Thinking Through the McCarrick Scandal

by | Nov 13, 2020 | Formation, Reflections, Vincentian Family | 2 comments

How could this happen?

The “McCarrick Report” with its 459 pages and 1440 footnotes provides the most authoritative and comprehensive report of a historic scandal of church leaders who turned a blind eye. It is gut-wrenching, especially since I have walked with some abuse victims for as long as 20 and 30 years.

I am sure I am not the only one asking the question, how could this happen? Many, including church leaders, point to a “culture of clericalism.”

Cardinal Dolan said,

“I’m afraid we have to say, a climate that held priests above the law, that gave priests special privileges, that said you need to be accountable to no one and we call that the sin of clericalism.”

Thinking things through

I ask you to think along with me as I try to make sense of this for my church… and… what it says to me.

I recently offered a reflection on why people see things so differently in politics. The post described 13 unrecognized lenses or biases we use to view reality,

Rereading it, I now see that post as helping me understand different lenses or biases of clericalism. We tend to see what we are prepared to see.

The human brain:

  • welcomes information that confirms what it already thinks and resists information that disturbs or contradicts what it already thinks.
  • prefers a simple lie to a complex truth.
  • finds it very hard to see something your group doesn’t want to see. In other words, we put tribe over truth.

Our human brain:

  • assumes if people are nice to you, you’ll be open to what they see and have to say. If they aren’t nice to you, you won’t.
  • is poor at seeing what someone we don’t know sees.
  • likes to flock with those who see as we do.
  • sees some things possible and seeing other things impossible.
  • prefers to think of ourselves as having greater insight than we do.
  • mistakes confidence for competence, and therefore vulnerable to the lies of confident people.
  • likes stories in which we’re either the hero or the victim but never the villain.
  • tends to reject data that requires us to adjust, work, or inconvenience ourselves.
  • assumes that what feels normal has always been and will always remain. That means that we minimize threats, and we’re vulnerable to disasters, especially disasters that develop slowly.
  • finds it very hard to see anything that interferes with our way of making a living.

Let me now transpose some of these insights to clerical culture:

  • “I know him. He is a good guy.”
  • “This doesn’t fit with what I know of him.”
  • “Most people I know think this way about him.”
  • “He’s been nice to me.”
  • “I don’t know these people who are saying these things.”
  • “It’s not possible that these things could be true.”
  • “I am used to being right.”
  • “This would really upset the applecart.”

Anyone who wades through the lengthy report will find numerous examples of such thinking.

A personal challenge

As one who has walked a decades-long and incredibly painful road with more than one victim of abuse, I know that:

  • their lives were impacted in ways that no one can know who has not suffered as they have.
  • for many, this tragic report begins to validate their pain from this deeply personal violation.
  • for some, it will help their healing process.

Yet, while I focus on what church leaders need to do, I recognize there are challenges for me as a cleric, and indeed all of us, to recognize the lenses and biases that get in the way of seeing and hearing the cries of the poor.

As I look at all this I think of Jesus and the woman caught in adultery. There was no doubt of her guilt and everyone was ready to throw their stones. Jesus knelt and wrote in the sand. One by one they turned and slinked away. Jesus then said to her “Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.”

I hear Jesus message as addressed not only to the woman caught in adultery, Theodore McCarrick, and church leaders, but also to those who do not see their own blind spots and biases.

Each of us would do well to reread from a very personal perspective how our brains tend to work and pray, not as the Pharisee who was blind to his faults but rather as the tax collector who was not blind to them.

“God, have mercy on me. I am a sinner!’ himself will be humbled, but anyone who humbles themselves will be praised.”

Jesus challenges me to look at my biases. It is all too easy to pray “I thank you that I am not like the rest of men.”


  1. Louis Arceneaux

    John, thanks for your reflection. I tend to see it much more simply and I can use the example of the woman caught in adultery as a model. Has anyone caught a woman committing adultery by herself? Where is the man? That is symbolic of what has been going on at least since the time of Jesus and probably long before him. Men are in control. Men dictate what is ok and what is not.

    The McCarrick case is yet another example of that. Consider the levels of white male superiority or privilege. It begins with all white men; then moves up to white male clerics; then white male bishops and then white male cardinals and sadly a white male Pope, named John Paul II.

    In that white male club with the subset of clerics and bishops and cardinals, they all protect each other. It is an extreme form not only of clericalism but hierarchicalism. It has nothing to do with Catholicism or Christianity. It has all to do with control and power. How sad and now we are stuck with one who is called a Saint.

  2. Ross

    RE: “God, have mercy on me. I am a sinner!’ himself will be humbled, but anyone who humbles themselves will be praised.”

    Jesus challenges me to look at my biases. It is all too easy to pray “I thank you that I am not like the rest of men.”

    What you say, John, seems to me to be true to James and St. Vincent:

    Jas 2, 13: “Judgment is merciless to one who has not shown mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment.”

    And St. Vincent:

    “But what sort of men will turn us away from those good works already begun? They’ll be undisciplined, undisciplined, undisciplined men who seek only to enjoy themselves and, provided they have enough to eat, don’t bother about anything else. And who else? They’ll be___ I’d rather not say. They’ll be men who coddle themselves.”

    But he has no sooner made such a harsh judgment than he recollects himself and reflects:

    “O you wretch! You’re an old man like those people; small things seem big to you, and difficulties frighten you. Yes, Messieurs, just getting up in the morning seems a great affair to me, and the slightest inconveniences appear insurmountable. So then, there’ll be small-minded men, people like myself, who’ll try to cut back the practices and ministries of the Company.”

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