Catholic crisis thinkers: What details change, when looking from the left and then the right?

This weekend’s think piece is two think pieces in one.

As a bonus, I think I have found a foolproof way to determine how editors of a given publication have answered the crucial question: What is the decades-old Catholic clergy sexual abuse scandal all about?

Well, let me qualify that a bit: This journalistic test that I am proposing works really well with the drama surrounding ex-cardinal Theodore McCarrick, since he has been accused of several different kinds of sexual abuse with males of different ages.

The editorial test: Search an article for the word “seminary” or variations on that term.

Let’s start with the Atlantic essay that ran with this headline: “The Sex-Abuse Scandal Is Growing Faster Than the Church Can Contain It.” Here’s a sample of the language:

“Many strands are coming together,” said Kathleen Sprows Cummings, a historian of Catholicism at the University of Notre Dame. “It does seem like we are reaching a watershed moment.” By Thursday, there had been so many new developments that she said she was having a hard time keeping up — and that the leaders at the Vatican probably were, too. “I think they’re scrambling. The news is coming on so many fronts. I think they don’t know quite what to do.” Here is some of what they nevertheless did this week.


The article does mention the controversial public testimony published by the Vatican’s former ambassador to the U.S., Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, without really getting into the details other than its call for Pope Francis to resign.

There is another summary statement later:

Pope Francis on Wednesday summoned bishops from around the world to a first-of-its-kind meeting in Rome in February. The focus will be on protecting minors, and bishops will reportedly receive training in identifying abuse, intervening, and listening to victims.

The choice to summon the presidents of bishops’ conferences worldwide signals that the Vatican finally recognizes clergy sex abuse is a global problem, according to Cummings, the historian. “That’s a departure, an admission, that this is much bigger than any one culture or nation,” she said. In the past, she explained, Church leaders had suggested that the problem was limited to the U.S., but as scandals began to surface elsewhere — from Ireland to Australia to Chile to Germany — that story became impossible to believe.

A worldwide summons to bishops, Cummings continued, is “a big move, but I’m not sure how bold it is. This crisis has been created by the bishops. The people who create crises are not the ones who are going to lead you out of them.”


The key is that the article describes the scandal in terms of the sexual abuse of children and actions to hide that abuse — period.

That is obviously a huge element of this scandal. But is that the most controversial element of the charges surrounding McCarrick? I have argued that the big landmines are linked to the ex-cardinals abuse of seminarians under his watchcare, which went on for decades, along with the claims that a network of cardinals helped promote and protect him. These men then are said to have received McCarrick’s help in getting their own red hats.

Thus, no sign of the word “seminary” or “seminarians” — key terms linked to discussions of power networks, gay or otherwise, in the Catholic hierarchy.

Now let’s look, on the right sides of things, at the massive Weekly Standard essay that ran with this headline: “The Catholic Church Is Breaking Apart. Here’s Why.” Let’s start at the very beginning, looking for You. Know. What.

Consider what we know, and what has been alleged, about Pope Francis, Cardinal Donald Wuerl, and disgraced former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick.

For several decades, Father, Bishop, Archbishop, and eventually Cardinal McCarrick preyed sexually on the priests and seminarians serving under his authority. There are credible allegations he abused boys as young as 11. To the extent that this behavior was a secret within the American church, it was very badly kept. Between 2005 and 2007, three dioceses in New Jersey paid out large cash settlements to keep allegations of abuse by McCarrick quiet. As Bishop Steven Lopes said in a homily first reported by First Things, “I was a seminarian when Theodore McCarrick was named archbishop of Newark. And he would visit the seminary often, and we all knew.”

That was easy, wasn’t it? There are several other seminary-related facts in this article.

However, here is the brutal thesis section, which focuses on why the ecclesiastical “system” that protects predators like McCarrick is the fuse on this bombshell topic. How do men like this affect the church as a whole, compared to run-of-the-mill abuser priests?

… Individual priest-abusers aren’t catastrophic to the church in any structural way. Predators will always be among us. It is a human pathology from which not even priests are immune. But the remedy for predation is straightforward: Whenever and wherever such men are discovered, they should be rooted out and punished.

The institutional damage is done not by the abusers but by the structures that cover for them, excuse them, and advance them. Viewed in that way, the damage done to the Catholic church by Cardinal Wuerl — and every other bishop who knew about McCarrick and stayed silent — is several orders of magnitude greater than that done by McCarrick himself.

By way of analogy, consider the dirty cop. About once a week we see evidence of police officers behaving in ways that range from the imprudent to the illegal. It has no doubt been this way since Hammurabi deputized the first lawman. But while individuals might be harmed by rogue cops, the system of law enforcement isn’t jeopardized by police misbehavior. The damage to the system comes when the other mechanisms of law enforcement protect, rather than prosecute, bad cops. If that happens often enough, citizens can eventually decide that the system is broken and take to the ballot box to reform it. The laity have no such recourse with the church.

Read both of these depressing, but important, essays. And search for “seminary” references in other articles.

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