Notre Dame’s response to the current crisis in the Catholic Church has been tepid. The Church has been seriously damaged first by the revelations of former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick’s predatory behavior against boys and young men over decades and of the episcopal cover-up of it. Soon after we read of the sickening findings of the Pennsylvania grand jury investigations into priestly sexual abuse of children and young people. Finally, the former apostolic nuncio to the U.S., Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, leveled explosive accusations that senior church officials were complicit in the cover-up of McCarrick’s sexual abuse and that Pope Francis even repealed sanctions previously imposed upon him. Lay people are rightly angered and deeply hurt by the episcopal malfeasance and incompetence revealed over the past two months. There is an obvious need for cleansing and reform in our Church. One might hope that the leading Catholic university in the United States, and one so publicly dedicated to the pursuit of truth, could make a valuable contribution to that effort. So far the leadership of the university, however, has been a study in avoidance and has refused to take even modest actions that might contribute to the work of reform.
Of course statements of regret and remorse have been uttered and prayers extended for the victims of sexual abuse. Fr. Pete McCormick, with his usual pastoral zeal, has played an important role on campus in seeking to address the concerns and anxieties of undergraduate students in a variety of fora. Most priests on campus have preached at least once on the crisis. But little action has been taken that might address the real source of the problems that beset the Church at this time. Fr. John Jenkins has even declined to rescind the honorary degree granted to McCarrick in 2008 claiming that the university must “allow the adjudicatory process to reach a conclusion before taking action.” He has maintained this stance despite the fact that Cardinal Timothy Dolan’s Review Board determined that McCarrick had molested an altar boy, and that two New Jersey dioceses paid secret settlements to buy the silence of two adult male victims of McCarrick’s sexual molestation. McCarrick’s perfidy is hardly in dispute as confirmed by Pope Francis’s dismissal of him from the College of Cardinals. Other universities like Fordham, CUA and the University of Portland already have dissociated themselves from him.
Part of the difficulty for Notre Dame may be that McCarrick has been so closely associated with the university over the past decades. At the time he was awarded his honorary degree and served as commencement speaker in 2008, Fr. Jenkins praised and thanked McCarrick for all his advice and assistance to Notre Dame. McCarrick had played a prominent role in the beatification ceremonies for Blessed Basil Moreau, the founder of the Congregation of Holy Cross, the previous year. And, of course, he continued to surface at Notre Dame events over the subsequent decade. It is somewhat embarrassing to the memory of Father Ted Hesburgh to note that McCarrick was one of the two cardinals to attend his funeral – the other being Roger Mahony of Los Angeles, who covered up cases of clergy sexual abuse and whose successor tried to restrict his public activities. McCarrick also gave a tribute to Fr. Ted at the memorial service at the Joyce Center held on the evening of the funeral.
Notre Dame’s difficulty in dissociating itself from McCarrick is complicated by the extent to which the university’s leadership embraced members of the former cardinal’s network and their agenda. Three cardinals have been honored at the university’s most recent commencements, all of them closely linked with the former cardinal. McCarrick’s successor as Archbishop of Washington, D.C., Donald Wuerl graced the campus in 2016, although he adroitly avoided appearing on the same stage with Laetare Medal winner Joe Biden. Wuerl is under heavy criticism and likely to resign over cover-up charges by the Pennsylvania grand jury. Cardinal Kevin Farrell, who visited Notre Dame in 2017, was a protégé of McCarrick’s, lived in the same residence with him for six years and now serves as prefect of the Dicastery for Laity, Family and Life at the Vatican. Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago, whose appointment was allegedly orchestrated by McCarrick and Honduran Cardinal Maradiaga, received his honorary degree in 2018. Another frequent visitor to campus has been Cardinal Joseph Tobin, a successor to McCarrick as Archbishop of Newark, whose surprising appointment apparently owed to McCarrick’s intervention.
These prelates have sought to use Notre Dame to bolster their own campaigns within the Church such as when Cupich and Tobin spoke at the so-called “New Momentum” conference back in February 2018 to further their agenda regarding Pope Francis’s apostolic exhortation, Amoris Laetitia. Of course, the relationship is a two-way street. These men give Notre Dame improved access to important figures in Rome and even facilitate audiences with Pope Francis as Wuerl did for the Notre Dame trustees some years back. Furthermore, they provide cover for Notre Dame. Why should the university take seriously the criticisms of our own local ordinary, Bishop Kevin Rhoades, on such matters as providing health insurance for contraception when the university’s leadership has the implicit protection of such leading figures in the hierarchy as Blase Cupich and Joseph Tobin?
Whatever its past dealing with McCarrick’s circle, one must ask what exactly Notre Dame should do in this present circumstance. Rescinding McCarrick’s honorary degree is but an initial step. If it turns out that Cardinals Wuerl and Farrell were aware of McCarrick’s abhorrent behavior and did nothing to stop it, then their degrees too should be rescinded. These are but minor actions in the greater scheme of the crisis that the Catholic Church confronts at the present moment. Notre Dame might also put some distance between itself and those members of the hierarchy closely associated with McCarrick until matters regarding him and them have been fully investigated. And bishops such as Roger Mahony should be discouraged from further visits to the campus or associations with Notre Dame.
Beyond these initial moves, Notre Dame should commit itself to the pursuit of the truth without fear or favor. The university must add its voice to those of the many others who want answers to the central questions of who knew what and when regarding McCarrick and others who have abused their power and so damaged others. Getting clarity on the extent of McCarrick’s influence on recent appointments and the rationale behind them is also of crucial importance. The credibility of the bishops and their capacity to oversee needed reforms is at stake. This is not an issue that should have liberal or conservative political overtones. It is a matter of truth-telling and essential renewal in our Church.
Perhaps Notre Dame could use some of its vast resources to fund (but not to oversee) the necessary lay-led investigation to get to the bottom of McCarrick’s abuse of power and his disproportionate influence in Francis’s papacy. Generous support for a high-powered forensic team to examine all the relevant documentation and financial records would go some way to indicating Notre Dame’s willingness to overcome the taint that the university’s close association with the former cardinal has left. It would show that this Catholic university wants to contribute to the essential work of reform that is so needed today.
Fr. Bill Miscamble, C.S.C., teaches in the History Department and is a member of the Rover’s Faculty Advisory Board. He can be contacted at email@example.com.