The fall of Archbishop Theodore McCarrick, whose resignation from the College of Cardinals was accepted by Pope Francis last Saturday, makes distressing reading. Although there has been no response to the allegations, we have heard many stories of ruined lives. The Archdiocese of New York describes one allegation of McCarrick abusing a teenager as “credible”. Other dioceses have reached settlements with adult claimants. But the story shows no sign of abating, and several fresh allegations of more serious misbehaviour have emerged.

But the story of Theodore McCarrick, bad as it is, goes much further than this. The McCarrick case is a sign of a deeper and persistent malaise: he is the third Cardinal to have been involved in such scandals.

The late Cardinal Groër of Vienna was accused of similar misconduct, but was allowed to retire quietly. The late Cardinal Keith O’Brien was censured by the Vatican for sexual misconduct, brought to book by his own priests. There may well be other cardinals and bishops whose behaviour would not bear close scrutiny.

One thing is clear. Prelates, even princes of the Church, are not immune to the temptations that plague less exalted men. This long-overdue realisation should have immediate consequences. First, the Church should only appoint men of proven moral character to high office. This means the system for choosing bishops has to be tightened up; it is not working.

The Church also needs to oversee the behaviour of its bishops more effectively. The word “bishop” comes from the Greek word for overseer: who is to provide oversight of the overseers? Amidst the Church’s many structures there does not seem to be an effective way to discipline bad bishops.

One of the most shocking aspects of the McCarrick case is that, as more than one journalist has said, “everyone knew” about the rumours. While Archbishop of Washington, McCarrick’s alleged activities were a matter of common gossip. This means, as the scandal works its way out, the focus now moves on to who knew, what exactly did they know, and whether they did anything about it.

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