The Vatican’s McCarrick report is a fundamentally dishonest document. Accepting it at face value, as an exercise in “transparency,” would require the reader to suppress his or her common sense. The anonymous author(s) of the report have applied a particular whitewash to the actual facts. Let me explain.
First, here are links to the posts I have written so far about the report:
Throughout his adult life, Theodore McCarrick preyed sexually on innocent people. He damaged his victims’ faith, their relationship with the Church, their sense of themselves as human beings, their capacity for trust and openness in relationships, their earning potential, their interior freedom, and much more. He did damage like this over and over again.
We do not have a full reckoning of the damage. The Vatican report does not even pretend to offer such a reckoning.
In fact, the report even has a hole when it comes to something as “documentable” as legally binding financial settlements. As I alluded to in an earlier post, the report unwittingly shows that we remain altogether in the dark about multiple McCarrick settlements. (See the quote of Archbishop Myers of Newark on page 227, as well as footnote 815 on page 242.)
This lacuna, however, is far from the central whitewash that the Vatican report tries to slather in front of our eyes.
First, let’s call to mind the teaching of St. Thomas Aquinas in Summa Theologica, pars II-II, question 60, article 5, reply 1. This question in the Summa explains how to make fair judgments; the article discusses giving the benefit of the doubt. The reply reads:
He who interprets doubtful matters for the best may happen to be deceived more often than not. Yet it is better to err frequently through thinking well of a wicked man than to err less frequently through having an evil opinion of a good man, because in the latter case an injury is inflicted [on the misjudged innocent man], but not in the former.
The Vatican report offers a thesis that would resonate with this teaching of St. Thomas. “The popes did not have clear evidence of guilt, at least not until they somehow obtained it in 2018. They rightfully gave McCarrick the benefit of the doubt until then.”
The report quotes Pope-emeritus Benedict about the doubtfulness of the matter, as things stood in November 2005, when the Vatican demanded of McCarrick that he resign as Archbishop of Washington. The pope-emeritus recalled: “There were suspicions regarding McCarrick’s prior conduct but a dearth of concrete evidence.” (See footnote 798, on page 233.)
This understanding of the situation, as Pope Benedict expressed it, produced the “foolhardy conspiracy” to which I referred in a previous post. The idea governing Vatican policy towards McCarrick under Pope Benedict was this: McCarrick says he’s innocent, and we believe him. But the danger of scandal hovers like a terrifying cloud, because ‘numerous voices’ have ‘raised red flags.’ We must make McCarrick vanish from the public eye.
Papal representative Gabriel Montalvo went to an early grave after having to pursue this policy. Then Montalvo’s successor, Pietro Sambi, complained about having McCarrick “always at my door,” looking for permission to continue his globe-trotting (page 308).
Sambi, too, died an early death, with the McCarrick situation still pending.
Both of these earlier nuncios, however–premature as their demises may have been–got off easy compared to their successor in office, Carlo Maria Viganò.
In both 2006 and 2008, Viganò–while still working in the Vatican–tried to convince his superiors that the “hiding McCarrick” strategy would not work. Viganò suggested that the pope should put McCarrick on trial, canonically (as ultimately, the pope did have to do.) Viganò proposed that they make an example of McCarrick, to indicate to the whole Church that McCarrick’s abuses were intolerable.
Now, with its McCarrick report, the Holy See has thanked Archbishop Viganò for having been right–by making him out to be the dishonest villain of the story.
Be all that as it may, the ‘hide-McCarrick’ policy pursued under Pope Benedict did not actually resonate with the teaching of St. Thomas on giving the benefit of the doubt in uncertain matters. At the time, McCarrick called the Vatican’s bluff on that score.
All the Vatican’s communiques to McCarrick (until 2018) conceded that he was, in fact, innocent. (Even after two Metuchen victims gave sworn testimony about McCarrick’s sexual harassment.) Nuncio Sambi told McC that “no one believes the truth of the accusations,” and Cardinal Re, Prefect for Bishops, wrote to McC in June 2008; Re referred to the “unfounded reports” about McC.
So McCarrick made a reasonable answer. In a September 2008 letter to Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Bertone, McCarrick wrote, “I have asked for a complete investigation and have offered to submit to a lie-detector test.”
Ironically enough, therefore: McCarrick and Viganò agreed. Justice requires a thorough investigation which will result in a definitive conclusion of guilt or innocence. The policy based solely on an indeterminate fear of people finding out–that does an injustice to everyone involved. The judge must reach a clear decision.
According to canon law, only one authority in the Church can judge a Cardinal. The pope.
I speculated extensively about the McCarrick affair, prior to the release of the Vatican report. Turns out that I gave Pope Benedict a great deal more credit for perspicacity in this matter than he deserved.
I thought that Benedict understood the commitment to zero tolerance for sexual abuse that the American bishops had made in 2002. After all, they made that commitment in direct consultation with Vatican officials, including then-Card. Ratzinger.
I figured, therefore, that Pope Benedict recognized that he betrayed that principle with his “hide McCarrick” strategy, but that the pope felt he had no choice. McCarrick had just served as the public face of the Catholic Church in America during the biggest sex-abuse scandal ever. That made McCarrick ‘too big to fail,’ so to speak.
I speculated that Benedict thought to himself: “Yes, it is wrong for us to cover this up. We ought to judge and condemn McCarrick openly. But we can’t, because that would destroy the Church in the U.S.”
Now, I don’t mean to say that I thought such a line of thought made sense. To the contrary, in my speculations I concluded that Pope Benedict deserves the lion’s share of the blame for the McCarrick catastrophe. But I still managed to give the pope emeritus too much credit.
Pope Benedict apparently experienced no interior strife over orchestrating a cover-up. The Vatican report shows that he never really grasped the implications of the supposed zero-tolerance policy in the first place.
Benedict did as pope the same thing he had done as Archbishop Ratzinger of Munich, in the early 1980’s. The same thing that countless bishops have done, all over the world–thereby reducing our Church to the state of zero credibility: He pushed the whole business away from himself. He refused to deal with it. He left if for others. While the McCarrick case lingered, unresolved, for a decade, Pope Benedict focused on writing his books.
Pope Benedict had, after all, received a large bribe from McCarrick: $200,000 cash, in the spring of 2005. The Vatican McCarrick report insists, on page 4, that:
The examination [of all records involving McCarrick] did not reveal evidence that McCarrick’s customary gift-giving and donations impacted significant decisions made by the Holy See regarding McCarrick during any period.
This may be the most truly laughable sentence in the report.
We still, however, have not brought into focus the precise whitewash used in this report.
To return to St. Thomas’ principle: In cases of doubt, it is better to be deceived by a wicked man than to think ill of an innocent man. The supposed ‘doubt’ in the McCarrick case was: Some say he has acted inappropriately, that he has harassed, that he has abused. He states categorically that he has not.
But this much was never in dispute, never in doubt: McCarrick slept in the same bed with seminarians, young men, even teenage boys. With none of these bedfellows did McCarrick have any blood kinship.
McCarrick acknowledged the truth of this set of facts repeatedly; the written record of this acknowledgement begins with his August 6, 2000, letter to Pope John Paul II’s personal secretary (see page 169 of the Vatican report). McCarrick knew he could not deny his bed-sharing and remain even remotely credible, because too large a circle of people knew about it.
As I tried to explain in an earlier post, no honest person in the 1980’s, 90’s, or 2000’s could construe these facts as ‘innocent.’ An Archbishop sleeping in the same bed with a young priest of his diocese, or a seminarian, or a young man, or a teenage boy: that was, in and of itself, clearly wrong. An abuse had occurred. Even if no other facts were known, the bed-sharing was enough to justify the conclusion that McCarrick deserved clear and decisive punishment.
In other words, the popes, their ambassadors to the U.S., and their department heads in Rome never actually found themselves in the situation considered by St. Thomas in ST II-II q60 a4 reply1. They had enough evidence to clear up any doubt. They had this evidence all along.
Now, none of the popes, nor their close co-workers, have been dumb or naïve men. They all knew that you cannot really extend the benefit of the doubt to someone who has himself acknowledged sleeping in the same bed with his subordinates and with minors.
The Vatican report expects the reader to reject this clear fact from his or her mind. The report only makes sense if you take refuge in a dream world where popes and experienced priests can calmly think that McCarrick shared his bed with his targeted victims just like the sisters shared a bed in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women.
The popes and Vatican officials did not, in fact, think that. They knew better. That’s the ugly reality hidden beneath the whitewash. Scrape away that whitewash, and we see:
With its McCarrick report, the Vatican clearly declares to the world that bishops may freely abuse their subordinates, so long as there’s no big stink about it. Just don’t get caught. Keep it quiet. As long as you manage to keep it quiet, the Successor of St. Peter and his men will gladly look the other way.