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Popes and abuser-cardinals

August is normally a quiet month in Rome.

A month ago today, Pope Francis accepted the resignation of Theodore McCarrick, 88, from the college of cardinals. And that was merely the beginning.

This was a first: No pope – none – has removed a cardinal for reasons related to the sex abuse scandal in recent memory, if ever. Compare Francis’ two immediate predecessors:

When it became known in 2013 that Cardinal Keith O’Brien (Scotland) was found, like McCarrick, to have engaged throughout the 1980s-90s in the abuse of power, sexual misconduct, and sexual assault of adults under his authority, Pope Benedict (who would announce his retirement a few days later) finally accepted his retirement as archbishop, and allowed him to go on retreat for a period of “spiritual renewal, prayer and penance”. Ostensibly on his own volition, O’Brien choose not to participate in the conclave the following month, but there is no indication that there were any sanctions imposed on him as a cardinal by Benedict.

Only after Francis was elected was a visitation and investigation initiated – again, something unprecedented – and when the results of the investigation landed on Francis’ desk, O’Brien was he relieved of the “rights and duties” of a cardinal, though he still remained a cardinal, entitled to dress and be addressed as such. It was a bizarre half measure, some attest to Benedict’s intercession.

When Cardinal Bernard Law was found to have covered-up sexual abuse by priests in Boston for years, and his resignation from that post eventually accepted, Pope John Paul II gave him an honorary post as cardinal-archpriest of the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome and allowed him all the rights and duties of cardinal, with a great deal of influence in the Roman curia for several years to come. Benedict did not change this, allowing him to continue unabated until retiring at the age of 80 from these roles.

We can only imagine how many other cases there have been without any public action on the part of popes at all.

Now comes this letter of former nuncio to the U.S., Archbishop Viganò, claiming, among many other things, that Pope Benedict had in fact placed McCarrick on some kind of (double secret) suspension, but that Pope Francis had allowed McCarrick freedom again, and for this reason he should resign. (More on that later).

Pope emeritus Benedict has not, as of this writing, said anything about them, nor has Pietro Sambi, who was apparently responsible for communicating them to McCarrick. Pope Francis apparently trusts our ability to read critically enough to see Viganò’s letter for what it is, and no more.

Viganò claims that “the Cardinal was to leave the seminary where he was living, he was forbidden to celebrate [Mass] in public, to participate in public meetings, to give lectures, to travel,with the obligation of dedicating himself to a life of prayer and penance.” 

It seems unlikely that there were any such restrictions, except perhaps the request to move out of the seminary.

First, if such sanction existed, the failure to make them public would be a grave scandal in itself. “Secret” laws are no law at all, and one of the issues at the heart of this ongoing scandal is the lack of transparency. In which case, yes a pope would be morally at fault for failing to act appropriately, and for covering up knowledge of an abuser. But that pope would be Benedict, not Francis.

It does not stretch the imagination much to think that the old guard would have thought this an acceptable solution: McCarrick was elderly, no longer a threat, and already retired both as archbishop and on curial dicasteries. Let him meet his maker without another public scandal. Very Romanità. Very much the kind of thing Francis has decried since the beginning.

Even if this were the way it played out, wrong though it might be, that would not be reason enough for Benedict to resign (though he eventually did). It would be reason to confess his error, correct it, and never do it again. It certainly is not a reason for Francis to resign.

But Ockham’s Razor suggests that most likely, there never were any formal sanctions. Certainly, both Pope Benedict and Viganò “violated” these sanctions if there were, concelebrating mass with McCarrick, being at public events with him, and saying and doing nothing about it. 

What is more likely is simply that McCarrick was told to sell his beach house and stop spending summer vacations there with seminarians (done in 2000) and then, in retirement, not to reside in the seminary. Which he did. And that’s about it, as far as ‘sanctions’ seem to have gone, until Pope Francis acted.

The culture of secrecy that pervaded the Church up to and including the papacy of John Paul II, only slowly began to crumble under Benedict XVI, and finally being torn away by Francis, is part of the clericalism that allowed this filth to spread thoroughly through the House of God.

As with any serious housecleaning, things get messier before they get organized, the dirt becomes more visible –  but you don’t blame the cleaner! As with anyone shining the light of Truth into dark corners, those who prefer the darkness will do anything to put out the light.

IlGesu_Ceiling01

And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. John 3:19

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The Challenge of Priesthood

This should not be the topic of my first blog touching on the Year of the Priest. Maybe it should a story of vocation, or a theological reflection on the priesthood of Christ and his church. Perhaps an ecclesiological exposition of the ministerial priesthood of the bishop, presbyter, and deacon, with ecumenical emphasis. That is the price of procrastination, however. Those will come in time.

I came across both of these articles yesterday evening, and it was too powerful to avoid.  

Very Rev. K. Scott Connolly

The first is from my diocesan newspaper, the Catholic Northwest Progress, in part of a series highlighting the presbyterate of the archdiocese in honor of the Year of the Priest; they provide brief profiles of five pastors each issue. This week’s issue includes five whom I know personally. Two were in seminary formation with me; two have worked with me as collaborators for the pastoral leadership of a parish; I have had several conversations with each, and have known most of them since I was 17 or 18.

Given that familiarity, I was mostly skimming the profiles. What priest does not think the greatest joy of being a priest is celebrating the sacraments, anyway? (Well, OK, there was one). I almost missed “the greatest challenge as a priest” on my first read, but that is the most telling part. Most of us who are or have been in pastoral ministry find that time-management and administration is an omnipresent challenge, and legitimately so. Yet, one response truly stands out, and calls us to remember what ministry, and the presbyterate, is really about.

Achbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin

To then turn to the next article only confirmed that read. Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin addressed this week’s release of the national investigation of the sexual abuse of children and its systematic cover-up by the Catholic hierarchy in Ireland. The report itself reads much like the reports in the States over the last ten years. What reads differently is the response of the archbishop himself, which should be read in full and is available here:

Three times, the archbishop repeats that “No words of apology will ever be sufficient.”

He acknowledges not only the profoundly sinful nature of the acts of abuse by priests, but also the abject failure of the bishops and religious superiors to act for good:

“One of the most heartbreaking aspects of the Report is that while Church leaders – Bishops and religious superiors – failed, almost every parent who came to the diocese to report abuse clearly understood the awfulness of what has involved.  Almost exclusively their primary motivation was to try to ensure that what happened to their child, or in some case to themselves, did not happen to other children.”

He does not equivocate, blame the media, secular society or anti-Catholic bias; he does not claim that they ‘did not understand’ the nature of the pedophile and the ephebophile thirty years ago, or that they needed a ‘learning curve’ to adequetely deal with these problems. He makes no excuse for the culture of clericalism and institutionalism that allowed and encouraged the perpetuation of grave sin:

“Efforts made to “protect the Church” and to “avoid scandal” have had the ironic result of bringing this horrendous scandal on the Church today.”

In his interview he refers to the people making these excuses as a ‘caste’, a group who thought they could do anything and get away with it – which makes the crimes all the more horrendous because they were perpetuated by those who serve in the name of Jesus Christ.

There may be a long way to go before all remnants of that caste-mentality are eradicated from the Church, but our prayers and dedicated efforts to that end must never cease. Structures of sin have no place in the Body of Christ.

It reminds me of a parishioner whose daily intercession at Mass was for the “holiness of our priests” – simultaneously a prayer of gratitude for the many holy men who serve the Church, and a plea for the conversion of the rest.

Amen, indeed.

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