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Catholic Priest sues Vatican as McCarrick Scandal Grows

A current Catholic priest is among four accusers who have filed a new sex abuse lawsuit against the Vatican this week. The filing marks the first time an active clergy member has sued the Holy See. The action further shows how the Cardinal McCarrick scandal continues to hurt the church’s credibility.

Theodore McCarrick, now defrocked for sex crimes, once led the church in New York and New Jersey, before he was promoted to cardinal and transferred to Washington, D.C. Several plaintiffs, including the priest in the latest suit, say that they reported McCarrick’s abuse in the 1990s prior to his being promoted.

The three remaining men allege that McCarrick abused them as teenagers. The new lawsuit does not name any of the plaintiffs, which is their right in such cases.

Related: Abuse by Clergy Lawsuit | Attorney

All four plaintiffs were part of the investigative report released by the Vatican in November 2020.

Attorneys for those abused by church elders have continued to ask the church to release all of its internal documents that relate to any investigations of clergy abuse over the years. The church has only grudgingly released those files – what the church privately called its “perversion files” — over the years.

The Vatican did, however, release a McCarrick report due to the many complaints filed against the former cardinal, mostly by men he had “mentored” during their tenure as students studying to become priests.

Vatican’s McCarrick Report Forces Debate on Power and Abuse

The official Catholic church report on Theodore McCarrick revealed that three decades of bishops, cardinals and popes dismissed or downplayed reports of his misconduct with young men.

The Vatican’s report into McCarrick has raised uncomfortable questions the Holy See will have to confront going forward. The church needs to decide what it will do regarding current and future clergy who abuse their power to sexually abuse adults.

Problem: Priests Unaccountable to Secular Powers

Priests, lay experts, and canon lawyers alike have demanded the Vatican needs to protect seminarians, nuns, and parishioners from abusive bishops and cardinals. These officials have exercised hierarchical power for centuries with little accountability.

Pope Francis finally investigated and defrocked McCarrick after a former altar boy said McCarrick groped him in the 1970s. The church claimed it was the first time McCarrick was accused of abusing a minor.

Most of the Vatican’s 449-page forensic study into the McCarrick scandal released last month dealt with the cardinal’s sex abuse of young men. These unfortunates were seminarians with careers McCarrick controlled. In a priestly version of the “casting couch” made famous in recent years by movie producers like Harvey Weinstein, the young men said they felt powerless to say no when McCarrick arranged for them to sleep in his bed.

Three Decades of Abuse Ignored

Three decades of bishops, cardinals and popes ignored, dismissed, or downplayed reports of McCarrick’s abuse of the young men, according to the report. Church files showed they repeatedly rejected sworn evidence as rumor, excused the execrable behavior as “imprudence,” or weirdly justified it as the result of McCarrick having no living relatives.

McCarrick’s many friends and superiors in the Catholic hierarchy went to absurd lengths to claim his behavior wasn’t necessarily sexual, couldn’t be proven, or needed to be kept quiet so it wouldn’t cause a public scandal. Their deliberate blindness to McCarrick’s “indiscretions” was part and parcel of the Catholic church’s culture of silence (like the mafia’s oath of omerta) to protect the church’s and the abusers’ reputations.

The effect of that “protection” on the young men, the victims, and the effect on the soul of the church, was obviously not the principal concern. It was all about appearances for the church elders covering up the crimes.

The report faulted in particular St. John Paul II, who is unfortunately no longer alive to defend himself. The report said that he appointed McCarrick archbishop of Washington and later made him a cardinal despite having commissioned an inquiry that confirmed he bedded his seminarians. That report recommended McCarrick not be promoted.

John Paul gave McCarrick the most influential position in the U.S. church. With his additional role as a U.S. fundraiser, the cardinal wielded enormous power. He entertained and feted presidents, prime ministers, and three popes.

Vatican and U.S. Catholic leaders had known since the 1990s that McCarrick had intimate relations with his captured seminarians. However, that was not, and is not, a terminable offense under church canon law.

Because McCarrick’s seminary victims were not minors, the church did not consider them victims. In those years, even priests who raped children had their crimes covered up. In that ugly climate, McCarrick rose in the Catholic hierarchy.  Rumors that he had been “imprudent” with young men apparently paled next to all the child rapists who defiled church ranks.

Adult Victims of Sex Abuse in the Church

“It does get down to this idea that somehow when someone turns 18, a) they’re no longer vulnerable, and b) that they have the ability to protect themselves,” said David Pooler, a professor of social work at Baylor University and an expert in clergy sexual abuse of adults.

“[W]hat I have learned from my research is that that’s simply not true,” said Mr. Pooler. “There’s nothing magical about becoming an adult and being able to then protect oneself in a vulnerable place.”

Pooler said that since his bishop holds all the power, a seminarian is in no position to offer meaningful, free consent to any sexual activity. A bishop or seminary rector decides whether the seminarian can continue in his studies, be ordained as a priest, or be assigned to a good parish.

The Vatican has long sought to portray sexual relations between priests and adults as sinful but consensual. The holy see has focused in recent years only on protecting minors and “vulnerable adults.” The Vatican’s legal norms have defined “vulnerable” people as those who are disabled or consistently lack the use of reason.

The Church’s #MeToo Moment

Only in the past year or so, with the #MeToo movement, has the Vatican even admitted that religious sisters can be sexually abused by priests, bishops or even their own mother superiors. The McCarrick scandal now stands as a case study to show how seminarians can be victimized by their “superiors.”

Currently, church canon law would only allow such abuse to be punished if the Vatican could confirm the sexual acts were committed by force, threat or in public, or if there were other crimes committed as well, such as those involving the sacrament of confession. As of last year, church personnel are required to report allegations of abuse of adults in-house, but there is still no law on the books on how such cases might be prosecuted.

Abuse by Clergy Lawsuit

Such abusers as McCarrick, however, may still be subject to civil lawsuits. While they may be able to hid their crimes in the church’s secret perversion files with the holy see, it can be another matter if they are sued in civil court for abusing others who came to trust them.

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