Over the past two days, I’ve been digesting the news about Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, the retired Archbishop of Washington. What is that news? Well, it’s in two parts:
- The first part was that he has been “credibly” accused of abusing a minor about 50 years ago.
- The second part is that this has occasioned stories about many more allegations of sexual activity on his part with priests and seminarians; meaning that it involved preying on subordinates.
Now, I don’t know if any of this is true. I hope none of it happened; but reading about this has made me sick in my stomach, and angry. Angry at the crimes themselves, if they happened; but even angrier at what seems to have been an “open secret” for many people for so many years.
Given what I’ve been reading, some of which was published at least eight years ago, it seems clear to me that this really was a pretty open “secret.” Which means that all the bishops – in Newark, in New York, in Metuchen, New Jersey and in Washington, D.C. – who are now issuing statements of “sadness” and “shock” – surely knew that McCarrick had been accused of misconduct before. We learned yesterday that at least two allegations, involving adults, had resulted in settlements. What else is there?
Someone might say, but this whole scandal business is old news. Where have you been, Father Fox?
Where I’ve been is living with it. I remember where I was in 2002, when so much of this fecal matter hit the fan in the U.S. I was in the seminary, preparing for my final year. I was interviewed by the local paper for my reaction to the awful things we were all hearing about. And I remember what I said: that all I could do was strive to be a good, holy priest. Of course, there was and is more I can do; but that was my answer as a seminarian.
So why is this making me so angry, 16 years later? Because it is 16 years later, and we’re still dealing with cover-ups!
Every day – every single day – as a priest, I live with the consequences of the abominable crimes committed by a small number of priests and bishops, but which were facilitated by many bishops, either by active connivance, or by neglect, or by covering it up. This gets called a “priest” scandal, but that omits the obvious fact that there was a failure of oversight. Without excusing any priest’s crimes, I think the failure of oversight was more culpable, since it so often meant one perverted priest causing such a wide path of destruction.
Let me pause my rant here and say something about silence. If anyone wonders, I have not been silent. As a priest, I am required by law, and by Archdiocesan policy, to report any information I receive (outside the seal of confession) to proper authorities. In my 15 years as a priest, I have been given such information many times; and every single time I have reported it both to local law enforcement, and to the Archdiocese. There are ways this whole process is awkward, and I can go into that if desired. Many times the information was very sketchy, so I doubt what I passed along was much help; but I reported it.
At no time have I been aware of any priest or seminarian engaging in any misconduct – other than, of course, something I learned in the news media. Sometimes people voice suspicions, but I can’t take that seriously when there is a total absence of facts.
I mention all this simply because someone might be thinking, well, what about you, Father Fox? Have you been part of this culture of silence? This is my answer.
So back to the main theme of my rant. I’m angry about what looks like a continuing culture of silence. Look: I respect confidentiality. People need and expect a priest to be able to keep his mouth shut. People confess their sins to God, in the presence of a priest, only because they are assured we remain silent, and that is right. People come to us, outside the confessional, with troubles and embarrassing problems, and they only feel safe doing that because they count on our discretion. And they should be able to do that. I am very good at keeping secrets.
But that’s not what this is! This is something else. If I were a bishop, and this sort of information reached my ears, I would look into it. I wouldn’t wait for someone to find me; I’d find those who could give me first-hand information. It would be my job to make it easy for them to share their stories. What’s more, I would do what I could to get someone in Rome to take an interest as well.
Maybe the bishops who knew about these McCarrick stories did all these things. But very honestly, I doubt it. And if I were advising the bishops in the dioceses directly affected by all this, I would tell them: “Do you want people to believe you? You need to address whether you knew about all these stories, and how you responded to them. People are going to be very dubious that you could be utterly unaware of all these allegations.”
The whole Church suffers from these crimes and the wounds they cause. One of the wounds is that people lose trust and become cynical. Maybe I am naïve; maybe it’s just that I’ve been focusing on my parish and my ministry, and I usually don’t want to dabble in gossip and innuendo. But today, this really has me upset, and I believe our bishops, and those in Rome who are concerned with these things, absolutely must answer the concerns of the faithful about how much of this covering-up is still going on. Get all the poison out. The pope knows there are perverts in high places; he himself referred to a “gay lobby” in the Vatican. (And just to be clear, while a lot of this is homosexual corruption, not all of it is. There is heterosexual corruption too.) So it’s time to answer the question:
What are we doing about it?
There are so many other thoughts, but it will exhaust me to write them all down, and it would exhaust you to read them. It breaks my heart to think of people wondering if their priest is some sort of pervert, preying on kids. I recall the time an individual came to me, and revealed he had been abused by a priest, many years before, in that same parish. It broke my heart, and I begged him for forgiveness. Last night the seminarian staying here this summer and I took our “MC”s – that is, the older altar boys who lead the others – out for wings as a thank you for all they do. Does anyone think there was anything improper? It makes me ill to think of it.
How much of a problem are we talking about? Priests are men, prone to all temptations. Greed is surely a temptation, as is unholy ambition. So is the desire for approval. I am tempted to laziness, to seeking too many comforts, to gluttony, to pride and wrath and arrogance, and to lust. The story goes around of a man in confession asking the priest, “Father, do you ever get old enough that you don’t experience lustful thoughts?” “Yes,” the priest assured him – “about 30 seconds before you die!”
Maybe I am naïve, but I do believe most priests try to be faithful. But I am sure some are living in situations that are gravely immoral, either with wealth gotten through theft or deception, or with a girl- or boyfriend on the side, or with other perversions. I can imagine the rationalizations. And I have no doubt that some number of clergy have looked the other way regarding others’ misdeeds, either because of fear, which is somewhat understandable, or because of cynicism or laziness, which is far less so. Many more priests are wrestling with sin, just as you are, and trying their best with prayer and spiritual direction and the sacraments to overcome them.
Inevitably, someone will say, “This is why I left the Catholic Church!” or, “This is why you should!” That makes no sense to me. I was raised Catholic, I left at 19 and came back at 29. I came back not because I thought the Church had especially holy bishops and priests; no, not even because I thought the ordinary person in the pew was especially holy. No, I chose to re-embrace my Catholic Faith for one very simple reason: I became convinced that Jesus Christ founded the Catholic Church, and I wanted to be in the Church that is his mystical Body.
It is not “okay” that the Church has so many wounds; but it is not a new problem. Rather, it is a very ancient problem. Jesus himself dealt with it from the very beginning. Throughout the history of the Faith, we always have individuals who cry out against the sins of Christians, clergy, religious and laity. It is almost a constant. And yes, many movements that broke away from Rome did so precisely because of immorality and corruption. Tell me: has any that made its own way conquered these problems? Show me.
While I was writing this, I heard the church bells ring three o’clock, telling me I needed to get over to lead the Divine Mercy chaplet and then hear confessions. To my surprise, there was a long line waiting for me. In between penitents, I found myself wondering why there was so many, unusual for a summer afternoon. Then a thought occurred to me: is God telling me something? I want to marinate in my anger, but perhaps caring for others is a better route.
So I come back to what I told that reporter in 2002: my best response to all this is to strive all the more for my own holiness. I am a sinful man, but I am trying to be faithful. Other priests too, many heroically. Pray for us and let us help each other in holiness. It may not seem fair, but while corruption taints other parts of the Body, the one thing no one can stop you and me from doing is to contribute that much more our own prayer and penance.