The McCarrick Report investigating sexual abuse by disgraced former Washington, D.C., cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick, released this month by the Vatican, catalogs facts that cannot be ignored, denied or explained away. The harm inflicted by Mr. McCarrick over decades is a source of deep remorse and shame for the Catholic Church. Like most, I am bewildered that he was able to advance in the ranks while preying on victims even while serious accusations about him were known or credibly rumored.
Before priesthood, I served as assistant attorney general for Pardons, Parole and Probation in North Dakota. I reviewed the files of every inmate in the corrections system, which included every kind of sex crime. Later I served as guardian ad litem for the juvenile court, representing the interests of children, including those who had been sexually abused. As a priest and canon lawyer, I have been deeply involved in cases of clerical sexual abuse of children and young people. I have had a life-long commitment to the welfare and well-being of children and young adults — that they be protected from sexual predators especially. That life experience has informed my work as a canonist and now as a seminary official.
The greatest value of the McCarrick Report will be what we learn from it to ensure that nothing like this is able to happen again.
We know so much more than ever before about how to cultivate human maturity, psychological and emotional well-being, and the qualities necessary to be a well-integrated, virtuous person. We need to be guided by scientific data and well-articulated criteria in judging whether a man is suitable to be ordained a priest, given the tremendous responsibility to care for others and everything else this vocation entails. There can be no room for wishful thinking or a misguided trust that sacramental grace will compensate for deficits in the human qualities needed to be a good pastor; no one should ever again simply ordain a man and hope for the best.
There must be a willingness to exclude anyone who does not fulfill objective criteria of maturity, self-possession, self-control, self-discipline and goodwill toward all others; to exclude anyone who presents any identifiable risk of the capacity to do harm to others. A “pastoral heart” full of good intentions is not enough; there must be a demonstrated capacity to behave in every circumstance as a good pastor and to function as a mature, psycho-sexually healthy person.
The criteria have to be applied rigorously. Everyone must agree that “looking the other way,” waiting for someone else to make the hard calls, claiming “plausible deniability,” or naive credulity — all features of the institutional culture revealed in the McCarrick Report — are wholly unacceptable.
Seminaries must shed the veneer of being sacred enclaves that non-clerics are just not able, or qualified, to understand or critique — clerics forming future clerics with no input from others. Laypersons, and especially women, must be an integral part of seminary faculties with prominent roles in the formation and evaluation process. They bring an essential perspective to the closed clerical world with its inevitable blind spots that led to tragedies like the depredations of Theodore McCarrick.
Seminary officials have often had good instincts about suitability without the technical knowledge and other tools we have today for making sound judgments (sophisticated psychological evaluations, holistic developmental models based on sound science, etc.). Those in positions of authority and officials who serve them need to listen to the people charged with the responsibility of formation and evaluation and follow their recommendations, regardless of pressures to get men ordained and get them into service — service that has too often been marred, if not contradicted, by human immaturity and a lack of virtue in men who should never have been ordained in the first place.
Better to lose one priest than gain even one more victim of a morally depraved cleric. And those in authority have to want to know and be willing to turn those away who, however well-intentioned, are ill-suited to the rigors of ministry and a lifetime of service. That is what the seminary I serve is committed to. All schools of formation must be committed to these standards. Future failure is not an option. “Many are called, but few are chosen” must be a constant reminder for all those who dare to pursue the Catholic priesthood.
Rev. Phillip J. Brown (email@example.com) is president-rector of Saint Mary’s Seminary & University, the United States' first and oldest Catholic seminary, in Baltimore.