Ed Condon is a practicing canon lawyer and an editor of the Catholic News Agency.
Six months after the Archdiocese of New York first announced it had received a “credible” accusation of sexual abuse against then-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, the disgraced former archbishop of Washington could soon find himself dismissed from the clergy altogether.
But instead of conducting a full-blown trial, complete with procedural niceties and room for legal back-and-forth between prosecution and defense lawyers, sources at the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith confirmed that McCarrick’s case is being handled via a stripped-down administrative process, expected to conclude within the next few weeks.
Such an "administrative penal process," which in canon law is reserved for cases where the evidence is so strong that a full trial is deemed unnecessary, suggests that the chances of a conviction are very high indeed. But even with a quick “result” that strips McCarrick of his clerical status, the case could still cast a shadow over the Vatican’s next phase of reform efforts on sexual abuse in the church.
The pressure to deliver a swift verdict has been high ever since Pope Francis accepted McCarrick’s resignation from the College of Cardinals in July. In response to abuse scandals in the United States and abroad, the pope has called a special summit of church leaders in Rome next month. It is well known in church circles that both Francis and senior American cardinals want McCarrick out of the news — and out of ministry — before that meeting begins.
Even though a conviction of McCarrick seems likely, much may depend on what Rome is willing to say about the charges on which he is convicted. In addition to allegations that he abused three boys — with one as young as 11 — McCarrick is also accused of molesting as many as eight seminarians in the dioceses he formerly led. What Rome does with those allegations could weigh heavy on future reforms.
Canon law recognizes sexual abuse as “reserved delict,” or major crime, when it is committed against a minor (under 18 years old) or a vulnerable adult. The law defines a vulnerable adult as someone who “habitually lacks the use of reason” — essentially someone developmentally disabled. The definition does not cover those abused by people in positions of authority, such as a bishop preying upon seminarians.
Leading voices for reform have called for a change in the law to include those abused under cover of authority as vulnerable adults. The idea has its supporters, including Cardinal Séan O’Malley of Boston, the pope’s senior adviser on combating sexual abuse, and Marie Collins, an abuse survivor and former member of Francis’s Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors.
But officials in Rome are not completely sold. Some argue that elevating a new category of sexual misconduct to the level child abuse would stretch the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s already limited resources to handle these cases past the breaking point.
Another option is to introduce, or reintroduce, more detailed laws against illicit sexual activity by clerics. Specific lists of prohibited conduct were part of canon law until 1983, when the code was revised following the reforms of Vatican Council II. But many senior churchmen, in Rome and around the world, are uncomfortable with the idea of undoing the 1983 reforms, believing that while every crime in the church is a sin, not every sin needs to be a crime.
But what about the seminarians whom McCarrick is alleged to have abused over the decades? Any decision against the former cardinal that leaves their cases unresolved will be incomplete. So too will be any conversation in February that doesn’t take account of adult victims of abuse, or any effort at reform that ignores their legitimate demands for justice.
Many are waiting to see if the pope’s coordinating team for the February summit, which includes Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago, will come prepared to discuss the whole problem of sexual misconduct in the church, or seek a narrower agenda and response to the abuse of minors alone. There will be a temptation for the pope and his advisers to try to keep the conversation limited to the sexual abuse of children, about which no one disagrees and no one can oppose any new reform.
But treating the whole problem now, including the sexual abuse or coercion of adults, is necessary if the church is to avoid storing up a possible future generation of scandals. If they are unwilling or unable to do so, they may yet find that no guilty verdict or punishment can keep the ghost of “Uncle Ted” McCarrick from haunting them for years to come.