What Ted McCarrick's 'social networks' could teach the Church

mccarrick and bus Then-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick arrives at the Vatican on March 5, 2013. CNA file photo.

There are social networks, and then there are social networks. The term is usually used these days to refer to apps and sites like Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Tumblr, and other places where online connection takes place.

But in a more technical sense, a social network is the structure formed by the complex web of ties between groups and individuals - the connections that link us. Think about the "Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon" and you're thinking about social network theory.

The bishops of the Catholic Church form that kind of social network. And mapping that network can provide some insight into how the Church functions, and how abusers might function within Church networks.

Two experts have used the science of social network mapping approach to consider how influential sexual abusers like ex-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick went unchecked in the Church, and how both problematic responses to sexual abuse by clergy-or good practices to reform the Church-might propagate through the bishops' links with each other.

Social network analysis has been applied to understand the spread of schools of medieval philosophy, organized crime, contagious disease, the academic job market, appointments to boards of directors, and collaboration among music composers. The approach could give insight into the leadership of the Catholic Church, according to Stephen Bullivant, a professor of theology and sociology of religion at St. Mary's University London.

"Basically it allows us to map and see in a far more structured way the kind of anecdotal, 'folk wisdom' about the dynamics of the Church," Bullivant told CNA.

In the wake of McCarrick's exposure as a serial sexual abuser of boys, teens and young adult men, including seminarians, journalists spoke of his influence in the episcopacy in terms of cliques, networks, and "kingmakers" who help choose which men rise in the Church hierarchy, and which men do not.

For Bullivant, social network analysis brings more rigor to this way of speaking.

"There's a sense in which it tells us what we already knew, but it does it in a far more systematic, rather than anecdotal way," Bullivant said. "You apply the right kind of clustering algorithms and you begin to see clear clumps of more densely networked bishops."

Bullivant and Giovanni Sadewo, a research fellow in social network analysis at the Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne, Australia, have modeled the relative influence of bishops, with particular attention to the deeply influential role of former cardinal Theodore McCarrick.

This clustering of influence can even be depicted in visual form, with each bishop forming a "node" connected to other bishops he served under, or served with, or supervised. In their analytical ranking, the elderly McCarrick was still the second-most influential living bishop in the U.S. as of July 2018, when Pope Francis accepted McCarrick's resignation from the College of Cardinals, after credible allegations of abuse, which McCarrick denied.

Bullivant and Sadewo assumed that bishops learned their role through "apprenticeship": holding a chancery position or serving under another bishop.

They analyzed their data to focus on the connections of bishops who were auxiliary bishops or held positions in a diocesan chancery at the same time or under the same mentors. They also weighted nodes based on whether a given churchman was a bishop, archbishop cardinal-archbishop, or emeritus archbishop.

Mapping out McCarrick's "personal community" includes a total of 43 living bishops, including "significant nodes" like Cardinal Kevin Farrell, Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio of Brooklyn, Cardinal Donald Wuerl, Bishop emeritus Martin Holley of Memphis, Archbishop emeritus John Myers of Newark, and Cardinal Joseph Tobin of Newark. The model also shows "direct ties" between individual bishops who are themselves separate nodes in McCarrick's cluster.

The researchers' data from July 2018 did not include deceased bishops. McCarrick retired as Archbishop of Washington in 2006 at the age of 75. The pope laicized him in February 2019.

Bullivant acknowledged that the model is limited. Factors that align McCarrick and another bishop "in no way implies guilty by association." The network analysis is not a "forensic tool."

"The fact you have a number makes it sound scientific, but this is the barest bones of anything," he said. "This is a first step really to try to understand the kind of inner logic of how this culture works, and how power gets brokered through it."

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Bullivant believes the model has its uses.

"If there were a predatory sociopath, which I think McCarrick clearly was, or something like it, then the way in which the system is built enables the kinds of failures to deal with that, as we've seen," he said.

Bullivant and Sadewo discussed their social network analysis of the U.S. bishops and the bishops of England and Wales in their paper "Power, Preferment, and Patronage: Catholic Bishops, Social Networks, and the Affair(s) of Ex-Cardinal McCarrick," published July 15 at the pre-print site arXiv, which is moderated but is not a peer review process.

The paper suggested the hypothetical example of bishops who had all "served as vicars general, chancellors, and/or auxiliary bishops for each other," and helped promote and support the favorite bishop candidates of each other's chanceries. It is also important to consider whether a bishop's proteges have served under each other, or under the bishop's own mentor.

"Should one of the senior bishops in this group then be rumored to have committed crimes while in office, it is not hard to imagine how others in the network might seek a 'quiet' solution to the problem, to prevent either themselves or their patrons becoming implicated, even if by association, to varying degrees," the paper said.

"(T)hese kinds of network dynamics may have contributed, directly and indirectly, to both individual and institutional failures (and/or crimes) in adequately dealing with accusations of sexual abuse."

The model suggests how bad practices, like poor responses to clergy accused of sex abuse, could propagate through like-minded bishops of a similar background or cluster.

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While the Pennsylvania attorney general's report on sexual abuse by Catholic clergy spoke of a "playbook" in covering up abuse, Bullivant said this model does not require "a shadowy meeting to decide what to do" about an abusive priest. Rather, influential bishops set "the way we do things" based on prior cases handled by others in a bishop's cluster, and this diffuses through a  network to become its standard practice.

Possible countermeasures, Bullivant said, could use social network analysis to speculate about which clusters had good practices, even though the analysis could not prove good practice in itself.

"If it came out that there had been certain dioceses where we hadn't had cover-ups of abuse," he said, reformers could consider "what's going on in those dioceses at a structural level that seems to have shielded them."

The analysis can also suggest which potential bishops are external to a cluster, like Archbishop Wilton Gregory of Washington. In the wake of the controversies over the McCarrick revelations, Pope Francis named the former Atlanta archbishop and past president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to succeed Cardinal Wuerl in the Washington archdiocese.

"Knowing nothing else about Archbishop Gregory, his appointment to D.C., based purely on the network map, looked like a good one," Bullivant told CNA. "The way we mapped out on those criteria, he seemed to be at least a 'partial outsider' from that particular cluster of that network of people."

"It looked like the kind of appointment where you'd think 'that looks like it'd have a better chance than some others'," he said.

Bullivant and Sadewo said in their paper that their network maps "support the view that it is meaningful to talk in terms of there being defined 'cliques' of bishops," and influential bishops who meaningfully shape networks. They aimed to calculate that influence.

The weighted scale of network map influence, called an "indegree" measurement, averaged 1.24 for U.S. bishops.

McCarrick, however, measured 17 on the scale, behind only Philadelphia's archbishop emeritus Cardinal Justin Rigali at 22. McCarrick's measurement was equal to that of Cardinal Adam Maida, archbishop emeritus of Detroit. Cardinal Sean O'Malley of Boston ranked 15, followed by Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles, former Washington archbishop Cardinal Donald Wuerl, Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, then-Archbishop of Philadelphia Charles J. Chaput, former Los Angeles archbishop Cardinal Roger Mahony, and Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago, who was ranked 11.

The metropolitan archbishop can be a key figure in the appointment of a bishop. However, under new Vatican norms the metropolitan bishop is also a key figure in investigating other suffragan bishops who are accused of abuse, the very men who are part of his social network cluster.

"(G)iven the structure of episcopal networks, there would seem to be a very low probability of any metropolitan being 'free of conflicts of interest' if asked to investigate other bishops, past or present, of his own diocese or province," the paper said. "Even where no direct ties exist, there will frequently be other close ties between mutual subordinates or superiors, protégés or mentors."

The paper also touches briefly on the deeply controversial topic of homosexual relations among Catholic clergy. Heterosexual relationships can only take place outside of all-male priestly networks, but homosexual relations are different.

"There is clear potential for mutually compromised networks of homosexually active (or once-active) priests, such as McCarrick appears to have cultivated among his 'nephews'," the paper said.

Social network analysis could be a basis for further work. Bullivant hopes to analyze the U.S. bishops based on the apparent phenomenon of bishops transferring sexually abusive priests between dioceses.

"Just to map which bishops were in-the-know enough to send priests to and from each other would be interesting, for example," he said.

Another topic for inquiry is financial corruption and episcopal social networks, such as the allegations against Bishop Michael Bransfield, who formerly headed the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston, West Virginia. He is accused of sexual harassment and assault of seminarians, priests and other adults, as well as making hundreds of cash "gifts." With the right data, these transfers of money could reveal more information about Bransfield's network.

Applying the social network analysis back in time could shed light on the origins of clergymen like McCarrick.

"We are interested, if we ever find resources, money and time to do it, to do that 'family tree' or a 'genealogy' if you like," Bullivant said. "It makes sense if you have particularly important 'kingmakers' in one generation, picking the bishops the next generation, especially the way that the big archdioceses do, there's a 'family tradition' almost."

This approach to the Church is not simply a story of corruption, he said. Rather, it's "a tool of sociological and historical inquiry into the way in which a very important decision-making class functions."

Besides a bishop's service in a diocese, there are many other "meaningful proxies" to analyze in a churchman's social networks: the bishops who co-consecrated him, shared seminary or university background, or shared service on certain committees or boards of directors.

Bullivant said on Twitter July 15 that the document is a "working paper" seeking comments, questions and suggestions for future work. He said the question was "awkward" for placement in a journal, with a "very slow process." The authors wanted their work published before any promised report on McCarrick, for background and context.

The release of the Vatican's investigation on McCarrick was reportedly delayed due to the coronavirus pandemic.

In October 2018, just months after sexual abuse allegations against McCarrick first emerged, the Vatican said that Pope Francis had commissioned a study of McCarrick's career. Cardinal O'Malley told the U.S. bishops' conference in November 2019 that the Vatican intended to publish the report "soon, if not before Christmas, soon in the new year."

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