On Tuesday, November 11, 2020, the Vatican released a comprehensive report into the Catholic Church’s failure to address clergy sexual abuse by Theodore McCarrick, a former cardinal and bishop in New Jersey. In 2019, McCarrick became the first known cardinal to be removed from the clergy due to sexual abuse allegations. This report was the result of two years of investigation and dozens of interviews conducted in light of these accusations, McCarrick’s removal and deceit from church officials.
McCarrick Cover-up in Catholic Church
In the report, the Vatican found Popes Benedict XVI and John Paul II both knew about sexual abuse allegations against McCarrick and failed to discipline or stop him. Instead, Pope John Paul II elevated McCarrick to the role of Archbishop of Washington, D.C. Later, Pope Benedict responded to the allegations by encouraging McCarrick to maintain a lower profile, according to the report.
Although the report found that numerous church leaders ignored the accusations against McCarrick, it largely avoided blaming Pope Francis. The report said he believed the allegations had been investigated by Pope John Paul II and found meritless.
Survivors of McCarrick’s abuse responded to the report with a range of emotions. Many said it must spur change in the Catholic Church.
“It was very emotional to read. It was very emotional because there were so many opportunities to stop him. So many opportunities to stop him. And maybe my life would be different, maybe I wouldn’t be a victim if someone had.”
Bishops Ignored 14 Years of Sexual Abuse Allegations
The first documented sexual abuse allegation against McCarrick was in 1994 when an unnamed priest wrote to Bishop Edward T. Hughes. In the letter, the priest said McCarrick had touched him inappropriately when he was a young seminarian, and that McCarrick had abused other seminarians as well.
The priest also argued McCarrick’s abuse had contributed to the priest abusing two 15-year-old boys himself. The Metuchen Diocese transferred the priest and had him receive therapy, while McCarrick continued to rise in the church hierarchy.
In the same year, a former papal ambassador to the United States received a phone call from a woman. She warned of a potential scandal due to McCarrick’s rumored behavior with seminarians. Cardinal Agostino Cacciavillan said the woman expressed concerns about Pope John Paul II visiting Newark, where McCarrick was the archbishop.
Cacciavillan consulted with then-archbishop of New York, Cardinal John O’Connor. The McCarrick report found that O’Connor alerted the pope to the sexual abuse claims in 1999. At the time, the pope was considering McCarrick for the role of Archbishop of Washington. According to the report, the pope launched an internal investigation, but three of the four bishops involved “provided inaccurate and incomplete information.”
McCarrick also strenuously denied the allegations to Pope John Paul II, saying he had never had a sexual relationship with anyone. He ultimately received the archbishop position.
Sexual Abuse By Theodore McCarrick
Sexual Abuse Survivors Come Forward
James Grein was 11 years old when McCarrick, a family friend, began abusing him. The abuse continued for almost 20 years. In July 2018, Grein came forward with his story in a New York Times article, withholding his last name. He has since spoken out publicly about McCarrick’s abuse.
“I do this today so that others like me have the strength to come forward. Think about what you can do to help others. This movement must continue to gain strength.”
Robert Ciolek was a young man in his early 20s, studying to become a priest when he met McCarrick. At the time, McCarrick was the bishop of Metuchen. McCarrick praised Ciolek and said he had a promising future in the church.
As their friendship grew, McCarrick invited Ciolek on trips. During those trips, he would assign Ciolek to share a bed with him and touch him inappropriately. Ciolek was already a survivor of sexual abuse by a Catholic school teacher. Being victimized again made it more difficult for him to say no to McCarrick.
“I trusted him, I confided in him, I admired him. I couldn’t imagine that he would have anything other than my best interests in mind.”
Dioceses Settled with McCarrick Victims
McCarrick heavily relied on his role as a bishop to access victims. During his time in the Catholic Church, he rose through the ranks to become one of the most prominent U.S. Catholic leaders. He was the auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of New York, bishop of the Diocese of Metuchen, New Jersey, and Archbishop of Newark.
In 2001, he became a cardinal and Archbishop of Washington. His position in D.C. allowed him to lobby lawmakers and conduct diplomatic missions across the world.
As the bishop of Metuchen, McCarrick persuaded the diocese to buy two beach houses. He repeatedly brought seminarians to at least one of the beach houses, where he would often abuse them.
In 2005 and 2007, the Diocese of Metuchen and the Archdiocese of Newark paid a total of $180,000 in settlements to two survivors, both of whom were former priests.
McCarrick Is First Known Cardinal Defrocked Over Sexual Abuse
In January 2019, the Catholic Church found McCarrick “guilty of solicitation during the Sacrament of Confession and sins against the Sixth Commandment with minors and adults, with the aggravating factor of the abuse of power.” In February, McCarrick became the first known cardinal to be laicized, or removed as a clergy member, due to sexual abuse.
Despite McCarrick’s removal and the Vatican’s report, it is unclear what steps the Catholic Church will take to prevent similar abuse in the future.
“This report contains no punishments, no concrete steps to prevent future crimes, and consequently gives us no faith that this investigation was conducted in earnest.”
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CNA staff. (2020, September 9). Newark archdiocese bought second beach house for use by McCarrick. Catholic News Agency.
Duncan, R. (2018, October 29). Former nuncio to US admits hearing rumors of McCarrick misconduct in 1994. Catholic Herald.
Gibson, D. (2014, June 21). Globe-trotting Cardinal Theodore McCarrick is almost 84 and working harder than ever. Religion News Service.
Goodstein, L., Otterman, S. (2018, July 16). He Preyed on Men Who Wanted to Be Priests. Then He Became a Cardinal. The New York Times.
Holy See Press Office. (2019, February 16). “Comunicato della Congregazione per la Dottrina della Fede, 16.02.2019” [Press release].
Lavanga, C., Lubov, D., Suliman, A. (2020, November 10). Popes knew of allegations against ex-Cardinal McCarrick years ago, report finds. NBC News.
Otterman, S. (2018, July 19). Man Says Cardinal McCarrick, His ‘Uncle Ted,’ Sexually Abused Him for Years. The New York Times.
Pullella, P. (2020, November 10). Report into disgraced ex U.S. cardinal shows failings by popes, top clerics. Reuters.
Rankin, S. (2020, November 11). ‘It’s crushing’: Survivors react to McCarrick abuse report. The Associated Press.
Secretariat of State of the Holy See Vatican City State. (2020, November 10). Report on the Holy See’s institutional knowledge and decision-making process related to former Cardinal Theodore Edgar McCarrick [PDF].