The saga shows that covering up sex crimes will not save the Church but will destroy it from within
The 450-page report on former US cardinal Theodore McCarrick’s sexual misconduct has triggered questions for the Church in Asia, which of late has reported several clerical abuse cases from the Philippines to India.
Released on Nov. 10, the report is an unprecedented effort by the Church to be transparent. It is a rare insight into internal Vatican decision-making, showing that not only Pope John Paul II but also Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis knew about McCarrick’s behavior.
The incidents involving McCarrick occurred during the 27-year reign of Pope John Paul II, who died in 2005 and was made a saint in 2014. Pope John Paul II elevated McCarrick to be archbishop of Washington and summarily to a cardinal despite McCarrick facing sexual allegations.
Pope Benedict asked McCarrick to step down as archbishop of Washington when he reached the retirement age of 75. The retired pope also asked the cardinal to keep a low profile.
Pope Francis took action against McCarrick after a credible accusation surfaced involving a minor, and McCarrick was laicized in 2019 at the age of 90.
The report showed that the McCarrick abuse scandal was common knowledge. Numerous Catholic clerics, in the United States and the Vatican, were aware of his behaviour and this forced a further investigation.
The report showed allegations against McCarrick surfaced first in the 1980s. In 1999, New York Cardinal John O’Connor sent a lengthy letter to the Vatican, expressing “grave fears” if McCarrick, then the archbishop of Newark, received a promotion.
Pope John Paul II was informed that McCarrick would share a bed with seminarians and was a pedophile. A wily McCarrick swore on his office to John Paul that the reports were false and that he had never abused any person.
McCarrick lied to the pope about his true character, and John Paul II preferred to believe him than any of the reports. Neither did he initiate any serious investigation of the allegations against McCarrick.
“John Paul II was the victim of a deception: a man in whom he had reposed trust, Theodore McCarrick, lied to him about his true character,” George Weigel, one of the pope’s biographers, wrote on Nov. 10.
The Vatican’s Secretariat of State, which published the McCarrick report, said the Vatican received inaccurate information about McCarrick from three US prelates before he was appointed archbishop of Washington in 2001.
The disgraced former cardinal cultivated ties with teenagers and young men, referring them as his “nephews” and asking them to call him “Uncle.” Some shared a bed with McCarrick during holidays at his beach houses in New Jersey.
Pope Francis ordered an internal Vatican probe in October 2018 that resulted in the McCarrick report on Nov 10.
The first allegations against McCarrick came four decades ago, decisive action against him came only a year ago, and the final investigation report came out last week. The time gap offers the first lesson for the Church — how not to investigate a clerical abuse allegation.
Hushing up clerical sex abuse in Asia
For four decades, the hierarchy dismissed allegations, trusted the accused and initiated no investigation against him. The situation remains familiar to Christians in Asia. Reports of complicity and cover-ups of sexual abuses come from the Philippines, India, Indonesia, Japan, Bangladesh and Timor-Leste.
In most cases, the hierarchy hurries to hush up clerical sex abuse. The Church takes action against a priest only after civil systems begin to act on the crime. The McCarrick report should embolden the church hierarchy in Asia to act against violators even before civil police action.
Furthermore, it should support them to start an internal investigation soon after an allegation is levelled against a cleric. They should also publish the findings transparently and within a reasonable time frame.
In India, where Christians constitute just 2.3 percent of the 1.3 billon population, many Catholic priests are in the dock over sexual assault. A bishop is facing a court trial on rape charges after a nun accused him of sexually assaulting her. In most cases, including that of the bishop, the hierarchy announced no probe.
Just as in the case of McCarrick, the nun’s complaints were ignored by various church authorities, including the Vatican representative in India for two years. They acted only after police took up the case. The Vatican temporarily moved the bishop from administrative responsibilities days before police arrested him but allowed him to continue as bishop.
The hierarchy privately says that church laws do not allow them or any bishop to initiate action against a bishop. But in cases of priests, the local bishops can take disciplinary action, they say.
The situation in the Philippines is no different. The Catholic-majority country has documented clerical sex abuse for more than a generation. But most have gone unpunished due to government agencies’ corruption and backlogs in the court system.
Only a handful of cases reach court, and even fewer priests have been convicted of child abuse or other sexual misconduct.
In 2002, the Philippine Church apologized for the sexual violations of some 200 priests over 20 years, which included adultery and child abuse.
In 2003, a spokesperson for the Vatican embassy in Manila told media that 34 priests from two dioceses had been suspended following allegations of sexual harassment. He declined to identify the dioceses. At least two bishops also resigned following sex allegations since 2003.
But we hear nothing about compensation to the victims; nothing on the Church moving civil authorities to get justice for the victims of violation.
In Bangladesh, police arrested a 41-year-old priest in September over allegations of confining a 14-year-old indigenous girl for three days and raping her. Reports said church officials tried to settle the issue internally, dissuading the girl’s family from reporting the case to police.
In the last five years, several Bangladeshi priests were linked with sexual violations, but the Church was either slow in action or failed to act.
Japanese bishops took the exceptional step of publishing a detailed report in April that revealed a probe into sex abuse from as early as the 1950s.
In November 2011, the Office of the Clergy of the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences took up sexual abuse in Asia at its closed-door meeting in Bangkok. Catholics on the continent are yet to know the conclusions of that meeting.
In many cases in Asia, victims of clerical sexual misconduct are often females, whereas most victims were young boys in Europe and the US.
The Catholic hierarchy in Asia seems to believe that exposing its clerics’ sexual corruption would damage the immaculate image they would like to have for the Church in their countries, particularly where Catholics are a tiny minority.
The end result could be tragic, as the McCarrick case shows us.
Pope Francis’ repeated calls for zero tolerance of sexual abuse can act as a corrective path for the Church in Asia, where women form a major chunk of the long list of victims. It calls for a different approach in investigating and compensating victims.
The McCarrick report tells the hierarchy in Asia how their approach can go wrong if they fail to investigate allegations. It must also prompt them to set up national or regional systems to help victims of clerical sexual abuse to report violence. The system should be capable enough to see a violation and report it to civil authorities.
The McCarrick saga shows that covering up sex crimes will not save the Church but will destroy it from within.