How the mighty are fallen: Press should keep asking about 'Uncle Ted' McCarrick's secrets

The ongoing demolition of former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick came to a head last weekend as the Vatican announced that he was being defrocked — an action that didn’t surprise anyone.

Big questions remain, of course. They are the same questions your GetReligionistas and lots of other people have been asking for months. Who promoted McCarrick? Who protected him, as reports about his private affairs circulated for years? And finally, who did McCarrick promote, in his role as a powerbroker in U.S. Catholic life?

Rocco Palmo, wizard of the Whispers in the Loggia blog had one of the better summations of what the issues are. Gone are the days, he wrote, when clergy sexual involvement with adults, ie the seminarians McCarrick preyed upon, were dismissed by the higher-ups.

“(Such) acts with adults are listed among the graviora delicta (grave crimes) warranting McCarrick's dismissal – specifically "with the aggravating factor of the abuse of power" – represents a massive sea-change in the church's handling of allegations beyond those involving minors, one which could well have significant ramifications going forward, both in Rome and at the local level.

With his laicization now imposed, McCarrick – a particular favorite of Popes John Paul II and Francis alike – loses all the titles, responsibilities and privileges of a priest and hierarch, except for one emergency role: namely, the faculty to absolve a person in imminent danger of death. As for his descriptor going forward, he should be referred to as "the dismissed cleric Theodore McCarrick," with the ranks or offices he once held only used after his name to reflect that they no longer apply.

Given his dismissal, it remains to be seen whether the now-former cleric will keep his residence at the Capuchin friary in Kansas where Francis ordered McCarrick to live in prayer and penance pending the outcome of Rome's investigation; as a result of today's decree, the onetime cardinal is no longer bound by obedience to his now-former superior.

That does bring up an interesting possibility; what if McCarrick decided to slip his bonds and walk away?

McCarrick’s hometown paper, the Washington Post, had quite the busy day on Feb. 16, producing a trifecta of pieces.

This story by the newspaper’s Rome bureau chief was first out of the gate:

The top part of the piece was mostly material we’ve heard before but further down was this note:

Even as the canonical proceeding explored the facts directly surrounding McCarrick, the Vatican has remained silent about who might have helped protect McCarrick during his long career. In the summer, a former Holy See ambassador, Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, accused Francis and a litany of Vatican higher-ups of knowing about — and failing to act on — McCarrick’s alleged misconduct. Francis has not responded to the accusations, and the Vatican has not released the findings of a promised investigation into its archives on McCarrick.

Does anyone honestly think we’re going to get an answer to those two questions? Will journalists in elite newsrooms seek answers?

A meatier piece by Michelle Boorstein asked what happens during laicization; a term not very familiar to non-Catholics

In Catholic Church law, being forcibly laicized is sometimes called the death penalty for priests. A dismissal from the priesthood is permanent — something that can’t even be said of excommunication. Even priests who request laicization are told to move away and, unless necessary, to keep quiet about what happened to avoid scandalizing other Catholics. No working in parishes, seminaries, Catholic schools. Your previous identity is wiped out.

But, in the eyes of the church, the mark of priestly ordination can never be removed. … But in an era of rampant clergy scandals, experts predicted that many Catholics won’t see the rare defrocking as sufficient justice for McCarrick’s alleged victims.

Why are we still using the word “alleged?” Didn’t the Vatican just investigate that and issue a ruling?

Is anyone doubting, at this stage, that the victims are telling the truth?

“The reality is that, leaving aside the issue of embarrassment, and I’d be cautious on that, what difference does it make to McCarrick?” said Jennifer Haselberger, a canon lawyer who represented the archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis until 2013, when she quit over what she described as the office’s mishandling of abusive priests...

Haselberger suggested dismissal isn’t as crushing a punishment as it may sound for McCarrick, who was one of the most powerful and popular U.S. clerics until his case exploded in June. She predicted he won’t suffer financially or go to jail and many will continue to treat him as a priest, she said.

McCarrick and his lawyers haven’t commented since the summer, so it’s impossible to know how he feels about the penalty. Shamed? Justified? Wronged? But people who know him say McCarrick, a frail 88-year-old, hasn’t seemed able to fully accept what’s happening. The former cardinal could still face civil suits.

I’m willing to bet that whatever happens, McCarrick won’t be spending the rest of his days in far western Kansas, a remote — to say the least — region in which he has no familial or spiritual connections.

Also in the Post on Feb. 16, there was an Elizabeth Bruenig editorial on the matter. We usually don’t critique opinion pieces, but this one has a lot of background to bring you up to speed on what happened.

After listing all the ways McCarrick used his fundraising prowess to benefit many in the Catholic Church, there is this surprising addition:

Were these the things that preserved him? In 2002, McCarrick told The Post that he had been accused of sexual abuse in an anonymous letter sent to various Catholic officials during his tenure as archbishop of Newark. Whence that letter, and who reviewed it? Who determined to take no further action?

I read the same April 17, 2002, piece. What, if anything, was McCarrick referring to or was he simply making the whole thing up? I am including the major paragraphs below:

More than 10 years ago, while he was bishop of Newark, McCarrick said, he was accused of pedophilia "with my own family" in a letter sent to some of his peers in the church hierarchy

"I immediately did two things," he said. "I wrote a response and sent it to the nuncio [the pope's representative in the United States] because I figure everything's gotta be clear. And then I brought it to my Presbyter Council, the council of priests in the diocese. I said, 'This is what I got. I want you to know it.' Because I think light is what kills these things. You gotta put them in light. And then nothing ever happened. He never wrote another letter or anything."

McCarrick's spokeswoman, Susan Gibbs, said later that the unsigned letter implied that he had sexually abused his nieces and nephews but it had "no specific allegations, no names, no nothing … just rumor."

After telling this story, the cardinal added, "If there's any interest with anyone here, I can say I'm 71 years old and I have never had sexual relations with anybody -- man, woman or child. And that can go on the record."

We now know this was a bunch of lies.

What on Earth was he thinking? Did he realize his victims were starting to talk and that he needed a ruse to throw the Post off his trail? The ruse certainly worked; the reporters settled for the barest of details from Gibbs who was either part of the deception or merely repeating what the cardinal told her.

One of the Post’s reporters who wrote the piece was Alan Cooperman, who later left the paper for a position with the Pew Research Center. I was still at the Washington Times when I saw Alan at a Pew function -- this was late 2009 or early 2010 — and I asked him flat-out if he’d heard rumors about the Catholic Church paying out some kind of settlement to McCarrick’s victims. He said he had not. Perhaps he was hiding his astonishment that McCarrick’s chance remark some eight years back held some truth in it.

With McCarrick, I wonder if we will ever know the whole story. The National Catholic Reporter was right to name him their newsmaker of the year for 2018; an action I wish journalists with the Religion News Association had done, instead of naming Presiding Episcopal Bishop Michael Curry (whose one distinction in 2018 was a royal wedding sermon and a vapid one at that).

The McCarrick story is already fading from the headlines in preparation to the Vatican’s sexual abuse summit starting Thursday in Rome and the release of “In the Closet of the Vatican,” a tell-all by a gay journalist about the homosexual networks atop the Catholic Church. Read an excerpt here. It’s quite eye-opening. The title is even more blunt in other, non-English editions of the book — “Sodoma.

Clearly, McCarrick was a key figure in those networks, as many of his former seminarians can tell you. Did this help protect him?

The big test will be whether reporters treat this book as a serious piece of journalism (at 1,500 interviews, it should be) or whether they’ll brush it off as one more slime job against gays in clerical collars. Those who adopt the latter stance need to explain why they’re denying these networks exist. If it takes an insider such as Frederic Martel to blow the whistle, so be it. The time for secrets is over.

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