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A cardinal's Beretta hat sits on a table during a requiem mass

Of the five Catholic cardinals personally implicated in the sexual abuse of a minor, former Cardinal McCarrick garnered the most media attention. There are several reasons for this.  He is an American, powerful in the US but also very influential in the Vatican.  News of his behavior became a slow, tortuous drip after decades of whispered rumors about his secret life.

Now, a week ago, a French cardinal, Jean-Pierre Ricard admitted to abusing a 14-year-old girl when he was a parish priest in the Diocese of Marseille, 35 years ago.  Unlike the other cardinals, Ricard came forward without the swirl of rumors and innuendo.  The Ricard matter is unprecedented for this very reason.

The other three cardinals are Cardinal Keith Michael Patrick O’Brien of Scotland, George Pell of Australia, and Hans Hermann Groër of Austria.

O’Brien stepped down after 3 priests and a former seminarian accused him of indecent behavior in 2013.  In 2015, O’Brien announced he was renouncing the “rights and prerogatives” of the cardinalate.

Groër faced allegations of the sexual abuse of minors with little to no reaction from Pope John Paul II.  Hundreds of young men came forward and accused the Austrian cardinal of abuse.  Faced with the deep crisis experienced by the Church in Austria as a result of this scandal, Archbishop Christoph Schönborn, who was Groër’s auxiliary bishop and then his coadjutor before succeeding him, acknowledged in 1998 that the accusations against his predecessor were “essentially founded.” However, no official sanction was taken against him, and his funeral was celebrated in 2003 in the Cathedral of Vienna.

Cardinal George Pell, the former archbishop of Melbourne and then Sydney, who was called to the Vatican as prefect of the Secretariat for the Economy when this office was created in February 2014, faced a trial in his home country over accusations of abuse of two altar boys.

Sentenced to six years in prison in December 2018, he was incarcerated shortly after, in February 2019. He was then acquitted and released by the High Court of Australia in March 2020. In December 2018, he was relieved of his position as a member of the Council of Cardinals, officially for reasons concerning his age (then 77), but certainly also due to his conviction. However, his prerogatives as a cardinal were maintained, and he was a Synodal father in the Synod on Young People in October 2018, even though he was not able to physically participate.  Returning to Rome after his acquittal, and personally supported by Pope Francis, Cardinal Pell did not lose his mandate as cardinal elector until his 80th birthday on June 8, 2021.

It’s clear from this brief overview of the accused cardinals, that McCarrick received the harshest penalties.  He not only lost the prerogatives and power of the cardinalate, he was “reduced” to the lay state.  In his case, the punishment at least approximated the crimes he committed against children.

It is still too early to know the fate of Cardinal Ricard.  What is known is that the Catholic Church continues to have a sexual abuse problem that is systemic.  The so-called papal reforms have done little to stem the tide of abuse or the subsequent cover-up by church officials, including cardinals.  The Italian saying “Il pesce puzza dalla testa” (the fish rots from the head) is certainly apt in this matter.

The Clergy Sexual Abuse Crisis

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