A Sorrowful Page the Church Is Learning From

Author: Andrea Tornielli

A reading of the dossier published by the Secretariat of State containing documents and testimonies narrating the facts regarding Theodore McCarrick, the former cardinal archbishop of Washington dismissed from the clerical state.

By Andrea Tornielli

At the time of Theodore McCarrick’s appointment as Archbishop of Washington in 2000, the Holy See acted on the basis of partial and incomplete information. What has now come to light are omissions, underestimations, and choices that later proved to be wrong, due in part to the fact that, during the assessment process requested by Rome at the time, those questioned did not always disclose all they knew. Until 2017, there had never been any precise accusation regarding sexual abuse or harassment or harm done to a minor. As soon as the first report was received from a victim who was a minor at the time the abuse was committed, Pope Francis reacted promptly regarding the elderly cardinal, who had already retired as head of the archdiocese in 2006, first taking away his red hat and then dismissing him from the clerical state. This is what emerges from the Report on the Holy See’s Institutional Knowledge and Decision-Making Related to Former Cardinal Theodore Edgar McCarrick (1930 to 2017) published by the Secretariat of State.

A detailed response

The compilation and publication of the Report itself, given its extensiveness and content, responds to the request of Pope Francis that decision-making regarding McCarrick be thoroughly investigated and that the results of the investigation be published. The Report also represents an act of pastoral care by the Pope for the American Catholic community that was wounded and anguished that McCarrick had been appointed and promoted to high office in the Church.  The investigation carried out during these two years was commenced toward the end of summer 2018, during weeks of considerable tension culminating in the denunciation by the former Apostolic Nuncio in Washington, Carlo Maria Viganò, who, in an international media campaign, publicly called for the resignation of the current Pontiff.

Absence of accusations of sexual abuse of minors until 2017

The strength of the Report lies not only in its completeness but also in the overview it provides. From this overview, a few key points emerge that are necessary to consider. The first point concerns the mistakes that were made; these have already led to the adoption of new regulations within the Church, to help avoid history repeating itself. A second element is that, until 2017, there had been no specific accusations regarding the sexual abuse of minors committed by McCarrick. It is true that in the 1990s several anonymous letters alluding to minor abuse had been received by cardinals and in the nunciature in Washington, but without providing any details, names or circumstances: these letters were regrettably considered to be not credible because of the lack of concrete elements. The first specific accusation involving a minor was, in fact, that which emerged three years ago, which led to the immediate opening of a canonical process that concluded with the two decisions taken by Pope Francis – the first of which took away the red hat from the Cardinal emeritus and the second that dismissed him from the clerical state. Those who came forward to testify against McCarrick as the canonical process unfolded are to be commended for having allowed their truth to be known and should be thanked for having done so while overcoming the pain of remembering all that they have been through.

Assessment before the Pope’s apostolic visit

The Report shows that at the time he was first listed as an episcopal candidate (1977), as well as when he was appointed to Metuchen (1981), and then to Newark (1986), none of the people consulted to provide information furnished negative information regarding Theodore McCarrick’s moral conduct. The first informal “assessment” of some accusations regarding the then Archbishop of Newark’s conduct toward seminarians and priests from his diocese surfaced in the mid-1990s, before Pope John Paul II’s visit to that city. It was the Cardinal Archbishop of New York, John O’Connor, who carried out the assessment: he asked others, including American bishops, for information and then concluded that there was no “impediment” to a papal visit to the city in which McCarrick was pastor at that moment.

Cardinal O’Connor’s letter

A crucial point in the case is certainly McCarrick’s appointment as Archbishop of Washington. During the months in which McCarrick’s possible transfer to a see in the United States traditionally led by a cardinal surfaced, notable among the several positive influential opinions regarding his person is a negative one from Cardinal O’Connor. While acknowledging that he did not have first-hand information, the Cardinal explained in a letter, dated October 28, 1999, addressed to the Apostolic Nuncio, that he believed that McCarrick’s appointment to a new office would be a mistake: that, in fact, the risk of a serious scandal existed in light of the rumors that McCarrick had in the past shared a bed with young adult men at the rectory and seminarians at a beach house.

Pope John Paul II’s first decision

In this regard, it is important to highlight the initial decision made by Pope John Paul II. The Pope, in fact, asked the Nuncio to verify the basis of these accusations. Once again, the written investigation does not contain any concrete proof – in fact, three of the four bishops from New Jersey who were consulted provided information which the Report reveals to have been “not accurate and incomplete”. Even though the Pope had known McCarrick since 1976, having met him during his trip to the United States, he accepted the proposal of the then Apostolic Nuncio in the United States, Gabriel Montalvo, and of the then prefect of the Congregation of Bishops, Giovanni Battista Re, to drop him as a candidate. They argued that even in the absence of specific details, the risk should not be taken of transferring the prelate to Washington. They believed that the accusations, even though they were considered groundless, could resurface and cause embarrassment and scandal. McCarrick, therefore, seemed destined to remain in Newark.

McCarrick’s letter to the Pope

Something happened that radically changed the course of events. McCarrick himself, after having evidently become aware both that he was a candidate, and of the reservations in his regard, wrote to then Bishop Stanislaw Dziwisz, personal secretary to the Polish Pontiff on August 6, 2000. McCarrick declared himself innocent and swore that he had “never had sexual relations with any person, male or female, young or old, cleric or lay”. Pope John Paul II read the letter and was convinced that the American Archbishop was telling the truth and that the negative “rumors” were precisely that – solely rumors that were unfounded, or at least unproven. It was, therefore, Pope John Paul II, acting through specific directions imparted to then-Secretary of State Angelo Sodano, who established that McCarrick should be reinstated on the shortlist of candidates. And it was he who, in the end, chose McCarrick for the see of Washington. In accordance with the testimonies cited in the Report, to better understand the context of that period, it may be useful also to recall that during the years when he was an Archbishop in Poland, Pope John Paul II had witnessed the use of false accusations on the part of the regime to discredit priests and bishops.

Pope Benedict’s decision

Furthermore, at the time of his appointment as Archbishop of Washington, no victim – adult or minor – had as yet made contact with the Holy See or with the Nuncio in the United States to present an accusation regarding any improper behavior attributed to the Archbishop. Moreover, nothing inappropriate about McCarrick’s behavior was reported during his years as Archbishop in Washington. When, in 2005, accusations of harassment and abuse toward adults began to surface once again, the new pope, Benedict XVI, rapidly asked for the resignation of the American cardinal to whom he had recently granted a two-year extension of his mandate. In 2006, McCarrick left his position as head of the Archdiocese of Washington, becoming its Archbishop emeritus. The Report demonstrates that in this period, Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, in his capacity as delegate for Papal Representatives, had reported information about McCarrick’s possible involvement with adults that had arrived from the nunciature to his superiors in the Secretary of State, highlighting its seriousness. But, while he raised the alarm, he too understood that there were no proven facts. Cardinal Secretary of State Tarcisio Bertone presented the matter directly to Pope Benedict XVI. In that context, in the absence of victims who were minors, and since the person concerned was a cardinal who had already retired from office, Pope Benedict XVI did not open a formal canonical process to investigate McCarrick.

Recommendations, not sanctions

In the years that followed, notwithstanding the indications McCarrick received from the Congregation for Bishops to lead a more quiet and reserved life and to decline frequent appearances in public, the cardinal continued to move about, traveling from one part of the globe to the other, Rome included, generally with the knowledge and at least tacit approval of the Papal Nuncio. There has been a lot of discussion regarding the true substance of the request McCarrick received from the Holy See to lead a more withdrawn life. From the documents and testimonies now published in the Report, it is evident that “sanctions” were never imposed. They were, rather, recommendations, given to him orally in 2006 and then in writing in 2008, without stating that this was an explicit desire on the part of Pope Benedict XVI. They were recommendations that presupposed McCarrick’s good will and willingness to respect them. The fact that the cardinal remained active, that he continued to travel, and that he accomplished various missions in different countries (out of which came useful information), even though he had no mandate from the Holy See, shows that his activity was tolerated. Having received in 2012 a new accusation against McCarrick, Viganò, who in the meantime had been appointed nuncio in the United States, received instructions from the Prefect of the Congregation for Bishops to investigate. However, the Report shows that he did not carry out all of the investigations that had been asked of him. Furthermore, continuing to follow the same approach used until that moment, he did not take significant steps to limit McCarrick’s activity, or his national and international travels.

The process opened by Francis

When Pope Francis was elected, McCarrick was already over eighty years old and was, therefore, excluded from the conclave. His customary travels underwent no change, and the new Pope was not given documents or testimony to make him aware of the seriousness of the accusations, involving adults, against the former Archbishop of Washington. What was communicated to Pope Francis was that there had been allegations and “rumors related to immoral conduct with adults” prior to McCarrick’s appointment to Washington. Since, in his view, the accusations had been investigated and had been rejected by Pope John Paul II, and well-aware that McCarrick had remained active during Pope Benedict XVI’s pontificate, Pope Francis did not think it was necessary to modify “the course adopted by his predecessors”. It is, therefore, not true that he annulled or weakened the sanctions or restrictions placed on the Archbishop emeritus. Everything changed, as already mentioned, when the first accusation of sexual abuse of a minor emerged. The response was immediate. A rapid canonical process concluded with the serious and unprecedented measure of dismissal from the clerical state of a former Cardinal.

What the Church has learned

What has been recounted in the massive amount of testimonies and documents which have now been provided through the Report is, without doubt, a tragic page in the recent history of Catholicism, a painful story from which the entire Church has learned. In fact, it is possible to read several of the measures that Pope Francis took after the February 2019 Meeting on the Protection of Minors through the lens of the McCarrick case. One can see this, for example, in the Motu proprio Vos estis lux mundi, which contains instructions regarding the exchange of information between the Dicasteries and between Rome and the local Churches, the involvement of the Metropolitan in the initial investigation, the indication that accusations be assessed quickly, as well as the abrogation of the pontifical secret. All these decisions have taken into consideration what happened, learning from what was not working, from procedures that were not flowing properly, from underestimates that had unfortunately been made at various levels. The Church continues to learn from its fight against the phenomenon of sexual abuse, including in this case. This became evident also in July 2020 with the publication of the Vademecum of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith that invited pastors and heads of religious orders not to automatically discard anonymous denunciations.

Humility and penitence

This, therefore, is the overall picture that emerges from the documentation presented in the Report, following the reconstruction of a reality that is certainly more detailed and complex in respect to what was hitherto known. In the last two decades, the Catholic Church has become more aware of the unspeakable anguish of victims, of the necessity to guarantee the protection of minors, of the importance of norms capable of combatting this phenomenon. The Church has also become more aware of the need to protect against abuse committed against vulnerable adults, and has become more aware of the need to protect against abuse of power. For the Catholic Church, in the United States and in Rome, the case of Theodore McCarrick – a prelate possessing considerable intelligence and preparation, capable of weaving together many relationships both in the political as well as in the inter-religious level – remains an open wound, first and foremost for the pain and suffering caused to his victims. This wound cannot be treated solely with new laws or ever more effective codes of conduct, because the crime is also a sin. To heal this wound, humility and penitence is needed, asking God’s forgiveness and healing.

L’Osservatore Romano
13 November 2020, page 1