How McCarricks Happen

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’.

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