It is a sort of autopsy on the hierarchy’s failure (all the way to Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI) to catch a predator who had a mound of anecdotal evidence against him, yet who rose through the ranks under Pope JPII, was ineffectively dealt with by B16 (and by Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, of whom more presently), and who finally, in 2018–when Francis got the goods on him due to an American civil investigation–was fired and stripped of his status as Cardinal.
Francis then took the unprecedented step of commissioning this sort of ecclesial Warren Report to try to figure out what in hell happened. It is a very healthy, albeit belated step forward for transparency in the Church, something the global hierarchy has badly needed and something Francis has been bitterly opposed for seeking–by some members of the hierarchy, unsurprisingly. (Though, weirdly, he has also been attacked by Reactionaries because the report took so long–and attacked because the report does not say what Francis-haters want to hear. Moral: Francis-haters just hate Francis, whatever he does.)
It’s important to grasp that Francis has, himself, been on a learning curve here. Recall that a few years back, some laity in Chile tried to bring an abuse complaint to him and he rebuked them in classic clericalist fashion. But then, some bishops (notably Cardinal Sean O’Malley) apparently got to him and said, “You need to listen” and he, to his credit, did. The result was that he actually obtained the resignation of the entire Chilean episcopacy and an investigation of the complaints.
As I say, when I evaluate the actions of my fathers, I don’t start by demanding that they see what I see. I look at how well they advance the ball down the field from where they started. He started from an old school clericalist mindset like pretty much his entire generation. Now he’s advancing the ball and challenging clericalism. Bully for him.
A word about clericalism. It is one of the oldest structures of sin in the Church. What’s a structure of sin? Funny you should ask! I just wrote a book addressing that, among other things:
A Biblical Example of a Structure of Sin
To give an example of what is meant by a Structure of Sin, see Acts 19:23-41. When Paul went to Ephesus to preach the gospel he did not simply threaten a religious system that worshipped Diana, the Moon Goddess. He threatened an entire socio-economic and political system organized around her temple, one of the Seven Wonders of the World.
Consequently, it was not just a gaggle of random members of the cult of Diana that attacked him. It was a mob organized and spurred on by the silversmiths of Ephesus, who made their living selling Diana trinkets to pilgrims. The gospel threatened (and in good time would eventually dismantle) a religio-economic-socio-political Structure of Sin in Ephesus that stood opposed to the Kingdom of God.
Now we—to the degree we all sin—are all idolaters just like the Ephesians, since sin is the disordered attempt to get our deepest happiness from something other than God. Our Big Four in the pantheon of idols are (and always have been) Money, Pleasure, Power and Honor. And, just as the Ephesian silversmiths did, we too create political and economic systems to support our idols.
This results in the creation of idolatrous political and economic systems that fight against those trapped within them, especially against those who are genuinely trying to do the right thing—just as the political and economic structures in Ephesus fought against Paul.
The point is this: Structures of Sin make it hard to be good and often punish us for trying while blinding us from even being able to see the good. Healthy institutions, in contrast, make it much easier to do the right thing and even reward us for trying.
Clericalism is not the sacerdotal office of the priesthood itself. I am a Catholic and firmly believe in the sacrament of Holy Orders as a good thing since Jesus Christ instituted it and the apostles passed on their authority to bishops in apostolic succession.
But that does not mean (as predatory priests and enabling bishops have done such a bang-up job of demonstrating) that priests, bishops and even popes cannot sin gravely. And one of the biggest sins to which clerics are naturally prey is the notion that, being ordained, they are the Elite and just, well, better than the rest of us. With that comes a whole Company Man mentality in which protection of the Guild is equated with Defending the Faith when, in fact, it just turned out you were defending the Guild from its victims’ cries for justice.
This is not a peculiarly priestly sin, of course. All Company Men are prey to this from educators to the military to corporate life. Anywhere there is an institution, this temptation exists. But when it manifests with priests, we call it clericalism.
The thing is, as disciples of Jesus, Catholics are expected–by God Almighty and by the human race–to be better than this. As Jesus says, “Those to whom much is given, much will be required” (Luke 12:48). So while the failures here are, in a certain sense, typical human sin, the fact remains that those who failed us were the custodians of a revelation that is not merely human, but divine, and it was their responsibility to act like it, not to act like every other butt-guarding Company Man. Jesus has terrible warnings about millstone neckties for those who so profoundly wound his little ones.
I don’t want to keep you here all day, so I just want to remark on a few things.
First, this is, beyond any possible doubt, JPII’s greatest failure. There is just no way around it. Here, as with his refusal to investigate Maciel, he was presented with credible evidence of a huge danger and he refused to act.
Excuses can be made and have been. He came from a Communist country where accusations of perversion were a common device for attacking the Church and he reflexively rejected them. (The thing is, given the universality of abuse in the Church, it must be stated that, as often as not, the Commies had a real point and were not inventing the charges.)
Another excuse is that JPII just flat liked McCarrick (one of the central ways clericalism propagates is through friendship).
And it was very true that McCarrick was a very able administrator and–from the standpoint of bureaucratic competence in a huge, complex global Church with the US Church as one of its most powerful parts–he did his work very well. (Indeed, one of the countless paradoxes of McCarrick’s career is that he was in charge of overseeing the bureaucratic reform in the wake of the scandal and, like it or not, he did a very good job–except that he made sure to shield himself. One of the weird facts of life is that deeply corrupt people can still be very gifted ones. He is a gifted bureaucrat who crafted a good bureaucratic reform.)
But at the end of the day, the excuses pall and the fact remains that, when presented with an urgent moral demand to investigate a dangerous predator, John Paul, on more than one occasion, did not merely passively fail to do so, he actively refused to do so. That’s on him, and it will always be part of his legacy, just as Peter will always be remembered as the disciple who both declared his faith in Jesus as the Son of God and denied him on the eve of his crucifixion. Both Peter’s greatness and his horrifying failure are true of him.
I should note that, as a Catholic, I regard this as utterly characteristic of the Petrine office. Chesterton once remarked:
“When Christ at a symbolic moment was establishing His great society, He chose for its cornerstone neither the brilliant Paul nor the mystic John, but a shuffler, a snob, a coward – in a word, a man. And upon this rock He has built His Church, and the gates of Hell have not prevailed against it. All the empires and the kingdoms have failed, because of this inherent and continual weakness, that they were founded by strong men and upon strong men. But this one thing, the historic Christian Church, was founded on a weak man, and for that reason it is indestructible. For no chain is stronger than its weakest link.”
Peter constantly whipsaws between greatness and abject failure. He constantly requires restoration by Christ. He functions as a sign of unity in that way too. Because he shows that “we have this treasure in earthen vessels, to show that the transcendent power belongs to God and not to us” (2 Corinthians 4:7). The revelation ultimately is not from the Church–whose members abuse children, cover it up and fail to act, and, above all, deny Christ himself in the hour of his crucifixion–but from Christ who refuses to abandon us even then.
That said, the point here is not about the grace Christ extends to Peter. It is about the the justice he demands Peter render to the victims he failed. That is why Peter is not told “It’s all in the past. Forget it,” by the Risen Christ. He is thrice commanded “Feed my sheep.”
The flock–and above all the victims in the flock, not the clerical office–should be the focus here. And this is a weakness of the Report. The question “How did this happen?” is vital to answer, but the way the Report does it is still clericalcentric. It does not spend a lot of time focusing on the victims.
Not to say the report is badly done. It does what it set out to do and that’s an important step. But it’s not the last step the Church needs to take.
The other thing worth noting is how Reactionary Francis-hating Catholics are spinning all this. As I mentioned above, they complained that it was taking too long and now they complain that it’s out. Like the Jewish mother-in-law in the old joke, the food is bad and the portions are too small. Everything is wrong and bad because Francis commissioned it and it turns out the guy who actually did something to get rid of McCarrick did better than the Popes who did nothing about McCarrick. How about that?
Above all, what the report shows is that the darling of the Francis-hating Freak Show in the US, Archbishop Vigano, both failed victims and, to cover that up, committed a massively selfish act of butt-covering lies when he hucked a live grenade in to the Church, accused Francis of removing fictional “sanctions” on McCarrick, and screamed for him to RESIGN!!!! in a coordinated assault on Francis in 2018. The purpose of that assault, as is now crystal clear (and was obvious even then) was to distract from Vigano’s own abject failure to confront McCarrick when Vigano was apostolic nuncio to the US.
A word about that. Apostolic nuncios are sort of the Vatican’s ecclesial ambassador to the Churches in various countries. They and they alone can do things like punish cardinals who get out of line–such as McCarrick. No bishop can do that, which is why no bishop was able to remove McCarrick. It was up to Vigano.
In Vigano’s “testimony” from 2018, he tells us that he and Benedict placed some sort of “sanctions” on McCarrick because they totally knew he was a predator. Said “sanctions” were, according to Vigano, lifted by Francis because he is an evil, evil man.
But in fact, there is zero evidence such “sanctions” ever existed. The truth is much more mundane. Vigano, by his own testimony, knew about McCarrick–and did nothing but wine and dine him.
When challenged with questions about all this, Vigano then went into hiding, claiming that “they” were trying to kill him and has spent the last two years issuing increasingly crazy bulletins from his secret lair, denouncing Vatican II, accusing Francis of loony conspiracies, declaring COVID a hoax and part of some whack job “Great Reset” conspiracy in which Shadowy Forces are going to take over the Church and do Bad Things, declaring Biden supporters “Children of Darkness” at war with the MAGA “Children of Light”, and prophesying the Deep State Conspiracy against Trump and the Deep Church Conspiracy led by Francis.
But the fact remains that Vigano refused to listen to witnesses who warned him that McCarrick was a predator.
The second astonishing reveal comes 12 years later, after Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò’s appointment as apostolic nuncio to the United States.
When a priest (described in the report as “Priest 3”) in McCarrick’s former diocese of Metuchen informed the nuncio of his lawsuit he was bringing over McCarrick’s sexual misconduct, Viganò naturally informed Cardinal Marc Ouellet, prefect of the Congregation for Bishops in Rome. Ouellet told him to launch an inquiry into the allegation, following a series of steps.
Yet “Viganò did not take these steps,” the report says, “and therefore never placed himself in the position to ascertain the credibility of Priest 3.”
In short, Vigano screams blame at Francis–the only pope who did something about McCarrick–to deflect attention from his own guilt.
Austen Ivereigh lays out just how Vigano’s refusal to investigate led to Francis initially following the conclusions of his predecessors until new evidence led to his action against McCarrick:
The report finds no basis for Viganò’s discredited claim in 2018 that Francis had somehow rehabilitated McCarrick. Between Francis’s election in 2013 and 2017, the McCarrick issue was rarely addressed, finds the Report. McCarrick—by now in his eighties—continued to work and travel as before, but never on behalf of the Holy See, and not as often because of his advanced age.
Francis knew of the allegations and rumors relating to McCarrick’s past, the Report finds, but saw no reason to alter the decisions taken by his predecessors. (Had Viganò bothered to investigate Priest 3’s claims, the Report does not need to add, there could have been a reason for Francis to act against McCarrick.)
In response to Viganò’s claims that he had mentioned McCarrick in meetings with Francis in June and October 2013, “no records support Viganò’s account,” says the Report, “and evidence as to what he said is sharply disputed.”
Then came the allegation of sex abuse by McCarrick of a minor in the 1970s, which triggered the Archdiocese of New York’s investigation. Once the allegation was deemed credible, Francis stripped McCarrick of his red hat. After a canonical trial found him guilty, he was dismissed from the clerical state.
It was the first clear, decisive, punitive action taken by a pope against McCarrick in 40 years.
Yet despite all this, the Greatest Catholics of All Time, who have been so wrong about so much so many times for so long continue eating up all this Vigano insanity with a spoon.
Because the Greatest Catholics of All Time, swollen with pride, listen to what their itching ears want to hear, not to reality. That is because it is still all about power for them and the conviction that they are here to save the Church from gays and liberals and the pope, not that they are themselves in need of salvation. Most emphatically, it is not about the victims for the Greatest Catholics of All Time. Victims only matter if they are useful for destroying their enemies. Otherwise, just like “Priest 3” they are discarded.
And that is where I leave this. The principal takeaway from this tragedy is that the problem is not gays and liberals. The problem is abusers, gay and straight, and enablers, liberal and conservative. The Greatest Catholics of All Time will not accept that. And so they hate and deny the fact that two conservative Popes failed while a pope they perceive as “liberal” did the right thing. They cannot endure the notion that Vigano, a conservative, is a selfish con man because they cannot endure the fact that again and again, they themselves keep falling for con men. They see and admire themselves in the mirror as the saviors of the Church and cannot, in their towering pride, imagine that they are part of the problem. Only gays and liberals are the problem.
Still and all, that’s a lie. Whatever human actors in the Church may say or do, the reality is that the focus of the Holy Spirit is on the victims of clerical abuse, not on ecclesial power struggles. What matters is the Least of These in the mind of Christ. Because what was done to victims was done to him. That is where we begin.