American Catholics are celebrating “ordinary time” in their liturgical calendar. But they and their pastors need the spirit of Ash Wednesday—the spirit of fasting and mourning, of sackcloth and ashes—to confront the latest revelations of moral turpitude in the Church. The abuser this time is a cardinal and former archbishop, who was once tasked with spearheading the American Church’s response to the abuse crisis.
That would be Theodore “Uncle Ted” McCarrick. If victims’ accounts are to be believed—and these are as numerous as they are credible—McCarrick used the authority handed down to him from the Apostles to take advantage of young men and boys over the course of many years. Media reports paint a portrait of a churchman whose hypocrisy and sexual avarice were matched only by his talents as an ecclesiastical operator.
The details are repulsive. One accuser recounted to the Washington Post how McCarrick used his clerical gravitas to win his trust beginning when he was 11 years old: “I liked his attention. He had this aura.” McCarrick walked in on the boy, now a 60-year-old man, while he was changing and exposed himself. “See, we’re the same,” the priest told the boy. “It’s okay. We’re the same.” Rend your hearts and not your garments (cf. Joel 2:13).
Equally disturbing was diocesan officials’ apparent indifference to the plight of victims when they first came forward years ago. Allegations that should have sparked Pauline fire and fury received only cold, impenitent payouts. “There was no discussion or questioning or disbelief or awe,” one victim, who received an $80,000 payout from the Church in 2004, told the Post. “Never any words of sorrow or expressions of sorrow from anyone as it related to McCarrick.” Other victims were encouraged to write to officials in Rome regarding their complaints, only to be ignored.
McCarrick’s depravities–and the culture of laxness in the Church that enabled them–made it that much harder for Catholics to speak moral truth in a secular world starved for it. They defile the Church. They scandalize the faithful. They invite God’s wrath.
So what is to be done?
Writers wiser than I have offered important policy recommendations for moving forward. But the first step is, as I say, sackcloth and ashes. I mean that quite literally. Following ancient Israel’s footsteps, the early Church adopted ashes as an expression of sorrow for sin. Depending on the sin, public penitents were required to wear ashes and sackcloth. The Church should bring back such practices. Whatever criminal and civil consequences await McCarrick, he should also be called to Rome and forced to circle Saint Peter’s Square in sackcloth and ashes, perhaps while the pope observes from the steps of the basilica. Or how about having McCarrick spend hours kneeling at a prie-dieu while Pope Francis looks upon him with anger and contempt? Others have proposed corporal punishments. I’m not opposed to these, either. The point is that the old apologies and settlements won’t do.
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