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  • Safiya Umrani

What the Catholic Church Can Learn from the McCarrick Report

The Catholic Church has been grappling with the fallout of sexual assault accusations for nearly two decades now, and the latest allegations only add fuel to the fire. On November 10, the Vatican released its full, 449-page internal investigation on Theodore McCarrick. The 90-year-old former cardinal and Archbishop was defrocked in February of 2019 after being found guilty of sexual abuse of minors and adults. The Vatican’s decision was regarded as “the most significant abuse-related punishment given to a former cardinal in the modern history of the Roman Catholic Church,” according to New York Times writer Chico Harlan. This latest report covers, in detail, several cases of sexual assault brought against McCarrick since the mid-1980s. The report also contains information about church officials who were aware of his behavior, among them the late Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI. Knowing not only that the abuse spans nearly 40 years but the highest members of the ecclesial hierarchy were aware does not bode well for the Catholic Church.

There is a long-lasting culture of denial to protect the most powerful and well-respected members of the Church. Oftentimes, clergymen are guarded at the expense of the most loyal followers. There has been knowledge of assault in the Church for many years, but until McCarrick, bishops and other superiors were hardly reprimanded. Cases were kept under tight control. The rise of social movements that addressed the issue of sexual assault and the struggle of survivors, however, changed the tradition of passivity of the Church’s abuses in an unprecedented way. Specifically, after a record number of prominent Hollywood executives like Harvey Weinstein were accused of sexual assault, the MeToo movement gained traction and survivors were taken much more seriously. Abusers finally began to face the consequences of their actions. This changing attitude towards the issue of sexual assault has deeply affected public opinion and trust in the Catholic Church. With attendance at an all-time low due to the pandemic, the Catholic Church is in desperate need for support. Now is a critical period for the Church to show support for victims if it hopes to gain back parishioners with the utmost confidence and remain a widely valued institution.

Sexual assault in the Church certainly isn’t new, but public reporting and taking legal action are relatively recent. The Church has historically taken extreme measures to cover up assault and avoid scandal at all costs. The most famous article to date came from the Boston Globe in 2002, claiming that the Archdiocese of Boston was aware that priest John J. Geoghan and at least 70 others had been molesting young boys since the 1980s. Before that, there were a substantial number of complaints filed against the former priest James R. Porter in 1992, most of which were settled with hush money. It was discovered that after receiving complaints of sexual abuse, most priests were simply reassigned to a new parish, with no consideration taken as to whether or not they’d be working with children.

The McCarrick case was no exception to the Church’s historic cover-up tactics. Pope John Paul II appointed McCarrick to the Archdiocese of Washington even after receiving warning from another cardinal. His successor, Pope Benedict XVI removed McCarrick from the Archdiocese but refused to formally investigate the allegations. He asked the Vatican to “appeal to McCarrick’s conscience,” suggesting that he maintain a low profile instead. Men like McCarrick and Porter were allowed to rise through the ranks unscathed. Anybody brave enough to challenge the Church was met with immense backlash from the community as a whole. Young men, although the most frequent targets, are less likely to speak up and be believed as victims of sexual abuse. A “real man” won’t let somebody assault them, nor would a man of the cloth have sexual thoughts about another man. This makes for an easier cover up. The MeToo movement, however, proved to be a vital force in dismantling this stigma around male sexual assault victims and bringing their stories to light. Part of their work is to be indiscriminate and dispel the feeling shame around having been assaulted. By confronting gender sterotypes in larger conversations of sexual abuse and misconduct, The MeToo movement has helped more male victims of the Catholic Churches abuses speak out without fear of failing to be “a real man.”

Thus, the MeToo movement has encouraged people to break their silence. In recent years, public opinion about blame in sexual assault cases has shifted in favor of the victim. It used to be that the perpetrator was believed because it fell on the accuser to prove that the action wasn’t consensual or desired. Now, thanks to MeToo in the United States and identical movements around the world, the norms are changing. Though MeToo started with female victims of sexual assault, both men and women are becoming increasingly open about their experiences. People are more likely to believe survivors. It has prompted others to come out and share their own stories in solidarity. Many industries and institutions refuse to be associated with that kind of misconduct, legally proven or not. Sexual assault is suddenly a much more common phenomenon than a lot of people thought and hiding the culprits is a dangerous move.

Nonetheless, there are still those in the Catholic Church who are wary to give credit to any allegations. It’s harder to admit to sexual assault when the knowledge of it goes so high up. Bishops from Poland, Pope John Paul II’s home country, are coming to his defense. Archbishop Stanislaw Gadecki claims that Paul was “cynically deceived” by Theodore McCarrick, after receiving a heartfelt letter from McCarrick denying the allegations against him. McCarrick himself was outspoken for many years against the sexual abuse of minors. The Church’s pride in their clergymen and the work that they do runs deep, but the public is not so fast to defend them anymore. There were 4,434 sexual abuse allegations against the clergy during the 2018-2019 audit year only. That’s triple the number from the year before. Ignoring the immense number of sexual abuse claims is becoming impossible, compounded by the fact that it was happening to children. The Catholic Church’s strategy of relocating priests and paying for their victims’ silence is no longer sustainable. It only works when victims don’t feel safe enough to report anything. In previous decades, the public was quick to renounce those who said they’d been assaulted by religious leaders, but in the age of MeToo, today’s society is more likely to validate victims’ experiences than it was when McCarrick was still active. Protecting a potential predator has become more detrimental than discovering a proven one.

After decades of cover-ups, the Catholic Church is suffering from the fallout of this new culture of accountability. They have been hurt both socially and economically. The Pew Research Center found that in 2019, 80% of Americans say the reports of sexual abuse reflect an “ongoing problem that is still happening” within the Church. A little over one quarter of U.S. Catholics said they have scaled back Mass attendance and the amount of money they donate to parishes in response to the reports of abuse and misconduct. Lawsuits from the latest wave of allegations could cost the Church more than $4 billion in payouts. State legislatures have also limited the use of nondisclosure agreements (NDAs) for harassment claims, which often bound church abuse victims from going public.

There is, however, a chance for recovery. The Church has already taken several steps to address and prevent further abuse. There has been extensive training and education on sexual abuse for members of the church as well as thorough background checks. Pope Francis abolished the policy of pontifical secrecy that applied to accusations of sexual abuse. Anything deemed a pontifical secret was considered the Church’s most classified knowledge and corroborating with the police was in direct defiance of that decree. Removing the policy has made it acceptable - though not required - to turn over information about abuse to the authorities. These are the kind of steps all churches, not just Catholic, should be taking to ensure that sexual abuse is eradicated.

As more and more victims of sexual abuse from clergymen come forward, many Catholic are forced to weigh their faith against their empathy. Abuse is not the rare isolated case that the Church once claimed it was. Many of the victims speaking out now have been living with this secret for most of their lives. They were abused as children in the latter half of the twentieth century. During that time, there was little to no discussion about sexual assault in any kind of environment, let alone the Catholic Church. Only now, during a climate of acceptance, do they feel as though the world is ready to listen with open hearts and minds. It makes one think about how many others over the years were sexually abused as children and never said anything. Even more disturbing, how many did speak up and were buried by the most superior members of the Church. It is unclear just how long the abuse has been going on and for how many. Luckily, changing social norms about how sexual assault should be handled are giving victims a platform for the first time. The MeToo movement is letting survivors know they’re not alone and that their attackers need to take responsibility. Although most of the blowback to the Catholic Church has been negative, it is also giving the institution an opportunity to clear the air. The public, including the Catholic community, is finally acknowledging sexual abuse as universal problem, not a taboo subject. Nobody can change what happened, but they can move forward appropriately.

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