The McCarrick scandal: a roundup of different perspectives

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Jul 27, 2018

This week I have been swamped with messages from loyal Catholics who have been shaken and disgusted by the latest eruption of the continuing sex-abuse scandal in the Church. I wish I saw some sign that our bishops recognized the rising tide of anger—righteous anger—among the most active lay Catholics.

Unfortunately, Bob Royal is on target when, borrowing a line from Leo Strauss, he says that the American bishops are like Nero, except “they know neither that they are fiddling nor that Rome is burning.” Royal sums up the general level of dismay by saying that it is imperative for Church leaders to learn how the cancer metastasized:

Finding out how this was possible is going to call for some painful self-examination, both here and in Rome itself. But the alternative is business as usual. And that business is now in danger of bankruptcy.

In my view the most distressing development of the week was the craven public statement from Cardinal Sean O’Malley—who, as chairman of the special papal commission on sexual abuse, should be leading the charge against clerical misconduct. Instead he offered a bureaucratic response. He invoked the mossy old dodge that a crucial letter did not reach him. Notice that the cardinal did not say that he was unaware of the letter’s contents. But if he wasn’t aware, he should have been; and if he was aware, he should have taken action.

In National Review, Michael Brendan Dougherty did a thorough job of deconstructing Cardinal O’Malley’s letter, along with the protestations of ignorance by Cardinal Kevin Farrell. He argues persuasively that the problem is not an absence of standards, policies, and procedures, but “a fear of confrontation, insufficient zeal, or—most likely of all—…moral compromise and passivity…”

In some cases, bishops showed themselves to be simply tone-deaf: unable to recognize that the patience of their people has been exhausted. Bishop Thomas Tobin of Providence, Rhode Island, who has often been a breath of fresh air because of his willingness to speak plainly, blundered badly with a Twitter comment, saying that despite the latest uproar he was proud of his brother bishops. That prompted a very lively rejoinder at Catholic World Report by Christopher Altieri, who had a simple, blunt message for the American bishops: “You have all failed us.”

(I am sorry that Bishop Tobin, shaken by the vitriolic reaction to his post, announced that he was deleting his Twitter account, convinced that the forum was an occasion of sin for himself and for others. He will be missed.)

If Altieri was rough on the US bishops, Ross Douthat of the New York Times was scathing in his analysis. Douthat made the trenchant observation that although the Catholic blogosphere is buzzing with news and analysis about the scandal, the secular media have taken a much less aggressive approach. Douthat believes that “because of secularization and polarization and the bonfire they have made of their own moral authority, the Catholic bishops are now somewhat protected from media scrutiny by virtue of their increasing unimportance.”

There is a great deal of truth in that argument. The scandal is an important matter for those of us who think that the Catholic Church is important. But for those who are indifferent or hostile to Catholicism, the devastation wreaked upon Church authority during the “Long Lent” of 2002 may be sufficient. On the other hand, Douthat does not deal with another obvious reason why the secular media have shown less interest in revisiting the story: The latest stories are very clearly stories about homosexual misconduct, and the secular media are, by and large, favorably disposed to the homosexual cause.

Nevertheless I think Douthat captures the importance of this moment for the Church:

The question that the church’s leaders need to ask themselves, in America but especially in Rome, is 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 than demanding the heads of the men whose culpable ignorance made the decline much steeper than it should have been.

If anyone reading his column has somehow missed the uproar, J.D. Flynn provides a thorough briefing on the major elements of the story. Rod Dreher has written on the topic early and often, and his treatments— just one example among many here—have been exhaustive.

Of course I have been busy, too. My analyses are available here and here and here and here and here on the Catholic Culture site, as well as for First Things.

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 See full bio.

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  • Posted by: WNS3234 - Jul. 28, 2018 11:33 AM ET USA

    The deposition of bishops has taken place in past ages, and for similar reasons. After having thrown many priests (and some deacons) to the wolves, and declaring their general exemption from The Dallas Charter via Universal Code of Canon Law, the baptized faithful should be furious. M. Luther's revolution was composed of different material; its effect remains evident. The casual "Who me/us?" pose of bishops needs to be denounced, the vigorous pressure maintained, and a Papal inquest begun - now.

  • Posted by: Randal Mandock - Jul. 28, 2018 8:30 AM ET USA

    I suggest that all future seminarians be required to pass a basic course in data analysis. Such analysis was fundamental to the courses I used to teach in earth and atmospheric science. Anyone who conscientiously assessed the data presented in the John Jay report would be forced to conclude that the majority of abusive acts by clergy have been homosexual in nature and thereby not only criminal but psychologically disordered. To direct attention away from this result is irresponsible.

  • Posted by: Howser - Jul. 28, 2018 6:18 AM ET USA

    Mr. Lawler. You addressed two unresolved issues in your book, the Faithful Departed, that came out of the Boston sex abuse crisis. One the American bishops gave themselves a pass and the homosexual problem in the Church remains unresolved. Maybe now the faithful will start holding their bishops responsible for the corruption in the hierarchy. The time has come for active homosexuality within the Church and those prelates who permit it to be purged. It must be done and responsibly. Thank you

  • Posted by: koinonia - Jul. 28, 2018 1:13 AM ET USA

    It's a watershed moment. Good man can not do nothing. Coordinated and persistent work is needed. All in prayerful service to the Lord and charity for neighbor.

  • Posted by: TheJournalist64 - Jul. 27, 2018 10:08 PM ET USA

    I fear that as many as half of our bishops need to be removed and sent to monasteries for a long period of penance and prayer. The very unrigorous seminary admissions guidelines in place during the 1970s and maybe later have given us a general population of mediocre clerics--and worse.

  • Posted by: feedback - Jul. 27, 2018 7:05 PM ET USA

    The widespread corruption among the clergy cannot become a "new normal" or a "paradigm shift." It has to be resolved, and soon. And the clean up has to start from the top where the filth does the most damage to the entire Church: with mass resignations of all bishops and cardinals involved in any promoting, covering up, or abuse of homosexual nature. A parallel step needs to be the removal of all homosexual seminarians from Catholic seminaries worldwide. Nothing will change until that happens.

  • Posted by: fenton1015153 - Jul. 27, 2018 6:21 PM ET USA

    How prophetic it seems when St. Athanasius declared, “The road to hell is paved with the skulls of bishops." But without inspired leadership there may be many lay people sweeping that road instead of treading the narrow path to Glory. Pray fervently for holy leaders of the Church.

  • Posted by: ElizabethD - Jul. 27, 2018 6:18 PM ET USA

    I sent something to O'Malley a few years ago and got an almost huffy letter rom a staffer saying (this is a paraphrase) "why send us this? This is not pertinent to the Archdiocese of Boston." I concluded the staffer was also unsympathetic to what I sent, which MIGHT imply that he was a liberal. A liberal would also be more likely to consider sexual activities between unmarried adults to be un-noteworthy. It is O'Malley's fault if he used used overly progressive staffers to filter things for him.