Last week’s big headline about Pope Francis concerned the call he made to congratulate President-elect Joe Biden. A 449 page Vatican report, also released last week, presented a less pleasant revelation — that Francis knew of “allegations and rumors” of sexual abuse involving former cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick but didn’t pursue them because he believed others before him had properly vetted the matter.
The report holds Pope John Paul II — who died in 2005 — mostly accountable for McCarrick’s elevation to the top of the church hierarchy, despite decades of explicit warnings about sexual abuse. Francis — who canonized John Paul in 2014 and also launched the Vatican investigation into the McCarrick matter, in 2018 — is essentially let off the hook. In the wake of the findings, the sainthood of John Paul II is being questioned, while Francis is vowing to “eradicate” sexual abuse in the Catholic Church.
Putting much of the blame on a dead pope is a convenient outcome for a living one. But what about Francis’s role? Protecting him from shared responsibility, the report draws a line between gossip that he might have heard and confirmed knowledge. Yet the details suggest that he, too, was part of a deliberate blindness that allowed predators like McCarrick to flourish. As Anne Barrett Doyle, co-director of BishopAccountability, a group that gathers information on clergy abuse, told The Washington Post that Francis’s “lack of curiosity” about the allegations against McCarrick “was at best negligent, at worst corrupt.”
The Vatican report provides graphic institutional documentation of the longstanding pattern of church leaders, first exposed by the media, to believe and protect the powerful over the powerless.
McCarrick was ordained in 1958, and according to a timeline compiled by Catholic Review, the first child he baptized later alleged he was abused by the new priest. Allegations of inappropriate sexual conduct followed McCarrick throughout his career. Despite that, he was appointed archbishop of Washington in 2000 by John Paul and elevated to cardinal in 2001. At the time, he was already known to have shared a bed with “young adult men,” the report said, as well as with adult seminarians. A New Jersey mother had also sent letters to church leaders that related incidents of McCarrick’s inappropriate touching of her sons. However, according to the report, McCarrick swore on his “oath as a bishop” the allegations were false and John Paul chose to believe him.
New allegations surfaced during the tenure of Pope Benedict VI, leading to McCarrick’s resignation in 2006 as archbishop of Washington. However, he still traveled the world as a church diplomat, and was known as a political mover and shaker, as well as a prolific fund-raiser. Yet, according to the report, his fund-raising skills were “not determinative” of decisions made about his career.
Francis became pope in 2013, and according to the report, up to that point, “had never heard rumors related to McCarrick’s past conduct.” After that, he acknowledged hearing “old allegations” that had been “gossiped about.” But until 2017, no one “provided Pope Francis with any documentation regarding allegations against McCarrick‚” the report said. Prior to that, “Pope Francis had heard only that there had been allegations and rumors related to immoral conduct with adults occurring prior to McCarrick’s appointment to Washington.” The report said Francis believed his predecessors had properly vetted the issue so there was no need for any further investigation. In June 2017, Francis learned of “the first known allegation of sexual abuse by McCarrick of a victim under 18.” In July 2018, Francis accepted McCarrick’s resignation from the College of Cardinals.
The story is not yet over, as much as the church wants it to be. It took until 2019 for Francis to defrock McCarrick, and while Francis is now expressing his “closeness to the victims of all abuse,” a Vatican action plan for addressing wrongdoing by bishops is still pending.
In priests like McCarrick, with access to power and money, the church found glory; in victims, the church found reasons to disbelieve or disregard. When analyzed by those strictly secular terms, John Paul is no saint — and neither is Francis.
Meanwhile, his call to Biden is in keeping with the church’s centuries-old tradition: Decide where the power lies and embrace it.