McCarrick – the real choices

McCarrick – the real choices Cardinal McCarrick
Popes Benedict and Francis’ failure to impose sanctions on then-Cardinal McCarrick was understandable, writes Austen Ivereigh


Whatever your view of Archbishop Viganò now — a prophet raised up by God to purify the leadership of the Church, or a vengeful and mendacious official driven by ideology — the question of what Popes did or didn’t do in response to Cardinal Theodore McCarrick’s depravity has not gone away. Nor will it.

It was there before the embittered former nuncio’s 11-page J’Accuse, but his account — contradictory, inconsistent, inflammatory — has fueled demands it be answered. How did McCarrick, whose predatory behavior with seminarians many years earlier was known, including in Rome, get to be promoted Archbishop of Washington in 2000, and a cardinal a year later?

Why did Pope Benedict appear to act so weakly in response to the first civil claims against McCarrick in 2005-2006, imposing what can at best be described as ineffective, private sanctions? And why did Pope Francis, who imposed severe sanctions on McCarrick earlier this year, not do so earlier, in 2013, when Viganò claims to have informed him about the disgraced archbishop’s file?


Let’s start with the original sin. The former nuncio’s claim that St John Paul II was too ill to know what he was doing in 2000 has been rightly derided. That same year, the Polish Pope presided over dozens of Jubilee celebrations, and visited Egypt, the Holy Land and Portugal.

What he knew or didn’t know about McCarrick’s past will remain a mystery. But his all-powerful secretary of state, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, certainly was informed (because it was reported by the then US nuncio). Sadly, McCarrick’s promotion all too neatly fits a pattern from that time. If you were a “successful” Church leader bringing in money and vocations, it was assumed that any allegations against you were an “attack on the Church”.

That is how the most notorious of all abusers, Legionaries of Christ founder Marcial Maciel, could continue to be protected by the Vatican long after allegations of abuse first surfaced. So it is no surprise to discover that Sodano also nurtured McCarrick, the creator of the Papal Foundation – which channelled huge amounts of dollars to Rome – and the greatest vocations fisher of his generation.

But how to explain the apparent inaction of the reformer Popes, Benedict and Francis?

The mood in the American Church is ugly. In the wake of the Pennsylvania Grand Jury report and the McCarrick revelations, people are demanding answers. The natural American response to any scandal is essentially juridical: they demand a probe, call in the FBI, and punish the offenders. They want the same now, starting with Francis.

But while the Church has a penal law, it is not, naturally a punitive institution. Punishment has a twin purpose: both to “reform the offender” – to prevent a person continuing in bad ways – as well as to “restore justice and repair scandal”, that is, to make clear to the world where the Church stands: to send a clear message about what is right or wrong. The second assumes that a wrongdoing has come to light.


The first formal allegation against McCarrick was made in 2004 in his former diocese of Metuchen, but was settled with a confidentiality clause with no publicity. The cardinal was approaching retirement, which in May 2006, eight months after the conclave that elected him, Benedict XVI accepted.

Between 2006 and 2008, on Viganò’s account, Benedict XVI became aware of other allegations against McCarrick, not least those detailed in a letter by the former priest, Richard Sipe, which was made known to the Vatican in 2008. Sometime thereafter, according to the former nuncio, Benedict imposed disciplinary measures on McCarrick, but, as is now clear, they were never announced or enforced, beyond an order to McCarrick to leave the Redemptoris Mater seminary.

Between 2009 and 2010 there was an attempt to persuade McCarrick to withdraw to a life of prayer. But the cardinal ignored that invitation, and Benedict did little about it, even receiving him in the Vatican. According to “a reliable source close to Benedict” quoted by the National Catholic Register, “the media and public opinion didn’t speak any more about McCarrick, and sometimes it’s better if something is sleeping to let it sleep”.

Is this “cover-up” or a prudential decision by a Pope taking into account a variety of factors? The depraved behaviour was from decades earlier, and while very wrong, it wasn’t criminal: there was no concealment from civil authorities involved. Nor was there a public scandal demanding a public act of reproof. As for reforming the offender, McCarrick was an old man, who no longer represented a threat to anyone.

John Paul II’s canonisation cause was moving ahead; the question of why he had named McCarrick Archbishop of Washington would certainly have been asked, adding to the controversy over the abusive founder of the Legionaries of Christ. And what of all those seminarians suborned by McCarrick all those years earlier, who were now well-known parish priests: did they want all this reopened? Did they want to be put in a position of being quizzed by their parishioners?

In 2011, McCarrick moved to a seminary run by the Institute of the Divine Word – a traditionalist Argentine movement banned by the Argentine bishops, but protected by Cardinal Sodano – and over the next two years travelled to Rome for ordinations and an ad limina visit by bishops, as well as Benedict XVI’s birthday celebrations. In April 2012 he was welcomed effusively by Viganò, the then nuncio to the US, to a gala dinner at a luxury New York hotel, as a man “beloved of all of us”.  Viganò’s claim that he was under sanction is risible.

Consider Cardinal Keith O’Brien of Edinburgh & St Andrews, who in early March 2013 announced his withdrawal from the conclave and admitted sexual misconduct allegations then being made by a former seminarian. The previous month, Benedict stood him down from his diocese, and after his election Francis stripped him of the prerogatives of cardinal.

Why treat the two cases so differently, when they had so much in common? Why impose public penalties on O’Brien, but not McCarrick, whose misconduct was on a far greater scale than the Scotsman’s?

The answer is obvious.  In the O’Brien case, an accuser had stepped forward, publicly but anonymously, and there seemed little doubt about the veracity of the claims. O’Brien was a serving archbishop. The Popes had to act decisively, for the good of the Church.

But in 2013, nobody was stepping forward to accuse McCarrick. He was now 83. The basis for the prudential judgement that led Benedict XVI not to impose public sanctions still prevailed, and by the time Francis was elected was even stronger.

For Francis to have imposed public sanctions on McCarrick after his election in March 2013 would not only have triggered the meltdown Benedict XVI wanted to avoid, but would have repudiated his predecessors’ judgements.

Viganò’s accusation that Francis somehow “rehabilitated” McCarrick and regarded him as a special adviser, or that McCarrick suddenly began moving around and appearing in public when formerly he had been under sanction, is the flimsiest part of his accusation, and has been discredited.


Even more absurd is the idea that Francis would suddenly, in 2013, impose the public sanctions Benedict never did. Because he regarded as erroneous Benedict XVI’s prudential judgement? To steer clear of any accusations of complicity? That is not how Popes think.

Of course, a firestorm of scandal is precisely what erupted in June, as result of the shocking revelation of McCarrick’s abuse of a minor, a revelation that opened the floodgates to the earlier stories. Francis acted at once, and decisively, opening a canonical trial and removing McCarrick as cardinal.

But until then, Popes Benedict and Francis were dealing with an old man whose moral corruption decades earlier involved no crime and no public scandal. If they decided it was not in the Church’s interests to make it all known, who are we to judge them?