Cardinal McCarrick and the Integrity of the Church

The news about the sexual abuse allegations against Cardinal Theodore McCarrick has produced a great deal of heat in secular and Catholic circles, and very little light. Several online pundits have used this news to bash the Church as thoroughly corrupt. One even claimed that “of all the institutions and societies that intersect with my life, the Church is by far the most corrupt, the most morally lax, the most disillusioning, and the most dangerous for my children”.

These are outrageous calumnies. They leave people with the false impression that the Church has done nothing to combat child sexual abuse. And they totally misunderstand the real significance of the Cardinal McCarrick story — as much as it is a tragedy and a crime, it is also in reality a success story.

It proves that nobody is above the law, and that the system in place to handle allegations of sexual abuse really works. It proves that people can rely on the Church to root out corruption and to protect everyone who comes to her. And it encourages other victims to come forward and tell the truth about what happened to them.

I am a lay person who loves the Church and wants to keep the Bride of Christ “without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish” (Eph. 5:27). If you look around the country, you will see hundreds of people like myself — safe environment directors, victim assistance coordinators, review board members, diocesan attorneys — who are doing the same thing in every diocese. The vast majority of them are lay people, and there is no question that they have the support of their bishops and clergy. I know that because I hear it all the time from my Archbishop and our priests.

Every diocese has elaborate procedures in place to handle complaints about sexual abuse of minors. I am part of the team in the Archdiocese that does that. In the Cardinal McCarrick case, as in all other cases involving allegations against clergy, we followed our process precisely, gathering all the relevant evidence and pursuing the truth wherever it led. (I should note that I was not an active part of that investigation, which was conducted by other members of our team.)

Our procedure is that whenever a complaint comes to our attention, we always refer it immediately to law enforcement. Every time. Always. We then step back and let law enforcement do their investigation. We cooperate 100% and let them do their jobs. In most cases, the allegations cannot be prosecuted because they took place too long ago. So law enforcement notifies us of their conclusions and we take over from there.

The Archdiocese then does our own investigation. We have hired an independent firm of private investigators who are former federal law enforcement agents, and they spearhead the investigation. They interview witnesses, gather documentary evidence, all the things that seasoned investigators do. Archdiocesan staff also assist in the investigation. Our diocesan attorney has a vast amount of legal experience and has conducted literally hundreds of investigations. I am a former Assistant United States Attorney and Assistant District Attorney and I have done hundreds of criminal investigations. We are professionals, we take this work very seriously, and we leave no stone unturned. We are given complete discretion in carrying out these investigations.

These cases are very, very difficult. The allegations usually involve events that took place decades ago. Many of the potential witnesses don’t remember any relevant details from so long ago or may even be dead. Very few of the incidents were reported to anyone at the time they occurred. Independent evidence that can corroborate or contradict the allegation is very hard to find. There is no physical evidence that can be examined forensically. Assessing the credibility of witnesses is a critical factor, and can be very challenging even to experienced professionals.

At a certain point in the investigation, the accused priest is interviewed. He is represented by an attorney and has been given access to all the results of the investigation. He has every opportunity to present his side of the story.

Once the investigation is complete, the case is presented to our Archdiocesan Advisory Review Board. This consists of several judges, a psychiatrist, a religious sister, a priest and several lawyers. They all have a great deal of experience and wisdom, and they are very engaged and proactive. If they think that more investigation is warranted, they ask for more information. In some cases (like the Cardinal McCarrick case), they ask the accuser and the accused priest to personally appear before them to give their testimony. They evaluate each case based on the hard facts, not on rumors or innuendo. If they find the evidence sufficient to substantiate the allegation, they say so. And they don’t hesitate to exonerate priests when there is insufficient evidence. They call them as they see them.

Backing all this up is an intensive program of child protection that is designed to minimize the risk of future incidents. We don’t do a good enough job letting people know about this. We background check everyone who works with minors, whether paid or volunteer – we’ve done almost 130,000 checks since our program began. We train everyone who works with minors in the signs and prevention of child sexual abuse, and we provide age-appropriate lessons to children too. We have a team of former police officers who conduct onsite visits to our parishes and schools to see if our policies are being implemented. We have detailed Codes of Conduct and policies to make our standards of behavior clear. And we are audited every year by an independent team that makes sure we’re doing our jobs. This involves a huge amount of labor and money, and it represents a major commitment by the Church.

There is also a separate and extensive process that takes place to determine if a cleric is has committed a crime of sexual abuse against a minor as defined by Canon Law. That process is initiated and conducted by officials here at our Tribunal Office. It can ultimately lead to a proceeding in Rome before the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which can decide to dismiss the accused from the clerical state (i.e., “laicize” him). I am not a canon lawyer, so I am not qualified to explain that process and I have no idea how it will play out in the case of Cardinal McCarrick. But it is a vital part of the way that the Church addresses these terrible offenses.

So when people allege that the Church is not doing enough to police herself, that defames all of the people across the country who are doing everything they can to the best of their ability to make sure that justice is being done and that future crimes are prevented. When people claim that the Church doesn’t care, or that we haven’t improved, they are just showing their ignorance of the facts.

It is especially aggravating when people claim that the laity is somehow part of the problem for either not caring or not taking action. Every single person who was involved in the Cardinal McCarrick investigation was a lay person. With two exceptions, our Review Board consists entirely of lay people. Everyone who works in my Safe Environment Office is a lay person, and the vast majority of those who implement and enforce our policies in the parishes and schools are lay people acting under the leadership of their pastors. Here in the Archdiocese, lay people are part of the solution, not part of the problem.

It’s also not fair to accuse the bishops or the priests of not caring. Our Archbishop, and I believe the other bishops in the United States, are all sincerely trying their best. The priests of the Archdiocese have been very supportive of what we have been doing. We’re not perfect, and neither are our bishops or priests. But the number of priests who have been found guilty of sexual abuse is still minuscule and the vast majority of our clergy are good and holy men. Of course, we can always do better, and even one offense is a horrendous crime. But this isn’t the 1970’s anymore, and we’re never going back to those bad old days.

The ultimate lesson of the Cardinal McCarrick case is that nobody is immune to sin. And these sins are terrible. For those of us who are working in this area it’s like swimming through a sewer every day with your mouth open. It’s horrible work, and you can feel the presence of the Evil One, who would do anything to corrupt the Church and scandalize God’s faithful people.

Writing blog posts from the sidelines, repeating rumors and conspiracy theories, and publishing anonymous allegations and grievances are no help whatsoever in fighting this evil. We need more people to do what’s best for the church and God’s people – help us root out the corruption no matter where it is so that we can ensure the integrity of the bride of Christ.

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