For weeks now, your GetReligionistas have carefully followed news coverage of the spectacular fall of ex-cardinal Theodore McCarrick, a key player for decades in countless trends and media storms in American Catholic life. His media-friendly career began in the New York City area and he ended up as a cardinal in Washington, D.C.
Most of the coverage of the “Uncle Ted” scandals this summer focused on his links to the latest developments in decades of horror stories about priests abusing young boys and teens. Also, efforts to promote and protect him was a major plot point in the blunt late-August document released by the Vatican’s former U.S. ambassador, Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano.
But those two themes tended to mask, in lots of stories (click here for background), two other crucial parts of the McCarrick drama. For example, most of his abuse focused on young men, seminarians to be specific. Also, the former D.C. cardinal has emerged as the iconic symbol of a larger problem — bishops and cardinals hiding the sins of their colleagues.
These latter elements of the McCarrick story seemed, for weeks, to have slipped onto a back burner in many crucial newsrooms. However, it was hard to know what has happening — behind the scenes — since even elite newsrooms are not as well staffed as they used to be and, well, there simply aren’t enough religion-beat pros out there (since many editors just don’t “get” the importance of this topic).
Now, there’s a feature at The Washington Post worthy of a strong spotlight: “Vatican’s handling of sexual misconduct complaints about ex-cardinal Theodore McCarrick reveals a lot about the Catholic Church.”
That’s a rather bland headline, in my opinion. There needed to be something in there about broken celibacy vows and clergy getting busy with adults, including men wearing clerical collars and other ecclesiastical garb.
This story by religion-beat veteran Michelle Boorstein tells a complicated tale, focusing on a timeline of the evidence that is now available showing what key Vatican and U.S. officials had to have known about McCarrick, for the past quarter century or more.
Some of this information was already on blogs by activists such as the late Richard Sipe. Some of the information had been shared, privately, by priests and even bishops and is now emerging. Lots of crucial facts, obviously, remain locked in Vatican-controlled files.
The big idea here? I was struck by this very, very understated sentence:
The church does not routinely share information about internal communications with lay Catholics or journalists.
To say the least. Here is a summary of the mechanics behind this article, which has been a long time coming:
Through dozens of interviews, documents and published blog posts from the time, The Post has pieced together an account detailing the origin and nature of complaints to the Vatican about McCarrick. The story behind the complaints, at least three of which occurred in 2000 or later, also illustrates the great value placed on deference to hierarchy within the Catholic Church, the silence and secrecy around the topic of priest sexual activity and the extreme opaqueness of the Vatican bureaucracy — factors that contributed to the allegations against McCarrick remaining hidden for so long.
It’s hard to know what to underline or praise, in this long and detailed feature. I am sure that some Catholic insiders — the people who read 666 liberal and conservative Catholic blogs every day, just trying to keep up — will spot a few holes and places where there needed to be more depth.
But let’s just settle for a close look at one long passage that builds up to the thesis.
In the 1990s, according to documents obtained by The Post, a priest in his early 30s from the Diocese of Metuchen (N.J) reported to his superiors and mental health professionals that he had in the past been sexually harassed and victimized, in the seminary and by “his bishop.” While the documents don’t name McCarrick, a source who is very familiar with the man’s case confirms that it was McCarrick.
Those stories came out through counseling after the priest self-reported to his superiors that he had been sexually involved with two male minors. Counselors through the 1990s determined the priest had been victimized himself several times in his life, was not a pedophile and could be returned to ministry.
But after the abuse scandals exploded in the early 2000s, the source said, the priest’s case resurfaced because the priest’s new bishop — in a more aware environment, post-scandal — reviewed all his priests’ files, saw the priest’s situations with the minors and sought to have him removed from ministry.
This badly upset the priest, who sued.
Just over a decade ago, representatives of that priest reached a settlement with the dioceses in Trenton, Metuchen and Newark. Some of the details leaked to activists, including Sipe. Vigano has claimed that copies went into the hands of police and church authorities. Some details, literally, were posted online.
But no one was seeking the big picture back then. Let’s return to this dramatic Post passage:
The scenes alleged in the settlement excerpt are disturbing. The then-seminarian described a fishing trip with McCarrick and two priests that ended in a motel room with two double beds. He described watching in distress as McCarrick and another priest caressed one another “from head to toe,” laughing in the next bed. At one moment, the seminarian said he made eye contact with McCarrick, and, he alleges “[McCarrick] smiled at me, saying ‘you’re next.’ . . . I felt sick to my stomach and went under the covers.”
The language of the letters, which reveal little urgency, points to a paradox at the heart of the church: Why was everyone so calm about sexual behavior of any kind among clerics sworn to celibacy?
We have reached the thesis statement in this larger story.
Yes, the abuse of children and teens has been the biggest, most hellish scandal. By all means. But what about the sex scandals in seminaries and in Catholic power grids that run from diocese to diocese and then all the way to Rome?
What about the vows taken by these priests, bishops and cardinals when they were ordained?
The McCarrick case reveals, among other things, the unspoken contradictions between the image of priests as completely celibate and the reality of men struggling at times with their sexuality. Some experts and clerics compared priests’ celibacy vows to those of married couples who become unfaithful. In other words, physical or sexual contact between priests happens. But it’s unclear how frequently it occurs and how often it is nonconsensual.
In McCarrick’s case, there are allegations of ongoing, abusive behavior. But in past decades, harassment or sexual behavior between adults did not prompt nearly as much alarm compared with priest abuse of minors.
Even so, the sexuality of priests has been largely a third rail in the church, with little open acknowledgment of the issue.
I apologize for this cliche: Bingo.
This is a must read. Journalists will want to print out a copy, mark it up and then file it. After all, this story is not over.