. It’s instead who knew about the rumors concerning his misconduct and chose to ignore them, either for personal advantage, political interest, or some other motive.
That such figures exist is indisputable. It’s now a matter of record that restrictions were imposed on McCarrick under Pope Benedict XVI in 2008, meaning certain decision-makers in the Vatican in that era clearly were aware something was amiss. It’s also clear that until the Archdiocese of New York acted last year, McCarrick was able to resume a vigorous public role and present himself as a cardinal in good standing.
On Oct. 6, 2018 - that’s over nine months ago, a full 283 days if you’re counting - the Vatican released a statement on the McCarrick case.
“The Holy Father has decided that information gathered during the preliminary investigation [in the Archdiocese of New York] be combined with a further thorough study of the entire documentation present in the Archives of the Dicasteries and Offices of the Holy See regarding the former Cardinal McCarrick, in order to ascertain all the relevant facts, to place them in their historical context and to evaluate them objectively,” it said, adding that the results would be communicated “in due course.”
To date, no information about that study has been released to the public, and it remains unclear when or even if that will ever happen. During a press conference at the U.S. bishops’ meeting last week, Cardinal Joseph Tobin of Newark, N.J., one of the dioceses where McCarrick served, said the report is currently with the Vatican’s Secretariat of State and that he hopes it will be forthcoming soon.
Various theories to explain the delay have been circulated, from concern about impugning the legacies of St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI to the difficulties of proving that someone actually “knew” McCarrick was guilty and promoted him anyway, not to mention Francis’s own exposure if Viganò’s main claim could somehow be substantiated.
Yet the status quo arguably is even worse than all those outcomes combined, because it leaves not just a handful of heavyweights under a cloud but absolutely everyone in authority, both then and now. Until the system is perceived to have come clean, the view from the street will be that there’s a cover-up going on, and anyone complicit in it will, to some degree, appear suspect.
Until the average Catholic is convinced that accountability has arrived not just for the crime but for the cover-up, in other words, the McCarrick saga will not be over. That may well be his final, ironic gift to the Church - prompting, at long last, the sort of full accountability which, over his long career, he managed to evade until the very end.