David Gibson | May 6, 2019
“It seems to be a fact that you have to suffer as much from the Church as for it,” Flannery O’Connor once wrote, and for Catholics, each day’s headlines this past year have been a ritualistic confirmation of that unsettling judgment.
The annus horribilis began in June 2018 with revelations that Pope Francis had removed the retired archbishop of Washington, D.C., Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, from public ministry following a confidential Church investigation that substantiated allegations he had abused a boy in New York City in the 1970s. One month later, Francis forced McCarrick, 88, to resign from the College of Cardinals — an exceedingly rare punishment.
Then, in February, after an expedited Vatican process prompted by new allegations that McCarrick had abused other boys years ago, and revelations that he had engaged in inappropriate conduct with seminarians, he was expelled from the clergy entirely, completing his precipitous and unprecedented fall. At last word the infirm ex-cardinal was living in a friary in the middle of the Kansas plains.
The shock of the case was hard to overstate: McCarrick had always been a personable and peripatetic figure whose approach to ministry aligned closely with Francis’ call for a pastoral mission of engagement, and his fall from grace was steeper, faster and further than any other prelate’s in memory. It also seemed to precipitate a perfect storm of abuse-related events that would wash over the global Church, but would arguably hit American Catholics hardest. That’s really no surprise: Given our long experience of the abuse scandal — we’ve been hearing about this story since the 1980s, after all — Catholics in the United States have a short fuse for anything that suggests the crisis has not been dealt with.
Yet there it was, back again, and again. McCarrick’s disgrace was followed in August by the release of the Pennsylvania attorney general’s grand jury report, two years in the making and hundreds of pages long, recounting 1,000-plus cases of child sexual abuse by some 300 priests over seven decades. The report reverberated as powerfully as The Boston Globe’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “Spotlight” investigation had in 2002, a series that followed a decade of earlier revelations — and years of concomitant episcopal promises that the problem had been resolved, and yes, you can trust us on that.
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