November 13, 2020
As the Catholic Church was reeling two years ago in the aftermath of revelations that former cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick, one of the highest-profile prelates in this country, was a serial sexual predator, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops met in Baltimore. At the top of the bishops’ agenda was how to grapple, once again, with the unending scandals that had ensnared so many clerics and wrecked so many lives. In the end, they did nothing.
The bishops were derailed by the Vatican, which urged them to hold off pending an action plan to be formulated in Rome for addressing wrongdoing by bishops. Yet in the end, the shortcomings of the church’s approach to rooting out misconduct in its highest ranks, which relies largely on bishops investigating and judging their fellow bishops, were exposed by an extraordinary Vatican report this week, which laid bare the details of the McCarrick case itself.
Mr. McCarrick, who was expelled from the priesthood last year, was found to have preyed on at least 17 victims. Some were young seminarians; more than half were children. The 449-page document’s headline finding is that Pope John Paul II dismissed explicit information about Mr. McCarrick’s sexual abuse in naming him archbishop of Washington in 2000. Yet the report also makes clear that at least three American bishops, tasked with investigating the allegations at the time, provided the Vatican with “inaccurate and incomplete information.” And another bishop, in Rome, who functioned as the pope’s own gatekeeper, believed Mr. McCarrick’s denials when the American prelate contacted him.
One of the main takeaways from the report, therefore, is the manifest inadequacy of the system now in place that counts on archbishops to police abuse by bishops. Yet proposals from within the American church’s U.S. hierarchy to give laypeople a prominent, formal role in investigating allegations involving bishops, floated two years in Baltimore, were controversial within the U.S. bishops conference — and do not appear to have been seriously considered by the Holy See.
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