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What did the American bishops know, and when did they know it? This is the question everyone is asking in the wake of public revelations that Cardinal Theodore McCarrick had, for years, preyed on seminarians who visited his beach house. It is a reasonable question, a necessary question. I hope that someday soon, a few brave bishops will begin asking it, too—and giving the restive Catholic faithful some answers.

But it is not the most important question. For anyone exploring the corruption of the Catholic hierarchy, the question of how Cardinal McCarrick avoided exposure and prosecution, though important, is less critical than the question of how his rise through the ecclesiastical ranks continued, even while rumors about homosexual activities swirled around him. Why was McCarrick named archbishop of Washington, and given a cardinal’s red hat? Why was he allowed to promote his proteges, to serve special diplomatic assignments for the Vatican, to influence the selection of bishops and even of a Roman Pontiff, after his beach-house antics had become a matter of common knowledge?

The more obvious question, the what-did-they-know-and-when question, admits of an easy, albeit unsatisfactory answer. McCarrick’s colleagues can say, more or less honestly, that they had heard reports about his approaches to seminarians, but did not know whether the reports were true. The question allows for an epistemological dodge: Other bishops did not really know, in the sense that they had no definitive proof. So they had an excuse for their failure to take action—or so they thought.

Reporters, likewise, had heard the stories about McCarrick but had no proof. Rod Dreher and Julia Duin have written about their fruitless searches for a witness who would go on the record. Without personal testimony, they had only hearsay evidence. I experienced the same frustration.

Nevertheless, I knew, as did many reporters covering Catholic affairs. By the year 2000, when McCarrick was named archbishop of Washington, many American bishops had received personal letters from some of the young men McCarrick had approached. A delegation of influential Catholics had traveled to Rome to warn Vatican officials about the scandal. Though no one had legal proof, everyone interested in the question had, at the very least, serious suspicions. Why would the Catholic hierarchy promote someone who was even suspected of homosexual predation?

A personal anecdote: In 2003, a colleague asked me to join in an initiative, promoting a good cause. I was favorably inclined, until my colleague told me that Cardinal McCarrick would be a sponsor. At that point, I said that I wanted nothing to do with the project. (There was no need to explain to my colleague why I did not wish to be associated with the cardinal. He knew. Everybody knew.)

Why were so many others, including American bishops and Vatican officials, willing and eager to ally with McCarrick, despite the fact that “everybody knew”? Who was promoting his interests? And whose interests was he promoting?

After such a devastating scandal, any normal organization would do some forensic work, looking carefully at the records to see who had recommended McCarrick for higher office—and who had gained their status on his recommendation.

Newark’s Cardinal Joseph Tobin (who, by the way, is regarded as one of McCarrick’s proteges) has said that the past month’s revelations point to a need for better policies and procedures within the Church. But the policies for dealing with a homosexual predator have always been in place. The problem has been the unwillingness of Church leaders to invoke the policies, to use the proper procedures. Or, to put it a bit differently: As the political experts remind us, personnel is policy. 

The failure of Church leaders to take action against McCarrick when they first heard of his offenses, perhaps twenty years ago, is evidence of the need for reform within the hierarchy. The fact that many prelates took action for McCarrick—making him their spokesman, enlisting his help, following his lead—speaks to the urgency of the crisis.

Nor is this an exclusively American problem. Pope Francis has given prominent posts to cardinals who are tainted by scandal, and allowed them to remain in those posts despite mounting evidence against them.

Take, for example, the Council of Cardinals—the nine cardinals who serve as the pontiff’s board of advisers on questions of Church reform. The coordinator of the group is Honduran Cardinal Oscar Maradiaga, whose favored deputy, Bishop Juan Jose Pineda Fasquelle, resigned last week amid charges of both sexual abuse (with seminarians, again) and financial misconduct. Cardinal Maradiaga has likewise been accused of financial misconduct, having accepted tens of thousands of dollars from the Honduran government and deposited the funds in European banks. Perhaps he is innocent, but at best he is liable to questions. Since he has already reached the canonical retirement age of 75, it would be a simple matter to replace him as effective chairman of the pope’s advisory panel. To keep him in a high-profile post—a post dedicated to reform, no less—would send an unfortunate signal, countering the pope’s professed determination to root out corruption. 

The Council of Cardinals also includes Cardinal Francisco Errazuriz, the retired archbishop of Santiago, Chile. Back in May, when the active Chilean bishops resigned en masse because of the burgeoning sex-abuse scandal in that country, Cardinal Errazuriz was immune; he had retired eight years earlier. But he, too, has been a target for criticism, since he reportedly sought to persuade Vatican officials not to listen to complaints about a notorious Chilean priest. By September, when the Council of Cardinals meets again, Cardinal Errazuriz will be 85 years old, and again it would seem natural to replace him. To keep him on board would be another unsettling signal.

To regain the credibility they have lost in recent decades, Catholic bishops in America and in Rome must do more than apologize for the transgressions of others. They must acknowledge their own offenses—their willingness to tolerate abusive clerics, to protect them, to promote them.

In 2002, when the American bishops met in Dallas to discuss the burgeoning sex-abuse scandal, I was among the hundreds of reporters on hand. As we milled about the press room, I was struck by the convergence of journalists’ opinions. Colleagues from one end of the ideological spectrum to the other joined around the coffee machine, shaking their heads and saying of the assembled bishops, “They don’t get it.” A similar convergence has occurred since the McCarrick scandal erupted. The remedy for negligent bishops is diligent bishops. The answer to corrupt bishops will come from bishops dedicated to reform.

In the first Scripture reading at Mass this past Sunday, Catholics heard the striking words of Jeremiah: “Woe to the shepherds who destroy the sheep of my pasture.” But the prophecy, dire in its condemnation of the abusive shepherds, provides some help for the long-suffering Catholic flock: “I will set shepherds over them who will care for them, and they shall fear no more, nor be dismayed, neither shall any be missing, says the Lord.” 

Surely there are at least a few shepherds out there, mindful of their people’s dismay, ready to speak out at last? Oremus.

Philip Lawler is editor of Catholic World News and author of Lost Shepherd: How Pope Francis is Misleading his Flock.

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