What Ted McCarrick’s ‘social networks’ could teach the Church

Ted McCarrick’s ‘social networks‘

Title: What Ted McCarrick’s ‘social networks’ could teach the Church
Author: Kevin Jones
Publisher: Catholic News Agency (CNA)
Date: 17JUL2020


There are social networks, and then there are social networks. The term is usually used these days to refer to apps and sites like Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Tumblr, and other places where online connection takes place.

But in a more technical sense, a social network is the structure formed by the complex web of ties between groups and individuals — the connections that link us. Think about the “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon” and you’re thinking about social network theory.

The bishops of the Catholic Church form that kind of social network. And mapping that network can provide some insight into how the Church functions, and how abusers might function within Church networks.

Two experts have used the science of social network mapping approach to consider how influential sexual abusers like ex-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick went unchecked in the Church, and how both problematic responses to sexual abuse by clergy—or good practices to reform the Church—might propagate through the bishops’ links with each other.

Social network analysis has been applied to understand the spread of schools of medieval philosophy, organized crime, contagious disease, the academic job market, appointments to boards of directors, and collaboration among music composers. The approach could give insight into the leadership of the Catholic Church, according to Stephen Bullivant, a professor of theology and sociology of religion at St. Mary’s University London.

“Basically it allows us to map and see in a far more structured way the kind of anecdotal, ‘folk wisdom’ about the dynamics of the Church,” Bullivant told CNA.

In the wake of McCarrick’s exposure as a serial sexual abuser of boys, teens and young adult men, including seminarians, journalists spoke of his influence in the episcopacy in terms of cliques, networks, and “kingmakers” who help choose which men rise in the Church hierarchy, and which men do not.

For Bullivant, social network analysis brings more rigor to this way of speaking.

“There’s a sense in which it tells us what we already knew, but it does it in a far more systematic, rather than anecdotal way,” Bullivant said. “You apply the right kind of clustering algorithms and you begin to see clear clumps of more densely networked bishops.”

Bullivant and Giovanni Sadewo, a research fellow in social network analysis at the Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne, Australia, have modeled the relative influence of bishops, with particular attention to the deeply influential role of former cardinal Theodore McCarrick.

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