Skip to main content
Open this photo in gallery:

Cardinal Theodore McCarrick speaks during a news conference at the U.S. Capitol on Dec. 8, 2015 in Washington.Chip Somodevilla/GETTY IMAGES

Michael W. Higgins is the Distinguished Professor of Catholic Thought at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Conn.

Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, affectionately or mockingly referred to as “Ted,” archbishop emeritus, clerical bon vivant, maker of bishops and counsel of secular eminences such as the Bush family, could reasonably have assumed that his privileged life of secrets would remain secure and protected. After all, on the cusp of being a nonagenarian and swathed in respect and deference, what is there to fear?

Only the outing of allegations that span decades.

Cardinal McCarrick is alleged to have sexually abused numerous seminarians over his long career, selecting the chosen ones, inviting them into his confidence and then inviting them into his bed. A pattern we have seen before. Predators cultivate their prey, follow a predictable pattern and charm their subjects.

It wasn’t only adult and postpubescent seminarians that he allegedly groomed; some were allegedly younger still.

That the former auxiliary bishop of New York, the first bishop of Metuchen, N.J., archbishop of Newark and finally cardinal-archbishop of Washington, could survive for so long amid these accusations is illustrative of the clerical capacity for closing ranks – firmly. Even in a time when those ranks have splintered and bishops have been forced to resign because of complicity in cover-ups, or because they were implicated in the behaviour proper, those prelates at the top of the hierarchical pyramid remained mostly untouchable.

Their rank, arrogance and spiritually corrosive sense of entitlement ensured them a latitude lesser clerics couldn’t rely on.

That is why Cardinal McCarrick’s resignation is a dramatic fall from grace with much importance. It is a Rubicon moment.

Certainly there have been other senior clerics in the U.S. episcopacy who have been forced to resign because of potential blackmail by an ex-lover, involvement in sexual dalliances and affairs or simply because they have fallen in love and have done the right thing and requested laicization. And there have been cardinals – the disgraced Bernard Law of Spotlight fame who scurried off to Rome to avoid the consequences of malignant neglect, and Keith O’Brien of St. Andrews-Edinburgh, who was stripped of his right to attend the last conclave, exiled to England for a life of seclusion and whose behaviour was a Caledonian mirror image of Cardinal McCarrick’s alleged perfidy.

Cardinal McCarrick has changed that track forever.

And the key questions that need to be addressed, and never substantively are addressed, must now finally be answered.

When seminary formation does not take seriously the importance of psychosexual maturity, when the role of women has been allocated to the soft disciplines such as pastoral counselling; when their number is token only and their presence tolerated; when an all-male enclave short-circuits the kind of emotional relationships that define us as human and when an archaic cultic functionalism supersedes the imperatives of the gospel, why are we surprised that the petty power games of men undo them?

The McCarrick affair reminds us in the starkest terms that the unfinished business of clerical sex abuse remains unexorcised.

The meaning of priesthood itself must be looked at anew, shorn of the legacy of clericalism; formation programs must rise above the level of the anodyne and the safe, and boldly call for the creation of environments wherein mature adulthood can flourish; and the unnaturally romantic notions of priestly life must be expunged and replaced with the hard truth of service.

The ersatz exceptionalism of the priesthood encourages a bogus spirituality and sustains the kind of culture that the McCarrick allegations epitomize.

There are extraordinary priests and bishops in the Roman Catholic Church – they constitute the majority – and their morale and integrity are impugned by these types of accusations.

More importantly, by the system that creates them.

Pope Francis knows this and that is why, finally, he is acting with temerity. Cardinal McCarrick has hastened the day for the hard medicine of structural reform.

Interact with The Globe