Pope Francis is facing criticism from some surprising places in the US

To the surprise of many Catholic commentators, Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York has emerged as a leading voice in the calls for a full Vatican inquiry into the decades-long cover-up of Theodore McCarrick’s sexual misconduct. A consummate insider well regarded by three consecutive popes, Dolan has nevertheless told the press that he is growing “impatient” waiting for an apostolic visitation – that is, a formal investigation ordered by the Pope. For that reason, he has appointed a former federal judge, Barbara Jones, to review his archdiocese’s protocols relating to sexual abuse.

Cardinal Dolan was joined in his call for papal intervention by a prominent layman with close ties to the Archdiocese of Washington. John Carr, director of Georgetown University’s Initiative for Catholic Social Thought and Public Life, told a panel that the Holy Father “has been too slow to understand and act on the moral and spiritual consequences of abuse”. Carr went on to say that the “isolation, institutional protection and lack of connection to anguish of survivors and their families have often led to a lack of empathy, urgency and action” among Church leaders.

Carr’s appeal is especially striking given his links to several once-powerful bishops. He worked for the US Conference of Catholic Bishops on Capitol Hill for 20 years, where he advised Cardinal Bernard Law, the late Archbishop of Boston and the focus of the Boston Globe’s “Spotlight” investigation, which sparked the abuse crisis of the early 2000s.

He also worked closely with McCarrick, whom he called a “friend … and a great supporter of my work”. More recently, he has collaborated with McCarrick’s successor, the embattled Cardinal Donald Wuerl. Carr called Wuerl a friend, too, and applauded his request that Francis accept his resignation. “Defending past choices is no substitute for owning and personally apologising for past actions that harmed the vulnerable,” said Carr.

Carr might not be a household name the way Dolan is, but his credentials as an insider are impressive. It is one thing for pundits who have been consistently critical of Francis to condemn the Holy Father’s inaction – indeed, Carr made a point of warning against “those who seem to use the suffering of survivors to settle scores or to advance their own ideological agendas or their opposition to Pope Francis”. But for men distinguished for their loyalty to the Holy See to criticise a Pope in public demonstrates how profoundly this crisis is changing the Church. Dolan and Carr’s “impatience” is no doubt exacerbated by enormous pressure from the laity, who want their bishops to adopt a “full mobilisation” mentality. There can be no business as usual, they say, until McCarrick’s enablers are brought to justice and abusers are purged from the clergy.

Among them is Justice Anne Burke of the Illinois Supreme Court. She and her husband Edward, a Chicago alderman, are one of the country’s leading political power couples. In addition, Burke serves on the US bishops’ National Review Board (NRB), which the bishops convened following the sex abuse scandal of the early 2000s. The lay-led NRB advises the bishops’ conference on all things relating to “child and youth protection”.

Until last week, Anne Burke was also a Dame of Malta. Then Peter Kelly, president of the Knights’ American Association, sent a letter to its members in the US telling them: “It is not the mission of the Order of Malta to participate in the debate concerning the current crisis … Therefore, official participation of members in the public debate regarding the aforementioned issues – beyond condemning abuse in general – is not helpful and could interfere with our work.”

Burke wrote Kelly an angry response, excerpts of which were published in the Chicago Sun-Times. “I feel that I cannot remain silent and I no longer wish to be a part of a Catholic organisation that is unwilling to take a stand on these issues,” she said. She also took a shot at Cardinal Dolan, calling his investigation “unbelievable” and “nonsense”. “Why would anybody trust this when [Jones] is working for the archdiocese?” she asked.

Burke’s discontent is shared by many of the laity, and it is difficult to say exactly what measures the bishops might take to mollify them. Given the Vatican’s conspicuous refusal to investigate McCarrick’s network – and the Holy Father’s refusal even to deny claims that he knew about the former cardinal’s transgressions – some Catholics have inevitably come to believe that the hierarchy will do only the bare minimum to fight corruption.

Powerful prelates such as Dolan, members of the US Catholic establishment like Carr and even quasi-independent groups like the Knights of Malta are now bearing the brunt of the laity’s rage. Significantly, this is already beginning to estrange the papacy from its American allies. From now on, when Pope Francis’s “ideological opponents” in the United States speak out, his friends may not be so quick to leap to his defence.