It was 17 years ago this summer that a team of investigative reporters at The Boston Globe’s “Spotlight” section were working feverishly on an explosive story. 

If all of the allegations could be verified, it appeared that Boston’s Catholic hierarchy, up to and including Archbishop Cardinal Bernard Law, was complicit in covering up or otherwise mishandling a shockingly high number of sexual abuse charges.

This investigation was going to send shockwaves through the American Catholic Church, not to mention Irish America.  And no American city was more thoroughly Irish Catholic than Boston.

The September 11 attacks delayed the release of the Globe series, but eventually, the impact was as profound as it was sad.

All of this was chronicled by Irish American director and writer Tom McCarthy in the 2015 Academy Award-winning film Spotlight.

This all came to mind a few weeks back when, in late June, word trickled out that Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, former archbishop of Washington, D.C., had been named in a series of sexual abuse allegations.  McCarrick, now 88, was swiftly told by the Vatican to no longer perform any public duties.

McCarrick is one of the most powerful American clerics yet to be linked to the American church’s pattern of sexual abuse and cover-up. In a statement, McCarrick said that he has “absolutely no recollection of this reported abuse.”

He said he was innocent of the charges but added, “In obedience, I accept the decision of The Holy See, that I no longer exercise any public ministry.”

Read more: Where have all the Irish priests in America gone?

“Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, who led the Archdiocese of Washington and was a political force in the nation's capital, said on Wednesday that he has been removed from public ministry by the Vatican because of a decades-old allegation of sexual abuse.” https://t.co/GW3DXb6RbR

— Jake Tapper (@jaketapper) June 20, 2018

It was hard not to see McCarrick as one of the more impressive American Catholics.  He grew up in the one-time Irish enclave of Washington Heights, in uptown Manhattan.

His father died when he was three and his mother, Margaret (nee McLaughlin) kept the family fed with a factory job in the Bronx.  You have to believe this humble upbringing shaped McCarrick’s dedication to the Catholic Church’s social justice wing.

"The church cannot be authentic unless it takes care of the poor, the newcomers, the needy," he once said.

Then, as now, this was not a universally popular position among American Catholics, but McCarrick walked the walked just as he talked the talk, eventually serving as Archbishop in Newark, New Jersey. He was credited with bringing a wide range of services to that city’s desperate and needy, Catholic or not.

In 2000, McCarrick assumed the high-profile position of Archbishop of Washington.  Once there, he became a key figure in the church’s response to the sex abuse allegations kicked off by the Globe revelations.

Read more: Irish priests advised on how to deal with being accused of sexual abuse

Fordham University’s Board of Trustees has voted to rescind alumnus Cardinal Theodore McCarrick’s honorary degree and “other honors” given to him by the university following allegations that he sexually abused a teenager during his time as a priest. https://t.co/pNy0SG7mgR

— Fordham Observer (@fordhamobserver) July 13, 2018

As The Washington Post put it, McCarrick’s “removal…was particularly shocking to many in the Washington Catholic community, since McCarrick helped shape many of the church’s policies for responding to the sexual abuse crisis.”

And here is where things get really ugly.  Given my own sympathies for a figure like McCarrick, when I initially heard the allegations against him I was torn. 

They were ugly, of course. But they were just that: allegations. And from so long ago.

Really, there does come a point where a powerful but ultimately good person is going to be stained simply by association.

Cardinal Theodore McCarrick's history of preying on young men has finally been exposed, but rumors of his predatorial nature had existed for decades. Why is the truth only coming to light now? https://t.co/RWc5eOXjLD

— NYT Opinion (@nytopinion) June 24, 2018

McCarrick could simply be wrongfully accused.  It’s possible, right?

Then came additional revelations.  Accusations from New York, New Jersey, over a much longer period of time.

Further research turned up the fact that back in 2012 The New York Times Magazine was about to run a lengthy expose featuring, among other things, charges of sexual misconduct by McCarrick.  The article never ran.

The horror of all of this was summed up by well-known Catholic pundit Rod Dreher in The American Conservative, which used the headline, “Cardinal McCarrick: Everyone Knew.”

All these years later.  Everyone knows, yet nobody knows.

Contact “Sidewalks” at tdeignan.blogspot.com

Cardinal Theodore McCarrick.