Seven Lessons from the McCarrick Case

Following the long overdue revelations about the contemptible sexual misconduct of former cardinal Theodore McCarrick, many authors have rightly expressed their indignation toward him and his episcopal enablers. In this article, I will try not to spend much time on ground already well trod, but will rather highlight some of the lessons from the McCarrick scandal that neither Catholic clergy nor lay Catholics have any excuse for ignoring ever again.

Lesson One
The first lesson is that if you want to address a sin, you have to name that sin for what it is. For this reason, the bishops who produced the 2002 Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People cannot credibly claim to have been serious about addressing the problem of the sexual abuse of minors by Catholic clergy. Had they been serious, they would have identified, in view of the evidence, the main source of the problem instead of suggesting another source. It was never pedophilia as such (the sexual abuse of a prepubescent child of either sex by an adult [or a near-adult] of either sex); rather, it was, and still is, clerical homosexuality (sex or sex-related acts between post-pubescent males). If it proves true that one of McCarrick’s victims was a boy as young as eleven, then he would, in that (or any such) case, be guilty of homosexual pedophilia. The age range of McCarrick’s victims does not change the nature of the problem.

With McCarrick as a key player in the formulation of the Charter, along with disgraced Cardinal Mahoney of Los Angeles, it is not difficult to understand the document’s fundamental dishonesty. The problem of clerical homosexuality, which needed so urgently to be addressed, and which has yet to be effectively addressed despite strict guidelines established by the Vatican in 2005, exists not only among priests, but also among the bishops. By withholding the truth, such bishops were providing cover for themselves. Perhaps cowardice and political correctness also played a role in the episcopal refusal to name the sin for what it really is.

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Lesson Two
The second lesson from the McCarrick case which we must no longer ignore is that whenever the Church fails to uphold, foster, and live by the truth she professes, grave and enduring consequences follow. The episcopal decision, from 2001 on, not to name the sin and root it out has allowed the problem of active, clerical homosexuality to continue and to grow. Tragically, this means that sexual abuse by homosexual clerics will also continue, and that the number of such incidents will grow. One can only hope that the prospect of a cleric’s facing serious civil and ecclesiastical sanctions for perpetrating such a heinous crime will serve as a deterrent; however, that, in itself, will neither solve the problem nor prevent its happening.

Let us also consider that if, when the occasion urged itself, the bishops had been honest about the primary source of the sexual abuse problem in the Church, we might have never arrived at the insane point of sexual degeneracy that we are now witnessing in our society and its institutions. People in general would have gotten the message and perhaps been far more vigilant about opposing the aggressive, secular gay agenda. So, if the bishops had named the sin and stemmed the flow at its source, it is entirely possible that homosexual behavior, and the acceptance of it, would not have flourished so greatly within and beyond the Church.

Lesson Three
The public revelation of McCarrick’s misdeeds has forced some bishops to admit that even the members of their episcopal fraternity, and not just lowly priests, must be held accountable for predatory behavior and abuse of power—and this not only where minors are concerned but also adults. At the same time, however, the McCarrick case suggests that a number of bishops, imbued, it seems, with the secular mindset, have been looking the other way when clerical sexual activity has ostensibly involved “mutual consent” with another adult—assuming, of course, that “no one gets hurt.”

Taking their cue, therefore, from moribund Western culture at large, some episcopal (and other Catholic) minds have come to regard the presence or the absence of mutual consent as the benchmark of what is morally permissible and what is not. Those bishops seem blissfully unaware that even just one man’s sin, never mind consensual sin, drags down everybody else. As Saint John Paul II has reminded us, the mystery of human solidarity gives rise not only to the Communion of Saints, but also to its inverse, “a communion of sin” (Reconciliatio et Paenitentia, 16).

Lesson three, then, is that it is absolutely inexcusable for any bishop ever to ignore any instances of clerical sexual immorality of which they become aware. That these are taking place between consenting adults is irrelevant. The bishops must be held strictly and sternly accountable for ignoring these or any other offenses against human dignity, the Body of Christ, and the human family. By their failure both to expose the grave clerical sins of which they are aware, and to punish their perpetrators accordingly, they demonstrate their ignorance of what constitutes immoral behavior and thus reveal their unfitness for episcopal office. They should therefore be required to resign, or else be dismissed by the Apostolic See.

Christ intended his Church to be the Ark of salvation, not a den of depravation. In consequence, many Catholics now see that the Church needs an effective mechanism for clearing out the dead episcopal wood.

Lesson Four
The fourth lesson from the McCarrick case not to ignore follows from the third. Reflecting the distorted moral vision of some of its architects, Amoris Laetitia (AL) contains the same, dysfunctional “consent” mentality that has allowed the McCarrick scandal to fester and go unaddressed; therefore, unless the document is either revised thoroughly or scrapped completely, it will inevitably contribute to more of the same.

In particular, the “mutual consent” principle of moral “discernment” permeates AL’s eighth chapter, which presupposes its validity. Because the document uses it to justify certain “concrete situations” of immorality, the same principle can just as well be used to justify the type of immoral “situations” that lead directly to evils such as those perpetrated by McCarrick. Chapter eight’s “pastoral” plan of “accompaniment” serves merely as a cover for pastors to give tacit approval to consensual vice, if they are so inclined.

Let us substantiate the point. If a pastor is dealing with civilly divorced and “remarried” Catholics, he will naturally presume, without evidence to the contrary, that the couples have mutually consented to their “new union.” He might then go on to discern “constructive elements” in these consensual arrangements (AL, 292), such as “new children, proven fidelity, generous self-giving, Christian commitment,” and “sincere,” if conflicted, consciences (AL, 298). He might also discern that the divorced and “remarried” persons he is “accompanying” have been considerate of the party they abandoned, of the children born of that union, and of others affected by the new union (AL, 300). In other words, no one has gotten hurt.

In consequence, while these “new unions” might not conform to the “ideal” of Christian marriage, why would the pastor urge the consenting couples to separate, or at least to forgo sexual intercourse, since following either recommendation might “endanger” their relationship, and so, too, the good of the children (AL, n. 329)? Rather, the Church must “integrate” these couples more fully into her life, including her sacramental life (AL, 299; nn. 336, 351).

The implications are clear: Had the lack of mutual consent, the element of implicit or explicit coercion, the involvement of minors, and any other factors deemed negative, been absent from McCarrick’s extracurricular pursuits, then there would have been no real problem to address. Instead, we could simply appreciate and applaud the “constructive elements” flowing from his consensual, homosexual activity with other adults, such as its expressions of “love” and “affection,” of companionship, and of mutual support and affirmation. Since the “fruits” are so “good,” it follows that the activity from which they issue must also be “good.”

After all, the consenting parties were acting considerately and “in good conscience.” They were only following through on their “natural” inclination, on account of which they had “great difficulty” understanding the “inherent values” of the biblical proscriptions against homosexual activity (AL, 301). Indeed, their conscience gave them “a certain moral security” that this is what God was asking of them amid the complexity of their limits (AL, 303).

This is exactly where some bishops are already going with AL. Because it exalts “conscience” and the mutually consensual exercise of personal freedom over the objective truth about the moral good, the document is an unmitigated pastoral and moral disaster. With few exceptions, however, the Church’s leadership seems to be ignoring this lesson as they move to implement AL, indicating that it is still not serious about ending the McCarrick plague blighting the Church.

Lesson Five
Any number of individual bishops, and the bishops as a body, have proven untrustworthy to address the matter of clerical sexual abuse consistently and impartially. Even now that the news about McCarrick has become widely publicized, we are being treated to a number of unconvincing episcopal expressions of shock about the matter, and also to some rather sterile, pro forma statements regarding the need to address the issue of episcopal abuse. Some of those responses seem to have been issued for reasons of self-preservation. After all, a closer look into the matter is likely to reveal that more than a few bishops had deliberately refused to expose McCarrick, despite their having solid evidence of his moral turpitude. So, why not try and deflect attention from that inconvenient little fact with some belated, but thoroughly calculated PR?

Particularly telling, however, is that some of the suspect responses came from bishops who, armed with AL, are at the forefront of trying to advance the gay agenda in the Church. The McCarrick case has now forced them to conduct a delicate balancing act: they must condemn the ex-cardinal’s behavior—which, since its exposure, they have suddenly recognized as abominable—while simultaneously minimizing its connection with his homosexuality. They do not want this connection to hamper their efforts toward getting the Church to “welcome” active homosexuals into her midst—indeed, to embrace them, to “integrate” them, and to “celebrate” their “identity.”

So, the fifth lesson is this: the signs of the times demand a new, non-episcopal approach to investigating credible accusations of sexual abuse in the Church, whether against clergy or laity. The difficulty is how to establish such an approach. In terms of their office and its responsibilities, the bishops are directly accountable only to the pope. So, a non-episcopal solution would need to start there.

The Church needs independent investigations of credible accusations against bishops, priests, and deacons. She also needs an independent review of past episcopal handling of cases involving priests and deacons. Such a review must include instances where bishops have committed the gross but expedient injustice of destroying the ministry and the good name of innocent priests who were falsely accused, or who made the “mistake” of coming forward to report clerical crimes, or who were otherwise “guilty” of fidelity to the Catholic faith in their life and ministry. Those priests must be vindicated, and their bishops duly “rewarded.”

The pope would need to endow the investigating body, preferably consisting of competent lay Catholics or professionals, with the authority it would need to conduct its activities without being impeded by episcopal machinations. As for who would select the investigators, and how their investigations would be kept untainted, I have no idea. In any case, lay pressure on the bishops and the pope must be relentless, in order to keep the process moving forward.

Lesson Six
The sixth lesson not to ignore is that McCarrick’s vile crimes manifest the natural trajectory of the unnatural vice of active homosexual behavior. While it is not true that every active homosexual will take advantage of defenseless or unwilling victims, it is true that his acting on his objectively disordered inclination is inherently ordered in that direction. If he is heavily immersed in the gay subculture and identifies fully with it, then the chances are that under the “right” conditions, he will descend to the McCarrick level, even if he doesn’t intend to at present.

Though they have typically a deep sense of inferiority, gays often mask their feelings of shame, guilt, and inadequacy with a false sense of superiority, fueled, above all, by their transgressing the whole nature and purpose of human sexuality, as established by God in the beginning. By defying God and nature thus, and with seeming impunity, they become full of themselves. From there, it is but a small step toward their asserting their “superiority” over others, so as to force, manipulate, intimidate, seduce, or encourage them into taking part in the wicked acts out of which they get a perverse, sexual thrill. The hidden disregard that gays have for their true, personal dignity engenders a manifest disregard for the true, personal dignity of others, whom they become eager to exploit for their own sexual gratification. Their unconditional surrender to their insatiable lust has a profoundly deadening effect on conscience.

The basic characteristics just outlined regarding the gay psychology, their mentality, their modus operandi, and their moral destitution are typical of active homosexuals, not exceptional for them. They were at work in Theodore McCarrick and led directly to his crimes. Faithful Catholics must not ignore this lesson.

Lesson Seven
The McCarrick case, if thoroughly investigated, is sure to confirm that the number of unfaithful clerics who belong to, or who are sympathetic with, the homosexual network in the Church is significant. They, among others within and outside the Church, will undoubtedly be engaged in trying to bury the link between McCarrick’s crimes and his homosexuality. Though now constrained to decry what he has done, they will not allow this to derail their efforts to force Church teaching and practice to change, so that it accepts and caters to the gay “lifestyle”—including gay “marriage.” It follows that if the current push to admit married men into the priesthood proves successful, then we will eventually start hearing demands, in the name of “justice,” to allow men who have “married” their boyfriends to be ordained as well.

Lesson seven, then, is this: faithful Catholics must not ignore their duty to oppose all efforts to “welcome” and to “integrate” unrepentant gays into the Church. Nor must they be cowed by charges of “homophobia” or “discrimination” as they fulfill that duty. For the ecclesiastics behind these ploys are intent on nothing less than bringing more of their own into the Church, while also encouraging the ones already there to “come out,” meaning to act out. This can only portend more sexual abuse, more cover-ups, more scandal, and more ecclesial pollution, which would choke off the holiness of Christ’s Church, were that possible.

To be realistic, only a miraculous intervention of God will fully cleanse the Church of this filth. In the meantime, the Catholic faithful, whose number includes some exemplary bishops and priests, have a moral obligation to do what they can on that score, with God’s gracious help. The alternative? No one in any age group will be safe. Homosexual predation is “inclusive.” The biblical account of Sodom and Gomorrah has it exactly right.

(Photo credit: Franco Origlia / GettyImages)


  • Jeffrey Tranzillo

    Jeffrey Tranzillo earned his doctorate in theology at the Catholic University of America. He is the author of John Paul II on the Vulnerable (CUA Press, 2013). Some of his recent articles have appeared in Homiletic and Pastoral Review, and he posts others on his own website,

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