Someone who spoke this weekend to Theodore McCarrick, in the Kansas friary where the 88-year-old former Catholic cardinal has been in seclusion, told me that McCarrick both does and does not understand what just happened. He knows on one level but not on others that the Vatican stripped him of his priesthood on Friday. He gets but doesn’t that he’s been found guilty of sexual misconduct with children and adults, of soliciting sex in the confessional and of abuse of power.
The church McCarrick served and ill served for 60 years ousted him in an “expedited” process — after sitting on reports for decades.
So “Uncle Ted,” as he liked to be called by those he preyed upon, is in theory free to leave St. Fidelis Friary in Victoria, Kansas. For now, he’ll stay on there, but could if he wished wander the world in search of more nephews. And while his ministry should have ended long ago, what happens when priests are defrocked, or “laicized,” and lost track of can be problematic, too.
“Predators need lifelong oversight and security,” says Chris O’Leary, who says he was first abused by a St. Louis priest during a face-to-face confession when he was 9 or 10. “In the real world we call that a prison,” says O’Leary, who settled his suit against the archdiocese in 2017, “but in the church, that doesn’t happen, so you’ve got predators living among an unsuspecting public.”
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Given McCarrick’s age and health — he has a pacemaker and has suffered several strokes — the risk that he’ll do further physical harm may be relatively low. But after all the damage already done, both to individual victims and to an institution that’s in many ways still as much in denial as he is, where he and his church go from here shouldn’t be this unclear.
One of the most enduring misconceptions about the church I was part of all my life, too, until the latest round of scandals, is that it’s a land of black and white, of brightly marked boundaries. When no, it’s a place that teaches Truth but also makes many allowances. It’s a place where you’d be barred from, say, walking through the front doors of St. Peter’s in a sleeveless dress, but where you can also be promoted and protected after the most serious allegations.
To me, it’s emblematic that despite what you’ve heard, Galileo wasn’t condemned for confirming that the Earth revolves around the sun, but for refusing to write that that was both true and not true — a solid scientific theory that in no way contradicted faith that God had made Earth the immovable center of the universe.
The astronomer’s even more unforgivable sin was embarrassing his friend and patron, Pope Urban VIII, in his impudent 1632 book, “Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems,” in which the character parroting Urban’s official views is named “Simplicio,” a play on the Italian world “semplice,” or simpleton.
That’s relevant now, almost 400 years later, for a couple of reasons. First, because it’s not out of nowhere that the Vatican is both holding an “urgent” global meeting on clerical sex abuse this week, and signaling that no one should expect anything dramatic to come of it.
And second, because the Catholic Church, headquartered as it is in Italy, where nothing can be taken at face value and “bella figura” — making a well-packaged impression and avoiding embarrassment — is everything.
We still don’t have a thorough accounting of who knew what about McCarrick when and promoted him anyway. And we may never get one because so many would be embarrassed by it. Yet without such an accounting, the church can never heal.
A recent Wall Street Journal story on the sidelining of one of Pope Francis’ top advisers, Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston, as he’s pushed for a more aggressive response to the abuse crisis, reported that O’Malley told Vatican officials that in easing up on sanctions against abusers, they were risking further embarrassment: “If this gets out, it will cause a scandal.”
Since it’s horror of embarrassment that led to the systematic cover-ups in the first place, it’s tragic that church leaders still don’t see that getting the whole truth out is the only possible antidote.
The solution to the problem of what to do about offenders past and present must come from the state. Just last week, New York’s new Child Victims Act extended the statute of limitations that has allowed so many pedophiles to escape justice. If other states follow suit, child predators in or out of a collar will find it far harder to avoid any real reckoning, and then just disappear.