ROME – A new Vatican report on the case of ex-cardinal and ex-priest Theodore McCarrick tells a story of “tragic incompetence” driven by a “self-referential and self-protective” clerical culture, according to Auxiliary Bishop Robert Barron of Los Angeles.
“It reveals how sclerotic and dysfunctional the system was,” Barron said. “Again and again, as I read the report, I was struck by the wickedness of McCarrick himself, but also by the tragic incompetence of so many who were charged with investigating, following up, asking serious questions, etc.”
Barron is chair of the US bishops’ Committee on Evangelization and Catechesis and a widely followed figure on social media. As of July 2020, Barron’s Youtube videos had been viewed more than 50 million times and he had more than three million followers on Facebook.
He said the 461-page McCarrick report is without precedent in Church history.
“There has, quite simply, never been a more complete and dramatic pulling back of the curtain to reveal the inner workings of the Church’s decision-making process,” Barron said.
Barron recently spoke to Crux about the McCarrick report and its aftermath via email.
Crux: Overall, what’s your reaction to the report?
Barron: My state of mind, after reading the report, was sad and angry. I was sad for McCarrick’s victims, for the most part seminarians and young priests, whom he was able to manipulate due to the enormous power differential that obtained between him and them.
As I read the sickening accounts of the former Cardinal’s abuse, I was often put in mind of the Harvey Weinstein situation. The men upon whom McCarrick preyed felt helpless and had no clear idea where to go for redress. And I was angry at the Church, which certainly failed adequately to protect these victims and to corral a sociopathic and abusive personality.
If the initial abuse crisis in the US was about the crime of clerical abuse, the McCarrick case was about the cover-up. Do you believe this report contributes to a greater climate of accountability in the Church?
I suppose it does, in the measure that it reveals how sclerotic and dysfunctional the system was. Again and again, as I read the report, I was struck by the wickedness of McCarrick himself, but also by the tragic incompetence of so many who were charged with investigating, following up, asking serious questions, etc.
Seeing all this laid out so baldly might help to improve our present engagement of this issue.
Many Catholics have asked how it was possible for McCarrick to remain in his position for so long without these issues coming to light. Does this report instill confidence that such a situation can’t repeat itself?
I’m not sure that the report itself instills renewed confidence, but I can certainly say that the reforms and protocols instituted by the Church from the Dallas Accords through Vos Estis Lux Mundi have done so.
I know it has been said often, but it bears repeating: The changes instituted in 2002 and its aftermath have made an enormous difference. The numbers of cases of clerical sexual abuse have plummeted in the last twenty years. And in the wake of the McCarrick scandal, the Vatican and the USCCB have established clear norms and procedures for addressing the issue of sexual abuse by bishops. All of this has been very positive and ought to fill the people of God with a greater sense of confidence.
To be sure, in line with the Reagan-era adage “trust but verify,” I would urge the entire Church to remain vigilant and to hold the feet of those in authority to the fire.
Does this report adequately respond to concerns about the role of the Vatican and of the popes, meaning John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and Francis, in the McCarrick case?
I thought that the report was refreshingly frank in regard to the relevant Popes. It makes clear that John Paul II ultimately took an imprudent decision in naming McCarrick to the see of Washington and awarding him a red hat.
On the other hand, the report puts that judgment in a wider context, namely, John Paul’s personal relationship to McCarrick, his experience in Poland of Communist attempts to smear the reputations of prominent churchmen, his reception of a deeply flawed account of McCarrick’s crimes, etc. The saintly Pope should have listened to his friend Cardinal O’Connor, who strongly recommended that McCarrick not be advanced.
In regard to Benedict, the report, once again, is pretty honest. Having received further information on McCarrick, Pope Benedict saw the situation more clearly than John Paul and accordingly imposed restrictions on the cardinal. At the same time, he seems not have had sufficient will to enforce them strongly.
With respect to Francis, it credibly portrays him as initially assuming that the McCarrick case had been resolved by his predecessors. But then it demonstrates that he was more than willing to act decisively once he came to understand the situation.
In general, what are the lessons learned from the report? How does it contribute to creating a safe environment within the Church?
A first lesson is that the clerical culture must not be allowed to become self-referential and self-protective. The priesthood is not a privileged club, but a brotherhood whose sole purpose is to serve the people of God.
A second and related lesson is that lay people must be involved at all levels in the process of assessing the legitimacy of allegations of clerical misconduct.
A third lesson is that serious investigations of complaints must be undertaken. Time and again, as I read the McCarrick report, I found myself muttering, “Why didn’t they look into it? Why didn’t someone do a serious inquiry? Why do they keep dropping the ball?” Inasmuch as it inspires a serious engagement of these matters, the report does indeed contribute to a safer environment in the Church.
This is by far the most exhaustive report the Vatican has ever issued on a single case. Is that in itself an encouraging sign?
Yes. I can’t think of a single precedent in the history of the Church for the McCarrick Report. There has, quite simply, never been a more complete and dramatic pulling back of the curtain to reveal the inner workings of the Church’s decision-making process.
Of course, this has disclosed a lot of troubling and unsavory detail. So be it. An exaggerated preoccupation for secrecy and a disproportionate concern for avoiding scandal have caused the Church enormous problems. The remarkable transparency of this report is a bold step in the right direction.
Follow John Allen on Twitter at @JohnLAllenJr.