This Viewpoint discusses sexual assault. Please refer to the end of the article for on- and off-campus resources.
By delaying the revocation of former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick and Cardinal Donald Wuerl’s honorary degrees, Georgetown University is actively undermining its own efforts to address the sexual abuse crisis wracking the Catholic Church.
In June 2018, the Archdiocese of New York verified allegations that McCarrick had sexually abused a minor; in July, more reports surfaced that he had abused seminarians. A Pennsylvania grand jury investigating predatory behavior in the Catholic church reported in August that Wuerl had, on several occasions, allowed priests repeatedly accused of abuse to return to ministry.
In December 2004, the university granted McCarrick an honorary degree in recognition of his “compassionate service to others and [the] cause of peace.”
In a special ceremony in September 2014, the university awarded Wuerl, McCarrick’s successor, an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters for his “extraordinary example of faith and service.”
Over the past few weeks, student groups, the Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life, and Campus Ministry have hosted various events focused on addressing the sexual abuse crisis in the Catholic Church. The two of us, as members of the Georgetown Catholic community, appreciate the university’s commitment to dialogue and call for these conversations to continue.
Yet, each time we attend one of these events, we can’t help but remember that Wuerl and McCarrick — two men strongly implicated in the sexual abuse crisis — still hold honorary degrees from Georgetown. As a Catholic institution entrusted with the care, education and empowerment of young people, Georgetown must revoke their honorary degrees.
McCarrick’s and Wuerl’s honorary degrees, in addition to their long-standing role as powerful figures with close ties to Georgetown, have prompted a groundswell of activism.
Students have been organizing their own programming in response to the crisis throughout this semester, including a petition circulated in September demanding that Georgetown revoke the honorary degrees it had issued to the cardinals. The petition, which now has 1,507 signatures, was delivered to the Georgetown administration Sept. 14 by a group of 10 students demanding the university listen to its community.
Despite the significant number of signatures on the petition — in addition to condemnation of McCarrick and Wuerl and calls for university action from the editorial boards of The Hoya and the Georgetown Voice — the university still has not revoked their honorary degrees. (Full disclosure: Grace Laria, an author of this Viewpoint, was a member of The Hoya’s editorial board at the time the editorial was written.)
This week, we, along with Catholic Women at Georgetown President Erica Lizza (SFS ’19) and members of the Knights of Columbus, met with the university administration for the second time. (Full disclosure: Lizza is a member of The Hoya’s editorial board.)
Georgetown Vice President and Chief of Staff Joseph Ferrara told the group that the university initiated a working group in October among the university’s board of directors to assess McCarrick’s and Wuerl’s honorary degrees and the practice of awarding honorary degrees overall. Upon our request, Ferrara told us he would speak to University Secretary Marie Mattson, as well as the board of directors and University President John J. DeGioia about our participation in the working group.
McCarrick and Wuerl are not just recipients of honorary degrees but also valued and celebrated figures in the university community.
As the archbishop of Washington, D.C., McCarrick was fully integrated into the fabric of the Georgetown community — in his own words, “a member of the family.” He celebrated masses, including at DeGioia’s inauguration, helped advise the Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life in its infancy, and spoke frequently at events hosted by the Berkley Center on Religion, Peace and World Affairs.
Particularly given Pope Francis’ decision to accept Wuerl’s resignation last week, Georgetown must fulfill an ethical obligation to articulate to the community both Wuerl’s and McCarrick’s relationships to the university.
Many students have consistently called on the university to revoke the honorary degrees since the allegations were brought against Wuerl and McCarrick over the summer. Members of campus ministry have repeatedly told Catholic students we are the hope for the church’s future. Yet the events we’ve attended that have addressed the crisis did not prioritize student voices, effectively calling on us to enact change without empowering us with the tools to do so.
The university must make space for student voices on the working group; whether or not it does so will send a strong signal of whether it is truly willing to honor its commitment to valuing student input.
In addition to valuing student voices, the university has an obligation to survivors and those harmed by this crisis on our own campus. Until the university acts to remove the honorary degrees, our community cannot move forward in the process of healing and seeking justice — demonstrating Georgetown’s complicity in the culture of overlooking the abuse pervasive in our church.
Grace Laria is a senior in the School of Foreign Service. Julie Bevilacqua is a senior in the College.
Resources: On-campus resources include Health Education Services (202-687-8949) and Counseling and Psychiatric Services (202-687-7080); additional off-campus resources include the D.C. Rape Crisis Center (202-333-7273) and the D.C. Forensic Nurse Examiner Washington Hospital Center (844-443-5732). If you or anyone you know would like to receive a sexual assault forensic examination or other medical care — including emergency contraception — call the Network for Victim Recovery of D.C. at 202-742-1727. To report sexual misconduct, you can contact Georgetown’s interim Title IX coordinator at 202-687-9183 or file an online report here. Emergency contraception is available at the CVS located at 1403 Wisconsin Ave NW and through H*yas for Choice. For more information, visit sexualassault.georgetown.edu.