NEW YORK — Earlier this month, Fordham University announced that its Board of Trustees had voted to rescind an honorary doctorate awarded to Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, following revelations that the former Archbishop of Washington had molested an altar boy nearly 50 years ago as a priest at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York.
On Thursday, the New York Times reported on another allegation against McCarrick, this one involving alleged sexual abuse of a minor. The person making the charge is identified only by his first name in the Times account, yet the story also indicates he’s filed a police report in Loudon County, Virginia.
With the growing spotlight on McCarrick, Fordham isn’t the only institution to have awarded an honorary degree to the 88-year-old retired Cardinal who has now been suspended from public ministry by the Vatican. The Catholic University of America, the University of Notre Dame, Georgetown University, Sienna College, St. Peter’s University, the College of New Rochelle, and the University of Portland are just a number of the institutions that bestowed honorary degrees to a man who, during his 50 years of ministry, was widely known as a social justice giant within American Catholicism.
The focus on American honors to McCarrick is a different conversation from the one sure to focus on Vatican and papal distinctions, above all, the red hat he’s held as a prince of the Church since being made a cardinal in 2001. While many survivors of sexual abuse lauded Fordham’s decision, it has also prompted questions about what protocols should exist in cases of stripping prelates of honors, titles, and awards after revelations of sexual abuse or cover-up, and has raised concern among others that such actions are either self-interested or run the risk of whitewashing history.
In May of 2002, Cardinal Bernard Law declined an honorary doctorate at Hellenic College in Brookline, Massachusetts, in the midst of the Boston Globe’s devastating coverage of his involvement in clerical sexual abuse cover-up.
While trustees of the Greek Orthodox institution resisted faculty protests and a student petition against honoring Law, the cardinal eventually withdrew of his own accord.
“It is Cardinal Law’s desire that the graduates and their families enjoy the joyful occasion free of distraction,” said Donna Morrissey, Law’s spokeswoman at the time.
While the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) has specific directives when it comes to granting “awards, honors or platforms,” for campus speakers and other Catholic institutions, there are no policies for rescinding honors that have already been conferred.
According to Deanna Howes Spiro, director of communications at the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities, such actions are left to individual institutions.
Similarly, the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities, which serves as “a collective voice of U.S. Catholic higher education,” representing nearly 200 institutions in the United States, does not have specific policies.
In 2015, both Fordham and Marquette University rescinded honorary doctorates to the comedian Bill Cosby following revelations of sexual assault. Both institutions said it was the first time in their respective histories that they had rescinded an honorary degree.
While revoking degrees has been a rare move, there are, however, multiple instances where names of embattled clerics have been removed from buildings once meant to honor their legacy.
In 2005, in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Bishop Sullivan High School announced that it would return to its original name of “St. Michael the Archangel Diocesan Regional High School,” and would no longer be named for Bishop Joseph Sullivan, after abuse accusations surfaced following Sullivan’s death.
Similarly, Bishop Anthony J. O’Connell — who served as bishop of Knoxville, Tennessee and Palm Beach, Florida — was the target of a coordinated effort which, after a year-long battle, successfully managed to have his name removed from a family life center following his disclosure and eventual resignation that he had abused teenage boys.
Yet while the examples provide a historical reference point, it remains to be seen whether the McCarrick Family Center in Montgomery County, Maryland — run by Catholic Charities of Washington, and which provides a range of services from legal support to immigrants to services for pregnant women — will face a similar fate.
Confronting the Past, Facing the Future
While the decision to revoke McCarrick’s and others’ honorific titles and past awards has been cheered by abuse survivors, other Catholic experts have warned that doing so runs the risk of erasing a painful period within the Church that cannot be forgotten.
Terence McKiernan, president of BishopAccountability.org, a website dedicated to tracking and chronicling the Church’s public record on sex abuse, told Crux that some efforts to remove names quickly from buildings or to revoke awards could be “self-serving” and viewed as a quick attempt by administrators to distance themselves from someone who was undeniably associated with the institution.
“I certainly understand survivors wanting this to be done, but I don’t necessarily think it’s a good idea to whitewash these negative stories,” said McKiernan.
Meanwhile, the president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, Bill Donohue, told Crux that he was less concerned by colleges and universities rescinding honors than he was government forcing the removal of controversial statues from public places.
“In general, it’s a huge mistake to whitewash history,” he said. “Instead, we should use these things as teaching moments.”
He went on to add that he believes that these things should be handled on a case-by-case basis and that in the case of honorary degrees, the decision should be left up to administrators, with the input of faculty and alumni.
“I certainly wouldn’t want to tell them you can’t do that,” Donohue said, adding, “I just don’t know how much good it does in the end…clearly, in the case of McCarrick, he did great good, but he also did great harm.”
Because of that harm, however, Francis Beckwith, a professor of Philosophy and Church-State Studies at Baylor University and alumnus of Fordham University, believes his alma mater was right to rescind McCarrick’s honorary doctorate — and he even took to social media to call on other institutions to follow suit.
He told Crux that it’s first necessary to look at why honorary doctorates are awarded in the first place to then assess what the appropriate response should be.
In some cases, he noted, honors are given in hopes of financial reward, with the aspiration that the institution will receive a donation from the individual being honored. In most cases, however, he said it’s an occasion to honor the accomplishments or influence an individual has had.
“In this case, when we found out something about his character, which, had it been known at the time, the university would not have done it,” said Beckwith.
The reality of blemished characters of clerics once thought to be role models is why investigative journalist Jason Berry — who wrote the first major book on clerical sexual abuse in the United States — believes that remembering the past, with all of its scars and stains, is the only way forward.
“This long, aching scandal has forced a revisionist psychology upon the Church,” Berry told Crux. “We have to face honestly the firsthand realities that have slowly continued to surface.”
For that reason, Berry said the sin of abuse must continue to be talked about and taught — not simply erased.
“It’s not about questioning dogma or anything like that,” he insists. “The issue, for both the victims and the bishops, should be about confronting the past — and part of that is this ongoing reality that has to be dealt with and not ignored.”