Sunday, June 24, 2018

The Fallout, Part One

Later this week, nine days after a historic storm cloud broke over the Stateside church, Catholic Washington will gather for the ordination of a new auxiliary of the capital's 750,000-member fold.

The rites coming all of three weeks since Bishop-elect Mike Fisher's appointment – an unusually quick timeframe – while the longtime DC Chancery personnel chief is widely well-regarded as a gentle, low-profile operator, the whole tenor of the moment has changed, the joy of the occasion now overtaken by the sudden elephant in the room.

To be sure, Cardinal Donald Wuerl has known for several months that a judgment of some kind was at hand on an allegation of abuse against his predecessor, but whether the rapid scheduling of Fisher's elevation was intended to get ahead of the findings on Cardinal Theodore McCarrick's case or circle the wagons in its wake is unclear.

In any event, with the now-removed iconic figure likely never to be seen at a major liturgy again, and a full turnout of the capital's laity and clerics, the Mid-Atlantic hierarchy and the Nuncio all to converge in the Basilica of the National Shrine for the non-ticketed Mass, the stage is set for one of the more daunting moments of Wuerl's three decades as a diocesan bishop...

...yet as if the aftershocks of last week weren't palpable enough, Friday's ordination will take place on the anniversary of another notable entrance into the episcopate: McCarrick's own, 41 years to the day, at the hands of his mentor, Cardinal Terence Cooke.

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In the modern era of the church's sex-abuse crises – usually defined as 2002 onward – for everything the period has seen across the globe, Wednesday's announcement from the New York Chancery was genuinely uncharted territory on a number of levels.

For starters, it's been nearly a quarter-century since a cardinal has left the public stage amid substantiated charges of abusing a minor – and the last time it happened, Vienna's Cardinal Hans Hermann Gröer was already 75 and merely retired from the Austrian church's lead post, slipping off to a secluded monastery of his Benedictine community with no process to determine the veracity of the multiple claims, nor public penalties beyond disgrace.

Here, by contrast, what hasn't been sufficiently absorbed yet is how a system often – and, at least sometimes, rightly – criticized or not trusted for being a stacked clerical deck has effectively been upended: for the first time in memory, an ecclesial process saw laypeople sit in judgment of a cardinal, and the Pope enforce their conclusion.

By no means did things need to happen that way – if anything, it defies practically every classic argument in the canons. But if you're looking for evidence that a cultural shift has broadly, consequentially taken hold, even as a hypothetical, it would be difficult to find a clearer example than this. That it came to pass within the same week as the anniversary of the passage of the Dallas Charter is merely coincidental, but it underscores the point.

At the same time, correcting an element in Wednesday's first story, given the sole accountability of cardinals to the Pope himself, with the suspension in place imposed as a temporary remedial act, the final determination of McCarrick's sentence is pending before Francis alone, unless – as happened with the preliminary investigation in New York – the pontiff delegates the CDF to conduct a process of its own, whether administratively through its staff or a full tribunal.

As previously noted, while the since-deceased Scottish Cardinal Keith O'Brien was made to resign the rights and privileges of the red hat in 2015 over admitted sexual misconduct with adults, to repeat, an instance of a cardinal facing a substantiated report of abuse against a minor hasn't occurred since Groer. What's more, though, among the College, never before have both degrees of scandal converged at once – that is, until now.

Again, this is simply uncharted territory... and given the other shoe to come, it seems the summer ahead won't be as quiet as one might've hoped.

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Among other cobbled notes, two aspects from the process' "ground zero" stick out.

First, it bears recalling that the abuse allegation against McCarrick came in the context of one of the more underreported stories in the recent trajectory of the scandals. Amid ongoing fears among the New York bishops that the state assembly in Albany will eventually pass a "window" law suspending the statute of limitations on civil abuse suits for a year or two – a move which has sent roughly a dozen dioceses in other states into Chapter 11 bankruptcy – in late 2016 the Gotham archdiocese initiated the Independent Reconciliation and Compensation Program: an in-house effort to resolve reports of past abuse out of court, with settlements determined by mediators retained by the church.

While the strategy has since been echoed by other Chanceries upstate, in the nation's third-largest diocese, the first phase reported payments of $40 million to some 200 survivors late last year. Including the accusation against the cardinal (filed in January), the process' second round closed in April; last week, the lawyer representing McCarrick's victim told New York outlets that his client's compensation offer had not yet been conveyed.

In total, the program's costs are being drawn from a $100 million loan on the archdiocese's considerable real-estate holdings.

On another front, meanwhile, Wednesday's development might just have ramifications in terms of the still-active American hierarchy. For starters, even if late-2017 expectations pegging Wuerl's retirement and successor in Washington to come right within these weeks had suddenly dwindled earlier this year – in hindsight, perhaps in light of the unexpected abuse case which would impact the 750,000-member capital church – though the process' opening stage hasn't begun as of this writing, once it does get underway, in one form or another the fallout of the removal is likely to figure into the calculus that produces DC's next archbishop.

Yet even more to the point, ever since Easter, ranking ops both in Rome and the States have focused to an unusual degree on an even stranger prospect: with Cardinal Edwin O'Brien said to be "feeling his age" at 79 amid a constant slate of heavy travel as Grand Master of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre, a remarkably prominent and consistent buzz through the spring has tipped Cardinal Timothy Dolan as O'Brien's potential successor again, repeating a handover first seen in 1994, when Dolan replaced the Bronx-born Army chaplain as rector of the Pontifical North American College, the start of a staggeringly rapid ascent through the hierarchy's ranks.

Of course, the kicker would be seismic – the chair of St Patrick's being held until death by each of its occupants from John Hughes in 1850 until the last one "got out alive" on his 2009 retirement, a Dolan return to Rome would vacate the archbishopric of New York for a man of Francis' choosing in the place the Vatican still sees as the "capital of the world," still by far the most prominent office in the American church. As for who could take it, well, the thousand year-old order would've had to lend this scribe some body armor to survive what would easily shape up as the most significant and contentious US selection process of this pontificate.

Clearly, a rumor of the kind is normally the type of thing that'd instinctively be tagged as beyond far-fetched and promptly howled down... yet given where it was coming from, it couldn't be in this case. And all that said, prevalent as it had been for a good while, the trail has suddenly halted in the wake of McCarrick's removal amid an early sense of two things: either that a move to open New York would inevitably be viewed as a papal commentary on the case... or, indeed, that further related developments would dictate a need for stability at the helm in 1011.

Whatever happens, the report is placed here for the sake of the historic record – if nothing else, far too many scribe-hours have gone into tracking it lo these many weeks.

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And, lastly... well, that can wait.

For now, it's been a long four days and a good bit else to put together. Just in the last two hours, several sudden blips have made for shifts of focus; along the way, there's a Consistory on Thursday, the usual wrap-up announcements before the Vatican's summer exodus begins next weekend, and perhaps another curveball or two, to boot.

As it's quite the mix to trudge through, the one thing this scribe doesn't need to sweat about is being able to pay the bills that keep this shop running... ergo, lest anybody forgot, these pages only keep coming your way thanks to your support: