Georgetown University, the oldest Catholic institution of higher learning in the United States, must wield its reputation within the church for good, especially in the face of horrific abuse inflicted on children.
The university must condemn Catholic leaders it has honored who are now implicated in perpetrating and covering up sexual abuse.
A recent report issued by a grand jury in Pennsylvania exposed widespread sexual abuse by priests in the Catholic Church. The report identified 1,000 child victims in Pennsylvania over the past 70 years and indicated that thousands more remain either unaccounted for or unmentioned.
The grand jury also revealed the names of higher-ranking individuals who according to its report purposefully protected the perpetrators of these heinous crimes.
Among the named abusers is former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick. Among those accused of keeping abusers safe is current Cardinal Donald Wuerl, the archbishop of Washington, D.C.
Both men hold honorary degrees from Georgetown, and Georgetown has made no public comment on either of them.
While no individual or institution can ever undo the abuse suffered by children molested by their priests and denied justice by figures deemed to be holy, the university can take serious action to respond to the revelations.
Georgetown must strip McCarrick and Wuerl of their Georgetown degrees and release a statement of condemnation calling on the church to tackle abuse in a more aggressive and transparent manner.
McCarrick, who served as archbishop of D.C. from 2001 to 2006, was awarded an honorary Georgetown degree in 2004 for “humanitarian efforts.” Speaking to myriad diplomats and other dignitaries at the degree ceremony, McCarrick said, “I no longer see myself as a welcomed visitor but as a member of the family.”
Since 2004, McCarrick’s unworthiness of a place in Georgetown’s family has been placed in harsh light. On June 20, a church panel upheld allegations that the former archbishop sexually abused a teenage boy in 1971 while serving as a priest in New York. The scandal ended with Cardinal McCarrick’s resignation and the removal of his honorary degrees by Catholic University and Fordham University, among other institutions.
This week, Catholic Women at Georgetown and Knights of Columbus’ Georgetown chapter, prominent Catholic organizations on campus, called on the university to revoke McCarrick’s degree. On Thursday, four students launched a Change.org petition calling on the university to revoke McCarrick and Wuerl’s honorary degrees, in addition to demanding Wuerl’s resignation. (Full disclosure: A member of this editorial board, Grace Laria, helped launch the petition.)
This editorial board unreservedly joins that call: Georgetown must recognize its error and condemn men who deserve disgrace.
While Cardinal Wuerl does not stand accused of the same direct abuse as McCarrick, his defense of sexual predators forgave and enabled a system that not only tolerated, but also rewarded dangerous child abusers.
The Pennsylvania report, the product of an 18-month investigation, contains over 200 references to Wuerl, who served as bishop of Pittsburgh, Pa., from 1988 until 2006, when he assumed his current position as archbishop of D.C. The report states that though Wuerl occasionally chose to remove abusers, at other times he protected priests he knew to be accused of abuse, according to the grand jury.
One such priest, William O’Malley, was known by church authorities to have had improper and sexually abusive relationships with adolescents. Wuerl, despite his full knowledge of the situation, reinstated O’Malley to a church position, enabling O’Malley to abuse more victims.
Georgetown cannot rectify this indictment with the honor it bestowed upon Cardinal Wuerl four years ago. While the degree may have seemed proper when it was awarded, the university’s glowing endorsement has been proven false.
At the 2014 ceremony, University President John J. DeGioia called upon the Georgetown community to “recognize the contributions of an extraordinary leader, teacher and man of faith.”
Paul Tagliabue (CAS ’62), then-chair of the board of directors, highlighted the archbishop’s “extraordinary example of faith and service.”
Wuerl has proven himself grossly undeserving of this distinction. If Georgetown turns a blind eye to traumatized children and the men who protected their abusers, it will find itself on the same path of cowardice tread by those who weaponized Catholicism for evil.
McCarrick and Wuerl were among the many trusted authorities who enabled a toxic and dangerous culture in the Catholic Church.
“Priests were raping little boys and girls,” the grand jury wrote. “And the men of God who were responsible for them not only did nothing; they hid it all. For decades.”
None of the good done by either of these men can ever measure up to the harm they inflicted and accentuated upon defenseless children.
As a leading institution of Catholic thought in the United States, Georgetown has an obligation to rise above affiliation and tradition. Administrators must recognize the role they have to play and do all they can to disavow Cardinals McCarrick and Wuerl of their Georgetown ties.
The Hoya’s editorial board is composed of six students and is chaired by the Opinion Editor. Editorials reflect only the beliefs of a majority of the board and are not representative of The Hoya or any individual member of the board.