On McCarrick scandal, Vatican responses are tardy, not reassuring

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Oct 08, 2018

Finally there is some movement. This weekend the Vatican began responding to the dismay of the laity over the McCarrick scandal. The responses are certainly tardy, and still not terribly reassuring. But they are responses, at least; the “stonewall” approach is breaking down.

The first response, issued by the Vatican press office on October 6, was a notice that Pope Francis, “aware of and concerned by the confusion that these accusations are causing in the conscience of the faithful,” was taking further steps to investigate the scandal.

Confusion? Who is confused? The statement attributes the “confusion” to the “accusations regarding the conduct” of McCarrick. Actually there is very little confusion on that score; there is now a good deal of testimony about the former cardinal’s behavior. And the public responses to that testimony is not so much confusion as outrage: righteous anger.

If there is confusion about the case, it is due to the conflicting claims over how the Vatican responded to the revelations about McCarrick’s misconduct. The Vatican statement feeds any such confusion, by creating the impression that the problem first came to light a few short weeks ago. There is no acknowledgment that in fact the Vatican was made aware of McCarrick’s homosexual escapades at least 15 years ago. Nor is there an acknowledgment that before Pope Francis ordered McCarrick to remove himself from public life, Pope Benedict XVI had already issued the same sort of order, only to see it flouted by the American prelate and then (if Archbishop Vigano’s charge is accurate) rescinded by Pope Francis.

For that matter, the October 6 statement never mentions the basic complaint against McCarrick. The word “homosexual” does not appear. There are a few references to abuse and to cover-ups—and, in keeping with the current vogue, to “clericalism”—but the word “homosexual” does not appear. So the statement immediately fails the test of candor.

The main thrust of the statement is the promise that Pope Francis has authorized 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.” That is a small step in the right direction. But who will conduct this study? And when, and under what conditions? If the investigation will be done by the same people who are accused of covering up the evidence initially, lay Catholics have every right to remain “confused.”

Just two weeks earlier, we learned—by inference, not thanks to any forthright announcement—that Pope Francis had apparently declined a request from the American bishops for an apostolic visitation, a sort of investigation that would have carried the clout necessary to turn up all the available evidence. Now we learn the Pope is due to meet with the leaders of the US bishops’ conference again this week. Could the October 6 statement indicate that he might reconsider the American request? That, too, would be a step in the right direction—particularly if, following the advice from the American contingent, he took some steps to ensure that the work was done by reliable, independent investigators.

A final observation about that October 6 statement: the Vatican warned that the results, when they are released, might show “that choices were taken that would not be consonant with a contemporary approach to such issues.” On one level that is a considerable understatement; we already know that “choices were taken” (notice the passive voice, skirting the question of who made those choices) that were irresponsible and indefensible. But the reference to a “contemporary approach” is particularly noisome. Again there is a hint that until recently, Catholic bishops could not have been expected to know that the serial molestation of seminarians was a moral failing. St. Peter Damian (1007-1072) would disagree.

If there is a serious investigation into Vatican files pertaining to the McCarrick scandal, the bulk of the evidence would likely be found in the archives of the Congregation for Bishops. So it is noteworthy—and I wonder, is it coincidental?—that the second major Vatican announcement of the weekend came from the prefect of that dicastery, Cardinal Marc Ouellet. And if the October 6 announcement left key questions unanswered, the Ouellet statement actually added to the “confusion” of the laity—that is, the mounting suspicion that the Vatican in general, and Pope Francis in particular, had handled the McCarrick affair very, very badly.

In a Wall Street Journal news story, Francis X. Rocca captured the essentials in his opening sentence:

A senior Vatican official on Sunday denounced what he called the “monstrous accusation” that Pope Francis ignored reports of sexual misconduct a favorite U.S. cardinal, but he also confirmed that the cardinal had already been under disciplinary measures when the pope took office.

Cardinal Ouellet was responding to a public challenge from Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, who had urged him to confirm that Pope Benedict XVI had imposed sanctions on McCarrick, ordering the American cardinal to withdraw from public life. Although he denounced the Vigano testimony as “monstrous” and “blasphemous” and “extremely deplorable,” Cardinal Ouellet essentially confirmed the essential point that Archbishop Vigano had asked him to make.

On the surface, the Canadian cardinal seemed to deny that point, writing:

After re-examining the archives, I can ascertain that there are no corresponding documents signed by either Pope, neither is there a note of an audience with my predecessor, Cardinal Giovanni-Battista Re, giving Archbishop Emeritus McCarrick an obligatory mandate of silence and to retire to a private life, carrying canonical penalties.

However, a careful reading of that long sentence reveals that Cardinal Ouellet had inserted several conditions. The key question was whether or not McCarrick had been ordered out of public life. Whether such an order appeared over a papal signature, or carried formal canonical penalties: these were secondary issues.

As to the primary issue, Cardinal Ouellet allowed that McCarrick had been “strongly advised not to travel and not to appear in public.” The cardinal even admitted that he had told Archbishop Vigano that McCarrick “was supposed to obey certain conditions and restrictions.” So even if “sanctions” is not the proper term, there were restrictions in place.

Cardinal Ouellet then went on to deplore Archbishop Vigano’s complaint that McCarrick had remained in office, and even gained power and influence, long after charges against him had been brought to the attention of Vatican officials. Cardinal Ouellet wrote that “at that time, unlike today, there was not sufficient proof of his alleged guilt.” In a revealing sentence, he continued, “It seems unjust to me to conclude that the persons in charge of the prior discernment are corrupt even though, in this concrete case, some suspicions provided by witnesses should have been further examined.”

Here Cardinal Ouellet betrayed the symptoms of the very problem that created this scandal. He acknowledged the existence of rumors about McCarrick, but argued that no action was required since there was no proof of the American prelate’s guilt. Wouldn’t a more responsible approach have been to investigate the rumors, to ascertain whether there was a cause for concern? How often have Vatican officials dismissed charges of clerical misconduct, classifying them as “rumors,” rather than taking them seriously? Has this lesson still not sunk in?

A charge, a report, or a rumor is not sufficient reason to dismiss a priest or a bishop. But a serious charge is sufficient reason to think twice about promoting that cleric. And when the reports multiply, as reports about McCarrick multiplied, that is ample reason to question whether the object of those charges should be given greater influence. These questions were not raised, in McCarrick’s case, and that failure to respond to obvious signs of trouble is a sign of negligence—or something worse than negligence.

Cardinal Ouellet concluded his open letter with several paragraphs of fulsome, cloying praise of Pope Francis, paired with a round denunciation of Vigano’s “open and scandalous rebellion.” It is remarkable that the prefect of the Congregation for Bishops, who in this very letter cautions against questioning the motivations of other bishops, does not hesitate to say that Archbishop Vigano is suffering from “bitterness and delusions” that have led him to inflict “a very painful wound on the Bride of Christ.”

Until very recently it was rare to see one bishop engage in such open criticism of another. No doubt Archbishop Vigano realized that he would be bringing such criticism on himself, when he dared to raise public questions about the leadership of Pope Francis. But isn’t it revealing that the bishop who has become the target for the most vituperative public criticism is not the bishop who preyed on his seminarians, nor the bishop who used diocesan funds to pay for the silence of an old lover, nor any of the bishops who lied to aggrieved parents, but the one bishop who, by telling inconvenient truths, put himself outside the protection of the clerical club?

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 6 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: rhahn9598209 - Oct. 10, 2018 1:07 AM ET USA

    Overall I like your analysis, but no one seems to say anything about the homosexual McCarrick now residing in a friary with a bunch of other men. I don't get it.

  • Posted by: [email protected] - Oct. 09, 2018 9:49 PM ET USA

    Great article! So sad that ouellet lost his backbone and continues the lies. We are not confused. We want to know when the Church and its honest bishops will finally get rid of lavender mafia and the homosexual activists. St. Michael defend us.

  • Posted by: Monserrat - Oct. 09, 2018 2:38 PM ET USA

    An excellent report on the recent responses, but we cannot expect anything but more denial, phony PR, and shadow boxing out of this papacy: "Didn't we just conduct a thorough investigation as we promised? Why are these evil people making groundless accusations?" This is what we can expect. What we need to accept is that PF is an utter disaster.

  • Posted by: DCpa - Oct. 09, 2018 12:05 PM ET USA

    BRAVO, Phil! Your argument is unanswerable. The person who says "I smell gas" in your home is not your enemy. Vigano is the friend of everything good and beautiful taught and loved by Holy Mother Church. He is warning that, without immediate repair, our beloved home is subject to devastating explosion. Closing our eyes and brains to the situation is not loyalty. Quite the opposite! It is turning one's back on the last clear chance to save the home!

  • Posted by: rfr46 - Oct. 09, 2018 7:58 AM ET USA

    When will these sycophantic Cardinals discover courage and speak plainly and honestly? Since when is it scandalous to demand, as Father Joe Fessio, S.J. did, that PF "stand up like a man" and tell the truth? And when is it necessary to say "pretty please" to a man who habitually refuses to respond to legitimate concerns and instead insults the questioner, a fellow bishop? And is this entire mess motivated by the desire of PF and his advisors to protect the homosexual culture in clergy?

  • Posted by: bkmajer3729 - Oct. 08, 2018 10:37 PM ET USA

    The whole situation has been handled very very badly for the past 60 or so years.... But we can always throw bad water after good. The time is now to change and address the problem. We’ll see how long it takes.