Archbishop McCarrick and 'Dallas 2'

bconf CNA Bishops from across the United States take part in the USCCB's Fall General Assembly in Baltimore on November 11, 2013. | CNA

Nov. 13 will mark sixteen years since Cardinal Bernard Law and then-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick addressed the U.S. bishops' conference on the topic of sexual abuse.

As it happens, on that day this year, the bishops' conference will be meeting again, and again the topic will be sexual abuse.

In November 2002, while the Church reeled from a sex abuse scandal that Law helped to cause, the cardinal exhorted his brother bishops to "thank God that we are where we are today."

"We are in a much better place than we were ten months ago," Law said, praising the practical measures the bishops had just taken as "an exceedingly significant step for us to take."

Law was followed at the microphone by then-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, who noted that some of the bishops had hoped "there might be the possibility of a forgiveness" for abuser-priests if it concerned "a man who had done something" in the past but "had lived a great life and the people know about it and they still want to give him a chance."

"We lost that in Dallas," McCarrick lamented.

According to McCarrick, it was a necessary sacrifice. "We gave it up," he said, because of a "real crisis of credibility with our people."

McCarrick insisted that the bishops had "no choice" but to enact painful reforms because the Church could not endure another such scandal and expect future efforts to appear credible.

"We must move forward. We must put an end to this. We cannot have Dallas 2 and Dallas 3 and Dallas 4."

As the bishops prepare now to address a sexual abuse crisis that looms at least as large in American consciousness as the one that preceded it, "Dallas 2" might be putting it too mildly for  some.

Some new practical measures have already been proposed, including a code of conduct for bishops. But the "longer process of restoring trust," as Archbishop Lori of Baltimore has called it, remains tied to McCarrick and the past far more than it depends on the new measures the bishops will consider.

The American hierarchy is facing, in McCarrick's own words, another "crisis of credibility" - this time with with him at the center.

Some bishops might have hoped that McCarrick's assignment to a life of prayer and penance in a Kansas monastery would conclude the saga now bearing his name, but while he may be gone, in Baltimore he will not be forgotten.

Just this week, another former papal nuncio came forward to say he had received report of McCarrick's behavior towards seminarians as early as 1994.

The impression has set in among the faithful that "everybody knew" and "nobody did anything." While it is unlikely that "everybody" knew about McCarrick, it seems almost certain that some of the bishops who will gather in Baltimore did.

As a result, many Catholics are convinced that their leaders are still not being straight with them.

To date, nearly everything that has been made public about the McCarrick scandal has come from victims who have come forward, from the testimony of witnesses or involved parties, or from retired nuncios, especially Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, but also now Cardinal Agostino Cacciavillan.

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Few American bishops have come forward to publicly disclose what they knew or heard about McCarrick's alleged abuse, least of all those who have served in McCarrick's former dioceses of New York, Metuchen, Newark, and Washington.

At the same time, several prominent bishops, including the leadership cadre of the USCCB, have repeatedly called on Pope Francis to order an apostolic visitation, a Vatican investigation, to clear up what happened with McCarrick. Rome does not appear to favor the idea. But some observers have pointed out that no one is forcing American bishops to wait for an investigation to come forward about what they know.

There are questions that U.S. bishops could answer, and steps they could take to explain how McCarrick was allowed to move up the hierarchy, despite decades of apparent misconduct.

Taking those steps would be seen by many observers as a very "practical step" toward the transparency and accountability all sides insist that they want to see.

Earlier this week, Cardinal Cacciavillan said that in 1994 he was informed McCarrick sometimes shared a bed with seminarians, and that a proposed papal visit to Newark might cause a media scandal.

Cacciavillan said that he asked Cardinal O'Connor of New York to carry out an "investigation, an inquiry" into the stories. He said that it concluded that "there was no obstacle to the visit of the pope to Newark.

O'Connor died in 2000, shortly before McCarrick was named to the Archdiocese of Washington. While he cannot now speak to that investigation or its results, his successor, Cardinal Timothy Dolan, could at least publish a review of chancery files to show what, if anything, that investigation concluded.

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Dolan was the first to investigate and announce a credible accusation against McCarrick, and as such he has a unique kind of credibility in this case. The cardinal now runs the risk that his credibility will expire if it seems that he is unable or unwilling to encourage his brother bishops toward meaningful transparency and personal accountability.

Similarly, the Diocese of Metuchen and the Archdiocese of Newark have confirmed that more than a decade ago they reached out-of-court settlements related to accusations against McCarrick. Without compromising the confidentiality of the alleged victims, there are several things that could be confirmed or explained by both dioceses, if their bishops chose to do so.

Bishop Paul Bootkoski retired as bishop of Metuchen in 2016, having previously served as McCarrick's vicar general in Newark. In 2005, he was part of an out-of-court settlement reached with an alleged victim of McCarrick.

The diocese insists that then nuncio Archbishop Gabriel Montalvo Higuera was informed of the settlement in December 2005, and it has published what it says is the cover letter for that correspondence and a summary of the allegations it is said to have contained.

Neither the diocese or Bishop Bootkoski have spoken about what response - if any - they received and what, if anything they did to follow up on the matter.

In 2007, the Archdiocese of Newark also settled with an alleged victim of McCarrick. Cardinal Joseph Tobin has stated that he first heard rumors about McCarrick's alleged sexual misconduct shortly after arriving in Newark in 2017, but said he never looked into them because he thought them too outlandish to be believed.

"Shame on me that I didn't ask sooner," Tobin told a reporter in August, while making clear that he was asking now.

The cardinal said he is investigating why he was not told about the McCarrick allegations and settlement sooner. He could also investigate what, if anything, was done to inform Rome of the matter and when.

Tobin may well share the frustrations of many of the faithful in his archdiocese, though he is in the unique position of being able to have a frank conversation with his predecessor, Archbishop John Myers, about the matter.

He could also seek some straight answers from Msgr. Michael Andreano, who served for years on Newark's archdiocesan finance council, and as vicar general and chancellor under Myers, and whom Tobin removed from those positions a few weeks ago.

If he were to share what he learned from those investigations, it might make for some serious discomfort among his chancery staff, but it could go a long way to rebuild trust with Catholics in the pews.

Another cardinal who could help bring some clarity and closure to the McCarrick case is his successor in Washington, Donald Wuerl.

After McCarrick himself, Wuerl has perhaps been the bishop most affected by the scandal surrounding his processor.

Wuerl's resignation as Archbishop of Washington was accepted last month, but he remains the interim leader of the archdiocese. It was no secret that Wuerl wanted to remain in his post at least until the USCCB meeting this month. His attendance as the interim administrator and archbishop emeritus of Washington will be, for him, a bitter asterisk on his presence there.

When it was announced that Wuerl was asking the pope to let him step down, his spokesman said that he "understands that healing from the abuse crisis requires a new beginning and this includes new leadership for the Archdiocese of Washington." But many Catholics in Washington, as elsewhere, are looking to Wuerl for some answers before they can begin to move on.

Wuerl has thus far declined to give a frank account of when he first became aware of any shadow over his predecessor, or what actions he did or did not take in response.

While other points of the now famous Vigano testimony remain disputed, it seems clearly established that some action was taken by Rome to remove McCarrick from the Washington seminary where he was living. But even on that fact of the report, Wuerl has insisted that he took next to no interest in McCarrick's living arrangements and had no reason to think he should.

Questions about the renovations of archdiocesan premises to accommodate McCarrick after that, and the circumstances of his arrival and departure from another seminary later on, have been met with partial answers; to date, the Archdiocese of Washington has not released a clear timeline for where McCarrick lived in the archdiocese during his retirement, despite regular requests from the media.

Even after he was informed of the New York investigation into McCarrick last year, Wuerl apparently did not think it proper to inform the DC-based religious house supplying McCarrick with seminarians as personal staff until the allegations were made public in June 2018.

Wuerl himself has conceded that he did intervene to cancel an event featuring McCarrick at the prompting of the nuncio's office. But the cardinal insists that he did not have "specific information" Vigano alleges he knew.

When he accepted Wuerl's resignation, Pope Francis praised the cardinal as a man with a "shepherd's heart" who prized the "wellbeing and the unity of the People of God." It is hard to find a member of Wuerl's former flock who thinks their unity and wellbeing would not be best served by Wuerl offering some "specific information" on what he did know, and when.

Sixteen years after their interventions, Cardinal Law is dead and the no-longer-cardinal Theodore McCarrick is assuredly not invited to the USCCB's autumn session.

But McCarrick's name and presence will hang over the meeting, as it attempts to weather a storm perhaps even greater than the one it faced in 2002.
It seems unlikely that any corporate apology, new policy, or call for an investigation will bridge the credibility gap McCarrick has forced between the bishops and their flock.

Unless the bishops are willing to lead with some painful honesty and personal accountability, the faithful are likely to watch whatever "practical steps" they take in Baltimore and perhaps ask themselves: will there be a McCarrick 2 at Dallas 3?

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