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Michael McGough is the Los Angeles Times’ senior editorial writer, based in Washington, D.C.
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The Vatican released an eye-popping report documenting how Theodore McCarrick, the defrocked former cardinal archbishop of Washington, D.C., ascended in the church hierarchy despite warnings that he had sexually harassed young seminarians.
The report, released by the Vatican secretary of state’s office, assigns primary responsibility for McCarrick’s advancement to Pope John Paul II, a favorite of Catholic conservatives, and essentially exonerates the current pope, Francis. It discredits the suggestion by Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, a retired Vatican diplomat, that Francis had relaxed “sanctions” imposed by now retired Pope Benedict XVI. (Vigano also accused Francis of being close to a “homosexual current” in the church.)
In assessing blame for the rise of McCarrick, a prodigious fundraiser, the report confirms much that was already obvious from decades of scandal over the church’s cover-up of sexual abuse of minors. When confronted with suspicious behavior or even specific evidence, church authorities ignored it or gave accused clerics the benefit of the doubt.
On Wednesday Pope Francis said that “I renew my closeness to victims of any abuse and commitment of the church to eradicate this evil.” It’s unclear, however, whether the McCarrick investigation will be an inflection point in the church’s newfound commitment to confronting sexual abuse by the clergy and abandoning a culture of cover-up.
In the aftermath of the McCarrick investigation, liberal and conservative Catholics probably will continue to refract the issue of clerical sexual abuse through their respective partisan lenses. Liberals will link the problem to mandatory celibacy for priests; conservatives will complain about a gay subculture in the clergy.
But there is one arguably new takeaway from the report: that the church is belatedly realizing that sexual abuse of children and adolescents, horrific as it obviously is, isn’t the only form of sexual predation by priests.
The report does discuss some accusations about McCarrick and pedophilia, and includes excerpts from interviews with a woman who in the 1980s sent anonymous letters to church leaders about a threat to children posed by McCarrick. (In the interviews cited in the report, she said that she had seen McCarrick massaging the thighs of her teenage sons, but the letters were apparently less specific.)
But when John Paul II decided to appoint McCarrick archbishop of Washington in 2000, the accusations against McCarrick confidentially being discussed by church leaders mostly involved his alleged relationships with seminarians and other young men (including sharing a bed with them) and with a fellow priest.
Things changed in 2018 when an investigation by the Archdiocese of New York found credible allegations that McCarrick had sexually abused a teenage altar boy 47 years before while serving as a priest in New York. Pope Francis removed McCarrick from ministry.
So once the church was confronted with a specific and credible claim that McCarrick had abused a minor, it acted — and rightly so. But the report leaves the strong impression that allegations of exploiting young adults weren’t treated with the same seriousness.
That’s wrong. As the Los Angeles Times said in an editorial last year: “It’s increasingly clear that abuse of minors is only one dimension of the crisis” of clerical sexual abuse. Another is the phenomenon, painfully familiar in secular society, of powerful men taking sexual advantage of subordinates, whether they be seminarians or nuns. The McCarrick report should launch the Catholic Church’s own #MeToo movement.