Commentary: Red flags, abuse, and the final judgment

Cardinal McCarrick Credit  Mazur catholicchurchorguk CNA Archbishop Theodore McCarrick. | mazur/catholicchurchorguk

Christ tells us to recognize the false prophets, the ones who are secretly ravenous wolves longing to eat His people up, by the fruit they bear. The laity (and some clergy) have demanded answers about the predations of Archbishop McCarrick and the bishops who enabled his abuse. We're still waiting for many of them, including the disclosure of Vatican documents that could directly confirm or debunk Archbishop Viganò's testimony.

But we're starting to get an answer to one of our questions: How could you? And the bleak answer is coming from Catholic writers who mean to speak up in defense of Pope Francis and others.

Austen Ivereigh, a Catholic journalist and biographer of Pope Francis, characterized McCarrick's abuse of seminarians as "sex with adults decades earlier." In a news analysis for Crux, John L. Allen Jr. argued it would be misleading to talk about McCarrick's behavior as sexual abuse or to say his enablers participated in a cover-up of abuse. Allen says that the open secret about McCarrick only concerned "sexual misconduct with young adult seminarians," and that, "while indefensible, such behavior does not constitute a crime under either civil or Church law."

What McCarrick is credibly accused of is not simply a failure of chastity, in which he betrayed his promise to the church by seeking out sexual partners. He is accused of preying on seminarians, deliberately using his power over them to pressure them into silence as he sexually harassed and assaulted them. Such behavior would be sinful for any boss targeting his underlings, but for McCarrick to target seminarians adds the tang of blasphemy. The men he preyed on had entered seminary to make an offering of themselves to the Church. When he attacked them, it was as if he had attacked the gifts being brought to the altar for consecration.

The abuses he has been accused of should have prompted intervention long before evidence of child abuse surfaced. But abusers profit from our disregard of Christ's warning that "he who is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much" (Luke 16:10). The Church isn't the only institution to neglect this duty. There's no reason to wait for criminal liability-for the sake of both victims and abusers, intervention should come before a crisis reaches that point.

A New York Times article on allegations against gymnastics coach Qi Han was careful to note that "Han is not accused of sexual abuse." He was accused, instead, of slapping a student, of pushing a child off the high bar, of throwing phones and shoes at students. When parents rallied to report him to U.S.A. Gymnastics, Han told the parents of one student that she would be banned from the gym and blacklisted from the sport unless they took his side. They did.

At NYU, Professor Avital Ronell has been accused of sexual harassment of a graduate student. Two essays in the Chronicle of Higher Education, one by Corey Robin, one by Andrea Long Chu pointed out that Ronell could be identified as an abuser even before corroboration of the claims of sexual abuse. The professor asserted ownership of her graduate students, forcing them to run errands for her, to host her in their homes, and threatened to destroy their careers if they said "no" to any of her demands.

McCarrick, Han, and Ronnell all carried out parts of their abuse in the open. Their campaigns of control and cruelty may not have always created the trail of evidence needed to convict them of a crime, but there was enough for those around them to see that they were failing their respective callings of stewardship. The more they were left to act abusively, the more everyone around them signaled that abuse was acceptable. Why would someone come forward with an allegation of further, private predation when there had been no consequences for public wickedness?

For U.S.A. Gymnastics and NYU, the impulse to curb these abuses is meant to come from a fear of liability. They ought to have curbed these dishonest mentors, and fired them if necessary in order to avoid culpability. But the Church should be swifter to act than any other institution, because it fears more than civil penalties.

Bad employees can be fired, and the supervising organization can wash their hands of them. A bad priest or cardinal must be contained for the sake of his potential victims, but when it seems like his vices are constrained by his age or enfeeblement, the Church cannot say that there is no harm left in him. Unrepentant, he is still a danger to himself and his own soul.

Admonishing sinners is a spiritual work of mercy. Passing over grave sin in silence, in order to avoid scandal, is not merciful, is not lenient. It is endangerment.

 In a 1972 homily, Pope Paul VI said, referencing division and doubt in the church, "It is as if from some mysterious crack, no, it is not mysterious, from some crack the smoke of Satan has entered the temple of God." Some princes of the Church seem trying still to wait, hoping that this miasma will disperse on its own. But for the sake of the souls of the brothers they're protecting, starting with McCarrick, they need to remember that where there's smoke, there may, in the final reckoning, be fire.

Leah Libresco is the author of Building the Benedict Option: A Guide to Gathering Two or Three Together in His Name. Her writing has appeared at First Things, FiveThirtyEight, and The Washington Post.  Her opinions do not necessarily reflect the viewpoint of Catholic News Agency.

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