• Sara Larson

"We Have To Get This Right" - 8 Themes from Georgetown’s Public Dialogue about the McCarrick Report

Updated: Dec 31, 2020

On December 10, one month after the release of the McCarrick Report, I attended an online public dialogue hosted by Georgetown University’s Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life in collaboration with Fordham University’s Taking Responsibility Initiative. The one hour virtual discussion was facilitated by Dr. Bradford Hinze of Fordham, with survivor Juan Carlos Cruz, historian Kathleen Sprows Cummings, journalist David Gibson, and director of the Georgetown initiative John Carr serving as panelists. You can find more information about this event and view the complete video here: The McCarrick Report: Findings, Lessons, and Directions.

I found the entire discussion valuable, and I would certainly recommend taking an hour to view it yourself. However, I thought it might also be helpful for me to offer a summary of some of the key themes that I heard emerge in the discussion.

Systemic Problems

I don’t think there’s any way to read the McCarrick Report and not realize it reveals systemic problems - problems of culture that extend far beyond one or two “bad apples.” This was a key theme threading throughout last week's dialogue. Juan Carlos Cruz poignantly noted the widespread nature of problematic responses: “It was so many, and in so many different geographical places, and in the Vatican.” Kathleen Sprows Cummings reflected that, unfortunately, the McCarrick Report shows exactly how the Church works - and that “the layers of complicity are deep and very damning.” While “clerical culture” has become the most common way to refer to the systemic problems that seem to pervade the Catholic hierarchy, David Gibson added to the complexity of this issue by noting that this is more than just “an old boys network.” He observed that the report highlights a pervasive culture of gossiping, backstabbing, and “jockeying for power and position” among the hierarchy, with the Church being treated as “something to be dominated, a game to play” without any reference to the Gospel.

Abuse of Adults

Similarly, the entire McCarrick scandal points to the obvious problem of abuse of adults in the Catholic Church, and the way that Church systems were (and, I would maintain, still are) completely unprepared to respond appropriately to allegations of sexual abuse, misconduct, or harassment when the victims are over age 18. Only when someone finally accused McCarrick of abusing a child did any kind of serious response begin. Gibson identified this problem as one of the most important take-aways from the McCarrick Report, saying that the affair raises the important question, “How do we protect adults?” He also noted the continued stigma about reporting abuse and misconduct against adults, as evidenced by the fact that not a single one of those who experienced that type of abuse by McCarrick was willing to be publicly named in the report.

Follow the Money

Perhaps one of the most glaringly obvious deficiencies of the McCarrick Report is that it summarily dismisses the role that money may have played in Theodore McCarrick’s rise to power and insulation from accountability. As Carr explained, the report focused on the documentation available in Church files - and it’s unlikely that the influence of McCarrick’s fundraising prowess and extravagant gift-giving habits would be explicitly named in these records. Still, as Gibson pointed out, “money talks in the Church,” and it is clear that there are many unanswered questions related to McCarrick’s financial dealings - and how common financial manipulation and corruption might be throughout the existing Church hierarchy.

Selection of Bishops

Many lay Catholics know very little about how bishops are selected and promoted in the Church today, let alone how this process developed over time. However, the McCarrick Report lays bare the obvious problems in our current system, which relies on the opinions of bishops with little input by lay people and local clerics. As Gibson opined, “personnel is policy,” and change will come when our bishops are selected through a more inclusive process. Carr laid out an alternative vision for this process, in which candidates for the episcopacy in a particular diocese would meet with a diverse group of local Catholics for honest conversation about the needs of the diocese. This local group would then create a report of the strengths and weaknesses of individual candidates, which the Pope could consult in making his appointment. The panelists affirmed that a key change could be opening up this and other internal church process, so that more people are “in the room” where decisions are made.

Betrayal by a Friend

In the midst of this broader conversation, I was also struck by the intimate human story of Carr’s personal friendship with McCarrick. I have heard Carr speak before about his past working relationship with McCarrick, but I have never heard him address it so bluntly. Carr said that many years ago he asked McCarrick directly about the troubling rumors that were circulating. When McCarrick emphatically denied them, Carr remembers that he trusted McCarrick’s denial: “I believed him. I wanted to believe him.” Early in the event, Carr used the past tense to describe his relationship with McCarrick, saying “He was a friend.” However, near the end of the discussion he spoke in the present tense - “McCarrick is my friend. We have done good together.” - and said that this relationship made his feeling of betrayal even more painful. I respect Carr’s willingness to address his personal connection with McCarrick and share how he has wrestled with that relationship in light of these revelations. It’s a helpful reminder that good, intelligent people really can be deceived - and can also change their minds.

Victim-Survivors First

Every time I have seen him speak, Juan Carlos Cruz focuses on centering the needs of victim-survivors in every discussion about these issues. While the experiences and emotions of survivors vary greatly, Cruz asserted that “all these conversations have to begin and end with survivors in mind.” Both Cruz and Carr spoke with passion and frustration about the tendency of some Catholics to use victim-survivors for their own agenda, or, as Carr put it, “weaponize the abuse crisis” against those they disagree with. Gibson also noted that none of the revelations about McCarrick would have been possible without victims coming forward to share their stories; Gibson argued that therefore it is the job of all concerned Catholics to create an environment where victims can come forward and be believed and supported. With his characteristic sensitivity, Cruz used his final comments of the event to address a hopeful message to any victim-survivors who might be listening: “The world has changed. There’s going to be people... who will lend you a hand. The Catholic Church - and elsewhere - is full of good people that believe you.”

More To Be Done

While the McCarrick Report offers helpful information in understanding the twin crises in the the Catholic Church, every panelist made sure to emphasize that there is still much more to be done. While recognizing that there are many ways the McCarrick Report could have been better, Cruz argued that this kind of thorough public accounting should be the standard in all abuse cases - “Every survivor deserves something like this.” - and that it needs to be followed by real accountability for all who are involved in abuse and cover up. “We have done a lot,” he asserted, “but it’s a small percentage of what needs to be done.” Gibson picked up this theme as well, stating that the McCarrick situation is “a symbol of a bigger problem,” with other Church leaders who have similar stories (Michael Bransfield of West Virginia and John Nienstedt of St. Paul and Minneapolis, for example) not yet facing similar public scrutiny or accountability. As Sprows Cummings echoed, “we’re just beginning.”

Faith and Hope

While each of the panelists spoke honestly about the deep and devastating reality of sexual abuse and leadership failures in the Catholic Church, there was also an undercurrent of faith and hope that could be sensed throughout the conversation. In the first few minutes of the dialogue, Cruz emphatically stated that he is still Catholic, in spite of all he has endured at the hands of church leaders, declaring “They’re not going to win. They’re not going to keep me out.” In his closing remarks, Carr also put the abuse crisis in the context of the continuing positive work of the Church: “We are more than our failures… Even in the midst of a pandemic, we’re sheltering the homeless, we’re feeding the hungry, we’re caring for the sick, we’re celebrating the sacraments... We have to get this right because the Gospel is important and the Church is the Body of Christ, and we have to act like it.”


As with all my blog posts, I invite you to join me in prayer:

God, in this season of Advent, we wait in hope.

We wait for you to break through into our world,

to bring light out of so much darkness.

Come Lord Jesus, come.

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