Experts, abuse survivors share reactions to McCarrick report

4 mins read
Then-Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick sings during Mass for the Election of the Roman Pontiff in St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican in this April 18, 2005, file photo. Cardinal McCarrick was an elector during the 2005 conclave that elected Pope Benedict XVI. (CNS photo/Nancy Wiechec)

After having time to read and absorb the contents of the McCarrick report, experts in the field of clergy sex abuse say that while it’s not perfect and leaves some questions unanswered, it still marks a significant milestone in the Church’s ongoing reckoning with the clerical culture that enabled predators such as former cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick.

“I think the report, while it is thorough, will probably lead people to want to know more,” said Kathleen McChesney, a former FBI agent who was the first head of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Office of Child and Youth Protection.

McChesney, who runs her own investigative consulting firm, told Our Sunday Visitor that the 450-page report, which the Vatican released on Nov. 10, is “a pivotal document” because of the unprecedented nature of the pope commissioning the report and ordering that it be made public.

“Will it help to restore trust in the Church? I don’t know that was the goal,” McChesney said. “I think the goal was to let people know what had happened, and how.”

A two-year investigation, which included a review of decadesold documents and interviews with more than 90 witnesses around the world, found that McCarrick, the former cardinal-archbishop of Washington, used his ecclesial connections to climb the hierarchy despite persistent rumors of sexual impropriety.

The report documents how Church officials failed to report and investigate the accusations, as well as how McCarrick, 90, protested his innocence and used his contacts to avoid accountability even as some clergy and laity tried for years to blow the whistle on him.

“I think what the documents do show is that there was an embedded clerical culture, particularly among the bishops, that allowed someone like McCarrick to manipulate the system. The culture of clericalism is very much at play in this whole situation,” said Francesco Cesareo, the former chairman of the U.S. Bishops’ National Review Board.

“The positive thing about the report is that it begins to address the McCarrick situation in a way that gives us some insight into the context that led to this problem, that led to McCarrick’s behavior, but it’s also limited in that it’s based on a lot on official correspondence and archives,” said Cesareo, the current president of Assumption College in Worcester, Massachusetts.

“We don’t get the nuances behind the documents, behind that body of correspondence,” said Cesareo, who told Our Sunday Visitor that the report would have benefited from follow-up investigations of the allegations mentioned in some of the letters, “to reconstruct a trail, if you will, of what those documents were pointing to. I think that kind of thing would have been much more helpful in really trying to paint a more complete picture.”

In January 2019, the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) found McCarrick guilty of “solicitation in the sacrament of confession and sins against the Sixth Commandment with minors and with adults, with the aggravating factor of the abuse of power.” Pope Francis subsequently removed him from the clerical state.

“I pray for Theodore McCarrick’s repentance. I hope we all do,” said Father Thomas Berg, the vice rector and professor of moral theology at St. Joseph’s Seminary in Yonkers, New York.

In summer 2018, the Archdiocese of New York made public a report that McCarrick was alleged to have sexually abused a 16-year-old boy in the 1970s. McCarrick denied the allegations, but a lay review board described them as “credible and substantiated.” McCarrick was removed from active ministry on June 20, 2018.

More allegations that McCarrick had abused minors, as well as claims that he had sexually harassed and assaulted priests and seminarians, came forth in subsequent months. In late 2018, Pope Francis ordered a “thorough study” of all relevant documents pertaining to McCarrick’s ecclesial career.

Father Berg said he recognized “a genuine intent” on the part of the Holy See to be transparent, telling Our Sunday Visitor that the McCarrick report, at least in terms of the amount of information it disclosed, “highly exceeded” his expectations.

“In an unprecedented way, readers are privy to highly confidential memoranda and messages that were shared,” said Father Berg, who added that the report offers a “remarkable window” into an ecclesial culture that some commentators have described as a clerical caste system.

“What you see here on display is centuries of this privileged old-boy network clerical caste system and how that became seriously flawed, really throughout the 20th century in the U.S. in many ways,” Father Berg said. “Theodore McCarrick is just the sad fruit of that; a man who thoroughly knew how to operate, to work, to milk that system.”

Some of the McCarrick report’s disturbing contents proved to be triggering for clergy sex abuse survivors, said Teresa Pitt Green, a clergy sex abuse survivor who co-founded Spirit Fire, a Christian restorative justice apostolate.

“There’s a consensus of just extreme pain, with the past coming up again,” said Green, who told Our Sunday Visitor that the report opened up old wounds for many survivors, some of whom experienced symptoms similar to post traumatic stress disorder.

But Green, 60, who was abused as a child in the 1960s and 1970s, said the report was a crucial step in the path toward healing and restoration. Rather than an end, she described the report as the “beginning of understanding.”

“This kind of report from an organization is pretty uncommon,” Green said. “I wish a report like this, that at least tries to be transparent, came out when I was trying to tell people about what was going on when I grew up.”

Green said she was vilified and ignored by Church leaders when she first tried to report her abuse in the early 1990s. In recent years, she said has seen more priests, deacons, religious and bishops who are open to understanding the issue of clergy sex abuse

“This bears repeating and sharing,” Green said. “I think most bishops see this as very serious because of the lawsuits and the disaffection among Catholics. Even if they don’t have a heart for it, they must get it.”

Cesareo, the former National Review Board chairman, said he hopes bishops closely study the McCarrick report and press the Holy See for any clarifications and follow-up questions to better understand how McCarrick evaded responsibility for so long.

“I think what this points to in terms of reform, is that it’s very difficult for the bishops to police their own,” said Cesareo, who added that a process that keeps bishops accountable must rely on the investigative expertise of the laity.

“I think this report shows this is a network of (bishops) who know each other, who know each other well and who admire one another,” Cesareo said. “Does that color their perception of an individual, or their perception of information that they receive about the individual? Can they be objective? I think this points to all that.”

McChesney, the former head of the U.S. bishops’ Office of Child and Youth Protection, said the McCarrick report also underscores the need for people to know how they can report instances of sexual abuse or harrassment against Church leaders.

Said McChesney, “I think this is going to hopefully impact Church leaders to recognize that if you want continued vocations, you have to make certain there is a safe environment for these young men and young women, that you have to have respect for one another, and you can’t be abusing power.”

Brian Fraga is a contributing editor for Our Sunday Visitor.

Brian Fraga

Brian Fraga writes from Massachusetts.