Thinking about 'Uncle Ted' McCarrick's rise and fall: Did Catholic leaders learn anything?

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If you have followed the career of fallen cardinal Theodore “Uncle Ted” McCarrick, you know that for a decade or two he was probably the most influential Catholic leader in the United States — especially with journalists (think “Team Ted”) and gatekeepers in the church hierarchy.

With McCarrick, it wasn’t enough to discuss his evil deeds. That was a tragic, hellish story, but it wasn’t the most important story.

The big question was how he managed to land a cardinal’s “red hat” and a throne in Washington, D.C. — even while, behind closed doors, warning lights were flashing and sirens were sounding in America and in the power centers of Rome.

Once journalists have asked that question, they need to ask (a) who promoted McCarrick, (b) who protected him and (c) who were the McCarrick disciples who used their connections with him to climb the ladders of Catholic power?

This brings us to a think piece at The Catholic Herald in England that received some attention in social media and probably deserved more. The headline: “How McCarricks Happen.”

The big idea: Are we talking about a “bad apple” or about multiple “bad barrels” that consistently produce rotten apples? Thus:

Barrels influence apples, sure: how big the barrel, how tightly packed, one’s position within it, who one’s neighbors are, how regularly the apples get mixed, removed, or replenished. But the apples themselves, good or bad, influence both each other, and collectively, the barrel environment as a whole. Furthermore, while barrels come in different shapes, sizes and materials – as whisky connoisseurs know, outwardly indistinguishable single casks can produce subtly different drops – there are significant commonalities between them.

This is precisely why, to leave barrels behind for a bit, when reading exposés of high-profile sexual predators (and we’ve read more over the past several years than is probably mentally healthy) they start to feel a little samey. There are few obvious overlaps between the worlds of, say, elite college sports coaching, British children’s television, humanitarian NGOs, Hollywood powerbroking, and Catholic prelates. But when and where serial predators emerge within each of them, both they, and (critically) those around them, often behave in strangely analogous ways.

‘McCarricks’ can, in this sense, be found in many walks of life. Talented, charming, and hardworking. Adept at winning friends and influencing people. A penchant for ‘collecting’ the powerful and prestigious. Champions of the right (on) causes at the right time, and tireless fundraisers to boot. They rise up the ranks swiftly, with both willingness and ability to make — or break — others’ careers/dreams/vocations, etc.

Thus, the first question is blunt: Was there an “Uncle Ted” who produced this Uncle Ted?

There’s certainly a stand-out contender. McCarrick only directly served under two other bishops, both Cardinal-Archbishops of New York and sometime Superiors of the Military vicariate: Francis Spellman, who ordained him to the priesthood in 1958, and Terence James Cooke, who made him his auxiliary in 1977, before getting him installed as Bishop of the new diocese of Metuchen, NJ, a mere four years later. 

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This gets us into a thorny nest of rumors, including some crucial pages that the powers that be at The New York Times managed to have edited out of a controversial book. There’s a lot of intrigue here — sexual and political — that isn’t central to the main thesis.

Readers will want to read all of this (and study the chart inserted above). But here is a summary that should provoke interest and thought:

The bottom line? There is more than one form of bottom line:

… Where does this leave us? Hopefully, with a new perspective on the underlying ‘socio-logic’ behind the rise and, for all too-long, seeming untouchability of Theodore McCarrick – and hence a better awareness of how other McCarricks can and have happened.

The brute fact is that that they don’t just happen out of nowhere. Rather, McCarricks are the malign by-products of a system ostensibly designed to create something else entirely: bishops who are, as per Canon 378, ‘outstanding in solid faith, good morals, piety, zeal for souls, wisdom, prudence, and human virtues’. While we have no doubt that the system succeeds in producing those as well, it clearly suffers from significant vulnerabilities.

McCarrick, in turn, was a part and product of this system: and an expert player of it to boot.

But he was not some one-off figure, possessed of extraordinary powers of charm and deception. It might be comforting to think so, but it’s also deeply dangerous. He had talents, sure, and he used them to game the system to his own ends. But it was a system that, time and again, proved itself to be all-too gameable. Much of McCarrick’s black magic was essentially based on a two-bit grift: donations and vocations can buy you a lot of people willing, indeed eager, to see the best in you.

Read it all. Some of the names on that chart, and in this text, remain highly relevant.

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