A Pennsylvania grand jury report released last night has revealed that the Catholic Church in six dioceses systematically and sneakily covered up sexual abuse by priests on a horrifying scale.
The American Church has now been plunged into the worst crisis in its history. The 884-report comes less than a month after the revelation that ex-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, former Archbishop of Washington DC, was a compulsive predator. His serial molestation of seminarians was an open secret, and cannot possibly have come as a surprise to some of his friends in the US hierarchy.
The grand jury report – which examined only a tiny fraction of America’s nearly 200 dioceses – has set off an explosion of rage from US Catholics on social media, including many priests.
These Catholics were already disgusted by the evasive comments from McCarrick's leading associates. Their protestations that they knew nothing of his crimes have been greeted with derision.
The Catholic News Agency reports that 23 Pennsylvania grand jurors spent 18 months investigating the six dioceses, examining half a million pages of documents.
They identified more than 1,000 victims of 300 credibly accused priests. Their report 'presents a devastating portrait of efforts by Church authorities to, ignore, obscure, or cover up allegations – either to protect accused priests or to spare the Church scandal.’
According to CNA’s Christiane Rousselle, the dioceses effectively constructed a ‘playbook for concealing the truth'. She writes: ‘These include use of phrases like “boundary issues” or ”inappropriate contact” instead of explicitly referring to rape and sexual abuse [and] assigning priests to investigate their peers, instead of using qualified and objective personnel, and a reliance on psychological assessments and diagnoses based upon the self-reporting of clerics.’
It is true that abuse by priests spiked during the 1970s and 80s. Two thirds of the accused Pennsylvania priests are thought to be dead. In the 2000s, better screening processes by the US bishops reduced the incidence of abuse in America.
Even so, the collapse of ordinary Catholics’ confidence in their bishops is unprecedented and it is hard to see how it can be reversed.
The US bishops’ 2002 ‘Dallas Charter’ on clerical abuse specifically excluded bishops from disciplinary procedures. That detail was not widely noticed at the time – but is shockingly relevant now we know that the charter’s main author was Cardinal McCarrick, who carried on molesting seminarians in his beach house, inviting them to call him ‘Uncle Ted’.
How could his protégé, Cardinal Kevin Farrell, the Vatican prelate responsible for Laity, Family and Life, not have known anything, as he claims? He shared an apartment with McCarrick – now no longer a cardinal after he was forced to resign – for six years when he was his Vicar General and auxiliary bishop in the Washington archdiocese.
Likewise, how could the current archbishop, Cardinal Donald Wuerl, not have suspected anything? Wuerl is under particular pressure. He was formerly Bishop of Pittsburgh, one of the six dioceses covered by the grand jury report. Today he mounted a vigorous defence of his record there.
Arguably, Wuerl did himself more damage by giving a video interview last week to his friend Fr Thomas Rosica, an arch-liberal Francis loyalist. The two men expressed ‘disappointment’ at McCarrick’s behaviour. 'I don't think this is some massive, massive crisis,' said Wuerl. You can watch part of the interview here.
The smug tone of the Wuerl-Rosica exchange appalled many Catholics, for whom it symbolised the self-congratulatory complacency of McCarrick’s allies, who had previously showered praise on ‘Cardinal Ted’ for his left-leaning rhetoric about ‘social justice’.
What is certain is that the coincidence of McCarrick's disgrace and the Pennsylvania revelations will escalate the culture war in the American Church between liberal supporters of Pope Francis and conservatives who mistrust the Pope and his well-connected cheerleaders, known as ‘Team Francis’.
Conservatives should be cautious, however. Further investigations into sex abuse may implicate at least one of their own champions. No one who has followed the atrocities of the past 30 years can credibly argue that only liberal clergy make sexual advances to young men or boys.
Meanwhile, Catholic Twitter is ablaze. The mood is perhaps best captured by by Fr Philip De Vous, a priest and scholar associated with the conservative Acton Institute. In a series of tweets, he wrote:
I’ve given my whole life to serving Christ in His Church. Since beginning seminary in 1994, every year has brought revelations of the darkest corruption, criminal moral perversion [and] unbelievable incompetence. Then I read the papers or catch the evening news and I see Cardinals and bishops that I know for a fact are lying with impunity...
Until I went to seminary I was not aware of knowing a single criminal sex abuser. Since then, apparently, I’ve rubbed elbows with dozens, some being high-ranking prelates … Without The New York Times, The Boston Globe, and the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s Office, the bishops would still be lying, obfuscating, and making asinine and entirely forgettable remarks about economics and immigration while ignoring corruption, abuse of power, abortions procured by predator priests, systemic homosexual predation, paedophilia, sexual harassment, and rape in their own ranks.
And despite these revelations they don’t appear to be all that upset about it.
They will be upset, however, if they are forced out of office. And that is an increasingly likely prospect. The question is: how many will go? Cardinal Wuerl must be worried. Some younger bishops have little sympathy with him.
Pope Francis, so far as we know, is not implicated in any of these scandals. On the other hand, his record of rooting out child abusers in Chile is so dismal that no one familiar with it reposes much confidence in him.
One delicate matter was raised on Twitter today by an account run by schismatic ultra-traditionalists whose views would normally be ignored by mainstream Catholics.
The sedvacantist @NovusOrdoWatch, which believes there is no valid pope, asked: 'With all the sex abuse hitting the fan now, does the Vatican really think it has any credibility to host a “youth synod” in October?'
It's a good question.