The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The Catholic Church scandal casts a shadow over the season. But Christmas is a time for hope.

Theodore McCarrick in November 2011. (Patrick Semansky/AP)

An earlier version of this column incorrectly described the scope of a recent report by the Illinois attorney general into child sex abuse by Catholic priests. The report covered allegations that had gone unreported in Illinois, not just in the archdiocese of Chicago. This version has been updated.

Somehow it doesn’t come as a surprise that the allegations of sexual misconduct that finally brought down former cardinal and archbishop emeritus of Washington, Theodore McCarrick, happened at Christmastime. When he was removed from ministry in June, McCarrick stood accused of molesting a teenage boy while measuring him for a cassock for a special Christmas service in 1971, according to the victim, and then again in 1972, during preparations for that year’s Christmas service. Was there ever a faith for McCarrick other than opportunity?

Once the archdiocese of New York declared those allegations credible, other claims poured forth: The portrait that has emerged suggests McCarrick had been perpetrating sexual abuse against boys and young men for years, without a hitch in his rise through the ranks of the church. Shortly thereafter, McCarrick was moved to a friary on the lonely plains of Kansas.

It was around that time I started receiving emails from despondent Catholics in the D.C. area. McCarrick hadn’t been an anonymous priest, after all; he had been a major public figure, and the revelations about him were as shocking as they were plentiful. Some of the messages I received spoke of a loss of faith, despair, feelings of anger, confusion, emptiness. “There is little encouragement in the constant drama,” one wrote. “They have forgotten the quote, ‘What does it profit a man to gain the world and lose his soul?’ ” And another: “To say that my faith is being tested is an understatement. I’m trying my best now to just work and dedicate myself to truth.” And yet another: “The silence from the Vatican is deafening.” There were so many more. I printed a packet of them and took them along with me when I interviewed former close associates of McCarrick, so I could read some of them aloud. None of those conversations yielded anything, not even a hint of guilt.

The notes still come. (“It’s just so bad, and every time I think we’ve hit bottom, we break through and start falling again,” one said recently. “I just put my kids to bed and am just sitting in the dark weeping and furious and sad.”) I understand why. Since this summer’s Pennsylvania grand jury report and the unmasking of McCarrick, there have been more disturbing revelations. Within the past three months, a whistleblower came forward with evidence that the diocese of Buffalo’s list of clergy credibly accused of sexual abuse was woefully short, and that allegedly abusive priests had been allowed to remain in ministry for years; the Vatican commanded a convention of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops not to vote on resolutions intended to respond to the sex-abuse crisis; Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan accused the Catholic Church of Illinois of failing to investigate or publicly name more than 500 priests accused of sexual abuse; and several Jesuit priests accused of sexual abuse were found to be housed on Gonzaga University’s campus, unbeknownst to the campus community.

At least 16 states have now begun their own Pennsylvania-like probes into the church within their borders. In New Jersey, where McCarrick served as a bishop or archbishop for nearly 20 years, a special task force on sex abuse has already begun to issue subpoenas for church records. You don’t have to be an oracle to feel dark premonitions of what it might find. Meanwhile, key bishops will meet in Rome in February to address the crisis, the Vatican says. And some penalty may yet befall McCarrick, who is 88 years old. And something else may yet change, some unforeseen thing, for the better. The long silence might yet end.

How distant that hope must seem now after pensive Advent, especially to victims and their families and communities, to the ordinary parishioners of the archdiocese of Washington who once knew McCarrick as “Uncle Ted,” the warm and convivial archbishop who seemed always to have a moment to speak. And how sore the heart grows over time, holding out hope against hope for some sign of justice. I no longer believe I’ll be able to discover the kinds of answers I thought I would when I began working on this story; I keep trying mainly for the effort, as a small and hopeful offering to the wounded and despairing, who wait in pain for the truth.

And it stings this season, where sick worry shades the edges of joy. But the story of Christmas is the story of a meager hope: of a long journey, cramped quarters, a makeshift crib. There could have been a grand celestial promenade in the heavens pointing the world to the birth of its savior, but there is just one star, in just one gospel — just one light shining in the dark, in the breathless quiet of a God who is listening.

Read more:

Elizabeth Bruenig: The Catholic Church is embroiled in a hell of its own making

The Post’s View: Time for the Vatican to show how serious it is in cleaning house

Elizabeth Bruenig: He wanted to be a priest. He says Archbishop McCarrick used that to abuse him.

James Downie: Gut the Catholic Church’s hierarchy