Five Years after McCarrick

The Church’s moral witness is muted because of the failure of bishops to clean house

Five years have passed since The New York Times broke the story that former Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick had been found credibly guilty of sexual assault on a teenage altar boy in the sacristy of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, New York, in connection with Christmas Midnight Mass.

Read that sentence again.  If that alone doesn’t tell you how much gangrene needs removal, don’t bother reading on. You don’t get it.

In the subsequent half decade, more and more seeped out: sleeping with seminarians; settlement payouts by the Archdiocese of Newark and the Diocese of Metuchen indicating at least some people knew of allegations against McCarrick a decade and a half before the Times outed him; a Vatican forced to reckon with how Uncle Teddy got where he did and its non-credible report that anybody who knew anything is dead and anybody alive knew nothing; McCarrick’s laicization; and — but for a brief encounter with a reporter during his Kansas exile in which he denied knowing anything and an appearance in a Massachusetts courtroom — the total disappearance from public view of a man who never shrunk from the eye of a camera.

Had it been but McCarrick things would have been bad enough. The successive drip-drip-drip of state attorneys-general reports showed the rot extended far beyond Uncle Teddy. Why were those investigations necessary?  Because many American bishops suddenly came down with a new disease: SAS, or Selective Alzheimer’s Syndrome. Its unique features: regardless of age or other aspects of life, it results in selective memory loss pertaining to anything connected with sexual abuse, by one’s self or one’s subordinates. Its particularly virulent forms apparently presuppose Holy Orders and appointment to church leadership positions (at least chancery personnel director). Perhaps Fauci can develop a vaccine that can then be mandated (“out of charity for one’s fellow man”) of all ecclesiastics (with no episcopal opt-out).

Efforts to lance the boil have been carefully contained. When some American bishops exhibited the makings of a spine and demanded accountability on McCarrick, Chicago’s Blaise Cupich shut them down. (The “Spirit” is apparently open to rescinding all sorts of moral teachings that the Church has held for centuries but shies from sending a powerful wind to blow out the USCCB). When observers noted that the primary perpetrators of sexual abuse against children and against seminarians were men, Catholics were told not to speak of “homosexual predation.” It’s all “clericalism,” they insisted. When asked about the buggering of seminarians, suddenly canon lawyers got their knickers in knots to tell us they are not minors and, therefore, fall into different analytical categories.

(I’ll repeat my challenge to the bishops: if you really are serious about “clericalism,” go to Rome and say, “in democratic states where the state does not interfere in the Church, we need to reform the role of bishops vis-à-vis finances. We should create bodies where Catholic lay persons—those who are “called by the Spirit by virtue of baptism to be present in the world”—who are not immediately removable by us have the majority control in disposing of ecclesiastical finances.” That will nip talk of clericalism—especially episcopal clericalism—in the bud. Do I see some volunteers? Until I do, don’t sell me the “clericalism” claptrap).

Back in 2002, when the Boston Globe did the job the Church failed to do, Catholics hoped this moral abomination was behind us. The McCarrick revelations and, more importantly, the ongoing drip-drip-drip of allegations that never seem to get cleared from the deck, make it apparent it is not.

Generations of brick and mortar bishops who built up an impressive Church infrastructure in the United States have been succeeded by lock-and-leave bishops, patting themselves on the back for their “stewardship” and “renewal” of their dioceses by closing churches. What generations of immigrant Catholics in their “ghettoes” built on nickels and dimes cannot be sustained by those who, in the post-JFK and post-Vatican II era have “made it” out of those ethnic enclaves yet cannot sustain that church on their sizable salaries. (Nobody dares ask whether Catholics aren’t giving because they don’t trust financially unaccountable “pray and pay” bishops). I’ll share a personal perspective. Growing up in the 1960s and 70s, my parish paid for itself and its school along with the few mandated collections imposed by the then-Diocese of Trenton. When sociologist Teddy McCarrick became first bishop of our new diocese of Metuchen in 1981, suddenly there were almost as many titles in the new diocesan chancery as the Roman Curia, and Uncle Ted launched the prototype of what bishops around the country have since  copied: annual pledge drives that rival Publishers Clearing House for their persistence (except PCH sometimes gives you something, rather than expects it).

Diocese after diocese is declaring bankruptcy, though they unconvincingly assure us that the sell-off of parishes has nothing to do with paying off those buggered by their priests. It’s clearly the “Spirit’s” work “discerning” “how to be Church” in the modern world, i.e., abandoning neighborhoods and cities desperately in need of the Church’s presence. I’ve elsewhere written [here] how the Church could leverage this privileged, tax-exempt property in support of other ministries, such as social justice (you know, the “service of faith and the promotion of justice” that has just exploded Jesuit vocations… through the floor) but haven’t had many takers. That suggests to me that, denials notwithstanding, the money’s needed for settlements.

I do not know how this will end, though I trust that God—rather than the episcopal college—will take things into hand. At a time when the culture is careening into deep moral confusion, where the existence of “male and female He created them” is called debatable at best and “discriminatory” at worst, the Church’s moral witness is muted—indeed, absent—because of the failure of bishops to clean their own house. Rather than reading and speaking to the signs of the times, we spend more time shifting assets.

We desperately need a cleansing of this temple.


John M. Grondelski (Ph.D., Fordham) was former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey. All views expressed herein are exclusively his.

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