Two New Statements and the Church’s Trust Deficit

Two statements came out from the Vatican over the weekend, basically during the pause in the Synod for the Sunday observances. Both dealt with the McCarrick case, and were partly a reaction to the constant presence of that case and – indirectly – other abuse cases in synodal conversations about the Church and young people. That’s become a necessity because, as Sydney Archbishop Anthony Fisher put it last week, many people were harmed and lost trust when they were young; and “The Church has to be the safest possible place for a person.”

The two new documents, however, still leave room for doubt whether Rome understands what it would take for many people to trust that the Church will take the steps needed to make that really happen. (In addition, Cardinal DiNardo and Archbishop Gomez, president and vice-president of the U.S. Bishops’ Conference meet with the pope today. The new documents also seem timed to put that meeting into a certain context.)

The first text came Saturday as a brief, official Communication from the Holy See, saying that Pope Francis was aware of the confusion among the faithful since the revelations about McCarrick and wanted them to know about several phases in the investigation. As mounting evidence arrived from the Archdiocese of New York, the Holy Father accepted McCarrick’s resignation from the College of Cardinals, “prohibiting him by order from exercising public ministry, and obliging him to lead a life of prayer and penance.” This most Catholics already knew.

It continued: “the Holy Father has decided that information gathered during the preliminary investigation be combined with a further thorough study of the entire documentation present in the Archives of the Dicasteries and Offices of the Holy See regarding the former Cardinal McCarrick, in order to ascertain all the relevant facts, to place them in their historical context and to evaluate them objectively.” The pope admitted that this investigation may discover that decisions were made in the past in ways that we would not choose today, but that “We will follow the path of truth wherever it may lead.” [Italics in the original]

This is all basically as it should be – except for one thing. Has the pope only now decided that the “entire documentation” in the files needs to be studied along with recent accusations? We know that the Vatican is maddeningly slow in such matters. But McCarrick resigned in late July. We are now well into October. Does it take that long for a modern pope to decide – or announce the decision – that the files will actually be examined? And we are still five months away from the February meeting of presidents of national bishops conferences, which Pope Francis has called to address the abuse crisis globally. There seems to be, to put it mildly, no sense of urgency in the Vatican about this case and others.

This is not mere nitpicking. We live in the age of instant communication. For a long time, it’s looked as if Rome was not going to do very much more than it usually has – which, to the eye, seems woefully inadequate – even after the August bombshell Testimony of Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò. That Testimony claimed that the pope has known about McCarrick since early after his election in 2013. Therefore, “In this extremely dramatic moment for the universal Church. . . .Pope Francis must be the first to set a good example for cardinals and bishops who covered up [Cardinal Theodore] McCarrick’s abuses and resign along with the rest of them.”

Which brings us to the second document, released yesterday, by Cardinal Marc Ouellet, prefect of the Congregation for Bishops. Ouellet published a letter addressed to Viganò; it looks as if the pope himself will not reply.


Calling Viganò’s charges “incomprehensible and extremely reprehensible,” Ouellet bluntly said, “I tell you frankly that to accuse Pope Francis of having covered-up knowingly the case of an alleged sexual predator and, therefore, of being an accomplice of the corruption that is spreading in the Church, to the point of considering him unworthy of continuing his reform as the first pastor of the Church, is incredible and unlikely from all points of view.”

Ouellet has himself been accused by Viganò of knowing and not really saying anything about McCarrick. So his claims cannot be entirely unbiased. And he seems to weaken his own defense by admitting that he knew of Pope Benedict’s restrictions on McCarrick, but that these were not formal “sanctions” that Pope Francis then lifted, as Viganò has characterized them.

That has been a serious bone of contention from the very beginning and some – the present writer included – have wondered about the status of those restrictions and any relaxing of them that may have occurred. Pope Emeritus Benedict himself has publicly said that he does not remember their exact nature.

Nevertheless, all this does confirm that Viganò is entirely correct about at least one large point: many people, including the pope, knew that McCarrick’s misbehavior was grave enough that he was strongly told to stay in retirement in Washington and not to appear in public. He disregarded those restrictions, of course; even more blatantly – as many observers remarked – after Jorge Bergoglio’s election.

Ouellet says there are no documents in the files of the Congregation for Bishops formally sanctioning McCarrick because they did not then have as much evidence as they have now. But this in itself speaks of a serious breakdown: did no one care enough about past and potential future victims that they didn’t take the initiative to look further?

Even Ouellet, in the heat of his rebuke of Viganò, says he is surprised how McCarrick was able to become cardinal-archbishop of an important city like Washington given what was already in his file. And, he says, that’s worthy of investigation.

But here, too, the loss of trust in the system raises some doubts. We know that McCarrick was not high on the list of candidates to become archbishop of Washington. Is there nothing in the McCarrick file at the Congregation for Bishops about how he leapt over a dozen better candidates? Viganò suggests that two homosexual advisers have been bypassing the usual process for bishops’ appointments in recent years. Certainly, if decades ago, McCarrick had similarly powerful patrons in the Vatican, there must be some record of when and where they intervened. And how doubts were circumvented. You can’t help but feel that Ouellet has given an incomplete account of the files and what they suggest. And that only a more open and independent review of the whole matter will resolve various questions and – let’s hope – restore trust.

The Holy See is suffering under a severe trust deficit at the moment, partly deserved, partly not. But it exists and must be dealt with, lest it become even worse. We’ve just seen sharp criticism of the Vatican-China agreement by many observers – so sharp that Cardinal Zen has called on Cardinal Parolin, the Vatican Secretary of State (and the person responsible for the details of the agreement), to resign for his betrayal of the underground Church in China.

So in a short period, an archbishop (Viganò) has called on a pope (Francis) to resign, and a cardinal (Zen) has called on another cardinal (Parolin) to resign. There’s been nothing like this in modern times. Is it any wonder young people are often confused and uncertain whether the Church is worthy of their trust?


*Image: McCarrick with cardinals: happier times [Photo: Paul Haring/CNS]