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The McCarrick Report: the cover-up continues

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Nov 11, 2020

The McCarrick Report, hyped for months as a candid Vatican exploration of an ecclesiastical scandal, is actually a clever bid to deflect attention away from the real scandal.

Vision Book Cover Prints

The 450-page report fails to explain how Theodore McCarrick rose to prominence, influenced Vatican policies and appointments, and remained influential even after his sexual misconduct was recognized by reluctant Vatican officials. Instead it relates what informed observers already knew, adding enough salacious detail to distract those who are new to the story. The Report gives reporters an opportunity to blame two former Pontiffs for excusing McCarrick’s transgressions, brushing away comparable charges against Pope Francis. And it saves its harshest criticism for the whistle-blower whose revelations forced the Vatican to give a public accounting for this scandal.

Yesterday I offered some early reflections on the McCarrick Report and the crucial questions that it leaves unanswered. Today, having digested the whole tome, I have more concerns.

Red flags ignored

The Report shows, in vivid detail, how bishops in the US and in Rome ignored the warning signs that began to appear very early in McCarrick’s rise to prominence. He was, by the accounts of other bishops, extremely ambitious. He was a relentless self-promoter, eager for the spotlight, anxious to curry favor with the rich and powerful.

From the start of his episcopal career, McCarrick became a world traveler. During a relatively brief stint as Bishop of Metuchen, New Jersey, he found time to travel to England, Ireland, Austria, Poland (twice), Israel, India, Tunisia, Santo Domingo, Sudan, Egypt, Morocco, Malta, southeast Asia, and at least six times to Rome. At every stop, no doubt, he was advancing his own interests; how were those trips serving the ordinary faithful of Metuchen?

McCarrick was a legendary fundraiser, who regularly provided cash gifts to other prelates. The Report tells readers—and asks them to take it on faith—that these “customary” gifts are not an important part of the story. Well, of course there is no Vatican official on record saying, “I recommended McCarrick for promotion because he sent me a fat check.” But it is disingenuous to say that these gifts had no influence on the recipients—or to deny that they were intended to influence them.

Insofar as it is true that cash gifts from one bishop to another are “customary,” that custom is an invitation to corruption—to the sort of corruption exposed in this ugly case—and it should be abolished.

The young Bishop McCarrick cultivated his image as “Uncle Ted” and the company of young men. Maybe in the 1980s and 1990s it was excusable for older bishops to miss these danger signs, which should now trigger concerns about grooming and abuse. But when those bishops heard that McCarrick was taking young men to a beach house and sharing his bed with them, wasn’t that enough to rouse suspicions?

The Report shows how, when they heard rumors of misconduct, bishops went out of their way to provide excuses for McCarrick. This see-no-evil approach is sadly familiar to anyone who has studied the history of clerical abuse, but that familiarity does not make it acceptable. Bishops were more solicitous for the reputation of their colleague than for the suffering of his victims. It bears mention that the late Bishop Edward Hughes, McCarrick’s successor in Metuchen, and Cardinal Agostino Cacciavillan, a former apostolic nuncio in the US and later an influential Vatican official, were especially energetic in protecting McCarrick from what they characterized as baseless rumors.

The rumors were not baseless, as we all now know. Moreover, there was ample reason to credit them: evidence that may have been circumstantial, but mounted steadily over the years. By 1997, the Report discloses, the secretary of the Congregation for Bishops wrote: “On separate occasions… this Congregation has received information which concerns allegations in re turpi against Archbishop Theodore McCarrick of Newark.” In 1999 the late Cardinal John O’Connor of New York pointedly called attention to “some elements of a moral nature.” In 2006 the apostolic nuncio in the US, Archbishop Pietro Sambo, said that McCarrick “keeps us all on edge for the possibility that at any moment he might become involved in sexual scandals.” And in 2010 the Vatican Secretariat of State alluded to “the possibility that the New York Times is going to publish a nasty article, already prepared, about the Cardinal’s ‘moral life.’”

Measured against those facts—all disclosed in the text—the Report’s insistence that the Vatican had no firm evidence of McCarrick’s sexual predation appears to be based on lawyerly distinctions. There may have been no hard documentation, but there was plenty of reasonable concern.

Pointing at previous Pontiffs

The publication of the Report prompted several headlines suggesting that Pope John Paul II and/or Pope Benedict XVI had ignored evidence of McCarrick’s misconduct. To some extent those criticisms are justified. But they are not new.

We already knew that Pope John Paul II, who had seen how Communist propagandists sought to discredit Catholic leaders with false rumors, was inclined to skepticism about hearsay reports of clerical misconduct. We also know that his information was often filtered by his secretary, now Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwicz, who was friendly with both McCarrick and, in an earlier unfortunate situation, Father Marcial Maciel. We do not know exactly how much the beloved Polish Pontiff knew, but we do know that no direct evidence was presented to him. He can be criticized for failing to see the warning signs—and particularly for appointing McCarrick as Archbishop of Washington over objections from reliable prelates like Cardinal John O’Connor of New York. But again, that criticism is not new; these facts were well known before the two-year investigation that begot the McCarrick Report.

As for Pope Benedict XVI, he can certainly be criticized for failing to follow up on his directive that McCarrick should retire from public life. That failure, too, was well known two years ago. But it was Benedict who demanded McCarrick’s resignation as Archbishop of Washington, when the evidence of his misconduct became overwhelming.

At the same time, the Report skips quickly past the testimony of Cardinal Angelo Becciu, who recalled speaking to Pope Francis twice about the complaints against McCarrick. Again we do not know exactly what Becciu told the Pope, but the Report’s attempt to clear Pope Francis entirely again sounds lawyerly: “Until 2017, no one—including Cardinal Parolin, Cardinal Ouellet, Archbishop Becciu or Archbishop Vigano—provided Pope Francis with any documentation regarding allegations against McCarrick…”

The unwelcome whistle-blower

Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, the former apostolic nuncio who announced in 2018 that he had warned the Pope, is roundly criticized in the Report, especially for his failure to carry out an investigation of McCarrick in 2012. Perhaps that criticism, too, is justified; Archbishop Vigano was not interviewed for the Report, and we have not yet heard his rebuttal. But if he indeed failed to investigate thoroughly, he joined a long list of other prelates who had dropped the ball in the McCarrick case. What makes Vigano different is that he eventually apologized for his failure.

And if he failed in 2012, Archbishop Vigano had been vigilant earlier. Even before arriving in Washington, while he was working at the Secretariat of State, Vigano twice issued warnings about McCarrick. In Washington he continued to sound the alarm, and in 2012 he alerted the Congregation for Bishops to the fact that McCarrick was routinely ignoring the directive he had received to withdraw from public life.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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Show 4 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: ewaughok6346 - Nov. 13, 2020 8:34 PM ET USA

    As you have shown time after time, Dr Lawler, there are no depths of mendacity that those in the Curia won’t stoop to in covering up for evil sexual predators like McCarrick. The Lord has placed us in very trying times. We must pray and do penance asking for God’s mercy on his Church.

  • Posted by: fenton1015153 - Nov. 13, 2020 7:21 PM ET USA

    It looks like the only cure is to laicize all who had any dealings with McCarrick. That sounds severe but if you are removing rot from wood you have to remove all the rot. Pray for the church.

  • Posted by: Frodo1945 - Nov. 12, 2020 4:15 PM ET USA

    I read 260 pages before I burned out. Not one recorded instance of fraternal correction from his fellow bishops, many of whom knew what was going on. Nobody cared what he did to seminarians and priests. Only after abuse of children did he get into trouble. The rot is deep, deep, deep.

  • Posted by: feedback - Nov. 12, 2020 12:36 PM ET USA

    The McCarrick report does not address the impact that the homosexual bishop and cardinal had on seminarians and priests under his authority. Given McCarrick's deeply flawed character, his 'nephews' could've been ordained priests or promoted in exchange for acts of sodomite gratification. The crooked 'Uncle' may have also destroyed many genuine vocations for their 'rigidity' or 'homophobia.' The holes in the Vatican report reveal ongoing tendencies to cover-up corruption rather than eradicate it.