The hierarchical structure of the Catholic Church is partially responsible for why bishops, including the pope, are not investigated or accountable to any external oversight body. As a consequence, one should not be surprised that only 7 out of 150 bishops credibly accused of abusing minors or vulnerable adults have actually been laicized. In the United States, with less than 200 dioceses, “more than 130 U.S. bishops” have been accused of “failing to adequately respond to sexual misconduct in their dioceses.”
The question of holding bishops accountable who engage in or cover up abuse has become all the more pressing in recent weeks following the announcement that San Diego Bishop Robert McElroy has been chosen by Pope Francis to be awarded the red hat despite his scandalous track record. This event and the response since its announcement allows us to reflect on the legacy of this pontificate in handling this all-important issue.
McElroy’s Cover Up
In addition to being reported years ago for covering up the ritual rape of Rachel Mastrogiacomo by San Diego priest, Father Jacob Bertrand, McElroy is also alleged to have covered up ex-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick’s sexual predation of seminarians and young priests that was reported to him by the late psychotherapist and researcher, Richard Sipe. In a letter dated July 28, 2016 that he had McElroy legally served, Sipe reported, “I have interviewed twelve seminarians and priests who attest to propositions, harassment, or sex with McCarrick.” Now, if a bishop received reports from not one; not two; but twelve victims who claimed they were abused by one of his priests, might not that bishop be found guilty of “criminal omission” if he failed to undertake a thorough and unbiased investigation of those abuse allegations?
Most journalists reporting on McElroy’s nomination have missed how the connection between McElroy and McCarrick, who is believed to have helped orchestrate McElroy’s appointment to San Diego, is very similar to the relationship between Pope Francis and the late British Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor. As a member of the “Sankt [St.] Gallen mafia,” Murphy-O’Connor was viewed as playing a pivotal role in getting Jorge Bergoglio elected Pope in 2013. It was reported how Pope Francis did not want Cardinal Gerhard Müller investigating abuse allegations involving Murphy-O’Connor anymore than it appears McElroy wanted an investigation into the abuse allegations involving McCarrick he received from Sipe.
Since the list of new cardinals was announced, most Catholic and local mainstream media outlets have avoided reporting the deep emotional and psychological harm McElroy’s upcoming appointment is causing victims of clerical sexual abuse. One abuse victim wrote that Pope Francis’ promotion of Bishop McElroy “fills me with fear.” Another local abuse victim, aware of McElroy’s failed effort as President of the California Catholic Conference to overturn California Law AB 218 which created a three-year window for abuse survivors to file claims against alleged perpetrators, told me:
Bishop McElroy does not want to bear any responsibility for the horrific crimes perpetrated on each of us with this look-back opportunity because he does not want to have a ‘stain’ on his record with any settlements as he proceeds to get his ‘red hat.’
Catholic editor, J.D. Flynn of The Pillar, defended McElroy’s handling of the abuse allegations he received from Sipe by arguing, “…if McElroy did pass on Sipe’s letter to Rome, it’s not clear what more the bishop could have done.” If McElroy were truly concerned about the impact the McCarrick scandals were having “on the hearts and souls of Catholics,” he should have ensured that Sipe’s allegations involving McCarrick and other accused prelates were thoroughly investigated and adjudicated by the pope who alone has the authority to discipline a cardinal of the Church.
McElroy’s response to the allegations contained in Sipe’s letter is comparable to Pennsylvania State University Athletic Director Tim Curley’s response to abuse allegations he received from Coach Joe Paterno regarding Jerry Sandusky. Both McElroy and Curley received credible abuse reports that they knew were not acted upon by those in authority over them. The abuse allegations University President Graham Spanier received from Curley involving Sandusky were covered up for years, just like the allegations Pope Francis received from McElroy. McCarrick’s allegations might still be covered up to this day had it not been for Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò’s bombshell “Testimony” of August 22, 2018. Even then, it was not until February of 2019 before McCarrick was laicized – three years after McElroy received Sipe’s report.
Francis’ Cover Up
Unlike both McElroy and Francis who suffered no consequences for covering up McCarrick’s abuse allegations, Curley was sentenced from seven to 23 months’ incarceration, while Spanier was fired by the university board of trustees and later sentenced from four to 12 months in prison. If there were a similar “board of trustees” investigating McElroy and Francis for covering up McCarrick’s abuse, both McElroy and Francis might be convicted and laicized not only for covering up for McCarrick, but perhaps for countless other abuse victims in San Diego and Buenos Aires. Unfortunately, like most abuse cases handled within the Church, an “internal investigation” was convened by Francis who, in this case, just happened to be the defendant accused of covering up McCarrick’s sexual predation. Francis was assured of being found innocent owing to the fact that his own defense attorney, Jeffrey Stanley Lena, researched and wrote the final whitewashed report without ever having deposed the plaintiff, Archbishop Viganò. The outcome would have been the same for Bill Clinton had he been allowed to have his own defense attorney investigate allegations he was committing adultery with a White House intern.
Based on the local mainstream media’s one-sided coverage of McElroy’s career, “Church bookies” would afford him favorable odds of not suffering a fate similar to that of Polish Archbishop Stanisław Wielgus. Just one hour before he was scheduled to be installed as the Primate of Poland in Warsaw’s St. John’s Cathedral, Wielgus announced his resignation owing to media reports that he cooperated with Polish Security Services known to have arrested and tortured several priests. Pope Benedict XVI accepted Wielgus’ resignation knowing that people would never accept an Archbishop who cooperated with the secret police which included three agents who were found guilty of murdering Father Jerzy Popiełuszko, a charismatic, anti-Communist priest involved with the Solidarity trade union.
Perhaps fearing being exposed in the media like Wielgus, Ghent Bishop Luc Van Looy declined being named a cardinal in August because of his record of covering up sexual abuse. Despite the decisions made by Wielgus and Van Looy to avoid addition media scrutiny of their records, McElroy is betting mainstream and “Catholic” media sources will continue to keep quiet about how he covered up the sexual predation of McCarrick; the rape of Rachel Mastrogiacomo; and the abuse of other victims in the San Diego Diocese.
“A Life of Prayer and Penance”
McElroy’s confidence in being able to avoid media scrutiny stems in part from how most media outlets throughout the world never reported on how Pope Francis covered up thousands of abuse cases in Buenos Aires despite having said “It [sexual abuse] never happened in my diocese.” Chicago Cardinal Blase Cupich, McElroy’s backer on the Congregation for Bishops, has probably already planned on what Archdiocese McElroy will lead in the future. Among the discussed possibilities are Washington, Chicago, or even New York if Cupich or Cardinal Timothy Dolan were to be afforded a position in the Roman Curia.
Rachel Mastrogiacomo may not have been murdered like Father Popiełuszko, but her rape and the abuse of others throughout the world cry out for justice. When asked if she felt McElroy should resign before the August 27, 2022 consistory in Rome, Mastrogiacomo responded, “I think both McElroy and Francis should retire to a life of prayer and penance.” Just as most clergy knew about “Uncle Ted’s” behavior with his “nephews” for years but, unlike Father Boniface Ramsey, Richard Sipe, and Archbishop Viganò, said and did nothing; every bishop in the world, including most priests and many seminarians, know that Francis covered up abuse in Argentina, as well the predatory record of McCarrick while pope. If McElroy and Francis were honorable men, they, like Van Loy, would not wait until the 11th hour like Wielgus to resign. McElroy and Francis need to realize that people, unless they are uninformed of their documented abuse cover-ups, will never respect them, and will always look upon them as compromised prelates no matter how much their media consultants attempt to spin their story.
Gene Thomas Gomulka is a sexual abuse victims’ advocate, investigative reporter and screenwriter. A retired Navy (O6) Captain/Chaplain, seminary instructor and diocesan respect life director, Gomulka was ordained a priest for the Altoona-Johnstown diocese and later made a Prelate of Honor (Monsignor) by Pope St. John Paul II.