By Ed Condon
The Holy See announced Saturday the conviction of Theodore McCarrick on charges of the sexual abuse of minors and adults – aggravated by the abuse of power – and solicitation in the confessional. The administrative penal process imposed a penalty of laicization.
A special congresso of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith imposed the Jan. 11 decision. It was appealed to the Feria IV, the regular meeting of the CDF’s full episcopal membership, who rejected the appeal on Feb. 13. No further appeal is possible.
The final disposition of McCarrick’s case marks the end of a luciferian fall from grace by a man once seen as the leader of the Catholic Church in the United States, and one of the most influential cardinals world-wide.
To go from membership in the college of cardinals in June to being expelled from the clergy altogether in February is unprecedented.
While the intervening months have seemed interminable for many Catholics in the pews, as accusations mounted and details of abuse emerged, the canonical process which declared McCarrick guilty proceeded at lightning speed by Vatican standards.
Now that the McCarrick verdict is announced, just in time for the pope’s looming summit on sexual abuse, many of the former archbishop’s former colleagues are hoping he will exit the news along with the clerical state.
But McCarrick’s laicization answers few of the questions raised by his case, the most pressing of which is how a man with an obviously scandalous track record was able to rise so high in ecclesiastical responsibility.
Since the first allegation against McCarrick was made public in June, a number of accounts have emerged apparently showing that Rome was aware of McCarrick’s behavior, or at least his proclivities, for years.
Former apostolic nuncio to Washington, Cardinal Agostino Cacciavillan, has said that he first heard accounts of McCarrick’s misbehavior in 1994.
Fr. Boniface Ramsey raised the issue of McCarrick’s misconduct with seminarians at the now infamous beach house to Cacciavillan’s successor in 2001, receiving a tacit receipt of the allegations – together with a request for any related information about a Newark priest – from the Vatican’s Secretariat of State in 2006.
In January, CNA broke the news that McCarrick’s eventual successor in Washington, Cardinal Donald Wuerl, had delivered a similar accusation about McCarrick, seminarians, and the New Jersey beach house, to the nuncio in 2004.
During this decade, McCarrick rose seemingly unchecked to become archbishop of the American capital see, a cardinal, and a wielder of enormous diplomatic influence, both within the Church and in the wider world.
Despite repeated calls from across the Church in the United States, and a rather qualified response from Rome, any serious account of how and by whom McCarrick was shielded for so long seems unlikely – at best.
Lurking behind the headlines of sex abuse remains the perennial question concerning murky Vatican affairs: what about the money?
McCarrick’s reputation as a cardinal with ready access to money was undisputed during his time in office, and is believed by many to have tipped the balance in favor of his laicization instead of a life of prayer and penance.
Ordinarily concerns about laicizing a cleric often center on their ability to provide for themselves if they are either infirm or of advanced age – McCarrick is 88.
Sources close to the former cardinal have previously told CNA that while McCarrick declined to draw a salary or a pension from any of the three dioceses he led, he does have access to a private income, unconnected to the Church.
One source close to McCarrick described him as “not without resources,” and that McCarrick received an income from annuities purchased over several years.
The size and sources of McCarrick’s private means remain unclear, especially if, as those close to him claim, he previously declined a salary or pension as a bishop.
Other unanswered questions about McCarrick’s finances concern the Archbishop’s Fund, a charitable fund under his personal control from 2001 until June of last year. CNA has confirmed that McCarrick was able to arrange for other institutions with which he was affiliated to give hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations for his “works of charity and other miscellaneous expenses.”
McCarrick gave over control of the fund to the Archdiocese of Washington during June 2018.
While the archdiocese told CNA in August last year that the fund was audited annually and that “no irregularities were ever noticed,” it would not confirm the balance of the fund at the time McCarrick turned over control, how much money had passed through the fund over the years, or where it had gone.
McCarrick was known for both his institutional charitable support and also for more personal acts of generosity.
In September 2018, a former curial official, a cardinal, recalled McCarrick’s habit of doling out large sums, in cash, to senior officials in Rome.
“When he would visit Rome, Cardinal McCarrick was well-known for handing out envelopes of money to different bishops and cardinals around the curia to thank them for their work,” the cardinal told CNA.
“Where these ‘honoraria’ came from or what they were for, exactly, was never clear – but many accepted them anyway.”
Tracking the flow and effects of money in Rome has eluded generations of reforming efforts. Pope Francis began his reign by showing serious signs of reforming intent, setting up the Council for the Economy and the Prefecture for the Economy. But despite early efforts, attempts at financial transparency have met with numerous setbacks, and significant internal resistance.
Meanwhile, in his seismic “testimony” released in August last year, former papal nuncio Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano said that McCarrick’s rise was opposed by at least some senior curial figures, including Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re as head of the Congregation for Bishops. But no clear account has emerged of who championed McCarrick’s cause, or if they may have benefited from his largesse.
Beyond the Vatican, questions remain unanswered in Washington, DC, where the State Department has declined to answer questions about the nature and scope of work undertaken by McCarrick on behalf of the United States.
In addition to serving as a flying Vatican envoy to China, McCarrick was invited to serve on the U.S. Secretary of State’s Advisory Committee on Religious Freedom Abroad in 1996. From 1999 to 2001 he was also a member of the U.S. Commission for International Religious Freedom.
Former President Bill Clinton once opined that the “litany of countries” visited by McCarrick “sounds more suited to a diplomat than an archbishop,” while praising the former cardinal’s work.
Although McCarrick made several overseas trips on U.S. business, in September 2018 the State Department avoided direct comment on whether his denunciation for sexual abuse had prompted a review of his work.
McCarrick’s own former auxiliaries in Newark and Washington, many of them now far advanced in their own careers, have also remained largely silent. Almost nothing is known, for example, about circumstances around settlements made by several of McCarrick’s former dioceses in New Jersey.
While the Diocese of Metuchen has said that the matter was forwarded at the time to the nuncio in Washington, only a cover letter has been released thus far, and it is not known exactly what level of detail made its way to Rome – or what if any action was taken there and by whom.
Meanwhile, McCarrick’s former auxiliary bishop in Washington, newly-minted camerlengo Cardinal Kevin Farrell, has insisted he never had any suspicion about the man with whom he shared an apartment and described as his mentor.
Whatever friends McCarrick may have acquired to help him along his rise seem to have deserted him as fast as he fell. Those same people, in Rome and the United States, now have a vested interest in seeing McCarrick banished from conversation, just as he is banished from the clerical state.
Some media outlets have tried to construct a narrative focused on “conservative” and “liberal” bishops and argued over which pope or popes could be held most responsible for McCarrick’s rise and fall.
But others have observed what appears to be a significant generational divide. Older bishops seem to experience this crisis through the lens of 2002 and its aftermath, and are therefore concerned about protecting the image and resources of the Church, while many younger prelates seem focused on revealing the full truth about sexual misconduct in the Church, regardless of the consequences, as the only sure remedy to a generational scandal.
The willingness of American bishops to insist on a full reckoning for McCarrick’s rise, as well as fall, could prove a strong indication of the extent to which there has been a change of attitude among the hierarchy about episcopal transparency.
Many are arguing that, with the maximum penalty already imposed on McCarrick, the only people who can now be harmed by further disclosures about his career are those who most want his name, and their links to it, forgotten.
Without answers about how he was able to rise so high and go unchecked for so long, his punishment by Rome appears, to many, to be a sentence without conviction, and McCarrick may be gone, but not forgotten.