Preparing for the global Catholic sex-abuse summit: What would 'Uncle Ted' McCarrick do?

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Has anyone heard from Archbishop Theodore “Uncle Ted” McCarrick lately?

Actually, the fallen cardinal has been in the news in recent days. But some may ask if this new news about the old McCarrick news breaks new ground. The bottom line: With the world’s Catholic bishops poised for a headline-grabbing February summit focusing on the sexual abuse of children, does it matter what is happening with McCarrick?

I would argue that McCarrick still matters, in part because of the ties that bind him to key Catholic leaders steering efforts to solve the abuse puzzle. That’s a key theme in this week’s “Crossroads” podcast (click here to tune that in). Another question: Did the silence that surrounds the McCarrick scandal (Hello Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano) play any role in the sudden exit of Vatican press maestro Greg Burke? Hold that thought.

Let’s start with the Associated Press report from those relatively dead news days last week: “Lawyer: McCarrick repeatedly touched youth during confession.” Did anyone see that headline in their local newspapers a few days after Christmas? Here are key parts of the overture:

The Vatican’s sexual abuse case against ex-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick has expanded significantly after a man testified that the retired American archbishop sexually abused him for years starting when he was 11, including during confession.

James Grein testified … before the judicial vicar for the New York City archdiocese, who was asked by the Holy See to take his statement for the Vatican’s canonical case, said Grein’s attorney Patrick Noaker. …

Grein initially came forward in July after the New York archdiocese announced that a church investigation determined an allegation that McCarrick had groped another teenage altar boy in the 1970s was credible. Grein’s claims, first reported by The New York Times, are more serious.

A crucial new claim is that some of the abuse took place during the sacrament of confession. What, pray tell, does Catholic canon law say about that?

Let’s keep reading, before we return to material addressed in this week’s podcast.

Grein also gave “chilling” details about alleged repeated incidents of groping during confession — a serious canonical crime on top of the original offense of sexually abusing a minor. Grein had previously not made public those claims, but Noaker confirmed his testimony to The Associated Press. Grein also allowed McCarrick’s defense lawyers to listen to his testimony by telephone.

Grein testified that McCarrick — a close family friend who baptized Grein — would take him upstairs to hear his confession before celebrating Mass for the family at home.

“He touched James’ genitals as part of the confessional. That became the course, it happened almost every time,” Noaker said. McCarrick would absolve Grein and “touch him on the forehead, shoulder, chest and genitals.”

For those looking ahead, there is this note about potential events in the future. Would this angle of the story require McCarrick to leave his oh-so-isolated residence in the distant plains of West Kansas? It would be easy to read past this line in the AP story:

McCarrick denied the initial groping allegation of the altar boy and has said through his lawyer that he looks forward to his right to due process. It wasn’t clear when he would testify in the Vatican case.

Now, this “Crossroads” program opened with a question that many journalists — secular and Catholic — have been asking: Why did Burke resign as director of the Vatican press office, just before the global sexual-abuse summit, one of most high-stakes Catholic events in a decade or two?

On Twitter, Burke simply said that his time at the Vatican as been “fascinating, to say the least.”

In a must-read essay at Commonweal, journalist Bob Moses offered this summary:

The sudden departures of Burke and Ovejero are being dissected through the usual anti-Francis ideological monocle used to view Vatican developments, especially since Burke’s role as a numerary member of Opus Dei gives him cred as a Catholic conservative. But I would look at it through a different lens: as an American, Burke was an outsider in an insider’s job, fluent in Italian but not necessarily in the level of nuance employed in Vatican-speak. The Vatican’s culture of caution and cover-up did not suit him.

Rod “Benedict Option” Dreher said pretty much the same thing on Twitter, stressing that Burke is a “media professional whose background is in reporting, not PR.” Would Burke have been able to answer tough questions at the sex-abuse summit? Dreher added: “Burke might have feared becoming the kind of person real journalists hate.”

This points toward a bigger question: What issues do Vatican leaders want to discuss and what issues do they want to avoid? At the same time: What issues do journalists think are central to this massive, confusing, hellish drama?

I have already put my cards on the table, stating what I believe are the big three issues (based on decades of talking with some key players on the Catholic left and right). Here’s a reminder:

I: The key to the scandal is secrecy, violated celibacy vows and potential blackmail. Lots of Catholic leaders – left and right, gay and straight – have sexual skeletons in their closets, often involving sex with consenting adults. These weaknesses, past and/or present, create a climate of secrecy in which it is hard to crack down on crimes linked to child abuse.

II. Classic pedophiles tend to strike children of both genders. However, in terms of raw statistics, most child-abuse cases linked to Catholic clergy are not true cases of pedophilia, but are examples of ephebophilia – intense sexual interest in post-pubescent teens or those on the doorstep of the teen years. The overwhelming majority of these clergy cases are adult males with young males.

III. One of the biggest secrets hiding in the bitter fog from all of these facts is the existence of powerful networks of sexually active gay priests, with many powerful predators – McCarrick is a classic example – based at seminaries and ecclesiastical offices. Thus, these men have extraordinary power in shaping the lives of future priests.

Which of these issues are Catholic leaders ready to address? Which ones do some — not ALL — Catholic leaders want to avoid?

In my post on the Burke resignation, I stated this question another way. Let’s say that we could jump in a time machine (I am a Doctor Who fan, after all) and flash back 20 years in the clergy sex-abuse scandal. My question: What would '“Uncle Ted” McCarrick do?

After all, he was one of the Vatican’s most plugged-in networkers, both in greater New York and inside the D.C. Beltway. You see, I think he would do three things, today, consistent with what he appears to have done in the past.

First, I think McCarrick would support — with words — any stances taken by the pope.

Second, I think he would do everything he could to protect his allies in high places. Consider these questions: Who raised McCarrick to power? Who protected him, during the decades when reports circulated about his conduct with seminarians? Who did McCarrick help bring to power?

Finally, I think McCarrick — once a five-star source with friendly reporters who became known as “Team Ted” — would urge the press to focus on old scandals (clergy abuse of children), while avoiding new ones (abuse of seminarians, systems to discipline bishops, efforts to crack secret networks on left and right).

So here comes the global summit. What would McCarrick do?

Enjoy the podcast.

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