Promoting Predators

First Things

July 24, 2018

By Philip Lawler

What did the American bishops know, and when did they know it? This is the question everyone is asking in the wake of public revelations that Cardinal Theodore McCarrick had, for years, preyed on seminarians who visited his beach house. It is a reasonable question, a necessary question. I hope that someday soon, a few brave bishops will begin asking it, too—and giving the restive Catholic faithful some answers.

But it is not the most important question. For anyone exploring the corruption of the Catholic hierarchy, the question of how Cardinal McCarrick avoided exposure and prosecution, though important, is less critical than the question of how his rise through the ecclesiastical ranks continued, even while rumors about homosexual activities swirled around him. Why was McCarrick named archbishop of Washington, and given a cardinal’s red hat? Why was he allowed to promote his proteges, to serve special diplomatic assignments for the Vatican, to influence the selection of bishops and even of a Roman Pontiff, after his beach-house antics had become a matter of common knowledge?

The more obvious question, the what-did-they-know-and-when question, admits of an easy, albeit unsatisfactory answer. McCarrick’s colleagues can say, more or less honestly, that they had heard reports about his approaches to seminarians, but did not know whether the reports were true. The question allows for an epistemological dodge: Other bishops did not really know, in the sense that they had no definitive proof. So they had an excuse for their failure to take action—or so they thought.

Reporters, likewise, had heard the stories about McCarrick but had no proof. Rod Dreher and Julia Duin have written about their fruitless searches for a witness who would go on the record. Without personal testimony, they had only hearsay evidence. I experienced the same frustration.

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