Power in the Church Run Amok
On June 20, 2018 Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, one of the most influential U.S. Catholic prelates, was suspended from public ministry because of an allegation that he abused a teenager 47 years ago. No commentaries have been found that suggest this determination by the Church is an overreaction to a long ago sin. There seems to be consensus that the penalty for this sin is appropriate regardless of the number of intervening years. That could be the end of the story, but it must not be.
Articles by Phil Lawler and Rod Dreher have provided commentary indicating that they knew about McCarrick’s sexual dalliances for more than 15 years. Sometime prior to 2000, a group of lay individuals and a priest went to Rome at their own expense to warn the Vatican against appointing McCarrick a cardinal. Mr. Lawler claims to have heard that one bishop urged McCarrick to resign in 2003 in order to avoid a scandal. Despite all this information, McCarrick was allowed to run free making pompous pronouncements about the resignation of Cardinal Bernard Law as Archbishop of the Diocese of Boston, at the death of Fr. Theodore Hesbugh, and to be the recipient of honorary degrees from a spectrum of universities. At these universities, McCarrick was lauded as an advocate for the dignity and rights of all people, for compassionate service to others and the cause of peace, for his extraordinary role in serving God’s people, for the clear and unequivocal witness of faith at each stage of his life, for his lifetime commitment to social justice and care of the human family through his outreach worldwide, and additional plaudits.
The damage done to one individual 47 years ago that has haunted this individual throughout his life cannot and should not be minimized. McCarrick’s action constitutes a heinous crime. What has occurred in the intervening years is also a heinous crime. Those with knowledge of McCarrick’s actions, not limited to the one incident but a continuing pattern of abuse, sat silent on the sidelines. McCarrick was given adulation that only deflected from an investigation of the real man. Indeed, Cardinal McCarrick can be seen to be a poster boy for those who use their overwhelming hold on power as a status that allows them to abuse others as they wish only to further entrench their status. This is a common mode of behavior that can be seen in the behavior of many world leaders and despots, both present and past, who have carried on with impunity despite their crimes. Indeed, the world can be a dark place. Christian people are called to be the light of the world, a true light.
By allowing Cardinal McCarrick to continue his ways for 47 years, even with knowledge of financial settlements made because of his actions, the bishops of the Church have failed the people of God who are the Church. They have failed universities who have sought to honor excellence; they have failed the people whose awards are now tainted as being the same as ones given to a sexual predator; they have failed themselves.
The failures of the bishops in holding each other to standards that preclude abuse, their willingness to turn their eyes and ears away from abuse by members of their hierarchy are failures that allow predation to persist. Of course, the bishops have acted, albeit clumsily, to minimize abuses by those they perceive to be in positions not as lofty as their own – priests, deacons, and the laity – but actions to eradicate abuse from their own ranks is clearly lacking. That failure has resulted in abuse in the Church being equated with sexual abuse. In fact, the bishops have failed to call each other out on a spectrum of abuses that they inflict on so many people and can do so because they act with unchallenged power.
Stories of abuse of power exist in many dioceses. Chronicling these instances is beyond our ability. We live in the Diocese of Venice, aware of and enduring some of the abuses of Bishop Frank Dewane. Bishop Dewane is a friend of and collaborator with Cardinal McCarrick. They have been seen together at the National Prayer Vigil for Life; they serve together as bishop consultants to the US Bishops’ Anti-racism Committee; they are members of Catholic Relief Services Board of Directors; and they are directors of the Franciscan Foundation for the Holy Land. Despite their friendship and close working relation, no evidence has been given of Bishop Dewane making an effort to expose the abuses of Cardinal McCarrick nor, for that matter, of Cardinal McCarrick attempting to halt the abuses of Bishop Dewane. We must be clear that we are aware of no allegations of sexual abuse by Bishop Dewane. His abuses, rather, are against the principles that Cardinal McCarrick has been lauded for promoting: the dignity and rights of all people, compassionate service, and care of the human family. The types of abuses Bishop Dewane engages in have not risen to the same level of consciousness as has sexual abuse. It takes time for the Church to acknowledge and respond to abuses by its own and abuses of other forms.
This can be seen in the reaction of the University of Notre Dame to abuse incidents involving two of its honorary degree recipients. In 1989, Bill Cosby bullied and berated a Notre Dame football player, driving him to tears. One year later, Notre Dame made Bill Cosby the commencement speaker and awarded him an honorary degree. On April 26, 2018, the very day Cosby was convicted for felony assault, the university rescinded his honorary degree. In 2008, despite the innuendos and stories regarding Cardinal McCarrick’s abusive behavior, he was named the commencement speaker at Notre Dame and awarded an honorary doctorate. On June 20, 2018, the day Cardinal McCarrick was dismissed from public ministry for confirmed sexual abuse, there was no reaction from the University of Notre Dame.
These two instances suggest some serious problems. Non-sexual abuse is deemed tolerable or even inconsequential. Sexual abuse by a lay person deserves sanction, while sexual abuse by a member of the hierarchy can be overlooked. This attitude reflected at Notre Dame also infects the bishops of the United States.
In 2014, ten priests of the Diocese of Venice took the highly unusual action of writing to the Papal Nuncio expressing their concern about Bishop Dewane ignoring or violating canon law, abandoning consultative processes, and ruling by intimidation, the use of fear, shaming, bullying, and other non-Christian behaviors. There is no known official response to this letter. The bishop responded with a general denial saying the claims were “unfounded,” and that seemed to put an end to the situation. Had there been concern about sexual abuse, which of course there was not, one can speculate that the response from the Vatican would have been different and at least investigative. Abuse of power not involving sex seems to be unworthy of consideration. In 2016, following two years of secret civil investigation that determined a priest of the Diocese of Venice, Fr. Christopher Senk, had not acted improperly or sought financial benefits from a parishioner, Bishop Dewane placed Fr. Senk on administrative leave, did not discuss the situation with him, and offered him financial benefits to sign a request for laicization. Fr. Senk has chosen to fight this injustice, this abuse of power by the bishop, but is only able to do so because his parishioners have risen to his aid with contributions of $250,000. One can speculate that combined with diocesan resources, which are freely available to the bishop, the overall cost of this exercise of abuse by the bishop is over a half million dollars. Some priests have offered Fr. Senk encouragement; others cower in fear. Bishops remain quiet despite the fact that this is not the first case where people of the diocese have risen up in significant numbers to protest the abuses of Bishop Frank Dewane. Why the silence which mimics the silence leading up to Bishop McCarrick’s dismissal?
The answer to this question lies in the insightful article by Fr. Alexander Lucie-Smith, a priest in the United Kingdom, titled, “After Cardinal McCarrick’s fall, we need to make bishops more accountable.” Fr. Lucie-Smith asks why the widely rumored behavior of McCarrick, which even he had heard in 2000 in Rome, did not block his rise to influence in the American Church. He answers this question by declaring that the method of appointing bishops has failed in that “bishops ‘emerge’ … from discussions in ‘smoke-filled rooms.’ the process should be opened up, to allow a plurality of voices to be heard.” Fr. Lucie-Smith also asserts:
The other thing that the McCarrick affair exposes is the way that bishops are often, like the great feudal lords of old, accountable to no one, and able to act as they please behind closed doors. Bishops’ exercise of power needs to be made less monarchical, and there is a simple way to do this. Not by establishing consultative bodies (which already exist) but by making sure that all complainants are listened to, and that their complaints are properly recorded and dealt with using an established complaints procedure. … Until we start treating people who have concerns in the proper manner, then we will never have accountability and transparency. And, unless we learn from our mistakes, scandals like this one will keep on recurring.
We consider the case of Fr. Senk, a dedicated priest who was victimized by a single, spurious, irresponsible, and dishonest claim by absentee relatives of one of his parishioners. Fr. Senk bears the pain of being unable to minister to his people after 42 years of dedicated service. His bishop, Frank Dewane, has made every effort to embarrass Fr. Senk through media releases, to belittle people who believe in Fr. Senk by allowing parish staff to treat them rudely and refer to them as “crazies” on social media, to send a visiting priest who encourages those who may be unhappy to attend churches of other denominations. Hundreds of letters and petitions have been written to Bishop Frank Dewane and the Papal Nuncio eliciting nothing but occasional self-serving responses. Letters have been sent to all the active bishops in the United States. Hundreds of people in the Diocese of Venice have banded together on other matters protesting the abuses of Bishop Dewane. The overall result is what one might expect from “feudal lords who act as they please.” That result is insult, pain, and silence.
Power in the Church has run amok. It is in the hands of a few who are more concerned with protecting their ability to act without oversight in their dioceses. Bishops do not seem to encourage their fellow bishops to be more pastoral. They do not call out fellow bishops about any kind of abuse, even sexual abuse. No bishop seems to have claimed any responsibility for keeping silent about McCarrick’s escapades. If a British priest knew about this in 2000, surely some members of the hierarchy in the US knew as well and should have acted. We are stuck in a situation where the bishops need a transfusion of honesty, integrity, and commitment to truly shepherding God’s people. Failing that, the people are left with no option but to continue to point out their failings, pray that their voices will be heard, pray that their bishops will be reassigned to positions of powerlessness. In the meantime, good priests suffer, money that people would prefer to give to charity must be used to hold back the abuses of the bishops, and departures from the Church fueled by the failures of leadership will continue.
Some schools who provided McCarrick an honorary doctorate: Sienna College, Rutgers University, Georgetown University, Mount St. Vincent, St. Peter’s University, College of New Rochelle, Bethlehem University, Catholic University of America, Carroll College, St. Bonaventure University, University of Portland, Fordham Univeristy