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So Long, Uncle Ted

September 6, 2018 (3,484 words)

No sooner had we begun to digest the alarming implications of the wide-ranging Pennsylvania attorney general’s report, first released on August 12, than the sordid McCarrick affair was again splashed across the front pages on August 25. Let’s review.

In June the long-retired, 88 year-old Theodore Cardinal McCarrick, whose last assignment was Archbishop of the Washington, D.C. diocese (2001-2006), was removed from active ministry over credible allegations he had molested an un-named 16 year-old altar boy in 1971.

He was able to retain the title of Cardinal despite this formal rebuke, but not for long. In July, Pope Francis accepted McCarrick’s resignation from the College of Cardinals over allegations he had sexually harassed and abused not only minors but adult seminarians over the course of many decades.

According to a statement released by the Vatican on July 16, McCarrick has been instructed to live out a life of “prayer and penance,” and will have to remain in seclusion pending an ecclesiastical trail.

Apparently his preferred target became adult seminarians as he was promoted up the ranks from priest to bishop to archbishop to cardinal, serving first in Metuchen, NJ, then being relocated to Newark, NJ, before finally receiving the plum assignment in Washington, D.C.

McCarrick’s sexual predilections were said to be an open secret among some in the American hierarchy for many years. According to recently released information, he was known to request that his adult conquests refer to him as “Uncle Ted,” and favored rendezvous locations that included a beach house at the Jersey shore, an apartment in New York City, and a vacation place in upstate New York.

… McCarrick is not an isolated incident

Before we go any further, however, please don’t think for a moment that McCarrick is in any way an isolated incident. It is only the level of notoriety that sets him apart. Let us recall Rembert Weakland, the long-time Archbishop of Milwaukee [1977-2002], to name just one other elderly prelate who managed to exit the stage without dominating national headlines, or endangering a papacy.

Weakland unceremoniously retired, relatively speaking, amid reports he authorized a $450,000 pay-out to a former male companion, funded from archdiocesan coffers. He has been quietly living out his days, relatively speaking, in a Milwaukee retirement community ever since.

That Cardinal McCarrick was able to advance despite such sordid rumors swirling in his wake appears to be a testament to his charisma and intelligence, the reluctance of seminarians to come forward and call out their bishop, and procedural failings in the ecclesiastical system.

Since the Dallas Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, issued by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) in June 2002, the emphasis has been on preventing inappropriate sexual contact between priests and minors, and prosecuting it once it is reported. But until this summer it appears no one in the Church has given enough thought to handling such illicit behavior with adults, when perpetrated by someone higher up on the food chain.

In an open letter issued in late July, Sean Cardinal O’Malley of Boston, one of the reliable good guys (we hope), wrote “while the Church in the United States has established a zero tolerance policy regarding the sexual abuse of minors by priests we must have clearer procedures for causes involving bishops. Transparent and consistent protocols are needed to provide justice for the victims and to adequately respond to the legitimate indignation of the community.”

… clearer procedure needed for cases involving bishops

To which the faithful lay person in the pew – to say nothing of the victims and their families – battered and beaten down by the on-going revelations, can only respond: Sounds good. But can we please get that show on the road, Cardinal O’Malley?

Though it’s hard to remember now, initial reaction to the Pope’s July 16 statement was positive. He was praised in many quarters for being decisive and taking an undeniably hard line on such a prominent cleric.

Then came the August 25 release of a 7,000 word letter, referred to as a “testimony,” issued by Archbishop Carlo Vigano, age 77, a native of Varese, Italy, and a career Vatican diplomat.

Archbishop Vigano served as the principal nuncio (ambassador) to the United States, from October 2011 to April 2016. Since the text of his “testimony” first appeared at, all hell has broken loose. What follows is a brief summary of the bombshell.

Vigano recalls sending a 2006 memo to his Vatican superiors, before he was appointed “principal nuncio”, but while serving as Delegate for Pontifical Representations, from 1998 to 2009. This 2006 memo called out Cardinal McCarrick’s long history of sexual misconduct, and recommended that an example should be made of him for the good of the Church.

Archbishop Carlo Vigano first informs the Vatican in 2006

(To repeat, McCarrick’s wayward actions had been known to some members of the American hierarchy for many years prior to 2006).

That first memo was ignored, according to Vigano, so he sent a second one in 2008. The second one got through, and did the trick. Archbishop Vigano was told that Pope Benedict XVI imposed “canonical sanctions” on Cardinal McCarrick in 2009 or 2010, forbidding him from living in seminary, celebrating sacraments publically, and from making other kinds of public appearances.

All of which sounds pretty serious. But if true, why didn’t Benedict make a big, splashy announcement regarding McCarrick’s banishment at that time, such as the one we were just treated to by Pope Francis in July?

And more to the point, did Cardinal McCarrick indeed drop from view, beginning in either 2009 or 2010? I for one can’t remember, and I can’t say that any of the recent reports surrounding Archbishop Vigano’s August 25 testimony have commented on that fact, one way or the other.

The next pertinent entry in the Vigano timeline is June 2013, while he was in Rome for a meeting of all the apostolic nuncios. His only scheduled contact with Francis was as part of a general audience during which the new Pope greeted each nuncio in a single file. This allowed for the briefest of exchanges, during which Archbishop Vigano simply introduced himself as the nuncio to the United States.

… a rushed private meeting in June 2013

Wishing further clarification of what the new Pope might be expecting of him, Vigano sought a private audience. On short notice a few days later, after Mass and before the Angelus, Vigano was ushered in to see the Pope in the first floor of his Vatican apartment.

Archbishop Vigano then told Pope Francis, “Holy Father, I don’t know if you know Cardinal McCarrick, but if you ask the Congregation of Bishops there is a dossier this thick about him. He corrupted generations of seminarians and priests and Pope Benedict ordered him to withdraw to a life of prayer and penance.”

According to Vigano, “The Pope did not make the slightest comment… and did not show any expression of surprise on his face, as if he had already known the matter for some time…”

After this purported brief, June 2013 exchange, we know that Cardinal McCarrick went on to enjoy something of a resurgence under Pope Francis, traveling and giving talks and otherwise representing the interests of the Church.

Here, then, is the gist of Archbishop Vigano’s brief against Pope Francis: Vigano brought the McCarrick affair to Pope Benedict’s attention. Benedict imposed canonical sanctions against McCarrick. Pope Francis ignored/reversed those sanctions and instead made McCarrick one of his closest advisors.

For that, Archbishop Vigano is saying Pope Francis should resign. That’s right, the Pope must resign.

Uncle Ted’s goose is surely cooked. But as an 88 year-old man he is for all intents and purposes beyond the reach of civil or ecclesiastical authority, and will soon have to face the four last things.

Pope Emeritus Benedict has already removed himself from the equation, having walked away from the penultimate role of his life, abdicating on who-knows-what grounds. That leaves Pope Francis holding the bag for this one.

Just as Democrats hope the on-going Mueller investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election will result in the impeachment of President Trump, and Republicans spent eight years pressing the non-native birth certificate issue hoping to dispose of President Obama, Pope Francis, too, has his partisan detractors who would be only too glad to see him go, after five and a half unconventional years on the job.

And the knives are already being sharpened.

On August 31, less than a week after Archbishop Vigano’s testimony went viral, Robert P. George took to the op-ed page of the Wall Street Journal, with a small piece entitled “Is It Time for Pope Francis to Resign?” Mr. George is, as we all know, a professor of jurisprudence at Princeton and a visiting professor at Harvard Law School.

And in the opinion of this observer, Professor George also has an unwavering tendency to view his Catholic faith through a neo-con Republican lens. In his recent WSJ piece he boldly states:

“Any materials showing the Pope knew of any McCarrick sanctions before meeting with (Archbishop Vigano) on June 19, 2013 would be critical.” (Actually the meeting between the two took place on Sunday, June 23, according to Vigano’s testimony.)

To Professor George’s credit he does then state, “Vigano’s testimony does not clearly assert the Pope ‘lifted’ sanctions, contrary to some reporting.”

… the future of this pontificate is now in the gravest doubt

The August 31 WSJ op-ed continues as follows: “But he (Vigano) does say Pope Francis has known since at least the end of June 2013 of a dossier detailing grave sexual offenses. If the Pope knew of that dossier and nevertheless empowered the Cardinal (McCarrick) to represent and influence the Church worldwide for five years, the future of this pontificate is in the gravest doubt.”

The WSJ editors add the following tagline to Professor George’s short piece: “if an archbishop’s explosive claims are true, this papacy must end.”

The story may be a simple one on its face, but is less so as one digs into the details. For one thing, reading Archbishop Vigano’s 7,000 word testimony one cannot help but be struck by how many people are involved in this account, how many hands the information had to pass through, and how Vigano himself is far from what might be described as a central player in the events under discussion.

For instance, one would have thought his “informing” Pope Francis in June 2013 would have occurred at a formal sit-down, with the infamous McCarrick dossier being dramatically slid across the papal desk.

So too the result of Vigano’s all-Important second memo to Pope Benedict in 2008. By his own words we learn Vigano only heard about purported sanctions through a second or third-hand source. Really?

Contributing to my own understanding of this tangled tale of woe is a September 3 story written by JD Flynn for the Catholic News Agency, “Benedict, Vigano, Francis and McCarrick: Where things stand on the nuncio’s allegations.”

According to Mr. Flynn’s reporting, “The most serious complicating factor came in an August 31 article from the National Catholic Register’s Edward Pentin. While Vigano has claimed that Benedict imposed ‘canonical sanctions’ on McCarrick, Pentin reports a source close to Benedict telling him that, as far as the former pope could remember, the instruction was essentially the McCarrick should keep a ‘low profile.’ There was ‘no formal decree, just a private request.’”

… canonical sanctions, or merely a private request?

Staying with Mr. Flynn’s September 3 account, we read: “The Vatican has a penchant for gossip, and many of its officials have a marked zeal for hyperbole. Anyone who knows the Vatican well can imagine how a ‘private request’ made by Benedict could have become ‘canonical sanctions’ by the time the story reached Vigano.”

“…It’s also possible the archbishop (Vigano) wasn’t certain exactly what happened, and that he overcommitted to what he did know by claiming to have ‘certainty’ Benedict imposed canonical sanctions. This seems likely, given that Vigano’s entire testimony has a certain dramatic flair.”

“But none of that changes the big picture allegations of Vigano’s memo: that after receiving multiple reports, Benedict took some action against McCarrick, and that action was later reversed or rescinded.”

“ … It seems unlikely that semantic disagreements about Vigano’s claims will lead Catholics to dismiss entirely the questions he has raised, implicitly and explicitly, about whether, and by whom, McCarrick’s situation was inadequately addressed or simply papered over.”

Continuing with JD Flynn’s September 3 reporting: “ …Many Catholics have asked this week why, if Benedict did respond in some way to the Vigano memos, he didn’t respond in a stronger fashion. …Catholics have also asked why Francis, if he knew that McCarrick was reportedly sexually engaged with seminarians for decades, would make him an important advisor and emissary.

“To understand and assess the responses of Benedict and Francis to allegations about McCarrick, it is important to understand the canonical context in which those allegations were made.”

… understanding the context in which allegations were made

“Since 2002, all bishops in the United States have known exactly how to address an allegation that a cleric sexually abused a child. …But the manner in which allegations of sexual misconduct with adults are handled looks nothing like those clear procedures.”

“Church law does not expressly establish that sex between a cleric and an adult is a canonical crime. As a consequence, bishops everywhere find themselves vexed, and frequently, about how exactly they should handle allegations of clerical misconduct involving adults – even in cases like McCarrick’s where coercion is an operative factor.”

“Bishops often send priests accused of sexual misconduct involving adults to inpatient therapy, and it has become typical for bishops to unofficially and temporarily sideline priests who engage in sexual dalliances with adults, usually until the bishop is convinced that the priest has addressed whatever issues are believed to have contributed to his misconduct.”

“But there is almost never a canonical crime with which most such priests could be charged. Those practices might help explain why Benedict didn’t act more publically or directly on McCarrick. They might also explain, at least in part, why Francis was apparently able to be convinced that McCarrick had been reformed, and that he could be brought into the pontiff’s inner orbit.”

… the context is not offered as an excuse

“This context is not offered as an excuse; most commentators on the matter argue compellingly that, whatever the context, both popes should have understood the seriousness of the situation. But it is possible that one or both of them did not, which is the reason why an investigation into all available records and testimonials would be of great help to the Church.”

“In the aftermath of the #MeToo movement, and the McCarrick revelations, it is now becoming clear to bishops and other Church leaders that priests and bishops are almost always in an unbalanced relationship of power with other Catholics and so clerical misconduct with adults should never be presumed to be consensual, as it often has been presumed to be in the past.”

“And it is becoming especially clear to bishops that when sexual partners of clerics are seminarians, ‘consent’ is really not an operative or relevant principle.”

“As a result of what’s happened, some bishops are now beginning to understand that they need the same kinds of clear procedures for handling misconduct involving adults that they now have for handling allegations involving children.”

“The specifics might be different, but the importance of developing some kind of clearly delineated protocol is becoming obvious, mostly so bishops can be nearly conditioned to handle them in an appropriate manner each time they arise.”

… clear protocols needed when sexual misconduct involves adults

“…In fact, several sources tell Catholic News Agency that the most likely long-term outcome of this summer of scandal is a universalized protocol for handling allegations of clerical sexual misconduct or abuse involving adults.”

JD Flynn summarizes his September 3 article as follows: “The big-picture of Vigano’s memo is that Benedict, Francis, and other Vatican officials may have mishandled allegation raised to them about McCarrick.

“That big picture is not changed if Vigano did not accurately convey Benedict’s actions on the matter (to Pope Francis in June 2013). There could be important lessons to be learned by a thorough review of Vigano’s claims, whatever the outcome.

“But, as a surprise to almost no one, the archbishop’s memo has been mostly reduced to a cudgel to be used in the ideological culture wars that divide U. S. Catholics. Catholics of all theological perspectives could do justice for abuse victims through an unbiased investigation of facts. Vigano’s memo raises questions that, whatever the answers, seem to merit serious inquiries.”

Heartfelt thanks go out to Mr. JD Flynn for his detailed and nuanced reporting. His full account can be found at

If Francis is eventually deposed over the McCarrick scandal, I for one will be sad to see him go. Not because I agree with progressives who contend he is “moving the needle” on the Church’s strict stand against homosexuality, or “updating doctrine” by attempting to find a way of extending the sacraments to divorced and remarried Catholics.

The fact is I nether agree with “liberals” who enthusiastically rally behind Pope Francis, or “conservatives” who so confidently criticize him. Because, frankly, I don’t see where he has said or written what his progressive supporters or his traditional detractors claim he has.

Though he is undeniably unconventional, with a tendency toward quirky, extemporaneous pronouncements, I am suggesting that we would all benefit from taking the long view when it comes to this papacy.

History may well come to credit this wacky Jesuit from the Third World with an admirable attempt at a timely agenda: undertaking the “heavy lift” of bringing charity and mercy to the application of Church teaching in a decidedly apostate world. The very same teaching his immediate predecessors Benedict XVI and JPII were known to champion in their own respective styles.

This has proven to be an especially tricky assignment in today’s partisan, polarized environment. Such teaching has been all-but-discarded by an overwhelming majority of the “educated” in this country as no longer relevant to begin with. While the remaining under-siege faithful remnant has too often “weaponized” the teaching, using it to forever banish those who have mistakenly followed the crowd and fallen away.

By my lights Francis is trying to reconcile opposing forces and bring a measure of understanding to a massively confused populace, even if there have been some obvious and awkward missteps along the way.

… balancing the two halves of Catholic belief

Working against him is the way liberals, by and large, have flattened out these complex issues into little more than popular slogans, while conservatives have for the most part refused the difficult challenge of balancing the strictures of moral demand with the other half of Catholic belief.

Allow me to say my defense/embrace of this pope is merely an extension of my defense/embrace of all popes, every pope. Reading the careful thought to be found in all papal encyclicals and apostolic exhortations can’t help but create such a bond in the heart and mind of a practicing Catholic.

Though I do admit Francis will always hold a special place in my heart and my mind for those eleven paragraphs (n.50 – n.60) in his first apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium (On the Proclamation of the Gospel in Today’s World), promulgated in November 2013.

That’s where he called into question, right out of the gate in his first formal writing as Pope, the ruling logic of unfettered capitalism and trickle-down economics.

The cadre of “economic freedom” conservatives who have been designated as official interpreters of all things “Catholic” for traditional believers, did not approve. They came down on Francis like a ton of bricks for those eleven paragraphs, and have essentially never let up. Even though he didn’t write anything about economic behavior every Pope since Leo XIII has been writing, up to and including JPII and Benedict XVI.

The only difference is Francis took the gloves off. He employed language that made it more difficult for the neo-con Republican, Wall Street Journal wing of American Catholicism to spin papal teaching into what they like to think of as unmitigated Church support for the economic status-quo.

Francis may indeed be found guilty of neglect in the Cardinal McCarrick affair, dating as far back as June 2013. But I submit his real crime in the eyes of this country’s successful conservatives was when he first called our adherence to the gospel of prosperity into question, in November 2013.

Robert J. Cavanaugh, Jr.
September 6, 2018

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