10 October 2018
Clerical abuse: prelates must be treated as priests
Archbishop (formerly Cardinal) Theodore McCarrick is the most troubling case, but there are others. The allegations made by Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, retired papal nuncio to the United States, were that important people in the Church, right up to and including Pope Francis, had shielded Archbishop McCarrick from proper investigation
and therefore from justice, and instead had procured his promotion.
It has become clear that Archbishop Viganò has overstated his charges, and he has been publicly rebuked by the senior Vatican prelate, Cardinal Marc Ouellet, to whom he had initially appealed for support. He had knitted an array of disparate facts and rumours into almost diabolical conspiracy to pervert the Catholic faith.
The attacks on Pope Francis are driven by a distaste for his determination to take forward the reform and renewal of the Church. But disturbing facts and rumours remain. Pope Francis has ordered a thorough investigation of all matters relating to the career of Archbishop McCarrick. But the suspicion lingers that over the course of several decades and under successive popes (McCarrick was first installed as an auxiliary bishop in New York in 1977, in the final year of the papacy of Paul VI) other senior church figures have escaped from the due processes – ecclesiastical as well as civil – to which they should have been subjected.
The issue is simple. If the Church wishes to practise zero tolerance in abuse cases, as it says it does, then bishops, archbishops and cardinals have to be treated in exactly the same way as any other clergy. That is to say, if an allegation of abuse is made against them, the working assumption has to be that it may be true. The individual has to step aside from public ministry while it is investigated, usually by the police and civil authorities. Otherwise other children may be left at risk.
Even if the police bring no criminal charges, which means they do not think a case could be proved beyond reasonable doubt, the Church itself must seek an independent opinion as to whether it is safe for the individual to be returned to his priestly duties.
Reports that the Westminster archdiocese did not deal properly with accusations of abuse made against Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor need a clear and transparent response from the diocese, either to reassure people that safeguarding procedures were followed correctly and explain how, or to admit mistakes and take full responsibility for them. Otherwise people will simply lose trust in the procedures and in the diocese. And the suspicion will linger that the cardinal was treated differently to ordinary parish priests, out of deference to his office.
Archbishop Viganò has added to that impression by claiming that Pope Francis himself intervened to halt an investigation into Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. That allegation should be directly responded to. Only thus will the smell of scandal start to go away.