A recent report issued by the Pennsylvania Attorney General exposed rampant clerical sexual abuse of children in six of the state’s Catholic dioceses. Over 1,000 victims have been confirmed in the past 70 years, but the actual number is most likely much higher, according to the Washington Post. One Catholic leader named in this report, Cardinal Donald Wuerl, and another recently accused of sexual abuse separate from the report, Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, currently hold honorary degrees from Georgetown University. This editorial board urges Georgetown to revoke these honorary degrees from Cardinals Wuerl and McCarrick in light of the horrifying allegations against them. We also call on Georgetown to bar McCarrick, Wuerl, or any other Catholic leader accused of sexual assault from speaking on campus in the future.
Cardinal Wuerl is the current archbishop of Washington, D.C. He spoke at a pro-life event on campus in 2017 hosted by the Pellegrino Center for Clinical Bioethics at Georgetown University Medical Center. The Pennsylvania report accused Wuerl of protecting abusers and covering up allegations, upholding a toxic and traumatizing system. The report shows that Wuerl allowed multiple clergy members accused of sexual abuse to be reassigned to other parishes.
Cardinal Theodore McCarrick was the Archbishop of Washington, D.C. from 2001 to 2006. During that time, he publicly supported Georgetown’s Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life and spoke at university events. In 2004, Georgetown recognized his public service and “humanitarian efforts” with an honorary degree.
McCarrick has sexually abused men and boys for decades during his time as a priest, including allegations of 20 years of consistent abuse from one now-60 year old man. McCarrick settled with accusers multiple times in court, meaning leaders within the Church were aware of his conduct. The Vatican removed McCarrick from public ministry on June 20, but he still holds an honorary degree from Georgetown.
In a letter to the university community, President John DeGioia addressed the wider scandal within the Catholic church and offered general words of encouragement, urging students to work for “cultural change” as a community to protect those most vulnerable among us from abuse.
We hope the email’s lofty rhetoric is fulfilled in practice. Georgetown must not continue the trend of inaction that perpetuates structures of abuse within the Catholic Church. Georgetown has acknowledged the harm this abuse has caused, and now we, as a community, must take further action to promote concrete, as well as cultural, change.
DeGioia has acknowledged that the university “has initiated a process to address the deeply troubling revelations” against McCarrick and Wuerl, which will include a review of their honorary degrees. To bestow an honorary degree is to honor a person for their accomplishments and their character, but Catholic leaders who perpetrate or conceal abuse are not worthy of such commendation from the oldest Catholic university in America.
The university is obligated to take action to condemn these men directly. D.C. area Catholic organizations have called on Wuerl to resign from his post as D.C. Archbishop, and Catholic Women at Georgetown and Georgetown’s student chapter of the Knights of Columbus have already urged the university to revoke McCarrick’s degree. Other Catholic universities such as Fordham University and Catholic University have already revoked McCarrick’s honorary degree, and Georgetown must join them in doing so for both McCarrick and Wuerl.
In response to the Pennsylvania report, attorneys general in five states have opened their own investigations into sexual abuse by Catholic clergy members. On September 6, the New York State attorney general subpoenaed every Catholic diocese in the state as part of a civil investigation into potential coverups of sexual abuse allegations against children.
D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine has said he is “looking at” investigating the D.C. Catholic church in a similar manner. “It is incumbent on law enforcement officials to use every bit of authority they have to, I think, conduct robust investigations,” Racine said. A commitment to take action if appropriate is not strong enough. D.C. should at the very least follow in the footsteps of New York and conduct a more aggressive, proactive investigation. Clearly, this widespread, structural abuse is not limited to only five states, so it’s incumbent upon outside authorities to gather as much information as possible and reveal it to the public.
We urge Georgetown to immediately rescind the honorary degrees bestowed on McCarrick and Wuerl and hope the D.C. Attorney General will thoroughly investigate the alleged abuse within the District. As a Catholic institution, we can no longer remain silent. In cases of structural abuse, silence is complicity.