WEST PALM BEACH, Florida — The Vatican report on Theodore E. McCarrick’s rise through the U.S. episcopal ranks should be a contemporary lesson in transparency for the entire church, said U.S. experts in church law.
“The report as I see it is more important in terms of promoting public discussion — and that the church understands being transparent is a first step before you can think about making reforms in the future,” said Kurt Martens, a canon law professor at The Catholic University of America in Washington, who specializes in church and state, due process and public law of the church.
“I think the report is historical in the sense that it has never been done before, showing us what happened and what could have happened,” said Martens, who said he might use it as a teaching document with his canon law students next year.
The “Report on the Holy See’s Institutional Knowledge and Decision-Making Related to Former Cardinal Theodore Edgar McCarrick” is 460 pages long and touches on several decades of McCarrick’s high-profile ecclesial career as well as his interactions with three popes.
“Canonically speaking, there are a lot of things to be learned from the report and how we do business, and one of those things is that when McCarrick was promoted to Washington, it looks like John Paul II short-circuited the normal vetting process,” Martens said.
“But if you want to promote someone you know (and have a friendship with), you might want to redouble that vetting process to protect yourself,” he added. “The report helps us understand what has happened.”
The Code of Canon Law specifies the necessary qualities for a bishop. Canon 378 says: “In regard to the suitability of a candidate for the episcopacy, it is required that he is: outstanding in solid faith, good morals, piety, zeal for souls, wisdom, prudence, and human virtues and … of good reputation.”
“Pope John Paul II promulgated this code,” noted Benedictine Sister Nancy Bauer, associate professor of canon law at The Catholic University of America. “The appropriate action for him to have taken was to order a comprehensive investigation of McCarrick, not to promote him.”
Canon 1341 says that an ordinary should try “fraternal correction or rebuke or other means of pastoral solicitude” before resorting to a judicial trial or administrative procedure that results in imposing canonical penalties. But Martens and Bauer expressed doubt about the issue of fraternal correction.
Martens noted that bishops only answer to the pope, not to each other, and interference among bishops would have consequences.
“Prima donnas don’t like to be corrected,” Martens said.
Bauer said fraternal correction is not explicitly a canonical obligation and that the current code mentions the term only once.
“It is possible that one or more bishops tried fraternal correction with Theodore McCarrick? We don’t know,” Bauer said. “Should they have tried it?”
“What I will say as a member of the Christian faithful, and not even as a canon lawyer, is that someone should have done something.
“The report makes me angry, disappointed and distrustful. But I say that with enough humility to wonder if, under the same circumstances, I would have done something different, something better, something more effective,” Bauer said. “There’s the rub.”
Mercy Sister Sharon Euart, a canon lawyer and staff member of the Resource Center for Religious Institutes in Silver Spring, Maryland, said she had read parts of the McCarrick report and knew him when he served on various committees of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and when he was archbishop of Washington.
She is a previous associate general secretary for the USCCB and former executive coordinator of the Canon Law Society of America.
Euart said the McCarrick matter underscores the need for church and laity to always take seriously any rumors of abuse or immoral behavior on the part of agents of the church and that laity should always have a consultative role in the promotion of bishops from one region to another.
“The whole church has got to take seriously the rumors and anonymous allegations — not to believe all of them, necessarily, but seriously enough to look at the facts,” said Euart.
She said she thinks the Catholic Church has been doing a much better job in recent years with child protection online training programs such as Virtus from the National Catholic Risk Retention Group. Virtus gives clergy and church lay staff and volunteers the tools and encouragement to sound the alarm if they suspect any form of child abuse or inappropriate behavior and misconduct.
“Through that kind of training and awareness, you know that it is OK to ask the questions now,” she said, crediting Pope Francis with his recent writings to encourage laypeople to formally report any suspected misconduct, even among bishops.