The charges leveled against a former cardinal, Archbishop Theodore E. McCarrick, are sickening and almost unbearable to read. It’s horrible enough that former seminarians allege he invited them to a beach house with the certainty that he was always inviting one extra who would have to share his bed.
But then comes the revelation that as “Uncle Ted,” he allegedly groomed and abused a minor, the son of family friends. Other allegations swirl around the prelate.
Most shocking, by far, is the fact that as these horrors were supposedly happening, he rose to the pinnacle of power in the U.S. Catholic Church, and indeed the worldwide church, while rumors of his alleged misconduct crept around him like a noxious weed, ignored by those commissioned to mind the garden.
What’s a Catholic to do?
Of course, it’s not just a Catholic issue. Less than two years ago, a recording came to light of the man who subsequently was elected president of the U.S. making comments about the ease with which his celebrity permitted him to assault women.
Then, the #MeToo movement burst upon the scene and took down some prominent American men. Again, reading the experiences that many, many women claim to have had at the hands of Harvey Weinstein is enough to keep you up at night.
Sexual predation knows no religious, secular or national barriers.
Again, what’s a Catholic to do?
The first thing is to thank God for a free press. I’m old enough to remember the initial reports of clerical sex abuse. The movie “Spotlight” dramatically illustrated how journalists for The Boston Globe doggedly sought the truth about the abuse and subsequent cover-ups in the Archdiocese of Boston.
I recall firsthand the reaction then of some priests and higher-ups I knew. They felt the press was unfairly targeting the church with sensational reporting.
But would we ever get to the whole truth without investigations by an independent press? We owe a debt of gratitude to The New York Times for their reporting on the Archbishop McCarrick scandal.
The second thing I would like to see is more lay involvement in governance of the church, especially more participation in decision-making by women. Should half the Catholics in the pews be mere spectators as the boys make the decisions? How healthy is that for an organization of any kind?
Third, we all must examine our own role. When have we been afraid to speak truth to power? Ultimately, sexual predation is a game of power.
When I was a young Jesuit volunteer in a native community in the Diocese of Fairbanks, Alaska, a nun warned us about a certain priest who was coming to visit our boarding school who was “handsy.”
Many years later, the sexual abuse discovered there was so grave that the Diocese of Fairbanks was plunged into bankruptcy and a subsequent bishop, who was nowhere near the diocese when the abuse took place, made an apology tour of all native villages in contrition for the horrors — the suicides and alcoholism and broken lives — that had followed in the wake of widespread clerical sexual abuse. I covered one of those meetings for our local paper and it was painful.
What did those who heard that nun’s advice do? Did we make inquiries? Did we raise our voices? Later, we heard that sisters had spoken up and were ignored by the powers that be. It just seemed keeping your head down was the way we lived back then.
It’s tough to stand up to power. But power, and our unwillingness to risk our safe place in the system, is what allows abuse of every kind.