“I Have to Ask Myself Why I Didn’t Call Somebody”

A prominent Catholic intellectual on the rumors he never acted on and how he and other Catholics are grappling with the sheer scale of the church’s sex abuse epidemic.

St. Patrick’s Cathedral
The interior of St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Jeffrey Greenberg/UIG via Getty Images

Over the past several decades, and especially since 2002, when the Boston Globe first reported extensively on sexual abuse by Catholic priests in the Boston area, Catholics in America and around the world have been asking themselves profound questions about the way their faith is administered and led. Those questions have become even more pressing this summer. Last week, a grand jury reported that more than 300 priests sexually abused children in Pennsylvania over a period of seven decades. This follows the revelation that Washington, D.C.’s former archbishop, Theodore E. McCarrick, had also committed sexual abuse, some of which took place at his beach house.

In July, Pope Francis accepted McCarrick’s resignation. This week, the pope issued an unprecedented letter to his flock, saying the church had “showed no care for the little ones; we abandoned them.”

I recently spoke by phone about all this with Paul Elie, an author and senior fellow at Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs, who has written extensively about the Catholic Church. During the course of our conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, we discussed how to think about any connection between the church’s teachings and predatory priests, what Francis is—and isn’t—doing differently than his predecessors, and how Catholics should respond to so much horrible news about their church.

Isaac Chotiner: Do the Pennsylvania revelations, and the McCarrick story, change the way you think about sexual abuse in the Church in any way?

Paul Elie: In the case of Pennsylvania, these are stories and incidents that are not unfamiliar. They are all too familiar in some respects. Just the scale of it leads the ordinary person to think that this was not the exception; this was something like the rule. And I think, on some level, many of us had been telling ourselves that this was the exception for a couple of decades now.

In the case of Cardinal McCarrick, I had heard the rumors about his behavior at the beach house a dozen years ago, to the point that I have to ask myself why I didn’t call somebody or write about it, because I think I naturally assumed that was the extent of it, and that the past was past. I am ashamed of that. At this point, there is still revelation upon revelation where we get into the weeping and gnashing of teeth. In other words, I had heard this rumor about Cardinal McCarrick and it turns out that the rumor concealed darker and more awful behavior that was chronic and went on for decades. And the rumor itself was bad enough, but it turns out what the two men featured in [the New York Times] stories underwent was just so appalling.

What was the rumor you heard specifically?

That McCarrick, I think when he was the bishop of Metuchen in New Jersey, had a beach house where seminarians would go with him, and at one point he would ask them to sleep with him. I heard that back about the time of the conclave that elected Pope Benedict XVI, because I interviewed Cardinal McCarrick around that time. My recollection—which probably won’t check out but it is my recollection—was that I was in an airport, and there was a news crawl about rumors surrounding McCarrick, which I had already heard. And then the rumors went away and he became archbishop of Washington, and was considered one of the good ones. The idea that he was a liberal doesn’t make sense by anything other than debased Catholic standards. He wasn’t a liberal. He was more moderate than some. But in retrospect I think we can see that if he lacked leadership in some areas, it was because he was a deeply compromised figure.

Are you implying you cut him some slack because he was a liberal?

No. The typical reporting I have read about McCarrick has implied that conservatives were calling for his ouster, or conservatives were pleased that one of the liberal cardinals had been exposed. And that in a kind of tit-for-tat way, there was a bit of schadenfreude on the right, as if McCarrick were a figure on the left, that in the pontificate of Pope Francis, that a cardinal associated with Pope Francis is under fire is not unpleasing to certain people on the hard right.

Does the weak, halting response of church higher-ups make you feel differently about the leadership structure?

What I am feeling is the sense that the church’s response to it is still so full of defensiveness, so eager to split hairs, so determined to focus on whether or not someone should keep his job, instead of on a deeper question of what our religion is about and what is good in it and what is not. And if what is not good in it is so close to the core of the way our church is organized, what does that tell us about what it means to be Catholics?

What do you make of the way Pope Francis specifically has handled this?

I think that Pope Francis did something remarkable earlier this summer. He is far from perfect. Even the sainted Popes John XXIII and John Paul II were far from perfect. These are frail, imperfect human beings in difficult roles.

What is striking to me about Pope Francis, who has been far from sound on this issue from the beginning of his pontificate, was his willingness to change right in the glare of the media essentially over a period of a couple of weeks earlier this summer when it came to the question of sexual abuse in Chile. There are many people who can dispute the particulars, but he went from claiming there was calumny against a bishop with whom he was associated, to being told there was a preponderance of evidence against the guy, to committing a trusted deputy to amass that evidence, to reviewing it and essentially saying, “I was wrong,” and inviting the victims to Rome. To change quickly, and obviously, in a short time is very uncharacteristic of popes. That Francis could do that gives me hope.

I see some of this in the letter he released Monday morning. Again, it was far from perfect, such as in the fact that it weirdly seemed to suggest that all of us Catholics are responsible for the problem of sexual abuse in the church, and all need to undertake fasting and penance. But the important thing is that the letter came right away and that it sounds so obviously human. It is a personal statement, not a papal statement from on high.

There was a debate in 2002, and in the wake of the Boston revelations, about the degree to which Catholicism itself and things like celibacy were responsible for exacerbating the sexual abuse problem. What did you think of the debate then and what do you think of it now?

I think that the sexual abuse crisis has occluded the issue and made it extremely difficult for the church to attend to a host of issues about human sexuality that it needs urgently to deal with. I am writing a book about the 1980s, when a lot of these questions came up in the public eye for the first time. Questions about the church’s consideration of homosexuality, the whole idea of “Hate the sin, love the sinner.” That was 35 years ago, and these questions have not been dealt with, and one of the reasons is that the sexual abuse crisis has sucked all the air out of the room.

OK, maybe I should rephrase my question. Do you think that the abuse itself has something to do with the teachings of Catholicism or celibacy?

Yes. [Pauses]

How so?

I think we need to think about that together as a church, and the church is not willing to begin to think about it, and the sexual abuse crisis has sadly given one more pretext for that institutional self-examination to be kicked down the road.

But you don’t have a specific thing in mind? You just think it needs to be broadly thought about?

Basically, the danger to which Catholics are prone is to oversimplify human sexuality, so it’s all very complicated and there is no single cause to any of these things. Even in the best of times, if there had not been one instance of sexual abuse, for the church to frame a coherent position on human sexuality would be extraordinarily hard. This has just made it so much harder.

What should Catholics do now? I assume you don’t think they should leave the church, and I assume you think the way the church is dealing with the crisis is unacceptable.

[Long pause] I know what I am doing, which is a word that is part of the Jesuit tradition that I came to know as a student at Fordham in the 1980s and is really at the center of Pope Francis’ approach, and it is the word discernment. In this instance, we have to call evil what it is, and call a crisis what it is, but also approach it from the point of view of discernment, and not from the point of view of the culture wars, let’s say. What does it mean for me? What does it mean for the victims? What does it mean for us as a Catholic people? What does it mean for our society if Catholic Christianity were sort of amputated from the body politic? We have to think about all those things and then try to look backward and forward at the same time.

Maybe it’s because I am nonbeliever, but you are being too cryptic for me. I don’t know exactly what you mean.

I mean: The secular lingo for this is a teachable moment. I think that’s a shallow cliché. A serious believer asks himself or herself with some regularity, “What do I believe? Why do I believe it? Do I believe that it’s the path of virtue? Is it one that I would recommend to other people? Is it one that I carry out into public life or just practice at home? Does it bind me to the past—to Saint Augustine, and St. Francis of Assisi, and St. Ignatius of Loyola? And if it does, does it bind me to those predatory priests also?” Catholicism—Judaism too—claims an essential continuity between the past and the present, and so if you claim that continuity, it makes it very hard to say, “Oh, things were done differently then. The past was the past,” which is what a lot of people are trying to do right now. If you are serious about Catholicism, I don’t think that’s an easy move to make. It’s a cop-out.

I wrote a book about some of the best things that have happened in American Catholicism from after World War II until Walker Percy died in 1990. And that period coincides with a period in which we now know there were thousands of acts of sexual abuse in the United States. Same years. Same church. It’s tempting to try and separate the two, but things aren’t that simple.