It was recently reported that defrocked priest and former cardinal Theodore McCarrick and his lawyers filed a motion in a Massachusetts court to have all of the pending charges against him dropped because they claim that he is “legally incompetent” to stand trial. The motion was filed approximately a month after McCarrick underwent a neurological exam and according to the doctor who performed the test, the results show that McCarrick is suffering from dementia (most likely Alzheimer's Disease) that is “irreversible” and “likely to progress over time with no expectation of improvement.”
Thus, according to his lawyers, putting him on trial would be a violation of McCarrick’s “14th Amendment right in the Constitution and Article XII of the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights since he would be “unable to assist meaningfully in the preparation of his own defense or to consult effectively with counsel during trial with a reasonable degree of rational understanding.” The Norfolk District Attorney’s Office, who is prosecuting McCarrick’s case, said that they would hire a psychological expert to make their own assessment of McCarrick’s competency.
While a new court hearing is set for April 20th when the prosecution can present the results of their own examination, I’m not sure what difference a second opinion on McCarrick’s cognitive competency will make at this point. However, before I explain why, I want to make sure that everyone understands that I am in no way trying to dismiss or minimize the pain and suffering McCarrick caused as a serial sexual abuser or the damage this man has done to the Church on the world stage. The Boston Globe revelations of 2002 and the Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report of 2018 showed just how entrenched this sordid and satanic rot was and still is within the Church, with Theodore McCarrick right in the thick of it. The sins of this (former) father are a generational bane that have and will continue to be visited upon the lives of his victims and the Church for a long time to come.
The Dubious Possibility of Justice
While it is certainly legitimate to question the motives behind the motion filed by McCarrick and his lawyers, we must also be willing to accept the fact that the results of McCarrick’s neurological assessment are accurate. Given how many of us have seen the obvious cognitive decline of Joe Biden, Diane Feinstein, and other elderly politicians, at age 92 it is entirely possible that mentally-speaking McCarrick has checked out. If that is the case, not only could he not properly or legally be tried, he also couldn’t legally or morally be punished.
After all, it is a long-standing part of our legal system that in addition to preventing and deterring further crimes, the punishments meted out by our courts are meant to have a reformative and retributive effect on the criminal. At his age and state in life, he is highly unlikely to offend again, but given that he originally entered a plea of “not guilty” to the charges against him, it is equally unlikely that he is capable of being reformed. This leaves pursuing retribution as the last remaining purpose of going forward with McCarrick's trial, but if he is incapable of recalling or understanding his crimes, then what good would any punishment be to him?
However, for the sake of the argument, let’s assume that his neurological assessment is a ruse or stalling tactic and that McCarrick is fully competent to stand trial. Then what? While I understand that being found guilty in a court of law might bring a sense of relief and closure for his victims, it is also easy to see how at this point any conviction could be seen as a debasement of justice. For even if he is sent to prison, where he spends the rest of his days may change but, again because of his advanced age, how he spends those days in some form of elder care would not. To say nothing of the question, of how much life does this man have left in him to make a prison sentence mean anything?
Moreover, amidst all of these questions is the larger philosophical one of what sort of punishment would be fitting or just for a Judas priest who betrayed his vows in pursuit of power, who left a string of abuse victims in his wake, and who brought a crippling scandal to the Church? Imprisonment? A death sentence? A formal excommunication?
Or, again for the sake of argument, let’s imagine we could get Elon Musk to rig up some Neuralink device, similar to the one in an old episode of Star Trek Discovery entitled “Ex Post Facto.” In it, there is a society where a murderer is punished by implanting the memory of the murder victim into the murderer, so that the offender is forced to relive the murder from the victim’ point of view over and over again. If with the push of a button, you could cause McCarrick to experience all of the pain, suffering, and trauma that McCarrick inflicted on all his victims, would that be a just punishment?
When it Comes to Justice, this World is not Enough
Ultimately the answer to all of these suppositions is that in the case of egregious criminals like McCarrick, there is no punishment that would truly be just, that would heal the victims of their trauma, that would right all the wrongs caused by his acts, let alone deterring anyone else from choosing to do what he did. At least not on this side of eternity. As much as we would like to believe that there is some court, some law, or some judge in the world that will give McCarrick his just deserts, deep down we know (and experience should’ve taught us by now) that when it comes to a true and lasting sense of justice, this world is not enough.
Furthermore, to actively and irrationally yearn for McCarrick to be subjected to some harsh but fitting punishment may satisfy our moral sensibilities in the here and now, but it also runs the risk of downplaying key tenets of our faith, in particular the theological virtues.
It is a downplaying of the virtue of faith by ignoring the creed we recite each Sunday that Christ will come again at the end of time, when we will be raised up on the last day to face our final judgment. Whether we are bound for Heaven or Hell, we live eternally in a way that will outlast any punishment our bodies endure in this life. It is also a downplaying of the virtue of hope in that we don’t believe that God’s justice will prevail when he “shall wipe away all tears from their eyes: and death shall be no more, nor mourning, nor crying, nor sorrow shall be any more” and the promise that whatever evils there are in this world that God will one day say, “Behold, I make all things new.” And lastly, and most importantly, it devalues the virtue of charity by forgetting that we are obliged to pray for our enemies and those who persecute us.
In our current fight-geist where truth is tribal and huge segments of the population are locked in never-ending battles of unyielding and increasingly myopic wills, this tenet of our faith is probably the hardest one to swallow. There are far too many Christians who have allowed themselves to become “of the world” and have taken up pop culture’s most trending pastime: hating their neighbor. Some of whom might've had McCarrick in mind when the memes about tossing pedophiles feet first into a woodchipper made the rounds on the internet in the wake of the open sexual grooming and predation of children by Disney or with drag shows.
While the sense of outrage over the kind of evils McCarrick committed in his life is normal and understandable, it is all too easy to fall into the warring ways of the world. Nevertheless, it is one thing to be righteously angry over and hate the evils criminals like McCarrick commit, but it is another to risk spurning the commandment to love God with everything we’ve got and to love our neighbor as ourself. We cannot become so filled with hate that we forget that Christ warned us that for all of the harsh thoughts, words, and deed we heap upon others we “will be judged and the measure you give will be the measure you get.”
Moreover, we cannot ignore that Christ died for McCarrick as well and he has never stopped offering McCarrick his mercy and forgiveness. As long as the breath of life still moves through him, there is always the hope for Heaven or the reality of (for those who have read their Dante) a “special place in Hell” for all of eternity. Whether, McCarrick has accept our Lord’s offer and has repented of his sins, before or after any cognitive decline, is between him and Christ.
Whether or not McCarrick goes trial remains to be seen, but ultimately when it comes to his fate St. Paul reminds us, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord” and our part is not to be “overcome by evil, but overcome evil by good.” Yes we should pray for the conversion of McCarrick’s soul, but if we find that too hard (again understandably so) then we can just pray that God’s will, will be done. Above all though, we should be praying for the healing of his victims and the reversion of those who left the Church because of McCarrick’s actions. We should also pray that more victims to come forward and the true extend of this evil in the Church be revealed and purged once and for all.
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