ROSARIO, Argentina – According to a leading expert in the Catholic Church’s fight against clerical sexual abuse, the Vatican’s report into laicized ex-cardinal Theodore McCarrick is “a good example of how seriously these whole questions of cover up and denial and non-compliance and insincerity should be dealt with,” and believes there are other similar reports to come.
“It is a probe into Church procedure which hopefully will have consequences, for example in regard to the process of appointing bishops,” said German Father Hans Zollner, a member of the pope’s Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors and the President of the Center for Child Protection of Rome’s Gregorian University. “I think it’s an important step, and I’m sure this will not be the last one of its kind.”
Among the many elements of the report, there’s the fact that through the “Report on the Holy See’s institutional knowledge and decision-making process related to formal Cardinal Theodore Edgar McCarrick (from 1930 to 2017)” it becomes evident that not only clerics knew of the former priest’s crimes, but also civil authorities.
In the report there are several passages that reveal anonymous letters alleging sexual abuse by McCarrick were sent in 1992 and 1993 to the papal representative in the United States, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and various cardinals. McCarrick himself then forwarded some of these letters to “our friends in the FBI” to find out the source of the letters, but it’s unclear if their content was ever investigated.
There’s even a revelation of a one-page memorandum from a lieutenant to the Middlesex County Prosecutor on the accusations against McCarrick, yet nothing was done.
Asked about the need for civil authorities to intervene when they discover evidence about clerical sexual abuse, Zollner said that “is what I expect for civil authorities and offices to do,” and that it’s “what they’re meant to do, independent of who the person is: A politician, a famous star or a Church leader. This is clear.”
“But you see that in some parts of the world there has been collusion between state authorities and people who committed crimes, and I’m not talking only of abuse,” he said over the phone on Tuesday, two hours after the report was published by the Holy See. “But this has to be dealt with under those questions of corruption and collusion.”
What follows are excerpts of Crux’s conversation with Zollner.
Crux: First of all, what’s your overall reaction to the report?
Zollner: I think it’s a very important step, it is very extensive, very detailed, and very well researched piece of investigation. I would say it really takes seriously the commitment that the pope and through him the Church has taken after the so-called summit on child protection that took place February 2019, in regard to transparency and accountability. I really think that this is a good example of how seriously these whole questions of cover up and denial and non-compliance and insincerity should be dealt with. It is a probe into Church procedure which hopefully will have consequences, for example in regard to the process of appointing bishops.
I think it’s an important step, and I’m sure this will not be the last one of its kind.
When you say this won’t be the last one of its kind, do you have any specific ones in mind? For instance, I’ve spoken with victims in Chile who want to see the Scicluna report. Do you think there’s any hope of that information seeing the light of day, in a similar shape and form?
This was a clearly defined task for this report, and the pope made it very clear that this had to be done thoroughly and to be published. So the task was very clearly defined from the beginning. I think that needs to also be true for other reports, so I’m not thinking really of something from the past because as far as I know, no such task was given to anybody else concerning anybody else in particular.
But I’m pretty sure that in the future we will have other reports concerning either persons or countries.
Do you have any country or person in mind when you say a report might be ordered soon?
No, I don’t think of a particular country, but I mean, I’m pretty sure that we will have more news coming up over the next weeks, months and years. And now that we have this unprecedented step taken by the Holy See at the decision of the pope, you have a door open, so to say, and I’m pretty sure that for similar cases, a similar procedure will be chosen.
At this point, McCarrick is 90 years of age and his crimes have expired under the statutes of limitations. How important would it be if, in the future, these investigations are ordered when the crimes are still perusable in civil courts, and the Holy See worked together with civil authorities to make sure that priests are not only removed from the priesthood but also go to jail when it’s merited?
I know that the Holy See does that if and when the proper request comes in. This is a normal procedure if the ways of communication and of making formal request is done properly, I know that the Holy See cooperates. The problem is often allegations come about 25, 35, 45 years after the abuse has taken place, and in many countries, state authorities be there a statute of limitations be there or not, won’t or can’t follow up anymore because there’s little proof to establish the veracity of this fact, reason why state authorities won’t act.
The Holy See does cooperate. But it can only cooperate when legal action takes place on the civil grounds and authorities ask for help through the proper channels.
You mentioned that you though this report was an important step. But when things of this magnitude come up, there’s usually a “but,” such as “it’s a good first step but more can be done, could have been said, accountability could still take place.” Do you have a “but” for this report?
Within the limitations of personality rights and confidentiality which you would expect in any legal procedure in a state or in the Church, I think that this report has produced an enormous amount of evidence. It shows clearly that they have looked in detail I don’t know how many pages of documents.
I have been asked many times “don’t you think the Holy see will just scrap it,” or that “[the Church] would use the pandemic as an excuse,” and I always said that I knew they were working on it and that I was confident that it was going to be published. And now we have it, we have 460 pages, and you see where you can point out personal responsibility, you can see where the system does not work, and where the combination of both bring about such a disaster as the promotion of this person to become a cardinal and continue the abuse.
The “but” is what consequences do we really draw from this report, and how fast the process for the appointment of bishops will be influenced by the reading of such a report. I repeat what I said: I believe that there should be a more thorough process to see who are capable candidates for becoming bishops, and these questions should not only be asked in the clerical context, meaning, people from the hierarchy and from “inside” so to say. You need those who can give their advice from a different perspective because this is necessary and, in the end, it’s helpful for the effectiveness of the ministry.
Because what damage has been done to the Church in the United States and everywhere else by appointing a person as archbishop of Washington of whom at least three bishops knew that there were not only rumors, but had some kind of evidence that this was true?
From reading the report, it emerges that civil authorities might have known, or should have known, about McCarrick’s crimes. How important is it for civil authorities to intervene when they see such a pattern? Because this is not a “Church matter,” it’s a crime or criminal behavior.
This is what I expect for civil authorities and offices to do, and to intervene. It’s what they’re meant to do, independent of who the person is: a politician, a famous star or a Church leader. This is clear.
We’re all part of keeping each other accountable…
Yes! But you see that in some parts of the world there has been collusion between State authorities and people who committed crimes, and I’m not talking only of abuse. But this has to be dealt with under those questions of corruption and collusion. Unfortunately, this takes place in many places of the world and in many areas of society.
Any final thoughts for readers or survivors who, upon reading this report might revisit their experiences and frustrations?
Yes. I have already gotten feedback from survivors who said that they’re very angry when they read this. I can only say that we should be grateful to those who had the courage and determination to speak out, even after years and even after having not been believed in the first instance. I would say that as difficult as it is to digest, and as horrible as it is to read this, it is also a sign that survivors have brought about a process that, ultimately led to the publication of this report, and we can hope that from there, other steps will follow.
Follow Inés San Martín on Twitter: @inesanma