The Clericalist Syndrome

“How could someone with that on his record ever have become a cardinal?”

That question has been asked repeatedly since the disclosure that Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, 87, former Archbishop of Washington, has been suspended from public ministry by order of the pope in the face of an allegation – deemed “credible and substantiated” by the New York Archdiocese – that he abused a minor there forty-seven years ago.

Cardinal McCarrick says he has no recollection of this happening and is appealing his suspension through a canonical process. The Archdiocese of New York, where the cardinal served as a priest, says the allegation was lodged only a few months ago.

But, meanwhile, the Archdiocese of Newark and the Diocese of Metuchen, N.J., where he served as ordinary from 1981 to 2001, say two of three allegations of sexual misconduct against him there, involving adults, resulted in settlements with the complainants. He was transferred to Washington and named a cardinal in 2001.

So: how did it happen?

As the dust settles from the immediate furor accompanying the news and the history, it’s important to find answers to that question in order to head off similar problems in the future. And although I have no inside information regarding the cardinal’s career, I find it all too easy to understand the dynamics of his rise within the hierarchy despite his troubled record.

To put it briefly, things like this happen in the Church as a result of clericalism working hand in hand with secrecy. I described the process in general terms in my book Nothing To Hide: Secrecy, Communication, and Communion in the Catholic Church.

Friendship, solidarity, and mutual support among priests are very good things. But problems arise when the clerical culture is infected by the spirit of clericalism – the idea that its members are an elite group within the Church enjoying special privileges and immunities. The situation becomes even worse when secrecy combines with elitism as part of the mix, as so often happens.


As I put it in my book:

From a certain point of view, clericalism is the clergy’s way of surrendering to two temptations that threaten to corrupt every profession and trade. These are the tendency to distort and pervert the solidarity and mutual loyalty that rightly bond its members (doctors covering for incompetent colleagues, honest lawyers closing their eyes to the ethical failings of dishonest ones); and the tendency to hold low expectations and tolerate a lack of accountability in regard to professional responsibility. Secrecy lends support to both.

Secrecy (or confidentiality) is obviously necessary where some matters in the Church are concerned. But secrecy is easily abused, and such abuses are now present in the Church in regard to finances, the appointment of bishops and pastors, governance, and much else. In recent years, the problem has become painfully apparent in the case of clergy sex abuse.

“Clericalism did not cause sex abuse, nor did sex abuse cause clericalism.” (I am quoting my book again.) “But the connection is very real.” Sex abuse in a clericalist social setting naturally takes on a clericalist coloration, making it difficult to keep the two things separate and distinct:

To put it simply, the attitudes and behavior patterns tied to clerical elitism time and again came into play when priests were found by their superiors to have engaged in abuse. . . .There is no other way of credibly explaining the actions of bishops known to be decent, intelligent, conscientious men who nevertheless hushed up the shameful crimes of wayward priests and repeatedly transferred some of them to new parish assignments without so much as putting the parishioners on notice.  As we know now, of course, some bishops were themselves wayward men.

To be sure, bishops in the past consistently received astonishingly bad advice on handling abuse cases from chancery officials, lawyers, psychiatrists and psychologists, and others on whom they relied. But granted all that, the mishandling of troubled priests by good bishops unquestionably expressed the prevailing clericalist assumptions of the times.

This, then, is the pattern of clericalist attitudes and patterns of behavior that goes a long way to explain Cardinal McCarrick’s upward rise in the hierarchy. Here was a bright, personable, talented individual who had misbehaved badly (we now know of several specific cases but many more have been rumored for years). Still, he served the Church – and at some point at least seemed to have pulled up his socks and given up the bad behavior. Better to forget the past and look to the future.

So the reasoning must have gone among Church authorities – in the United States and also in Rome – who had a say in his promotions. Only lately has it become clear how terribly wrong they were.

The disclosures about Cardinal McCarrick are a disaster for the Church and a humiliation for him. In some respects, the people responsible for his rise in the hierarchy were right to recognize him as a talented man who, in several ways, served the Church. But he also did things that ought to have disqualified him for high ecclesiastical office. On both counts, the good and the bad, we need to pray for him – and the whole Church – now.


*Image: AP file photo by J. Scott Applewhite

Russell Shaw is former Secretary for Public Affairs of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops/United States Catholic Conference. He is the author of more than twenty books, including Eight Popes and the Crisis of Modernity (Ignatius Press).