ROME (AP) - A Vatican investigation into former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick has found that a series of bishops, cardinals and popes downplayed or dismissed reports of sexual misconduct with seminarians, and determined that Pope Francis merely continued his predecessors’ handling of the predator until a former altar boy alleged abuse.
The Vatican took the extraordinary step Tuesday of publishing its two-year, 449-page internal investigation into the American prelate's rise and fall in a bid to restore credibility to the U.S. and Vatican hierarchies, which have been shattered by the McCarrick scandal.
The report put the lion’s share of blame on a dead saint: Pope John Paul II, who appointed McCarrick archbishop of Washington D.C., in 2000, despite having commissioned an inquiry that confirmed he slept with seminarians. The summary says John Paul believed McCarrick’s last-ditch, handwritten denial: “I have made mistakes and may have sometimes lacked in prudence, but in the seventy years of my life I have never had sexual relations with any person, male or female, young or old, cleric or lay," McCarrick wrote.
But the report also charts the alarm bells that sounded — and were ignored, excused or dismissed — nearly a decade earlier, when in 1992-93 a series of six anonymous letters were sent to U.S. church officials and the Vatican's ambassador to the U.S. alleging McCarrick was a “pedophile" who would sleep in the same bed with young men and boys. Those alarms continued, including when a Catholic psychiatrist traveled to Rome in 1997 to report to the Congregation for Bishops that his priest-patient was a victim of McCarrick's abuse.
McCarrick, 90, was defrocked by Francis last year after a Vatican investigation confirmed decades of allegations that the globe-trotting envoy and successful church fundraiser had sexually molested adults as well as children. The Vatican had reports from authoritative cardinals dating back to 1999 that McCarrick’s behavior was problematic, yet he continued to rise to become an influential cardinal, kingmaker and emissary of the Holy See’s “soft diplomacy.”
The findings accused bishops dead and alive of providing the Vatican with incomplete information about McCarrick’s behavior, and of turning a blind eye to his repeated flouting of informal restrictions ordered up in 2006 after Pope Benedict XVI, after receiving yet another alarming report, decided not to investigate or sanction him seriously.
Most significantly, the findings largely gave Francis a pass, saying he never lifted or modified those restrictions, never named McCarrick a “diplomatic agent” for the Holy See and never received any documentation about McCarrick before 2017. It didn't say if Francis had sought such documentation after one of his ambassadors purportedly told him in 2013 that McCarrick was a predator.
“Pope Francis had heard only that there had been allegations and rumors related to immoral conduct with adults occurring prior to McCarrick’s appointment to Washington,” the report says. “Believing that the allegations had already been reviewed and rejected by Pope John Paul II, and well aware that McCarrick was active during the papacy of Benedict XVI, Pope Francis did not see the need to alter the approach that had been adopted.”
Francis changed course after a former altar boy came forward in 2017 alleging that McCarrick groped him when he was a teenager during preparations for Christmas Mass in 1971 and 1972 in New York. The allegation was the first solid claim against McCarrick involving a minor and triggered the canonical trial that resulted in his defrocking.
McCarrick now lives in a residence for priests as a layman. His lawyer, Barry Coburn, declined to comment.
The report contains heartbreaking testimony from people who tried to raise the alarm about McCarrick’s inappropriate behavior, including with children, starting in the mid-1980s.
One woman identified only as “Mother 1” told investigators that she sent a series of anonymous letters to U.S. Catholic leaders, warning them about McCarrick. She described how she once discovered McCarrick, a family friend, with his hands rubbing her two sons’ inner thighs in the living room. “It was more than strange. It was abnormal. I almost dropped the casserole dish I was holding in my hands.” Her letters went unheeded, and McCarrick continued his rise.
While the findings provided new details about what the Vatican knew and when, it didn’t directly blame or admit that the church's internal “old boys club" culture allowed McCarrick’s behavior to continue unchecked. Catholic cardinals and bishops have long been considered beyond reproach and claims of homosexual behavior have been used to discredit or blackmail prelates, so often are dismissed as rumors. There has also been a widespread but unspoken tolerance of sexually active men in what is supposed to be a celibate priesthood.
St. Peter's Square with obelisk in Rome is part of the territory of the Vatican City. (Photo by Annette Riedl/picture alliance via Getty Images)
The church has long considered sex by priests with other adult men or women as sinful but consensual, with flags only raised in recent years when minors were involved.
But the McCarrick scandal, which erupted during the #MeToo era, has demonstrated that adult seminarians and priests can be sexually victimized by their superiors because of the power imbalance in their relationships. And yet the church’s legal system has had no real way to address that type of abuse of authority.
James Grein, whose testimony that McCarrick abused him for two decades starting when he was 11 was key to McCarrick’s downfall, said he was pleased the report was finally released. He said he was hopeful it would bring some relief as well as a chance to “clean” up the church.
“There are so many people suffering out there because of one man,” Grein said. “And he thinks that he’s more important than the rest of us. He’s destroyed me and he’s destroyed thousands of other lives. ... It’s time that the Catholic Church comes clean with all of its destruction.”
The bishops of the four U.S. dioceses where McCarrick served — Metuchen and Newark, N.J., New York and Washington, all welcomed the report, despite the shame the McCarrick scandal has brought on the church and the pain he caused his victims.
“Like everyone else, I am disgusted and appalled by what has taken place,” said Metuchen Bishop James Checchio.
He lamented that his diocese’s founding in 1981, with McCarrick as its first bishop, would “always be associated with the history of Theodore McCarrick and the culture of abuse, silence and shame that was allowed to perpetuate in the dark corners of our past.”
Francis commissioned the report after the retired Vatican ambassador to the U.S., Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, issued a blistering expose of the two-decade-long McCarrick cover-up in 2018, naming around two dozen U.S. and Vatican officials who knew of his misconduct but failed to effectively sanction him.
Vigano cited former seminarians who described the harassment and abuse they endured while “Uncle Ted,” as McCarrick liked to call himself, was their bishop in New Jersey, and they were forced to sleep in his bed during weekend trips to his beach house.
Vigano’s most explosive claim was that Francis himself lifted “sanctions" imposed by Benedict and made McCarrick a trusted adviser. Vigano demanded Francis resign, claiming he had warned the pope in June 2013 that McCarrick had “corrupted generations of seminarians and priests.”
Several of Vigano’s central assertions were confirmed, but several were also disproved: Vigano had alleged Cardinal Angelo Sodano, John Paul's powerful secretary of state, had been behind McCarrick's promotion to Washington. But the report provided evidence that the decision was John Paul's.
And it rejected Vigano's claims involving Francis outright. “No records support Vigano’s account and evidence as to what he said is sharply disputed,” it said.
The summary also cites a previously unreported case in which Vigano in 2012 allegedly failed to act on Vatican instructions to investigate new claims against McCarrick by a Brazilian-born New Jersey priest.
“Vigano did not take these steps and therefore never placed himself in the position to ascertain the credibility,” of the priest’s claims, the report says.
The report drew on documents from five Vatican departments, four U.S. dioceses, two U.S. seminaries and the Vatican’s U.S. Embassy. Investigators interviewed 90 people, including McCarrick’s victims, former seminarians and priests, officials from U.S. charities and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.