ROME – The Vatican’s report into ex-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick has raised uncomfortable questions the Holy See will have to confront going forward, chief among them what it’s going to do about current and future clergy who abuse their power to sexually abuse adults.
Priests, lay experts and canon lawyers alike say the Vatican needs to revisit how the church protects its seminarians, nuns and even rank-and-file parishioners from problem bishops and cardinals, who for centuries have wielded power and authority with few — if any — checks or accountability.
McCarrick was only investigated and defrocked by Pope Francis because a former altar boy came forward in 2017 to report the prelate had groped him when he was a teenager in the 1970s. It was the first time someone had claimed to be abused by McCarrick while a minor, a serious crime in the Vatican’s in-house legal system.
And yet the bulk of the Vatican’s 449-page forensic study into the McCarrick scandal released Tuesday dealt with the cardinal’s behavior with young men: the seminarians whose priestly careers he controlled and who felt powerless to say no when he arranged for them to sleep in his bed.
The report found that three decades of bishops, cardinals and popes dismissed or downplayed reports of McCarrick’s misconduct with the young men. Confidential correspondence showed they repeatedly rejected the information outright as rumor, excused it as an “imprudence” or explained it away as the result of McCarrick having no living relatives.
McCarrick’s friends and superiors went to enormous lengths to find ways to claim his behavior wasn’t necessarily sexual, couldn’t be proven and would cause a scandal if it ever went public. Their decades-long reflex to turn a blind eye was evidence of the church’s old boys culture of silence, clerical privilege and protection of reputations at all cost.
No one ever thought about the effect of his behavior on the young men.
The report faulted in particular St. John Paul II, who appointed McCarrick archbishop of Washington and later made him a cardinal despite having commissioned an inquiry that confirmed he bedded his seminarians. The report recommended he not be promoted.