NEW YORK (NY)
November 12, 2020
By Sam Sawyer, S.J.
People have been scouring the 461 pages of the McCarrick Report, looking for a smoking gun that definitively explains what went wrong and who should be held responsible for the church’s long-standing failure to take allegations of abuse by former cardinal Theodore McCarrick seriously. But there is no single smoking gun. Instead, the report documents decades worth of smoke during which almost no one went looking for the very real fire producing it. Even more, it gives us a close-up view of concentric layers of plausible deniability and culpable ignorance, powered by clericalism, that allowed McCarrick to evade discovery or accountability.
There are, to be sure, specific events in the report that are particularly shocking, most especially Pope John Paul II’s irresponsible decision to accept McCarrick’s protestations of innocence over the counsel of multiple advisors when transferring him to become archbishop of Washington, D.C. But even if John Paul II had refused to promote him, McCarrick would have remained the archbishop of Newark, with the hope—made explicit by those recommending against his appointment—that the rumors swirling around him would simply fade into the background, never to be further investigated.
This dark and deceptive hope, focused on avoiding scandal, is perhaps the single most common theme in the report. It shows up when McCarrick is passed over for appointment to Chicago and New York, when he is chosen for Washington and when the Vatican spends years unsuccessfully attempting to limit his public activity and travel. Over and over again, shepherds of the church, were faced with persistent and proliferating rumors and eventually even specific allegations that one of their brothers had abused and mistreated those entrusted to his care. But time and time again they asked themselves not whether members of the flock had been hurt and were in need of care but how likely the media was to notice and publicize the matter. To put it bluntly, the hope of those with responsibility over him was not that McCarrick had not done these things of which he was accused—a hope that might have led to investigations and oversight—but rather that it would be possible to avoid any definitive reckoning before the public about whether or not he had.
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