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Theodore McCarrick at a US Conference of Catholic Bishops meeting before details of his predation were made publicClaire Chretien / LifeSiteNews

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ITHACA, New York, July 17, 2020 (LifeSiteNews) ― Sociologists have published a paper illustrating social networks between bishops in two national episcopal conferences and around the former cardinal Theodore McCarrick who was laicized over credible allegations of sexually abusing seminarians and priests.

“This paper presents preliminary findings, using original network data for the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales (CBCEW) and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB),” the scholars explain. 

“These show how a network-informed approach may help with the urgent task of understanding the ecclesiastical cultures in which sexual abuse occurs, and/or is enabled, ignored, and covered up.” 

“Power, Preferment, and Patronage: Catholic Bishops, Social Networks, and the Affair(s) of Ex-Cardinal McCarrick” was authored by Professor Stephen Bullivant of St. Mary’s University, London and Research Fellow Giovanni Radhitio Putra Sadewo of the Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne. It was published online this week by Cornell University. 

The study describes episcopal culture and presents three maps: relationships among bishops of the CBCEW, then among bishops of the USCCB, and finally of bishops to the disgraced former cardinal McCarrick.

The authors argue that an examination of relationships, social network analysis (SNA), gives insights into cultures where patronage, preferment and reciprocity are important. They believe that, like the Italian mafia and the Chinese political elite, Catholic bishops share this kind of culture.  

Bullivant, who is a Catholic theology professor as well as a sociologist, and Sadewo concede that there are theological reasons for episcopal church governance. However, the hierarchical culture also gives rise to problems. 

“For example, these might include the potential for ambitious clergy (or seminarians) to actively seek the favour and patronage of their own (and/or other influential) bishops, or indeed for bishops to use the hope – or even promise – of preferment as a means of incentivizing or rewarding loyalty,” the authors write. 

“It could result in certain ‘types’ …  of priests being favoured and/or formed, in line with the type of their own bishop, and perhaps of a wider episcopal ‘mould’ or ‘culture.’”  

This is “intensified” by the fact that priests learn to be bishops “through a process of imitation and socialization” and this can lead to identifiable cliques of bishops bound together by ties of loyalty, similar behaviour, shared protégés, and a sense that if one member goes down, they will all go down.  

Another issue is the “special nature” of the relationship between a seminarian or priest and his bishop. Very different from that of an employee and an employer, a seminarian or priest owes his bishop both reverence and obedience, the authors note. 

Then there is the issue of homosexuality. This, the authors argue, has a “important relevance for understanding the McCarrick case.” 

“Not least, there is clear potential for mutually compromised networks of homosexually active (or once-active) priests, such as McCarrick appears to have cultivated among his ‘nephews,’” they write.    

“The existence of ‘homosexual subcultures’ within U.S. Catholic seminaries or diocesan power structures, while understandably a sensitive topic, is well-established in the academic literature, as too are the disproportionately high numbers of same sex-attracted seminarians and clergy in the first place.”

The authors observe that given a number of factors in the relationship between homosexuality and the Church, and the potential for subordinates’ exploitation by bishops, the risk of “other McCarrick-esque cases” is real.    

The McCarrick case illustrates what ecclesiastical, episcopal culture can look like. Bullivant and Sadewo describe how the former bishop, archbishop and cardinal openly courted young seminarians and priests. They note that his subordinates, torn by conflicting loyalties, never upbraided him for his misconduct. 

Rising from post to high-profile post, McCarrick became recognized as a “kingmaker” for episcopal appointments in both the United States and Rome. “Serious allegations” about him were known by those “in the highest echelons of the hierarchy” but were merely “dismissed”, “ignored” or “paid-off” by his previous dioceses. McCarrick was simply that influential among bishops. 

Networks of bishops calculated and mapped out

To map out the influence of bishops over one another, Bullivant and Sadewo collected information about which living bishops had served under each other as priests, auxiliary bishops, or in a high-trust diocesan position, like a bishop’s private secretary. The higher the number of bishops each bishop had served, or had once been served by, the greater his influence was determined to be.

The authors chose the relatively small Catholic Bishops Conference of England and Wales (CBCEW) as their pilot project, and discovered that the largest net of influence spread out from its center-point, Cardinal Vincent Nichols of the Westminster Archdiocese. 

(Illustration below)

“The fact that the graph conforms, in these and other basic respects, to what any observer of English and Welsh Catholicism ‘could have told you anyway’ is a good sign,” the authors argue. 

 “A network map seeming to show, say, Nichols as a marginal figure within the CBCEW, or one of the long-retired auxiliaries as its kingpin, would be (correctly) suspected of having fatal methodological flaws.”

They note also the illustration sheds light on ecclesiastical politics in England and Wales. A smaller network of bishops shown to be at a distance from the Nichols network thwarted his plan for the CBCEW to oppose Brexit, and Bishops Davies and Egan, who are often outside the “CBCEW consensus,” are also far from Nichols’ network of influence.  

When the two scholars addressed the larger project of the USCCB, they noted that the ten living bishops/bishops emeriti with the highest “indegree”― the largest number of bishops who had served under them―in 2018, when the McCarrick scandal broke, were: Cardinal Archbishop Emeritus Justin Rigali (22); former Cardinal McCarrick (17); Cardinal Archbishop Emeritus Adam Maida (17); Cardinal Archbishop Sean O’Malley of Boston (15); Archbishop Jose Gómez of Los Angeles (14); Cardinal Archbishop Donald Wuerl of Washington, D.C. (14); Cardinal Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York (13); Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia (12); Cardinal Archbishop Emeritus Roger Mahony (12); and Cardinal Archbishop Blase Cupich of Chicago (11.)


“Given the nature of episcopal appointments, it is no surprise that (bishops) with highest in degree are (or have been) Ordinaries of large dioceses, which typically have a significant number of auxiliaries, and in many cases have been Ordinaries for a long period: the top three are all emeriti of one or – in the cases of McCarrick (Newark and D.C.) and Rigali (St Louis and Philadelphia) – two major Archdioceses,” the authors wrote.

They observed that three voting members of the Vatican’s Congregation for Bishops were also in this Top 10, and that Cardinal Rigali had had a “decades-long career within the Roman Curia prior to his appointment of Archbishop of St. Louis in 1994 … ”

The scholars next designed an “ego-network” or “personal community” for Cardinal McCarrick, showing bishops who were within two degrees of separation from him. It included 43 bishops, many of whom are significant influencers in their own right, like Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio of Brooklyn, Archbishop John Myers of Newark, Cardinal Kevin Farrell, and Cardinal Wuerl.     

“At the most basic level, our network maps support the view that it is meaningful to talk in terms of there being defined “cliques” of bishops,” the authors write. 

Although reminding readers that “network proximity” to McCarrick or anyone else does not prove a bishop had knowledge of, approved of, or emulated his misdeeds, Bullivant and Sadewo argue that the existence of these cliques gives insights into two problems: the cover-up of sexual abuse and the in-house investigation of allegations against bishops.  

The first problem is the invisible but apparent “playbook for concealing the truth” many dioceses seemed to be following when it came to handling clerical sexual abuse of children.

“There is no evidence of any explicit conspiracy between Catholic dioceses to create a set of norms or procedures to be followed in such circumstances, and yet it also seems a stretch simply to suppose that almost exactly the same ‘solutions’ arose complete independently, by spontaneous generation, in each chancery,” the authors write.  

“Much more plausible, we contend, is to view this metaphorical “playbook” as a set of routinized practices and norms, or habitus … emerging and diffusing ‘organically’ within and through ecclesial networks.”

The second problem is the problem of conflict of interest when it comes to bishops investigating sexual misconduct allegations against other bishops. 

“ … If complaints are made against the former bishop of a diocese, then there is a strong likelihood of the current bishop being quite closely networked with him: even if neither has previously served under the other, the odds are good that they have mutual ties with other bishops who have,” the authors observe.

“And indeed, this is precisely what happened with McCarrick.”

The authors conclude with recommendations of six areas of further relational study: clerical ties other than Ordinary-subordinate, e.g. among seminary classmates; ecclesiastical “family trees” or “dynasties”; affirmative action policies; how “network pathologies” may be reformed”; social networks within the Roman Curia; and “historically important moments of episcopal networking.”