As emeritus Archbishop of Washington, D.C., previously Bishop of Metuchen and Archbishop of Newark, McCarrick occupied a place of prominence in the US Church. It would be difficult to find any prominent East Coast cleric who has not been photographed next to a smiling McCarrick, who has been a visible presence in the Church even in his late 80s.
Despite the public persona of an affable bishop, equally at home preaching before a packed cathedral or engaging a room full of donors, rumors have swirled around him privately for years.
Several American priests have spoken to CNA in recent days, noting the uncomfortable reputation McCarrick had for “snuggling,” and his insistent affection for seminarians. Priests in his orbit have recalled the nicknames used in some clerical circles, the oft-mentioned “Uncle Ted” and the uncomfortable moniker “Teddy Bear.”
Statements issued June 20 from the Archdiocese of Newark and the Diocese of Metuchen confirmed that McCarrick has faced previous allegations of sexual misconduct, albeit with adults, which ended in settlements. That fact seems to lean heavily against his defense in this case, despite his claim of innocence.
This dissonance between public persona and private reputation makes an especially difficult case for the Church to handle, in Rome and in the United States.
As Archbishop of Washington, Cardinal McCarrick was a leading participant in the development of 2002’s Dallas Charter, which established procedures for handling allegations of sexual abuse.
The reforms he helped to adopt have now become the measure by which he will be judged. In fact, the extent to which the full rigor of those norms is applied to his case could also become the measure against which their integrity is assessed.
Under canon law, it is the pope alone who has the right to judge cardinals (even retired ones) in matters of penal law. According to a June 20 statement from the Archdiocese of Washington, Pope Francis delegated Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York to conduct at least the initial stages of the investigation, which have now been concluded.
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.
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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.