Wednesday, 21 April 2021

How McCarricks Happen

How do 'bad apples' like Pervert McCarrick happen?Quite a lengthy article but well worth the read.

From the Catholic Herald

By Stephen Bullivant and Giovanni Radhitio Putra Sadewo

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.

There are certain things you don’t want to write about. They are too sad or sordid or strange that they give you an uncomfortable feeling right in the pit of your stomach. — Theodore McCarrick, ‘An Unpleasant Task’ (2002)

From Savile to Sandusky to Epstein to – yes – McCarrick, it has become something of a cliché to say we need to stop thinking in terms of ‘bad apples’, and instead turn our attention to defective ‘barrels’. Rotten apples, we’re assured, are symptoms rather than the root cause. Our real problems are ones of coopering, not horticulture.

The basic sentiment here is a sound one, up to a point. No man is an island, not even those who (like Epstein) own one. And if it takes a village to raise a child, there’s often a small town’s worth of people complicit – in myriad ways and to varying degrees of culpability – in covering up the abuse of one.

Furthermore, shared assumptions, practices, and policies, official or otherwise, give rise to organizational cultures in which ‘bad actors’ find it more or less easy to operate, survive, and thrive. Ex-Cardinal McCarrick, like the rest of our bad apples, is a consummate product of his particular barrel; his rotten taste, to overstretch our imagery a little, flavoured by decades of cask-conditioning.

Yet we’re loath to abandon the full subtlety of a metaphor that, after all, is first recorded in Chaucer’s ‘Cook’s Tale’. There, the whole point of the ‘proverbe’ is that we cannot, and must not, draw easy distinctions between individuals and the wider contexts in which they sit. For the ‘rotten appulle’, if left to fester, will ultimately ‘rote alle the remenaunte’.

This is true.

A bad apple’s corruption is contagious: it infects those closest to it, before gradually pervading the barrel as a whole. At a certain point, moreover, simply removing the obviously bad ones is scant protection against others turning. For the barrel, absent a thorough clean-out and disinfecting, is now itself both corrupted and corrupting.

As with many a time-worn adage, social scientists have only recently begun to recognize the wisdom here – while naturally extolling it as their own hard-won insight. Instead of ‘cooperology’, however, we prefer to use fancy terms like social network analysis, network science, and relational sociology. But for all our technical precision, computational tools, and in-the-know jargon, the underlying idea remains the same.

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.

We’re not saying that each and every ‘McCarrick’ always hits each note perfectly, but this is a fairly standard-issue template. And for very good reasons. In short, these are exactly the people to whom others are most willing to give the benefit of the doubt, to look the other way, to assume there must be an innocent explanation, to dismiss all rumours as jealousy and gossip. That is, of course, how they get away with it.

What’s more, they’re also the people whose fall would cause a huge amount of embarrassment for lots of influential folks: presidents, popes, princes, police-chiefs. Hence the timidity of victims to come forward, and/or the lack of support or credence when they do; the unwillingness of anyone with the requisite clout actually, seriously to investigate; the desire of institutions to avoid scandal, to seek a quiet solution, to draw up checks (sometimes with attached NDAs).

If and when the truth does emerge, note how swiftly the blithe denials are issued: ‘Friends? Nope. We were never close at all. Nosiree. Barely met the guy, come to think of it… Always thought there was something a little “off” about him.’ Sound familiar?

In calling such people McCarricks we’re not holding him up as some kind of pinnacle, or rather nadir, of the genre. He wasn’t. In fact, our overarching point is that McCarricks aren’t all that exceptional: there’s sadly no shortage of parallels about whom we know, and — Lord knows — others will no doubt follow.

Alongside the others we’ve mentioned, McCarrick himself is a tawdrily typical case.

In this sense, then, ‘a McCarrick’ is to high-profile predators what ‘a MacGuffin’ is to movie plot devices, or ‘a Karen’ is to, well, any woman you don’t happen to like. That said, since our primary interest is indeed with episcopal cultures, to call someone ‘a McCarrick’ there makes immediate sense. Likewise, if our main focus was on the entertainment industry, we might equally have gone for ‘a Cosby’ or ‘a Savile’ to make the same point.

Thinking in terms of McCarricks, plural, is important for the Catholic Church. If we’ve had to suffer one, what’s to stop there being others? Indeed, among many lessons to be learned from the whole sorry spectacle, surely one is that being a McCarrick can (to borrow a concept from game theory) be a supremely profitable ‘strategy’. McCarrick himself rose to the very top: Cardinal, papal confidant, media darling, and friend of politicians and financiers.

For all his show of personal poverty – as he’s not shy of pointing out, he never took a salary when Archbishop of Washington – he was also never short of fancy dinners, all-expenses-paid globetrotting, the use of a beach house, or (as we learn from Thinking of You, his collected folksy columns – why no, they haven’t aged well) people to buy him ever-bigger boats.

However short-term a strategy this will prove, sub specie aeternitatis, there are tougher ways to spend one’s earthly days. And he did it all while being a repeated, and widely suspected/ignored/tolerated, abuser of boys and young men.

As the Vatican’s recent Report makes plain, for the right kind of person it wasn’t even a terrible difficult strategy to pull off. Success in raising funds and vocations, so often the scarcest resources of ‘ecclesial capital’ (pace Bourdieu and Putnam), covers a multitude of sins.

To return to our earlier analogy, this particular apple spent an awfully long time – 42 years from his 1977 consecration as an auxiliary bishop, to his 2019 defrocking – in the US Catholic episcopal barrel. A large proportion of that span, moreover, was spent at or near the very top: Archbishop since 1986, of two major sees (Newark and DC), and a Cardinal since 2001. These are positions with a great deal of influence over who joins the barrel in the first place, and if and how they rise or fall once inside.

Again: bad apples have a corrupting effect on others.

That’s not to say that all, most, or any others that come into contact with them will become as rotten as they are. But even the freshest, healthiest, and most blight-resistant apples can start to sour, at least a little, if they spend too long in the wrong place, with the wrong company.

Since we’re on the subject of folksy proverbs, here’s a couple more: ‘birds of a feather flock together’ (i.e., like attracts like) and ‘when a chicken lives in the bush, it becomes a partridge’ (a Baganda phrase meaning, as a Ugandan priest friend reliably informs me, ‘you start to resemble those you hang out with’).

Like our choice bit of Chaucer, these convey a good deal of what social scientists are getting at with obscurer terms like ‘social selection’ and ‘homophily’.

Both are also critical for understanding the dynamics of episcopal appointments and culture within the Catholic Church. They’re critical in other spheres too: cronyism, ‘old boys’ networks’, and nepotism (an apt term vis-à-vis McCarrick, who termed those he groomed his ‘nephews’) are far from Catholic-specific problems. However, there are good reasons for thinking they’re a bigger risk within ‘the clerical caste system’ – to steal George Weigel’s phrase – than they are, or could be, elsewhere.

In our view, this is such a big part of how McCarrick himself happened, that fixing it is a major priority for stopping other potential-McCarricks from doing so. The best place to start that urgent task, though, is to take some time to comprehend what’s really going on. Thus, to understand how McCarricks happen, we must dig a little deeper, both empirically and theoretically, into several factors.

We divide what follows into two parts. Each examines afresh a major element of Uncle Ted’s backstory, in light of our and others’ wider thinking about episcopal cultures, and with an eye to drawing out wider lessons.

Big Apple, bad apples

If bad apples cultivate other bad apples, then it raises an obvious question: might there have been blight in the barrel before Theodore McCarrick came along? To put it another way: did Uncle Ted have an ‘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. We’ll return to Cooke anon, but first a few things need spelling out.

Credible rumours, and indeed on-the-record allegations, from a range of diverse sources, have swirled around Spellman for decades: to wit, a McCarrick-esque twofer of a predilection for young men (from seminarians to sailors; he had ready to access to both), and a lack of concern for the niceties of ‘consent’.

These were almost aired seventeen years after his death, in journalist John Cooney’s 1984 biography The American Pope – that is, until word got out in advance of publication.

The story goes that, after a good deal of ‘persuasion’ from Cooke’s archdiocese, The New York Times (who owned the book’s publishers) insisted the relevant four pages be excised, to be replaced with a few limp sentences mentioning ‘rumours’. (How some in the Church must pine for ‘those happy golden years’ of episcopal-editorial harmony.)

Cooney’s allegations, and many others of a similar flavour, have nonetheless persisted: no shortage of examples can be found in scattered works by journalists and academics over the years. Admittedly, lurid tales can be hard to separate from factual reportage. The two, however, need not be mutually exclusive. It is noteworthy that, post-McCarrick, outfits on a spectrum running from from Salon to The American Conservative have started taking seriously this long-suspected side to Spellman. The truth will out, as they say.

Even leaving aside the specific topic of sexual abuse, plenty else in Spellman’s biography is oddly reminiscent of Ted’s. Here are just four.

  • An assiduous networker, not least in Rome, with close links to a Pope? Spellman’s close friend Pius XII intervened to give him New York, just as (we now know) John Paul II did to send McCarrick to DC.
  • An impressive fundraiser, with some dubious accounting practices? Among other things, Spellman was a useful conduit for getting US cash to the Vatican; his Smaug-like lust for other people’s money will be familiar to fans of Fulton Sheen (the anti-Spellman, in all manner of ways).
  • An expert reader of the political mood? Spellman was the anti-Communist par excellence in an era of fever-pitch anti-communism. It served him (and to be fair, US Catholicism as a whole) very well indeed. On the face of it, McCarrick was a very different political beast. But he too was perfectly suited to his times, as his warm rapport with Bushes and Obamas alike – and fawning media coverage from ‘Team Ted’ – clearly proved. Had 2018 never happened, he would surely have taken a a place of honour at his long-time friend Joe Biden’s inauguration.
  • The fraternity of other actively homosexual clergy? This one is, of its nature, much harder to establish. But both Spellman and McCarrick are reported to have had similarly inclined friends in key positions, who in turn benefited from the kinds of favours – plum postings, gifts, confidences, monsignorships – a friendly bishop can disburse with ease.

The existence and influence of such ‘lavender mafias’ has long been mooted by serious journalists and scholars, including Kenneth Woodward, Richard Sipe, Don Cozzens, and Andrew Greeley – none of whom can rightly be accused of being ultraconservative shills. Moreover, there are strong theoretical reasons for thinking that such networks, once formed, would have powerful incentives to protect, and promote, their own.

(This issue here is not with homosexual clergy per se. But whereas heterosexually active clergy – of which there have been plenty of examples, including within the episcopacy – must, ipso facto, be active with those outside the clerical fold, the potential for homosexual relationships or secret-sharing among clergy/seminarians can create mutually compromised groups, all of whom have a personal stake in looking out for each other.)

Given all this, it is naturally tempting to draw a direct link between Spellman and McCarrick – some orchestrated passing of the torch from one to another. True enough, the latter did have this to say in 2001:

Cardinal Spellman was a very important person in my life since he ultimately ordained me a priest in 1958. He sent me to Puerto Rico and then to Catholic University here in Washington shortly afterwards. Several years later, when I became president of the Catholic University of Puerto Rico, I did get a chance to know him better and he was always very kind to me.

But this is not exactly a smoking gun. More to the point, the act of looking for one rather misses our wider argument. Rather, the world in which Spellman thrived, engendered not merely McCarrick himself, but also the world which enabled him for so long. Of course, by then the US Church – like the US itself – looked like a very different place, just as, compared to Spellman, McCarrick looked refreshingly like the Very Model of a Modern Metropolitan. But looks can be deceptive, and apples don’t always fall too far from the tree.

This bigger point is best expressed with a picture, or rather map.

The schematic  below shows a ‘serving network’ of US bishops, featuring Spellman, Cooke, and McCarrick, and only those other bishops who served directly (i.e., in what the Vatican’s recent Report calls a ‘Superior-subordinate’ relationships) under one or more of them.

The thicker the line, the higher degree of seniority/responsibility they held. Hence, of the two arrows from McCarrick, the thinner is to Spellman, whom he served as priest, and the thicker is to Cooke, whose auxiliary bishop he was. (There’s also a middle thickness, denoting service in a small number of specially trusted roles: e.g., private secretary, Vicar General, Chancellor.)

Finally, the bigger the circle by someone’s name, the greater the number of other bishops in the same network who’ve served under them at one time or another.

The most obvious thing to note here is that Spellman, Cooke, and McCarrick had a lot of ‘alumni’ who themselves became bishops; around three-quarters served one or more of them as either an auxiliary bishop or a ‘senior staffer’. Note too that since McCarrick served both Spellman and Cooke, that means everyone else depicted is a close relative of his, ecclesiastically speaking. In family tree terms, he has the episcopal equivalents of 27 ‘sons’ and 56 ‘brothers’.

Now, the fact that just three Cardinals would be so episcopally fecund is not wholly surprising: all held major sees for long periods of time, and similarly large ‘dynasties’ accumulate around other major Catholic hubs (including Boston, Spellman’s own home diocese). But what it does show, is the relative ease with which a single, influential kingmaker – a McCarrick, that is – can ‘stack the episcopate’. Many of these will, inevitably, be his own protégés and favorites, who are in turn more likely to help out their fellows, and to have a collective stake in protecting their patron, whether from loyalty or naked self-interest.

Note here, for example, McCarrick’s keenness to instil an esprit de corps among his clerical ‘nephews’, and the fact that several ended up in ‘useful’ positions for safeguarding his reputation. The McCarrick Report gives a damningly ‘textbook instance’ of just this: two of his Newark live-in auxiliaries, Smith and McHugh, witness him sexually assault a young priest, and say nothing. McHugh then shruggingly explains it away to another priest: ‘sometimes the Archbishop says things and does things that are very “different”.’ Years later, both would deny all knowledge of their mentor’s sexual wrongdoing to the Nuncio (paving the way for his appointment to DC), and Smith would sign off on a five-figure settlement to one of his victims.

Furthermore, even absent ecclesiastical realpolitik, a bishop necessarily learns a good deal of ‘bishopcraft’ from the model provided by the bishop(s) he has served under. Aside from a crash-course ‘baby Bishop school’ on their first appointment as head of a diocese, what a bishop is, does, and/or can get away with is primarily learned from the example of those they have served under.

An important Chancery role, a spell as private secretary, and/or experience as an auxiliary thus functions as a genuine apprenticeship. Again, this need not be a problem in itself. But one can easily see how deleterious modi operandi, say, or the normalization of problematic behaviours, could spread quite easily within certain regions, as a particular cadre of bishops become ‘institutional carriers’ of the norms and traditions they’ve learned (or learned to tolerate).

McCarrick himself was quite open about the basic mechanism at work here, and took evident pride in seeing his own ‘alumni’, ‘nephews’, and ‘grandsons’ – all his own phrases, ickily enough – take up prestigious posts. Hence, it’s not hard easy to see how a system which can create one McCarrick, might easily create several more. Or indeed, how a bishop who is not himself a McCarrick – as the vast majority, mercifully are not – may nevertheless pass some ‘recessive genes’ onto the next generation.

Which brings us neatly to Cardinal Cooke.

Cookie: Monster?

Terence James Cooke, ‘Cookie’ to his friends, might seem an obvious counterexample to the picture we’re presenting. Shy, retiring, and on the official path to sainthood, he was surely no McCarrick. And yet he too rose to the top of the barrel.

Well first of all, as we’ve stressed several times, we’re emphatically not saying that every apple is rotten. Nor are we saying that only bad apples rise. The concern isn’t that everyone is – or would be, if given half a chance – a McCarrick. Our concern is that there are identifiable vulnerabilities in the system of episcopal culture and promotions which McCarricks can, and have, found all too easy to exploit. Furthermore, even otherwise good and virtuous bishops can unwittingly help to enable those who really, catastrophically aren’t.

Cooke is arguably the poster boy for this very phenomenon. Ordained by Spellman in 1945, he rapidly impressed. In 1957 Spellman made him his secretary, a role he kept (alongside ever greater responsibilities) until December 1965, whereupon he became auxiliary bishop and Vicar General. Less than two-and-a-half years later, he was – Spellman’s dying wish, it appears – installed as Archbishop. As The New York Times would recall in 1986, ‘liberal priests grumbled that the appointment was the Cardinal’s last act of cronyism… Seminarians joked that the succession was “the first soul transplant on record”.’

Regardless, Cooke received a red hat before the decade was out. By this time, Cooke had found a protégé of his own. In 1971, Mgr McCarrick became his secretary. (During this time, incidentally – as per the Vatican’s Report – ‘McCarrick learned from Cardinal Cooke the importance of gift-giving to others within the Church’, something which he had presumably picked up from Spellman.) He held the post until 1977, when it was his turn as an auxiliary before being swiftly promoted up, up, and (not at all that far) away.

As McCarrick later observed of his own, ‘a good secretary… has to live my life’. Cooke, in the role for eight years, and McCarrick, for six, were both surely that. Now recall what may be ‘plausibly suspected’ about aspects of Spellman’s life. Remember also that, throughout his whole period as Cooke’s right-hand man, McCarrick was actively abusing minors, frequently taking other school-age ‘nephews’ on overnight trips, and already had a reputation for having ‘an eye for the seminarians’.

It is not impossible that, despite living in such close proximity to both, Cooke remained blissfully unaware of anything remotely ‘suspect’ going on at any time.

(If that seems difficult to believe, fear not – again according to the McCarrick Report, there are ample precedents to be found among McCarrick’s own subordinates now holding high ecclesiastical office.)

But if he didn’t, oughtn’t he have?

Tellingly, according to Cooke’s official biography, among his few faults were that ‘He rarely confronted people, and when he did it was obvious that he was very uncomfortable’, and ‘He found it difficult to conceive that a person might have bad motives… He tended to dismiss faults as human weaknesses’. The phrase ‘culpable naiveté’ leaps to mind here. And mercifully for those promoting Cooke’s Cause, he wouldn’t be the only canonized saint to have suffered from a bad case of it.

On that note, it is perhaps worth revisiting some aspects of Cook’s surprising-to-many-who-knew-him Cause. Less than five months after the cardinal’s funeral in October 1986, and two days before John O’Connor was installed as his successor, McCarrick wrote formally to petition him to start the process. As Kenneth Woodward reports in 1990’s Making Saints, ‘[McCarrick] had already discussed the matter with a half-dozen of O’Connor’s colleagues in the New York Archdiocese, all of whom had served either Cooke or Spellman, as personal secretaries, auxiliary bishops, or ranking monsignori’. O’Connor himself served under Spellman as a navy chaplain, and later as Cooke’s auxiliary bishop in the Military vicariate. He duly obliged, opening the Cause that October.

If the circumstances surrounding Cooke’s ‘shotgun Cause’ feel a little dubious in hindsight, it’s worth noting that they seemed so at the time too. Thus Woodward in 1990:

Many priests of the archdiocese were simply not convinced of Cooke’s holiness and were correspondingly sceptical of O’Connor’s motives… another example of the cronyism, they felt, had long characterized the way things are administered in the New York Archdiocese. In their view, the cause was a presumptuous campaign by a few close friends and protégés of Spellman and Cooke… and aimed, not a few critics felt, at ultimately winning posthumous blessing on the entire era in New York church politics.

The Holy See certainly thought so: ‘Vatican officials were surprised that some thought [Cooke] was worthy of canonization’, and raised their eyebrows at ‘the vigorous promotional and publicity efforts that O’Connor, McCarrick, and the others had set in motion’. Irrespective of Cooke’s intrinsic sanctity, we know McCarrick’s skill at deviously furthering his own deviant interests.

He’s also well aware of the protective and reputational value of having friends, real or perceived, in high places. In Thinking of You, for example, he often subtly drops in a ‘I was consecrated a bishop… by the servant of God, Terence Cardinal Cooke’. Perhaps all this feels like the product of Church-weary cynicism brought on by thinking too hard for too long about McCarricks of all kinds. Perhaps so. But raising such questions is assuredly not a post-2018, benefit-of-hindsight phenomenon.


So 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.

We’ve dwelt on Spellman as a plausible proto-McCarrick (one could equally frame McCarrick as a latter-day-Spellman), but he’s by no means the only example. Readers will, for instance, find the various investigations – principally those by The Washington Post, and latterly the Church’s own official report – into Michael Bransfield, the disgraced ex-Bishop of Wheeling-Charleston, eerily reminiscent of much that we have explored herein.

Bransfield was the ‘very capable and outstanding rector of the [National] Shrine’ (Thinking of You) during McCarrick’s first four years in DC, before being elevated to the episcopacy. Though Bransfield was never McCarrick’s direct subordinate (he was ‘on loan’ from another diocese, hence his absence from our network map), he’s another protégé of Ted, who performed his consecration. True, Bransfield never made it to Archbishop or Cardinal. But then not every gang boss can be the Mr Big of Chicago or New York. A small-town McCarrick (with apologies to Wheeling and Charleston), maybe, but a McCarrick nonetheless.

But make no mistake: McCarrick wasn’t the first, and we strongly doubt that Bransfield will  be the last.

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