What might happen for McCarrick, and for the Church in the US

Cardinal McCarrick Credit US Institute of Peace CC BY NC 20 CNA Archbishop Emeritus of Washington Theodore McCarrick. | US Institute of Peace (CC BY-NC 2.0).

The 2014 movie "Calvary" is a reflection on mercy, sacrifice, and the difficulties that the sexual abuse crises of recent years have caused for those priests and bishops who have nothing to hide, but are now viewed with suspicion.

During a sobering scene in the film, an Irish priest- a pastor played by Brendan Gleeson- shares a brief moment of friendship with a young girl he has met as they both walk along the same stretch of country road.

The moment is interrupted when a car screeches to a halt in front of them, and the girl's father emerges, yelling insults at the priest before driving away with his daughter. The priest is left standing alone on the road, not trusted enough for even an innocent conversation with a child.

The Irish reaction to Ireland's sexual abuse crisis was sharper and more profound than reaction to the crisis in the United States. After detailed reports of sexual abuse by Irish clerics and religious began emerging in the early 2000s, Mass attendance dropped sharply and suddenly, and Irish anti-clericalism became vocal and commonplace. Of course, other factors have contributed to the decline of Catholic practice in Ireland, but the impact of the sexual abuse crisis was obvious and severe.

The American sexual abuse crisis has also been a serious issue for Catholics, and has had an obvious cultural effect on the Church in the United States. But its effect on the habits and attitudes of Church-going Catholics has not been as apparent, or as visceral.

Gallup polls showed a sharp dip in American Mass attendance in 2002 and 2003, the years the crisis came into full public view, but Mass attendance rates actually rose in 2004, before resuming the steady decline that began all the way back in 1955.

Of course, there has been a measurable and sustained decline in Catholic identity and Mass attendance among Catholics in the US for decades. But it is not immediately clear how much of recent declines can be attributed directly to the sexual abuse crisis. Instead, polls generally attribute declines to broader cultural trends toward secularization, and increasing popular disagreement with Catholic doctrinal issues, particularly with regard to sexual morality.

Many Catholic commentators predict that the McCarrick scandal might change that. Catholics across ideological, theological, and political divides are unified in anger and disappointment over the charge that high-ranking bishops knew of, and even tolerated, serious sexual malfeasance by a cardinal. That anger has led to calls for transparency, repentance, and spiritual renewal.

It seems entirely possible that the McCarrick scandal will become a bright line in American Catholic history, and have long-lasting and dramatic effect on the future of Catholic Church in the United States.

The kinds of changes that might be coming are not yet clear, but what happens next- for McCarrick, for the bishops, and for ordinary Catholics- will begin to demonstrate whether this crisis point will lead to a sharp period of decline, or to a period of renewal.

So what will happen next?


With regard to McCarrick himself, the Vatican has implied that the archbishop could face a canonical trial.

As is well known, in June a process in the Archdiocese of New York reached the conclusion that an allegation McCarrick sexually abused a teenager was "credible and substantiated." That process, however, was only the first phase of the Church's canonical process- the phase referred to as the "preliminary investigation." A formal trial would be the next step.

While a trial has not been scheduled, the possibility of one was implied on Saturday, when Pope Francis accepted McCarrick's resignation from the College of Cardinals. At that time, the pope also consigned the archbishop to a life of prayer and penance until, the Vatican said, until the conclusion of a canonical trial addressing the allegation.

But several complicating factors make a trial unlikely.

At the moment, McCarrick is only facing canonical charges for one of the sexually abusive relationships he is alleged to have had, and some aspects of that case could make it difficult to try- most notably the fact that the alleged victim was 16 at the time the abuse began, and therefore not considered a minor by the canonical standards in force at the time- the standards by which McCarrick would be tried. While he could face charges in that case for other, related, canonical crimes, they make the prospect of a trial more difficult.

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Of course, it is plausible that McCarrick could be tried for other, more straightforward charges of abuse, given the number of allegations that have been made against him in the press. But the Archdiocese of Washington noted Sunday that although several alleged victims of abuse by McCarrick have spoken with the media in the last month, few have filed complaints directly with Church officials. Ordinarily, reports made directly to a diocese are the triggering event for Church investigations, and so it is unlikely that McCarrick will face additional canonical charges unless some of his alleged victims make such reports.

It is possible that a bishop- most likely Cardinal Donald Wuerl in Washington- could begin a preliminary investigation into the allegations that have been reported in the press even without direct complaints. Though that would an unusual move, Wuerl might judge it to be warranted in this case- especially if he had support from the Vatican to do so.

Still, there are additional complications.

Given McCarrick's long tenure in Church leadership, and his wide network of friends around the world, it is not immediately apparent that the Vatican has a sufficient number of qualified personnel, without personal ties to McCarrick, available to assist in a trial.

Furthermore, several sources have told CNA that if McCarrick does face a trial, the pope would personally oversee it, as he has reportedly decided to do in several other high-profile cases involving bishops. Since the pope is apparently already involved in those cases, and since trials are time-consuming and he has only a finite amount of time, it seems probable that his direct involvement in McCarrick's trial will keep it from getting off the ground anytime soon.

McCarrick is 88. Even under the best circumstances, canonical penal processes can take years. These circumstances are not the best. Barring unusually swift action from the Holy See to begin a complicated trial and bring it completion, or unusual longevity for McCarrick, he is unlikely to live long enough to see a canonical resolution to his case.

Instead, he is likely to see his name taken down from parish halls, his episcopal crest removed from cathedrals, and the visible signs of his leadership and influence scrubbed away. This week Catholic University of America rescinded an honorary degree he'd been given, and other colleges will likely do the same.

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He is also, of course, unlikely to face criminal charges in the United States, unless allegations which have not yet reached a statute of limitations are made against him.

Sources say he is now living in a Church facility in Washington, and he is likely to remain there, or in some other discreet place, waiting for his case to be judged by the Vicar of Christ.


Regardless of what trial McCarrick faces, the dioceses, religious communities, and even the foundations he has been affiliated with are now facing serious questions. So are the bishops who succeeded him in the dioceses he led: Metuchen, Newark, and Washington, along with the auxiliary bishops and other advisors who worked for him in those places.

Of particular importance are questions about the 2005 and 2007 settlements with priests who claimed McCarrick abused them, and especially about who was, and was not, informed about them. Cardinal Wuerl said last week that he was never informed that those settlements had been reached. If that is true, why did Bishop Paul Bootkoski of Metuchen and Archbishop John Myers of Newark neglect to inform Wuerl that a cardinal living in Wuerl's diocese had been accused of serious malfeasance?  

Cardinal Sean O'Malley of Boston has also faced criticism for not reporting to the pope a letter his office received about McCarrick in 2015. Likewise the apostolic nuncio- the pope's ambassador to the United States- could also face questions about what, if anything, he knew about McCarrick, and about whether he was in communication with the Vatican about the matter.

CNA and other media outlets are pursuing those questions, and the media will likely begin to report findings soon. But media inquiries are not the same as official investigations.

There has been speculation that to probe those questions Francis might appoint a special investigator to the United States, as he did in Chile when scandals there become a media firestorm. Such an investigator would try to get clarity about who knew what about McCarrick, and when, and get a sense of how he advanced in an ecclesial career despite the persistence of rumors and complaints about him.

But it is also possible that the pope intends accepting McCarrick's resignation from the College of Cardinals to be his last word on the subject.

While there is focus on this story now, and bishops are speaking out about it, media attention is fickle, and it's possible that some large-scale disaster or political crisis could divert press attention. That could lead to a scaled-down response, in which the bishops at their November meeting issue a new set of policies or procedures, the pope offers some words of regret, and the Church's leaders move on to the next issue.

Two things might tip the scales toward a robust response from the Vatican and U.S. bishops:

The first is continued reporting from the Catholic and secular press about McCarrick, and the web of questions surrounding his situation. There are many threads to be pulled, probably more threads than are reporters to work on the story. But if media executives and editors decide that attention should be focused elsewhere, or if readers tire of reports on the subject, it will be easier for Church leaders to weather a momentary storm without the thorough investigation- or official inquiry- that might lead to some systemic changes in administrative procedures.

The second thing that will lead to a thorough response is for lay, seminarian, religious, and priest victims of sexual abuse, harassment, assault, or coercion to continue coming forward. If McCarrick's misdeeds were as widespread as they are rumored to be, dozens of priests might come forward to make official complaints, along with former seminarians and others. Volume speaks volumes, and demands a response.

At the same time the Vatican is deciding whether and how to conduct an investigation, plaintiffs' lawyers are likely considering what lawsuits might be filed in response to the McCarrick scandal.

The threat of possible litigation will complicate the Church's response to the McCarrick scandal. Bishops will, on the one hand, want to see victims by compensated for the harms done to them and, at the same time, want to ensure that parishes, schools, and charitable offices that had nothing to do with sexual abuse do not lose their assets. Many bishops will want to be transparent and pastoral, and, at the same time, be concerned about the effects in the courtroom of their pastoral gestures of penitence and contrition.

It is difficult to make prophetic responses to a tragedy in a litigious environment, and bishops will have to navigate that difficulty, as many of them had to do in the wave of litigation that followed the 2002 sexual abuse revelations. Some will do this well, and some, most likely, will not.


Perhaps the most significant questions have to do with the attitudes that Catholics will hold in the aftermath of this scandal, and how Church leaders will respond to those attitudes.

If lessons be learned from Ireland, and other places in which bishops have been implicated in serious negligence and misdeeds, trust in the hierarchy of the Church is likely to erode and stay eroded, and Mass attendance could drop precipitously.

Bishops have begun making pastoral statements, and more will likely come. But this crisis may prompt a greater sense of urgency about the overall decline in Catholic life in the United States, and prompt bishops to consider what mechanisms might lead to renewal.

A friend said this week that the McCarrick scandal might be the final nail in the coffin of "beige cultural Catholicism" in America.

He meant that the scandal could lead to much broader recognition that much about the current model of Church organization and parish management doesn't seem to be working- that many people leave the practice of Catholicism because of a broad crisis in catechesis, formation, and community and parish life.

This idea was part of the thrust of John Paul II's "new evangelization" paradigm, which called Catholics to "remake the Christian fabric of the ecclesial community itself."

It is certainly true that the growth areas in the Catholic Church in America are those that seem to have a clear missionary identity, or a particularly focused or intentional approach to Catholic life. Movements like Communion and Liberation and the NeoCatechumenal Way are loci of growth and energy. So too are missionary groups like FOCUS, and the communities devoted to traditional liturgy that have sprung up in places like Clear Creek, Oklahoma.

Those movements are often lay-led, and developed at some distance from chancery and diocesan structures. That means that, if trust in the hierarchy is eroding, they may be seen by many Catholics as having the integrity, authenticity, or transparency that some see as lacking among hierarchs in the wake of the McCarrick scandal.

The question now is, if decline in more typical parishes continues or hastens, whether bishops will see those groups and movements as mechanism of the "new evangelization" and welcome them, even at the cost of relinquishing some institutional and structural control.


Much remains to be uncovered about the McCarrick scandal, and much remains to unfold. But the scandal has already begun to point to changes in American Catholic life. If handled well, great good could come from those changes. "To live is to change," Blessed John Henry Newman wrote, "and to be perfect is to have changed often."

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