When I took Western Civ in college, our professor once read aloud to the class an excerpt from the diary of a Roman senator written on Sept. 4, 476 AD. The senator described his efforts to suck up to 16-year-old Emperor Romulus Augustulus in hopes of being appointed to some high office, perhaps a tribune or magistrate.
On that same day, Romulus Augustulus, the last emperor in the West, was deposed by the barbarian warlord Odoacer, marking what historians now conventionally identify as the fall of the Roman Empire.
My professor’s point was that quite often, people living through moments that change history fail to recognize them at the time.
The point arises with respect to Tuesday’s release of the Vatican’s long-awaited report on the case of ex-cardinal and ex-priest Theodore McCarrick. While the focus, understandably, has been on the content of what the report contains, the crucial historical point may be the fact it happened at all.
It’s so breathtaking, in fact, that one wonders if anyone in the Vatican actually understands the magnitude of the precedent they just set.
The only comparison that comes to mind dates to August 17, 2011, when the Vatican released roughly 70 pages of documents in its possession regarding the case of Father Andrew Ronan, a Servite priest who was laicized in 1966 and died in 1992 and who later figured in a sex abuse lawsuit in Oregon in which the Vatican was named as a defendant.
Yet in that instance, there were no interviews conducted by a Vatican investigator, no attempt to provide context or explanation, and no admission of failure. All we got were the documents themselves, along with a preemptory declaration by a spokesman that they proved the Vatican completely innocent.
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