Child sexual abuse by priests was top 2018 religion story: What about McCarrick and the bishops?

On July 16, the New York Times ran a blockbuster story with this headline: “He Preyed on Men Who Wanted to Be Priests. Then He Became a Cardinal.

The man at the heart of this story was Cardinal Theodore McCarrick — now ex-cardinal — long one of the most powerful Catholics in America and, some would say, the world. His spectacular fall led to a tsunami of chatter among religion-beat veterans because of decades of rumors about his private affairs, including beach-house sexual harassment and abuse of seminarians. Click here for a Julia Duin post on that.

There was another layer to all of this. McCarrick’s career was rooted in work in the greater New York City area and in Washington, D.C. He was one of the most important media sources among center-left Catholic leaders, so much so that a cluster of reporters linked to him became known as “Team Ted.”

Then came the brutal letters from the Vatican’s former U.S. ambassador, Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, claiming that a global network of Catholic powerbrokers — including Pope Francis — had helped hide McCarrick and had profited from his clout and patronage.

In August there was an explosion of news about the release of a hellish seven-decade grand-jury report about abuse in six dioceses in Pennsylvania.

The bottom line: 2018 was a year in which there were major developments in two big clergy sexual abuse scandals in the Catholic world. They were, of course, connected.

There was the old, ongoing story of priests abusing teens and children, starting with headlines in the early 1980s. Then there was the issue of how to discipline bishops, archbishops and even cardinals accused of abuse — a story in which all roads lead to Rome and, these days, Pope Francis.

Which story was more important in 2018? Which story centered on new, global developments? These questions are at the heart of this week’s “Crossroads” podcast. Click here to tune that in.

Our discussion centered on the release of the Religion News Association’s annual list of the Top 10 religion-beat stories — in which the Pennsylvania grand-jury report was No. 1 and McCarrick and Vigano fell near the end of that list.

In my own list, McCarrick and Vigano were No. 1 and the Pennsylvania report was No. 4, in part because 97 percent of its crimes were pre-2002, the year U.S. bishops passed strict anti-abuse policies.

There was another strange — IMHO — twist in this. RNA members selected Episcopal Church Presiding Bishop Michael Curry as Newsmaker of the Year, after his long, progressive sermon at the royal wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. Oddly, McCarrick’s name was not even included on the ballot.

It helps to see the lists. Here is my take on the rest of the RNA list, after that No. 1 ranking for the Pennsylvania grand-jury report. This is from my “On Religion” column for the Universal syndicate:

(2) An outspoken anti-Semite killed 11 worshipers at Pittsburgh's Tree of Life synagogue. It was the deadliest anti-Semitic attack in U.S history and came during growing reports of anti-Semitism in Western cultures and worldwide.

(3) The Rev. Billy Graham, the world's most famous evangelist, died at age 99, ending a career in which he became the unofficial Protestant chaplain in America's public square. He preached to 215 million people during crusades in 53 nations.

(4) A broad coalition of religious leaders, including some evangelical Protestants, opposed Trump administration policies separating families at the U.S. border. A delegation of Catholic bishops celebrated Mass at the Basilica of Our Lady of San Juan del Valle, in the Rio Grande Valley on America's border with Mexico.

(5) The U.S. Supreme Court, in a narrow ruling that avoided key First Amendment issues, ruled in favor of Jack Phillips, a Colorado baker who refused -- on religious grounds -- to create a unique cake celebrating a same-sex wedding.

(6) The White House approved the move of the U.S. embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, drawing praise from evangelical Protestants and Jewish conservatives.

(7) The Supreme Court upheld the so-called "Muslim ban," the Trump administration's restrictions on travel from several Muslim-majority countries accused to severe persecution of religious minorities.

(8) Archbishop McCarrick barred from ministry, while debates continued about why he remained in power during decades of behind-the-scenes abuse reports.

(9) Many candidates from minority faiths enjoyed big political wins, including victories by two Muslim women congressional candidates.

(10) The Vatican's former U.S. ambassador, Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, released documents claiming that Pope Francis covered up sexual misconduct by McCarrick. He also called for the pope's resignation.

My own list was radically different, this year and looked like this, starting with the McCarrick scandal and the related Vigano letters. I’ve added some material, on items not found in the RNA list:

(2) Agreement by Pope Francis with the Chinese government to cooperate on the appointments of bishops, a move that radically changes the status of that land’s massive underground Catholic church.

(3) The Tree of Life massacre and a rising time of anti-Semitism in other parts of the world. See the previous list.

(4) Pennsylvania grand jury report.

(5) The Rev. Paige Patterson — one of the two leaders of the “conservative resurgence” in Southern Baptist Convention life — was fired as Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary president, a spectacular example of the #MeToo wave hitting the evangelical world.

(6) Death of Billy Graham.

(7) Narrow Masterpiece Cakeshop ruling at the U.S. Supreme Court.

(8) In Pakistan, Asia Bibi — a Catholic women sentenced to death for blasphemy — is freed by a Pakistani court. She remains in hiding, while protesters demand her execution.

(9) Russian Orthodox leaders break Communion with Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople after he breaks the 1,000-year bond between churches in Kiev and Moscow.

(10) The death of John Allen Chau, a young American trying to reach an isolated tribe on an island off India missionary, creates fierce debates about the work of missionaries in a pluralistic world.

Why was my list so different this year?

For starters, I wasn’t all that interested with the political life and times of Donald Trump, especially when compared with stories elsewhere in the world that involved millions and millions of believers. Maybe I am not automatically impressed when religion is a factor in politics.

I also thought the fall of McCarrick — complete with debates about his ties to top Catholic leaders — was the crucial NEW angle on the abuse story, especially since it put a spotlight on controversies about life in Catholic seminaries and, thus, in the corridors of church power everywhere.

Enjoy the podcast, and please let me know what you think in the comments pages.

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