- - Tuesday, February 26, 2019

The Catholic Church’s ongoing sex scandal has toppled Theodore McCarrick from what had been one of the most exalted positions in the Catholic hierarchy. After being found guilty of pedophilia, of taking sexual advantage of seminarians, and of soliciting sex in the confessional, McCarrick was removed from his cardinalate and defrocked.

This is surely one of the most severe penalties imposed upon someone of such high church rank in recent times. The now ex-priest currently lives in seclusion at a religious house on the plains of western Kansas.

Following closely after McCarrick’s ouster, the so-called abuse summit was held at the Vatican under a cloud of deep mistrust. From the beginning, many people questioned the ability of bishops to police their own ranks when there were indications of episcopal collusion in covering up widespread child abuse and homosexual predation.

The McCarrick case had been seen as “Exhibit A,” demonstrating how powerful churchmen protected one of their own for years. And indeed, the gathering concluded with little hope of concrete action or of the bishops’ willingness even to admit the role played by homosexuality in this crisis.

With all of that going on, it happens that the theme of this past weekend’s scripture readings was mercy and forgiveness. In the first Old Testament portion, David refuses to kill King Saul, “the Lord’s anointed,” even though Saul fears David as his rival and has determined to murder him. The Responsorial Psalm declares, “The Lord is kind and merciful.” And the Gospel shows Jesus instructing the people to “Be merciful just as your Father is merciful.”

These scriptural passages carry challenging messages. They’re all the more challenging at this particular time. We don’t really want to hear about mercy just now. We want to hear that heads have rolled.

Yet, both the McCarrick case and the abuse summit provide an opportunity for us to reflect upon how faith affects our thinking about something as heinous as sexual exploitation within the church. And as Christians we must do our reflecting in light of Gospel principles.

How are the faithful to deal with such difficult problems and the difficult people behind them?

Since the 2002 Dallas Charter for the Protection of Children, the number of abuse cases has decreased tremendously. We now have effective safeguards in place and procedures for dealing with offenders. Unfortunately, the bishops did not include themselves in these safeguards and procedures, and that’s why we have the concerns we’re facing now.

Bishops must be accountable, and there’s a distinct lack of confidence that the summit has done much to strengthen and enforce that accountability.

The laity are right in demanding that, wherever violations occur — in whatever nation or cultural context — the church must act according to certain fundamental precepts. Most basic is that children come first. Those who are vulnerable must be protected.

Secondly, we must make sure that justice is done. Clerical rank, privilege or honor can never be permitted to serve as cover for wrongdoing. Those who violate our trust must be punished, and their ability to do harm removed.

At the same time, we are enjoined that admonition of Christ to “Be merciful just as your Father is merciful.” And as Christian disciples we have to bring that Gospel message into the equation.

How do we apply it to our present situation? To be honest, I don’t know. But I recall an episode that’s not dissimilar to the McCarrick case — when Richard Nixon resigned the presidency (the only president ever to do so) — which may serve as a starting point for our thinking.

Whether you liked Nixon or not, whether you were a Democrat or a Republican, you had to feel the poignancy of his fall from the highest office in the land to resignation and disgrace.

The same with McCarrick. Look what he achieved in his 88 years. Look at the heights to which he rose. He was a cardinal of the church, respected not only within religious circles but around the world. He had access to the world’s most powerful people.

And now he’s reduced to the status (in ecclesiastical understanding) of a “non-person.” What a fall. Indeed, it seems that life would have been kinder to him had he died before all of this came out, although perhaps that would have deprived him of the opportunity to repent of his sins.

But regardless of Theodore McCarrick’s crimes, human compassion demands that we feel sorry for him. And perhaps this is the simple perspective from which we can respond to Christ’s call for mercy.

As Matthew 5:45 says, God “makes the sun shine on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.” So we can’t hate Theodore McCarrick. We can’t make him the poster boy for everything that’s gone wrong in the church.

And of course, we must remember that he didn’t do what he did alone. There were others who knew, who did nothing to stop him, and who consequently share the guilt. We must hold their feet to the fire so that these things don’t happen again.

We also must pray for them, as we pray for Theodore McCarrick.

And we must pray for the church.

• Michael P. Orsi, a priest of the Diocese of Camden, New Jersey, serves as parochial vicar at St. Agnes Parish in Naples, Florida. He is host of “Action for Life TV.”

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