Dispatch from the Dead Letter Office


By Pieter Vree, New Oxford Review, May 2021

In November 2020 the Vatican released its long-anticipated “Report on the Holy See’s Institutional Knowledge and Decision-Making Related to Former Cardinal Theodore Edgar McCarrick.” It was immediately evident that something screwy was afoot. Consider the timing. Vatican insiders said the report had been completed some six months earlier and was gathering dust on Pope Francis’s desk through the spring, summer, and early fall. That prompted the Los Angeles Times to ask, “What’s the Pope waiting for?” (July 27, 2020).

It seems he was waiting for the opportune moment. The report was finally released — coincidentally or conveniently, depending on your perspective — in the immediate aftermath of one of the most controversial and contested presidential elections in U.S. history, when Americans were distressed and distracted by a vote count dogged by accusations of fraud. Why should that matter? Recall: The report details the astounding malfeasance of not just any high muckety-muck but a predatory American prelate, “Uncle Ted” McCarrick, at one time the most powerful man in the U.S. Church. With a November 10 release, the report would cause barely a ripple in a frothing American news cycle.

Consider too the peculiarity of the report’s “authorship.” Although it doesn’t come right out and say so (how’s that for transparency?), it has been widely acknowledged that the report was compiled, in large part, by Jeffrey Lena, a California-based lawyer who has defended the Holy See against numerous lawsuits over the past 20 years. According to Jason Berry, “As the church crisis spread globally, Lena spent longer and longer stretches in Rome” (National Catholic Reporter, Nov. 25, 2020). The “task of compiling” the McCarrick report “fell principally to Jeffrey Lena,” writes Berry, who has authored three books on the Church, including Vows of Silence: The Abuse of Power in the Papacy of John Paul II (2004; reviewed in the May 2005 NOR).

Lena’s role in the clerical sex-abuse crisis has never been to advocate for victims but to protect Vatican assets against their legal claims. His shadowy presence is key to what the McCarrick report does — and does not — divulge.

What does it divulge? The report offers detailed information about McCarrick’s sexual depredations, including victim testimony, and how he wormed his way to the top of the ecclesial hierarchy with the help of prelates who are — again, coincidentally or conveniently — long since dead or retired, including the past two popes. The report offers an unprecedented, because officially sanctioned, peek behind the scenes of the Holy See, which has been historically and notoriously secretive. That itself is noteworthy. Unfortunately, there is little in the report that wasn’t already part of the public record and common knowledge among informed Catholics, thanks to the earlier efforts of intrepid secular news reporters.

What does the McCarrick report not reveal? The extent of knowledge that active prelates had of McCarrick’s homosexual hijinks, his impact on the current power structure in the Church, or how the beneficiaries of his favor followed him up the ranks so quickly.

For example, the report doesn’t dwell on McCarrick’s role as “kingmaker.” As many as nine active American bishops owe their appointments, in part, to McCarrick’s influence. Let’s focus on four who have been elevated to the cardinalate: Kevin Farrell, Joseph Tobin, Blase Cupich, and Donald Wuerl. A few years back, veteran Vatican correspondent John L. Allen Jr. referred to these men as members of the “McCarrick caucus” of American cardinals (Crux Now, Oct. 9, 2016). Who are they, and what is their connection to old Uncle Ted?

Donald Wuerl was McCarrick’s protégé and his hand-picked successor as archbishop of Washington, D.C. Nearly a year before the release of the report, Wuerl resigned in disgrace after his role in shielding McCarrick came to light (see my column “Wuerl, the Flesh & the Devil,” March 2019). Wuerl insisted that he was “shocked” to learn about McCarrick’s serial sexual abuse and that a review of archdiocesan records indicated that “no claim — credible or otherwise — has been made against Cardinal McCarrick during his time here in Washington.” Incredibly, Wuerl said he was unaware even of any rumors about his mentor. All those statements proved to be bald-faced lies.

Curiously, Pope Francis accepted Wuerl’s resignation with “reluctance,” reported Ed Condon (Catholic News Agency, Jan. 19, 2019), and he “heaped praise on the cardinal while he did so,” calling Wuerl a “model bishop.” Do model bishops lie to the public to protect Church interests?

Blase Cupich rose out of obscurity almost overnight to a position of major importance in the U.S. Church. He was Francis’s first major American appointment, succeeding Francis Cardinal George in 2014 as the ninth archbishop of Chicago. Cupich had led two small dioceses — Spokane, Washington, and Rapid City, South Dakota — before taking the reins of the third-largest archdiocese in the nation; he was the first Chicago archbishop since George Mundelein in 1915 who was not previously a metropolitan archbishop elsewhere. And then Francis promoted Cupich to the cardinalate one day after his installation. How did so much happen to him so quickly?

Sandro Magister, longtime Vatican-watcher and religion editor of Italy’s L’Espresso, reported that, in selecting Cupich, Francis dismissed the recommendations of both Cardinal George and the Congregation for Bishops. Cupich, wrote Magister (Oct. 4, 2014), “is thought to have been recommended to the Pope with particular enthusiasm by Cardinal Óscar Andrés Rodríguez Maradiaga and above all by Cardinal Theodore McCarrick.”

Despite being the recipient of several unprecedented promotions due, apparently, to McCarrick’s advocacy, Cupich has maintained that he had no knowledge of the disgusting behavior of his benefactor. Like Wuerl, he said he was “shocked” by the revelations.

Since selecting Cupich to lead the See of Chicago, Pope Francis has appointed him to the Congregation for Bishops (in 2016), the Congregation for Catholic Education (2017), and the Vatican Task Force to Assist Episcopal Conferences, Congregations of Religious, and Societies of Apostolic Life (2020).

Does the McCarrick report delve into Cupich’s sudden transformation into a major player in the Church? Nope. In the report’s 450 pages, Cupich is mentioned a grand total of once — in a footnote.

Joseph Tobin is archbishop of Newark, a post McCarrick himself held prior to his promotion to the D.C. archdiocese. Tobin is the first New Jersey bishop ever to be elevated to the cardinalate. Guess who recommended him to Pope Francis? If you guessed McCarrick, give yourself a gold star. Francis named Tobin a cardinal a mere 12 days after appointing him to the See of Newark. Francis subsequently appointed him to the Pontifical Council for Culture (in 2019) and the Congregation for Bishops (March 2021.)

Like Wuerl and Cupich, Tobin said he was “shocked” by McCarrick’s depredations, which he said he learned from the media. Tobin claimed he had only heard “rumors” about McCarrick, “but he never bothered to check them out. He says he thought the story was too ‘incredulous’ to believe” (North Jersey Record, Aug. 31, 2018). Tobin, an avid weightlifter and a well-known LGBT advocate, is, according to Michael Sean Winters, “the kind of leader Francis wants” (National Catholic Reporter, March 4, 2021). Evidently, willful ignorance carries much currency in Rome today.

Does the McCarrick report probe Tobin’s link to McCarrick’s bishop-making machine, or what information he might have possessed — and suppressed — about McCarrick? Of course not.

Most egregiously, the report glosses over McCarrick’s role in the meteoric rise of Kevin Farrell. In 2001 McCarrick personally presided over Farrell’s consecration as auxiliary bishop of D.C., where the two shared an apartment for six years. Farrell was then sent to the See of Dallas during the Benedict papacy, after which Francis plucked him from obscurity in Texas, named him a cardinal, and gave him a post in the newly created Vatican Dicastery for Laity, Family and Life (in 2016). Like Wuerl, Cupich, and Tobin, Farrell said it was “an absolute shock” to learn of the allegations against McCarrick, that he “never suspected, or ever had reason to suspect” him of abuse.

Do you detect a pattern to these cardinals’ claims? In most circumstances, it’s what’s called plausible deniability, a method of shielding oneself and the organization one represents from incrimination when there is no concrete evidence to prove one’s involvement.

Astoundingly, Farrell’s deep connection to McCarrick rates only a footnote in the report. The investigators simply took his claims at face value. The report wants us to believe that he saw nothing, heard nothing, knew nothing, and suspected nothing — that Farrell “was not particularly close to McCarrick” — even though he slept under the same roof and acted as his understudy for six years.

Cardinal Kevin Farrell

What has been Farrell’s reward for his inability to detect criminals in his midst? Promotion to positions of great power. This year Francis appointed him head of another newly formed body, a committee charged with supervising financial transactions that involve Vatican secrets. (It seems Farrell is good at keeping secrets.) In 2019 Francis promoted Farrell to the position of camerlengo, meaning he will lead the College of Cardinals when Francis dies, oversee preparations for a papal conclave to elect a new pope, and handle the administration of the Holy See in the interregnum. According to JD Flynn, former editor of Catholic News Agency, “Farrell’s new position makes him uniquely informed, and therefore among the most powerful figures in Vatican leadership” (Oct. 5, 2020). But his “track record gives absolutely no indication that he is the right man to crack down on questionable behavior.”

In fact, Farrell himself was implicated in the questionable behavior of Michael Bransfield, former bishop of Wheeling-Charleston, West Virginia (about whom see my column “Million-Dollar Bishops,” March 2020). Farrell received two checks from Bransfield, totaling $29,000, to furnish his apartment in Rome, which Bransfield thought “too barren.” A Vatican spokesman called these checks “voluntary donations.” They must think we’re fools.

Farrell received two checks from Bransfield, totaling $29,000, to furnish his apartment in Rome, which Bransfield thought “too barren.” A Vatican spokesman called these checks “voluntary donations.” They must think we’re fools.

What are we to make of Francis’s unusual favor toward the members of the so-called McCarrick caucus? Is it mere coincidence that he has assisted each of these four men high up the hierarchical ladder?

That brings us to the question of Francis’s own relationship with McCarrick, who is purported to have been a kingmaker at a critical moment in the Holy Father’s career as well. In an October 2013 lecture at Villanova University, McCarrick himself boasted of his role in Francis’s elevation to the papacy. (You can find his speech on YouTube.) Was this mere chest-thumping by McCarrick, or was there more to it, as has long been assumed by many Vatican observers? Not surprisingly, the report sheds no light on the matter.

But we do know that Francis and McCarrick maintained a decades-long friendship. Consider this: Within a year of Francis’s election, McCarrick was convalescing after being diagnosed with a heart problem when the phone rang. As David Gibson, longtime reporter for Religion News Service, tells it:

It was Francis. The two men had known each other for years, back when the Argentine pope was Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, archbishop of Buenos Aires. McCarrick assured Francis that he was doing fine.


Francis, who has put the Vatican back on the geopolitical stage, knows that when he needs a savvy back-channel operator, he can turn to McCarrick…. [McCarrick] was sort of spinning his wheels under Benedict. Then Francis was elected, and everything changed. (June 21, 2014)

Does the McCarrick report look into this lengthy relationship? Do we even need to ask at this point? On the contrary, as John L. Allen Jr. puts it, the report “largely insulates Pope Francis from blame” (Crux Now, Nov. 12, 2020).

For example, the report states that Francis “had heard only that there had been allegations and rumors related to immoral conduct with adults occurring prior to McCarrick’s appointment to Washington. Believing that the allegations had already been reviewed and rejected by Pope John Paul II, and well aware that McCarrick was active during the papacy of Benedict XVI, Pope Francis did not see the need to alter the approach that had been adopted in prior years.”

Allegations and rumors: more plausible deniability. The report’s “attempt to clear Pope Francis,” observes Phil Lawler, comes across as “lawyerly” (Catholic Culture, Nov. 11, 2020).

And it’s in stark contrast to Gibson’s report, in which he said, “McCarrick is one of a number of senior churchmen who were more or less put out to pasture during the eight-year pontificate of Pope Benedict XVI. But now Francis is pope, and prelates like Cardinal Walter Kasper (another old friend of McCarrick’s) and McCarrick himself are back in the mix and busier than ever.”

The report states that “McCarrick’s direct relationship with John Paul II…likely had an impact on the pope’s decision-making.” That’s likely true. And yet, with its silence on the subject, the report wants us to believe that McCarrick’s direct relationship with Francis had no impact on this pope’s decision-making, that Francis’s continual selection of the members of the McCarrick caucus to fill important roles in the Church — for example, making McCarrick’s former roommate and right-hand man one of the most powerful prelates in the Vatican — is not worth exploring.

The McCarrick report is a historical accounting that doesn’t hold accountable those in power at the present. As such, it will have no practical consequences on the Church going forward. No heads will roll as a result of its release. It’s a dead letter.

Perhaps the bluntest analysis of the report issued from the pen of Christopher R. Altieri, executive editor of the Catholic Herald. He wrote:

It identifies several bad actors, but the worst of the lot are already dead. Only a few living Churchmen come in for any really harsh criticism. No currently serving high curial official has come in for any to speak of…. [The] McCarrick Report is little more than 400+ pages of frequently gruesome fluff, with a soupçon of blame avoidance and scapegoating. It does not at all serve as an analysis of the actual culture that allowed McCarrick to happen, or how that culture permeates the Church to this day; much less, what we might do even to begin to address the issue. In fact, it doesn’t seem to admit that there is a real, systemic problem at all. (Nov. 15, 2020)

The optimist would say that the McCarrick report is a tentative first step on the road to full accountability. The realist would acknowledge that it’s but a baby step on a long and difficult journey. The pessimist would say that it is yet more evidence that many Church leaders aren’t so much interested in professing the truth as they are in protecting their prestige and preserving their power.

This article first appeared HERE.