‘I don’t think this is some massive, massive crisis,” said Cardinal Donald Wuerl, the Catholic archbishop of Washington, D.C., in a statement that could not possibly be more wrong. Speaking three weeks after revelations about his predecessor’s sexual predation against boys and young priests, Wuerl said he was aware that a harrowing Pennsylvania grand-jury report would soon document the sexual abuse of 1,000 children by Catholic clergy and criticise Wuerl’s own treatment of some abusers.
Wuerl allowed that the news about his predecessor, Theodore McCarrick, was “a terrible disappointment”. He also said that “we need to have something that would also be a mechanism for when a bishop has not been as faithful as he needs to be, even if the charges go back 40, 50 years”. Even amid that march of euphemism and evasion, one phrase should leap out. In the context of discussing a predecessor who had done a lot to destroy a boy’s life — who had raped him for years — Wuerl spoke of a bishop who “has not been as faithful as he needs to be”, a comment that could more aptly be applied to someone who had neglected to say his morning prayers.
Let it not be said, however, that Wuerl is slow to appreciate all dangers. He had what can only be described as a P.R. website ready to go when the report was released. It provoked an immediate outcry and was taken down a few hours after launching.
Wuerl is an egregious case. But he isn’t alone in failing to treat this disaster — the appalling abuse, the cover-ups, or even the anguish it is causing the Catholic faithful — with the gravity it deserves. In my own parish, in the Washington suburb of Alexandria, Virginia, where many in the pews have had contacts with McCarrick over the years, I have heard no priest mention any of these things at Sunday Mass. Our bishop, Michael Burbidge, included only the most elliptical reference to them in a recent homily: “There are moments in life where we seem to need God’s consolation and reassurance more than ever. And in light of some unsettling times in our church and recent revelations, it certainly seems to be one of those moments.”
Unsettling times? Some bishops have been forthright about the rot in the church. I suspect there are Catholic priests and bishops who fear that such talk will shake people’s faith. But it is the rot itself that is doing that, and it is a poor faith that imagines that Jesus needs our dishonesty or our silence.
Something else is impeding the reckoning that must come: Church politics. During the first wave of the abuse scandal in 2002, conservative Catholics sometimes dragged their feet in recognising the evidence. They blamed the enemies of the church for sensationalising it; in some cases they knew and thought well of the abusers. This time it is liberal Catholics who are more prone to this reaction. Because they considered Wuerl and (especially) McCarrick to be their allies, some of them are insisting on ferreting out the critics’ alleged motives rather than maintaining a focus on the victims, and on preventing future victims.
The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has announced “an investigation into the questions surrounding Archbishop McCarrick”. But we do not yet know if that investigation will be as independent of the bishops as promised, will have full access to all the information it seeks, or will lead to full cooperation by church officials with law enforcement in the future. Nor do we know, finally, if Pope Francis will take this occasion to accept Wuerl’s resignation.
Only when we have those answers will we know whether the Catholic Church in America is taking seriously what is certainly the worst crisis it has experienced since I was received into it, 14 years ago, by one Theodore McCarrick.
Ramesh Ponnuru is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a senior editor at National Review, visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and contributor to CBS News.