It’s really not that often one can say with certainty that we witnessed history being made at a specific moment, but Saturday brought such an occasion with a Vatican announcement that Pope Francis had accepted the resignation of Cardinal Theodore McCarrick from the College of Cardinals.
It’s an unprecedented move in the United States, the first time an American cardinal has ever renounced his red hat, and it’s the first time anywhere in the world has exited the college altogether facing accusations of sexual abuse. It is, therefore, the most tangible confirmation to date from Francis that when he says “zero tolerance,” he means everybody.
The statement also confirms that a suspension of McCarrick from public ministry imposed in June remains in force pending the outcome of a Church trial.
To be clear, this takes us well beyond what happened in February 2013, when Scottish Cardinal Keith O’Brien, facing charges of sexual misconduct with seminarians and young priests, renounced his privileges as a member of the College of Cardinals but not membership.
As of Saturday, McCarrick is no longer a cardinal. The only full parallel for such a step over the last 100 years would be the French Jesuit Louis Billot, made a cardinal by Pius X in 1911, but who resigned his status in 1927. Billot was a strong supporter of the conservative French movement Action Française and refused to back down upon direct papal request, leading to a stormy audience between him and Pope Pius XI and Billot’s exit from the college.
The actions against McCarrick, of course, follow accusations against the 88-year-old prelate that now include a case of an 11-year-old boy as well as decades-old sexual misdeeds with seminarians.
Though the full meaning of Saturday’s turning point will be unpacked for some time to come, here are three quick take-aways about what it means.
First, although the Vatican statement also refers to allowing a Church trial of McCarrick to play out, it’s a safe bet that such dramatic action would not have been taken if there were much serious doubt about the eventual verdict. It’s not quite a finding of guilt, but it’s a strong suggestion that such a finding isn’t that far away.
It’s worth noting, for instance, that nothing of the sort happened last summer when Australian Cardinal George Pell was charged with “historical sexual offenses” in his home country. Then, the Vatican instead sent clear signals of support.
“The Holy See expresses its respect for the Australian justice system, which will have to decide the merits of the questions raised,” Vatican spokesman Greg Burke said in a statement. “At the same time, it’s important to recall that Cardinal Pell has openly and repeatedly condemned as immoral and intolerable the acts of abuse against minors.”
While there may be other reasons to account for the difference – including the fact that Pell was in Rome reporting directly to the pope at the time as his Secretary for the Economy – it’s hard to imagine that a rough sense of the reliability of the respective allegations isn’t part of the mix.
Second, there’s no question that the pope’s handling of the McCarrick case represents an important breakthrough in the push for greater accountability for clerical sexual abuse.
Since the news about McCarrick broke, I’ve heard people say time and again, “We all know what would happen if this were an ordinary priest.” What they meant is that under the Church’s new protocols, any priest credibly accused of abuse is supposed to be removed from ministry immediately awaiting the outcome of a canonical trial.
The question was whether those rules would also be applied to a Prince of the Church, especially one as prominent and close to the current pope as McCarrick. Even though he was retired in 2013, McCarrick played a behind-the-scenes role in the election of Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina to the papacy and has since enjoyed a role as a sort of trouble-shooting troubadour on Francis’s behalf.
By accepting McCarrick’s resignation as a cardinal, a new layer of gravity was added, suggesting a new era in which even the most senior members of the clerical club can’t run and hide when a storm such as this one breaks.
Third, while the pope has now proved his credentials at one level of accountability, there’s another shoe waiting to drop – what happens when the charge against a cardinal isn’t the crime, but the cover-up?
Right now, for instance, both Cardinals Riccardo Ezzati and Francisco Errazuriz in Chile face multiple accusations of having known about cases of sexual abuse, as well as abuses of power and conscience, and failed to act – in some cases, actively attempting to shelter the clergy involved.
Victims, activists and outraged Chileans have all called for both men to exit the College of Cardinals too, but, at least so far, such action hasn’t been forthcoming. Until a fall from grace akin to McCarrick’s also occurs with the likes of Ezzati and Errazuriz – assuming, of course, the complaints against them are justified – many observers will judge that accountability in the Catholic system remains a work in progress.
As a final note, while Francis may have made an important contribution to his own reputation on the abuse scandals on Saturday, he hasn’t quite gotten the U.S. bishops off the hook.
Whatever happens to McCarrick personally, the question remains of how rumors of his behavior could have gone unaddressed for so long. Recently, New York Times columnist Ross Douthat suggested the bishops appoint a “special prosecutor” to get to the bottom of who knew about the allegations against McCarrick and failed to report them, hinting the list of culpable parties may not be short.
It’s not clear how the bishops plan to respond to such clamor, but it is seemingly clear that “duck and cover” won’t work. All that makes the bishops’ Nov. 12-15 general assembly, and what happens between now and then, a potentially fascinating stretch of time.