The Lessons of the Cardinal McCarrick Case:
The seemingly never-ending battle for the Church to distance itself from the disturbing crisis of clerical abuse took a near lethal blow with the revelations of sexual abuse by one of America’s most prominent religious figures, Cardinal Theodore McCarrick. The unseemly details of the McCarrick case do not need to be recounted here, but the case demands a thorough review if, as a Church called to holiness, we are to truly learn the lessons that might prevent the Church from being shamed by all forms of abuse, not just those exclusively sexual.
It should be clear to all those who have spent the last twenty-one months fighting for justice for our pastor, Fr. Christopher Senk, that abuse can take many forms. The alleged crimes of which he was accused, fabrications of a contemptible family related to one of St. Isabel’s parishioners, had nothing to do with sexual matters, yet the maximum penalty was sought by Bishop Frank Dewane, removal from the priesthood. With no serious investigation, and with no attempts to speak with Fr. Christopher for the purpose of hearing his defense, Bishop Dewane pursued the most serious of penalties. We do not need to recount the details of Fr. Christopher’s case here, as they are fully displayed on the pages of the Parishioners For Justice website. But what we do need to do is explore those instances where the consistent overlooking of the abuses of Cardinal McCarrick and the overlooking of the abuse of power Fr. Christopher has endured connect. We will find those places in the very ethos and structure of the Church.
Fr. Alexander Lucie-Smith, in an article for the Catholic Herald (7/18/18), states that the McCarrick case is noteworthy in that “it draws attention to a structural fault in the Church, as well as a cultural fault.” Fr. Lucie-Smith relates the frustration expressed by one of Cardinal McCarrick’s victims who stated: “In the corporate world, there are ways to report misconduct,” Mr. Ciolek, 57, said at his home in New Jersey. “You have an H.R. contact, you have a legal department, or you have anonymous reporting, you have systems. Does the Catholic Church have that? How is a priest supposed to report abuse or wrong activity by his bishop? What is their stated vehicle for anyone to do that? I don’t think it exists.”
Mr. Ciolek is right. It does not exist. Whether we are talking about the kind of sexual abuse perpetrated by Bishop McCarrick, or the kind of abuse Fr. Christopher and the Church of St. Isabel have experienced at the hands of Bishop Dewane, there is no clear avenue for legitimate complaints against a Bishop. Bishop’s are kings, or worse, dictators, in their territory. They have absolute authority, especially if they have manipulated the normal checks and balances (Presbyteral Councils) that exist in some Dioceses. Fr. Lucie-Smith further explains: “There is no effective way of reporting a bad bishop, apart from writing to the Papal Nuncio, or making an application to Rome; both were tried in the McCarrick case, and both failed. This failure needs to be addressed. There has to be some sort of robust and effective way of making complaints about Bishops. Part of the problem lies in the really simple fact that when you complain about a bishop you complain to another bishop, and the default setting in these cases seems to be that the bishops then close ranks. This has got to change. There needs to be some authority that deals with bad bishops.”
There are those who suggest that Bishop Dewane’s blatant abuse of authority, at least in this case, comes from his vengeful desire to “settle a score.” Fr. Christopher courageously aligned himself with nine other priests who attempted to complain to the Apostolic Nuncio and to Roman authorities about the heavy-handed and insensitive way in which Bishop Dewane was administrating the Diocese. Numerous letters of complaint had previously been written, but they were largely ignored or went unanswered. It was hoped that there might be “strength in numbers.” That was not to be the case. Including Fr. Christopher, at least four of those original ten are no longer working in the Diocese of Venice.
It is here, in what we might call a structural deformity, that the Cardinal McCarrick case and Fr. Christopher/St. Isabel case connect. The first known of many accusations against Cardinal McCarrick occurred in 1994, even though the abuse had been going on since 1971. That was followed by numerous complaints and rumors, and two financial settlements with victims. Delegations of lay people flew to Rome to request that Archbishop McCarrick not be made a Cardinal. But the efforts of so many were ignored.
Since October 28, 2016, the day Fr. Christopher was placed on administrative leave, countless numbers of letters have been written to the Apostolic Nuncio, to Vatican officials, to Bishops and Cardinals throughout the country, to Bishop Dewane himself, and most of those have gone unanswered. None seem to have led to responsive action. The Nuncio’s repeated “out” when he would deign to answer a letter, was that his post was a “diplomatic post,” and he had no jurisdiction over individual bishops. As Bishop McCarrick’s victim said above, there is no one to turn to when Bishops behave badly, and they most surely can behave badly.
The second place where the Cardinal McCarrick case and the Fr. Christopher case touch is in the very ethos/culture of the Church. Fr. Lucie-Smith speaking to this point states: “Cardinal McCarrick allegedly preyed on young men by dangling in front of them the prospect of ecclesiastical promotion. Just how much of this goes on, I wonder? Just as unchastity is a sin, so is ambition a sin. If true, the Cardinal made a double attempt to subvert the vocations of these young men, by using them as the objects of his desires, and by encouraging them to be ambitious. We need a corrective here: ecclesial climbing is just plain wrong, and if our system of appointments lends itself to ecclesial climbing then it clearly needs reform.”
It would appear that Bishop Dewane is a product of this “culture of climbing.” His frightening lack of pastoral experience was of little or no concern to his patrons, who rewarded his work for the Church with a miter. Countless numbers of bishops have been created by bishops grooming young men, sending them to Rome, and rewarding them by making them a Bishop. Priests everywhere will acknowledge that those lucky enough to be sent to Rome for seminary have a distinct advantage for clerical advancement over those who are just “domestically trained.” We need to be cautious about unfair generalizations; not all bishops, even those resulting from well-meaning patrons, are bad. However, we think it is safe to say, that so many of the problems afflicting the Dioceses all over the country, are the result of men being made Bishops who should never have been given miters.
The absence, in the local and larger Church, of a structural component for constructive and legitimate criticism of Bishops is doing grave harm to the Body of Christ. This is displayed so clearly by what has happened to Fr. Christopher and to the parish of St. Isabel since October 28, 2016. Good shepherds, like the Good Shepherd, hear the voices of their sheep, even when those voices might appear to sound harsh, and any attempts to stifle those voices can only result in upset for all.
If Pope Francis wishes to eradicate the “culture of climbing” that has afflicted the Church’s appointment of Bishops, and there is every reason to believe that he does, then he is also going to have to suggest that structures be put into place in Dioceses all over the globe which provide a channel for the constructive criticism of the local Ordinary. The case of Cardinal McCarrick, and the pathetically sad situation that Fr. Christopher and St. Isabel finds itself in, highlight what is wrong with the Church that we all love. If we do not learn the painful lessons of the Cardinal McCarrick case, then, as Fr. Lucie-Smith stated in his Herald article, “we will be here again and again.” No priest, no parish, no Diocese, should suffer so at the hands of any abusive Bishop.