Greg Erlandson

When allegations about a prominent retired U.S. cardinal hit the headlines a few weeks ago, the reaction of more than a few of my acquaintances was, “Not again!”

Since 1985, the U.S. church has been periodically wracked by clergy sexual abuse scandals. It may seem like we are stuck in a kind of hellish Groundhog Day, reliving the same horrifying cluster of headlines over and over, but that is our PTSD talking.

The fact is that the church in this country has spent billions of dollars in settlements and safeguards. It annually audits how well it is complying with these safeguards and publicly reports the results. These actions testify to an ongoing commitment to prevention and to accountability. But none of these actions are guarantees we won’t be disappointed again.

This time, the allegations concern one of the most prominent churchmen of recent memory. Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick, retired archbishop of Washington, stands accused of having abused a teenager nearly 50 years earlier. After an exhaustive investigation, the New York Archdiocese concluded that the allegations were “credible and substantiated.” Cardinal McCarrick said he had no memory of such abuse.

At the same time, both the Diocese of Metuchen and the Archdiocese of Newark disclosed three allegations of abuse of adults by then-Bishop McCarrick, two of which had resulted in settlements.

Since then, other shoes have dropped, including a story in the July 16 issue of The New York Times about the two men who had won settlements. Both were seminarians or young priests at the time of the abuse. These cases did not involve minors, but their stories suggest a misuse of authority by a powerful bishop over those both entrusted to his care and bound to obey him.

Both men have left the priesthood, itself a tragedy. Only one was willing to be identified publicly: Robert Ciolek. His courage must be applauded. For seminarians and clergy even today, #MeToo takes extraordinary bravery because it means challenging someone who has extraordinary power over them.

One question critics are asking is how, after all the relentless attention focused on clergy sexual abuse, the previous allegations and payoffs in Newark and Metuchen did not halt the cardinal’s rise up the ecclesial ranks?

A second question was raised by Ciolek in his interview with the Times. “In the corporate world, there are ways to report misconduct,” he said. “You have an HR contact, you have a legal department. … Does the Catholic Church have that? How is a priest supposed to report abuse or wrong activity by his bishop?”

Such behavior is not just a sin against chastity, but it is an abuse of the same power dynamic that characterized the allegations against Harvey Weinstein and so many other powerful men in Hollywood, government, sports and media. For a young actress or a young reporter, speaking up could be a career killer. For a seminarian or a priest, it could destroy a vocation.

It is a positive development that bishops and cardinals are now being held accountable — for bad actions, as appears to be the case with the cardinal, or bad decisions, as in the case of Chilean bishops whose resignations Pope Francis recently accepted. Even Vatican diplomats have been called to account.

The church has no guarantees that its members — lay or ordained — will not sin. It can only guarantee that such sins of omission or commission will be dealt with transparently and forthrightly.

However painful each new revelation is, however tired we are of it all, our commitment must continue to be: Whatever it takes. Whatever the cost. However long it lasts.

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Erlandson, director and editor-in-chief of Catholic News Service, can be reached at gerlandson@catholicnews.com.