Whenever there is an allegation of clerical sexual abuse against a minor, canon law requires that the diocese concerned hold a "preliminary investigation." That process is meant to establish if the accusation has "the semblance of truth," or, in the language of the Charter, is "credible."
The standard of proof required at that phase of the process is very low- requiring only that the accusation not be found manifestly false or frivolous. But what that investigation discovers determines what happens next.
In the United States, following the Dallas Charter, an assessment of the investigation is usually conducted by a diocesan review board. Review boards are quasi-independent bodies made up of legal experts, clergy and independent advisors appointed by the bishop.
If the review board concludes the allegation has the semblance of truth, and the bishop agrees, the matter is ordinarily referred to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in Rome. Since cases involving cardinals are reserved to the pope personally, the case of Cardinal McCarrick was likely forwarded directly to the pope, with some input from the CDF.
In cases involving priests or deacons, if the CDF finds the results of the preliminary investigation suggest further investigation, it has several options.
If the allegation seems well-substantiated, it can refer the matter back to the diocese, to be handled by a canonical trial, or by an expedited process ending in an extrajudicial decree. The CDF can also convene an extrajudicial process or a trial in Rome, handling the matter directly. This is the typical approach in cases which are not clear, or which, for some reason, are particularly contentious or high-profile.
Subsequent to that process, if the cleric is found guilty, the Church may impose the penalty of laicization, permanently removing the cleric from clerical life and ministry, or, taking into account factors including the cleric's age and health, impose some other penalty. A cleric found to have committed the crime of sexual abuse can never be returned to ministry.
According to the Archdiocese of New York's statement, following the preliminary investigation, the Archdiocesan Review Board found the allegation against Cardinal McCarrick to be both "credible" and "substantiated." Taken at face value, this sounds very bad for Cardinal McCarrick's case.
In fairness, it should be noted that the norms for diocesan review boards allow for significantly different processes and standards in different places, that the procedural and evidentiary norms required in a canonical trial are more stringent, and that the right of defense- an essential part of any legal process- is more robustly defined in a canonical trial.
What happens next will tell us much about how Rome views the credibility of the allegation against Cardinal McCarrick.
In the very rare instances in which archbishops (let alone cardinals) have been personally accused of sexual abuse, full canonical trials have been held at the Apostolic Tribunal of the CDF in Rome, essentially the highest judicial court the Church has. If Cardinal McCarrick's case is handled by an extrajudicial process in New York, this would suggest overwhelming confidence by Rome in the credibility of the accusation.
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It is important, as with any legal system, that the canonical process be allowed to run its course. It is also important that Cardinal McCarrick be given every proper chance and means to defend himself and assert his innocence as part of that process.
It is also possible that, at age 87, Cardinal McCarrick will not face a trial or an extrajudicial process.
In the meantime, the fact that the Archdiocese of Newark and the Diocese of Metuchen confirmed that there have been previous complaints and settlements because of McCarrick has already caused scandal.
An important question about his ecclesiastical career has also begun to be asked: how was McCarrick allowed to continue for so long in office, and then continue in public ministry after retirement, when Church authorities knew of these settlements?
McCarrick's former dioceses have been swift to insist that they have never previously received any allegations of sexual abuse of minors. But, as now seems clear, they were aware of credible allegations of sexual misconduct against the cardinal. Some commentators have wondered if Church authorities presumed that so long as no children were involved, there was no obligation to curtail his ministry.
This is not a dry question of past failings by previous administrations: close personal associates of Cardinal McCarrick continue to hold leadership positions in American diocesan curias.