By Ryan D. Jayne
It’s becoming a story as old as the church itself: A young sexual assault survivor courageously reports his or her abuser, only to be shunned and abused again, while the abuser escapes punishment and rises in the ranks of the church. Decades later, we learn far too late that there were scores of victims. These stories are so common with the Catholic Church that they most often make up the lion’s share of the Black Collar Crime section in Freethought Today. But it’s still hard to keep track of them all.
The Vatican recently released a 445-page report detailing myriad allegations of sexual assault against former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, to date the highest-ranking Catholic priest to be defrocked for assaulting children and young adults. The report reveals a rampant pattern of abuse, dating back at least to the 1980s, during which church officials not only ignored allegations, but actively helped protect McCarrick and even joined in the abuse themselves.
The report comes more than two decades too late for the survivors. At this point, few could be surprised by yet another such report. Few were; the report has barely made a splash. We’ve been desensitized and are inured to the fact that the Catholic Church has regularly covered up sexual abuse. That alone should convince Roman Catholics around the world that it is finally time to quit the Catholic Church. Even with a popular and supposedly reformist pope, the church has not changed and will not change.
According to the report, Pope John Paul II knew of credible allegations against McCarrick at least by 1999. Rather than investigating or referring the case to local authorities, he decided to promote McCarrick, in large part because they were friends. After the McCarrick report came out, most news outlets rightly condemned the then-pope’s actions (and Pope Benedict’s inaction when he succeeded John Paul II), but then pivoted to the conclusion that Pope Francis, the current pontiff, was unaware of the allegations until 2017, at which point he took decisive action to remove McCarrick.
Even if you believe that, the claim that the Vatican only heard allegations against McCarrick in 1999 is deeply misleading. The report actually details individuals who alerted the church to McCarrick’s crimes far earlier. One survivor reported McCarrick to a church official as early as 1985, when a future priest informed Monsignor Anthony Gambino, a senior official at the Diocese of Metuchen (New Jersey), that McCarrick had assaulted him at an overnight beach house trip.
“McCarrick dictated the sleeping arrangements” such that there were insufficient beds, so McCarrick and the young man he was interested in would have to share, says the report. Then, “when McCarrick noticed that [the young man] was wearing pajamas over his underwear, he was displeased” and encouraged him to remove his pajamas. Next, McCarrick pressured the young man into exchanging back rubs and, when they were under the covers, “wrapped his body around [him].” The young man “described himself as being ‘ensnared’ and could feel that McCarrick was sexually aroused,” at which point he rebuked the advance, which “pissed off” McCarrick, and then ran out of the room.
Rape and sexual assault are crimes that should be reported to the police. That apparently never happens in the Catholic hierarchy. At most, the crimes are reported to someone higher up in the chain. But even that didn’t happen here. Instead, Gambino admonished the young man for speaking up and arranged for a counseling session with another priest, Edward Zogby. After taking his confession, the report says Zogby “wanted to give [the survivor] a hug, and then tried to kiss him and grabbed his crotch.” The next year, McCarrick was promoted to Archbishop of Newark.
And this horrifying story is just 10 pages of the 445-page report.
In 2019, the Vatican finally conducted an “administrative penal process” and concluded that McCarrick was culpable, although the pedophile priest’s only punishment is house arrest. It appears McCarrick, now 90, will never serve a day in prison. If not for a whistleblower in 2017, McCarrick’s crimes likely never would have become public, and he would have maintained his position as a senior cardinal, and his reputation as a “pastoral, intelligent and zealous bishop,” despite his career of rampant abuse.
The Catholic Church silencing victims and covering up sexual abuse is nothing new. A 2018 grand jury report in Pennsylvania found that two bishops covered up “the sexual abuse of hundreds of children by more than 50 priests and other religious leaders over a 40-year period.” An independent inquiry report, released on the same day as the McCarrick report found that “child sexual abuse was swept under the carpet” in the United Kingdom, as the church prioritized its reputation above all else. No one could rationally deny that the church, for decades, if not centuries, has facilitated and perpetuated sexual abuse at an almost unimagineable scale.
It would be naive in the extreme to think that the church’s assembly line of abuse and cover-up will not continue. Outlets that praised Pope Francis for publishing the McCarrick report note that he did so despite fierce internal resistance in the upper echelons of the church. Even presuming that the current pope sincerely wants to fix the church’s systemic promotion of abuse, the institution does not want to be fixed.
Powerful church officials will undoubtedly conceal reports of sexual misconduct from Pope Francis in the future — they almost certainly already have — to protect the reputations and bank accounts of the church, their friends, and themselves.
And there is little to no discussion on the one thing that would most work to fix the problem: justice. Even “Pope Fluffy” has not instructed the Church hierarchy and its adherents to report these crimes — and they are crimes — to the police or law enforcement. Defrocking a 90-year-old serial abuser, and sentencing him to house arrest, is far too little, far too late.
The church is not going to change anytime soon, and anyone deluding themselves into thinking otherwise is complicit in widespread, institutionally protected sexual abuse.
Ryan Jayne is a staff attorney for FFRF.