NEW YORK — Responding to what it calls a "moral catastrophe," the leading body of U.S. Catholic leaders said Thursday it would ask the Vatican to investigate the scandal involving a former cardinal who allegedly engaged in sexual misconduct with children and adult seminarians.
The request by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops for an investigation into the actions of Theodore McCarrick came as the Vatican expressed "shame and sorrow" over a grand jury investigation this week that found rampant sexual abuse of more than 1,000 children by about 300 priests is six Pennsylvania dioceses over a 70-year period. Vatican spokesman Greg Burke said that victims should know "the pope is on their side."
The Pennsylvania scandal and the damaging allegations about McCarrick — one of the most influential Catholics in the country — have engulfed the church in scandal reminiscent of what happened in Boston with clergy sex abuse in the 2000s.
The conference president, Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, said a full investigation is necessary "to prevent a recurrence, and so help to protect minors, seminarians, and others who are vulnerable in the future."
Using formal church terminology for high-level Vatican investigations, DiNardo said he would travel to Rome and ask the Vatican to conduct an "apostolic visitation" to address the McCarrick case, working in concert with a group of predominantly lay experts.
DiNardo also deplored the findings of the grand jury report and said the bishops would work to create a new process to review allegations of misconduct by bishops.
"We are faced with a spiritual crisis that requires not only spiritual conversion, but practical changes to avoid repeating the sins and failures of the past," DiNardo said. "I have no illusions about the degree to which trust in the bishops has been damaged by these past sins and failures."
Any in-depth investigation of the McCarrick case is likely to shed light on the timetable for when senior Catholic officials in the U.S. and at the Vatican know about the multiple allegations against McCarrick. Some U.S. Catholics sought to warn Vatican officials about McCarrick in 2000, but he was still appointed Washington archbishop and made a cardinal in 2001.
If the accusations against McCarrick are substantiated, that could confront Pope Francis with major decisions in terms of possible punishments.
McCarrick, the 88-year-old retired archbishop of Washington and confidante to three popes, was ordered removed from the public ministry by Francis in June. The sanction was issued pending a full investigation into a "credible" allegation that he fondled a teenager more than 40 years ago in New York City.
Cardinal resignations are extremely rare, and McCarrick's was the first time a prelate had lost his cardinal's rank in a sexual abuse scandal.
There were also calls Thursday for the resignation of Cardinal Donald Wuerl, who replaced McCarrick and also served in Pennsylvania when some of the abuse allegedly occurred.
The release of the Pennsylvania report this week worsened the crisis for the church, with dozens of examples of shocking abuse committed against children by priests.
Burke said Pope Francis is committed to reform and "those who have suffered are his priority, and the church wants to listen to them to root out this tragic horror that destroys the lives of the innocent."
In the bishops' statement, the council acknowledged that "one root cause is the failure of episcopal leadership. The result was that scores of beloved children of God were abandoned to face an abuse of power alone. This is a moral catastrophe. It is also part of this catastrophe that so many faithful priests who are pursuing holiness and serving with integrity are tainted by this failure."