Opinion: The disturbing truths in the new Vatican scandal report

By Paul Moses
November 11, 2020

[with video]

As a Catholic, I long ago uneasily made my peace with the knowledge that too many church leaders who preached a Christian message I regard as sacred may themselves be deeply flawed, deceitful or corrupt. The release Tuesday of a Vatican report filled with the sordid details of former Archbishop of Washington Theodore McCarrick's rise and fall doesn't so much tear at my faith as give hope that the Holy See is finally learning to come clean with the truth.

This is so even though the report convincingly details how then-Pope and now St. John Paul II, who died in 2005, promoted McCarrick despite being very much aware of allegations that he was a predator who had sexually manipulated and abused seminarians. McCarrick denied the allegations against him in the past, but his attorney, Barry Coburn, has declined to comment since church authorities formally found him guilty in 2019 of sexual misconduct with minors and adults, "with the aggravating factor of the abuse of power."
The report outlines how church authorities failed to take action as allegations mounted that McCarrick, an influential voice for the church internationally and a prodigious fundraiser, manipulated seminarians and male teenagers into unwanted sexual activity while serving as a New York priest and then as the leader of two New Jersey dioceses and the Archdiocese of Washington, DC. In January of this year, according to the Catholic News Service, McCarrick, who is 90, moved from a Kansas friary to a new location that has not been made public.
It took a cataclysm within the church to prompt the report. In August 2018, two months after church authorities publicly removed McCarrick from ministry when a sexual abuse allegation was substantiated, a former chief diplomat from the Vatican to the United States issued an explosive "testimony." Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò marshaled what this report reveals to be his incomplete knowledge of the McCarrick saga into an extraordinary call for Pope Francis to resign, along with a list of moderate to liberal prelates he attempted to implicate as associates of McCarrick's. His anti-Francis allies in the US Catholic Church's right-wing quickly joined in to call for investigation.
Stripped of the Viganò letter's overwrought, apocalypse-now rhetoric, the bare facts in it even then pointed toward the conclusion that the Vatican has now reached in the new report: Pope Francis is not the proper target for Catholic anger in this situation. "Believing that the allegations had already been reviewed and rejected by Pope John Paul II, and well aware that McCarrick was active during the papacy of Benedict XVI, Pope Francis did not see the need to alter the approach that had been adopted in prior years," the report said.
Back in the days of John Paul's pontificate, it seemed possible for a Catholic to disagree with some or even much of what a pope was doing, but still admire him. In my case, I admired John Paul enough to co-author a book about his inspiring pilgrimage to the Holy Land in 2000.
And so, it is disappointing to read in this report just how much he knew about the man he made a cardinal -- a prince of the church empowered to play a pivotal role in its governance.
Despite his knowledge of McCarrick's alleged behavior, John Paul installed him as archbishop of Washington and then as a cardinal in 2001. His successor, Pope Benedict XVI, took what turned out to be some ineffective steps: "the decision was made to appeal to McCarrick's conscience and ecclesial spirit by indicating to him that he should maintain a lower profile and minimize travel for the good of the Church," the report says, adding that the approach to the situation approved by Benedict "did not include a prohibition on public ministry." As a result, McCarrick's activities were concealed from the Catholic faithful.
The report speculates that John Paul may have disregarded the allegations -- which New York's Cardinal John O'Connor brought to him -- because of his experience in Poland, where communist authorities had tried to smear priests to weaken the church as a political force. It's a sad commentary that the pope would regard high-level ecclesial politics in the United States and the Vatican as potentially rife with lies as communist Poland.
And yet, the report discloses that alerts from some particularly credible whistleblowers had reached the pontiff. One of them is Dr. Richard Fitzgibbons, a Pennsylvania psychiatrist the Diocese of Metuchen, New Jersey, called on in 1996 to examine a priest who had "self-reported his sexual abuse of two teenage males." The doctor was troubled when the priest told him he'd witnessed McCarrick "engage in sexual conduct with another priest and that he himself had been sexually assaulted by McCarrick in a small apartment in New York City."
Fitzgibbons called a "respected priest-psychologist" at the New York archdiocese. Both became convinced that the priest was telling the truth and the second psychologist told O'Connor that. O'Connor notified a Vatican official of the allegations in 1999 and they "were shared with Pope John Paul II shortly thereafter," the report says.
At that point, Pope John Paul was considering McCarrick, then the archbishop of Newark, as the next archbishop of New York, one of the US Catholic Church's most prestigious posts.
Meanwhile, Fitzgibbons had even traveled to Rome to speak with a Vatican official about his concerns with McCarrick.
The report quotes a signed letter from Fitzgibbons that the Vatican official requested at that meeting on March 7, 1997. Fitzgibbons wrote that the priest had gone on a fishing trip with McCarrick. "At the end of the first day, the young priest was shocked as he walked into the bedroom and found Bishop McCarrick engaging in sexual relations with another priest," he wrote. "The bishop, upon seeing my patient in the bedroom, asked him if he wanted to be next. The priest refused. My patient noted that the bishop and the other priest later administered the Sacrament of Reconciliation to each other," that is, a confession that by church law had to be kept secret.
Fitzgibbons learned of another priest-patient who related in group therapy "the sexual trauma he suffered from Bishop McCarrick," and yet another patient corroborated this. "This was the most troubling history I have heard in over 20 years of practice as a psychiatrist," he wrote.
This report should occasion a deep look at the culture where this can happen, an end to an ecclesial politics of resentment, and a new era of transparency. It's not too much to hope for.



Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.