Melinda Henneberger

Cardinal McCarrick, aka “Uncle Teddy,” gives Catholics one more punch in the gut

This 1974 photo provided by a man who agreed to be identified only by his first name, James, shows him in California with Theodore McCarrick.
This 1974 photo provided by a man who agreed to be identified only by his first name, James, shows him in California with Theodore McCarrick. AP

I might as well be the last to write about the scandal surrounding retired Washington Cardinal Ted McCarrick, since apparently I was one of the only American Catholics who had never heard the ugly rumors about “Uncle Teddy.”

Last month, almost half a century too late, McCarrick was finally barred from performing any priestly duties over “credible and substantiated” allegations that he sexually assaulted an altar boy in 1971. In the month since that news broke, the family friend who was the first baby McCarrick ever baptized has accused him of abusing him, too, as a child and for many years after. Several former seminarians have talked about weekend getaways at McCarrick’s beach house on the Jersey Shore where uh-oh, they always seemed to be one bed short, and the last one to call dibs had to crawl in with McCarrick.

Maybe you’re thinking that all this story needs is Snooki, but it’s too dark and too sleazy even for MTV. Also too real, not only for the victims but for those of us who lived through the horror of the clerical sex abuse scandals in 2002 and were so grateful that at least one American cardinal seemed to understand the depth and urgency of the problem.

Yes, that man was Ted McCarrick, someone I interviewed a number of times at the height of the scandals in my job as Rome correspondent for The New York Times. While too many other church leaders were still denying, deflecting, minimizing and blaming the media, he was the first to speak about a one-strike-and-you’re-out policy for new cases of abuse by priests.

Anyone in the future who would do something like that to a child or a youngster, then that is it,” he told me and other reporters.

But wait — was the key phrase in that sentence “in the future”?

He also told me he intended to speak out about priestly celibacy during the Rome meetings on abuse. Because he wanted to defend mandatory celibacy, and point out that it was a ‘‘straw man’‘ in the discussion of the predations that had hurt so many so deeply. Well he would know, wouldn’t he?

As a practicing Catholic, covering that scandal was a daily gut punch, but worst of all was hearing Vatican officials say that the scandals had been exaggerated, if not invented outright, by the American media, “enemies of Holy Mother Church.” Jews in the American media, in other words.

As it turns out, though, one of the real enemies of Holy Mother Church was Theodore E. McCarrick, now 88, who helped craft the no-tolerance policy on abuse that’s been in effect since 2002.

Supposedly, no one in the chancery in Washington ever knew that just a few years later, in 2005 and again in 2007, two dioceses back in New Jersey paid settlements to two former seminarians who’d accused him of abusing them there in the past.

Someone I think a lot of certainly believes that: “That people looked the other way is not true; no one came forward,” said McCarrick’s devastated former spokeswoman at the archdiocese, Susan Gibbs, my friend and my daughter’s confirmation sponsor. She cried as we talked, not for either him or herself, but because of the damage he’s done to victims who include people still in the pews. “He took them through the crisis, and they feel betrayed.” If the church awarded Purple Hearts, she’d have several.

I thought McCarrick was one of the good guys, but maybe that was Susan putting words in his mouth. Susan, who may have brought even more people into the church than the cardinal has run out of it. Susan, whose gender somehow made her so suspect that McCarrick once warned a priest she saw as a brother against socializing with her while on assignment in Rome, because of how that might look. Maybe he was passing on someone else’s concern, she said, because he didn’t usually treat her like an occasion of sin. And really, why would he?

That view of women is so common in the church, though, that Susan once had to walk six blocks after dark through a high-crime area of Philadelphia from one event to another, because Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua didn’t have a driver that night and didn’t feel comfortable riding alone in the car with a woman. Bevilacqua, who was cited by a grand jury for allowing dozens of predator priests to stay on the job, died in his sleep in 2012 just before he was to have testified about sex abuse in court.

There’s a paradox the size of St. Peter’s in the fact that women are still so often disrespected and unheeded in the church. Because they were running convents and Catholic hospitals and schools and charities centuries before that kind of leadership was possible in the secular world.

Yet a couple of years ago, several Vatican officials let me know that my question about how Pope Francis was doing on fulfilling his promise to bring more women into leadership roles was too trivial to take seriously. The most dismissive of all was then high-ranking Cardinal George Pell, now back in Australia ahead of his trials on sexual assault charges. He, too, has friends I love, and they believe him innocent. If only those running the church lived up to the faith of their flock, these scandals would long since have been history.

Instead, Saturday’s headlines include one about the Vatican announcement that Pope Francis has accepted McCarrick’s resignation as a cardinal, and has ordered him into a life of prayer and penance while the church investigation continues. But that this news comes so late in the life of McCarrick and this scandal makes clear that he isn’t the only one who should be fasting in the desert.

Even now, many church leaders would say that there’s no link at all between the scarcity of women and other lay people in church leadership and the failure of the institution to excise the evil of sex abuse from clerical culture. I don’t believe that, though.

In 2002, renowned reformer Ted McCarrick said the new standards would “tell the laity they must have a role” in rooting out abuse. While there are still laity to have a role, Uncle Teddy?