Vatican says McCarrick’s rise fault of many, but spares Francis

Two-year Vatican investigation into former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick finds warnings of sexual misconduct were ignored.

In this file photo from 2011, then-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick prays during the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops' annual fall assembly in Baltimore [File: Patrick Semansky/AP Photo]

A Vatican investigation into former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick found that a series of bishops, cardinals and popes downplayed or dismissed reports of sexual misconduct, and determined that Pope Francis merely continued his predecessors’ handling of the predator until taking action when 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 United States 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, DC, in 2000, despite having commissioned an inquiry that confirmed he slept with seminarians.

The report found that John Paul believed McCarrick’s last-minute, 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, maintaining he had upheld the vow of celibacy taken by members of the Catholic clergy.

Ignored warnings

But the report also charts the alarm bells that were ignored, excused or dismissed in 1992 and 1993, when six anonymous letters were sent to US church officials and the Vatican’s ambassador to the US alleging that McCarrick was a “paedophile” who would sleep in the same bed with young men and boys.

Those alarms continued, including when a Catholic psychiatrist travelled to the Vatican in 1997 to report that his priest-patient was a victim of McCarrick’s sexual abuse.

McCarrick, 90, was defrocked by Francis last year after a Vatican investigation confirmed the globetrotting envoy and fundraiser had sexually molested adults as well as children.

The case created a credibility crisis for the church because the Vatican had reports from authoritative cardinals dating to 1999 that McCarrick’s behaviour was problematic, yet he became an influential cardinal, kingmaker and emissary of the Holy See’s “soft diplomacy”.

The findings accused bishops dead and alive of turning a blind eye to his misconduct and said the charismatic McCarrick simply ignored informal restrictions ordered in 2006 after Pope Benedict XVI, who had received yet another alarming report, decided not to investigate or sanction him seriously.

Significantly, the report greatly undermined allegations that Francis was at fault for the McCarrick scandal – charges lodged in 2018 by a former Vatican ambassador to the US. The report actually provided evidence that the ambassador, Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, was part of the cover-up.

The report said Francis never lifted or modified Benedict’s informal restrictions on McCarrick, as Vigano claimed, since the restrictions were never enforced in the first place. The report provides evidence that Vigano was well aware during Benedict’s papacy that McCarrick had ignored them, admitting in a 2012 letter to the Vatican that its written admonition to McCarrick “is a dead letter”.

“Pope Francis had heard only that there had been allegations and rumours 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.”

Pope Benedict XVI arrives at the ceremony of beatification for the late pope John Paul II, his predecessor, in May 2011 at St Peter’s Square at the Vatican [Alberto Pizzoli/AFP]

Francis changed course after a former altar boy came forward in 2017 alleging 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.

Heartbreaking testimony

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 behaviour, including with children, in the mid-1980s.

One woman identified only as “Mother 1” told investigators she sent a series of anonymous letters to US Catholic leaders, warning 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.

While the findings provided new details about what the Vatican knew and when, the report did not directly blame or admit that the church’s internal “old boys club” culture allowed McCarrick’s behaviour to continue unchecked.

When the  McCarrick scandal erupted during the #MeToo era, it demonstrated that adult seminarians and priests can be sexually victimised by superiors due to the clergy’s power imbalance. And yet the church’s legal system has had no real way to address such 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. “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.”

Francis cleared

The bishops of the four US dioceses where McCarrick served – New York; Washington, DC; and Metuchen and Newark, New Jersey – welcomed the report.

“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 McCarrick’s history of abuse.

Pope Francis leaves after the first weekly general audience to readmit the public since the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, at the Vatican
Pope Francis leaves his first weekly general audience open to the public since the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in the San Damaso courtyard at the Vatican on September 2, 2020 [Guglielmo Mangiapane/Reuters]

Francis commissioned the report after Vigano issued a blistering expose of the two-decade McCarrick cover-up in 2018, naming about two dozen US and Vatican officials who knew of his misconduct but failed to effectively sanction him.

Vigano’s most explosive claim was that Francis himself lifted “sanctions” imposed by Benedict and made McCarrick a trusted adviser. Vigano demanded that Francis resign, claiming he had warned the pope in 2013 that McCarrick had “corrupted generations of seminarians and priests”.

Several of Vigano’s central assertions regarding McCarrick’s abuse were confirmed, but others were disproved.

The report rejected Vigano’s claims involving Francis outright: “No records support Vigano’s account and evidence as to what he said is sharply disputed.”

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.

The report drew on documents from Vatican departments, US dioceses and seminaries and the Vatican’s US Embassy. Investigators interviewed 90 people, including McCarrick’s victims, former seminarians and priests, and officials from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies