By JD Flynn
On June 20, 2018, American Catholics woke up to discover that retired Cardinal Theodore McCarrick stood accused of sexually abusing a teenager.
The cardinal said he was innocent. The New York archdiocese said it was a singular allegation. Dioceses in New Jersey said they had received isolated allegations of misconduct with adults.
Then the dam broke. It emerged that McCarrick had a pattern of sexual abuse and coercion, with minors and with young priests and seminarians. American Catholics learned about the cardinal’s beach house, his wandering hands, his preference for thin non-smoking seminarians. His coercive and manipulative letters became available to read, the testimony of his victims was crushing.
But the story didn’t stop at McCarrick. It emerged that allegations had been made about the cardinal already. That a seminary professor’s warnings went unheeded. That the Holy See had historical knowledge of McCarrick’s misdeeds, and, whatever it had done, it had not informed Catholics, or removed the cardinal from public life, for years.
Eventually, of course, he was removed. And the fact that allegations against McCarrick had come to light showed that some Church leaders, at least, were working for transparency, and for justice.
But after the McCarrick allegations, more allegations of abuse of power, of negligence in office, or of a propensity for cover-up were thrust into the spotlight: Bishop Bransfield, Bishop Malone, Archbishop Zanchetta, Bishop Hoeppner, Bishop Hart, Bishop Binzer, Cardinal Wuerl, Cardinal Mahony.
Bishops offered investigations, new policies, new hotlines, and new pledges. The U.S. bishops faced off with Pope Francis when it seemed the Holy See would thwart their attempts. Eventually some of their proposals became policy not just for the U.S., but for the Church around the world.
Bishops conducted listening sessions, bore the brunt of anger, watched diocesan revenues decline, and found themselves under state and federal investigations.
Diocesan and parish staffers implemented policies, prepared records for investigators, and tried to keep their composure amid months of demoralizing news.
Priests wondered what to tell their people, while wondering whether they could trust their bishops, and wondering what all this might mean for the future of the Church.
But what many Catholics said they wanted, they have not yet gotten: Accountability. Who knew what when? Who participated in coercive, abusive, or immoral behavior? Who enabled or facilitated it? Who ignored it? What will be the consequences?
Diocesan investigations in New York and New Jersey have not been published. Records sit in file cabinets in the Washington archdiocese, but have not been released. A long-promised report from the Holy See has not been published. Most bishops have simply stopped asking for the McCarrick report, at least out loud; whatever zeal they showed in the first few months has apparently been tamped down.
The delays seem, to many observers, incomprehensible. Whether the reason is to avoid litigation, or to avoid embarrassment, or to avoid accountability, for many Catholics the scandal of silence is demoralizing.
And, for many practicing Catholics, a long wait has turned into a kind of cynical resignation that very little might actually be coming, and that even that won’t be coming soon.
But losing trust over McCarrick is really part of a broader trend.
The context for the last two years in the Church’s life is a growing loss of trust among Americans in all of the country’s long-revered public institutions, including the Church.
Trust in the government, the media, the academy, and in religious institutions has been on the decline for years. The last three months of American life demonstrate how far that trust has fallen: In the eyes of many Americans, the credibility of the federal government, of public health experts, of the police, and of the media is reaching historic lows.
Institutions have become platforms for personal advancement and brand-building, instead of forges by which character is formed.
Amid that social change, institutional loyalties and connections have become passé. In the social media era, even with an expectation of evermore rigid political orthodoxy, each person has become a brand of one.
Practicing a religion no longer offers some unique business, civic, or social benefit for Americans. There is no longer much point to lukewarm Catholicism.
The Church asks Catholics for a kind of trust that is, in contemporary America, countercultural. And in the wake of the last two years, that kind of trust seems also counterintuitive.
To be a faithful Catholic is to say “I place my trust in the teachings, and formation, and leaders, and way of living offered by the Church so much that I will give my life over to it.”
To be a faithful Catholic is to say “I surrender my will to the will of Christ and His Church.”
The Church will continue to ask for that trust.
But the McCarrick scandal has made it harder to ask, and harder to say yes. The soil was already rocky, the McCarrick scandal has made the rocks more jagged.
Answers on simple questions would probably help, accountability would likely help even more. But those things may not be forthcoming, and few Catholics are in a position to change that. Those who might be able to get answers are either asking behind the scenes, or just not asking anymore.
Still, it is too soon, two years after the McCarrick scandal, to see what its long-term effects might be.
There is, though, a set of questions that each Catholic, clerical and lay, can answer, and must: Amid scandal, and disappointment, and frustration, and anger, and when it is unpopular and perhaps even costly, will we continue to turn to the Lord? Do Catholics believe the Church can form them into saints, and are they willing to be formed? Will Christ and His Church remain the source of our hope?