ROME — The Vatican on Tuesday will release its long-awaited report into what it knew about ex-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick’s sexual misconduct during his rise through the church hierarchy, setting up a remarkable moment in the Vatican’s long reckoning with clergy sexual abuse and cover-up.
The Vatican said Friday the report would span McCarrick’s entire life, from his birth in 1930 to the 2017 allegations that triggered his downfall. The Vatican said the report would cover “the Holy See’s institutional knowledge and decision-making process” as the American prelate rose through the church’s ranks.
Pope Francis defrocked McCarrick in February 2019 after a Vatican investigation determined he sexually abused minors as well as adults. The 90-year-old is believed to be living in a treatment center for priests as a layman.
The McCarrick scandal erupted in June 2018 when the archdiocese of New York announced it had substantiated a claim of sexual abuse of a minor against McCarrick and two New Jersey dioceses revealed they had settled claims of sexual misconduct against him in the past involving adults.
Coupled with the revelations of a Pennsylvania grand jury’s report on abuse by clergy, the scandal sparked a credibility crisis for the U.S. and Vatican hierarchies, since it was an open secret that McCarrick slept with adult seminarians.
Yet McCarrick still rose to the heights of church power, even acting as the spokesman for U.S. bishops when they enacted a “zero tolerance” policy against sexually abusive priests in 2002. He retired as archbishop of Washington D.C., one of the most politically powerful positions in the U.S. church, in 2006.
Francis authorized a “thorough study” of the Vatican archives for information about McCarrick in October, 2018, two months after the former Vatican ambassador to the United States, Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, accused Francis of being the last in a long line of Vatican and U.S. churchmen who covered up McCarrick’s misconduct.
The Vatican said at the time it was aware that such an investigation could produce evidence that mistakes were made, but that Francis would “follow the path of truth, wherever it may lead.”
Even though Vigano demanded Francis’s resignation over the scandal, it was actually Francis who authorized a canonical investigation after a man came forward in 2017 and alleged McCarrick groped him when he was a young altar boy in New York.
McCarrick denied the initial groping allegation and has accepted his punishment, but several other men subsequently came forward saying they were also victims. Former seminarians described how McCarrick, when he was bishop in the New Jersey dioceses of Metuchen and Newark, would pressure them to sleep in his bed during weekend outings at his beach house.
“No one was protecting us from his behavior. It was known, and people were putting their careers before protecting us,” said the Rev. Desmond Rossi, who transferred out of the Newark archdiocese in 1989 because of what he said was its culture of harassment and abuse of power in the seminary under McCarrick. Rossi says the final straw was an uncomfortable private meeting when his then-archbishop moved inappropriately close and touched his knee.
The Vatican report will come out just days before U.S. bishops gather for their regular fall meeting, held virtually this year because of the coronavirus pandemic. The McCarrick scandal has been a cloud over the meetings for the past two years, with the American hierarchy under pressure from rank-and-file Catholics to come clean about who knew what about McCarrick’s misconduct.
“The people in the American church, they need this,” said Rossi, who is now a parish priest in upstate New York. “They need some kind of resolution and answers about how this happened, and trust that it’s not going to happen again.”
Attorney Mitchell Garabedian, who is representing one of McCarrick’s key accusers, James Grein, in one of several lawsuits against him said the question is whether the Vatican will take responsibility for knowingly allowing McCarrick to continue abusing. Grein’s testimony was crucial in the Vatican’s canonical case against McCarrick, since he said he was abused starting when he was 11, by the man who was a close family friend and even baptized him.
“In order for the Vatican to regain its credibility, it must reveal the truth. It must disclose what Vatican officials knew about Cardinal McCarrick’s sexual abuse of victims, when they knew it, and why they covered it up,” Garabedian said.
The Vatican hasn’t explained why it took more than two years to produce the report, but its scope has clearly expanded beyond the original mandate of looking through Vatican archives to include testimony from victims and information about McCarrick’s early life.
The Vatican knew as early as 2000 that seminarians had complained that McCarrick pressured them to sleep with him. The Rev. Boniface Ramsay, a professor at a New Jersey seminary, wrote a letter to the Vatican in November 2000 relaying the seminarians’ concerns after McCarrick was named archbishop of Washington.
St. John Paul II still went ahead with the nomination and made McCarrick a cardinal the following year. McCarrick resigned as Washington archbishop after he reached the retirement age of 75.
McCarrick later denied having ever had sexual relations with anyone but acknowledged an “unfortunate lack of judgment” in sharing a bed with the men, according to a 2008 email to the Vatican.
In his 11-page denunciation, Vigano said then-Pope Benedict XVI imposed “canonical sanctions” on McCarrick in 2009 or 2010 that prohibited him from travelling or lecturing for the church or celebrating Mass in public.
Vigano said he told Francis on June 23, 2013 about the sanctions and that McCarrick had “corrupted a generation of seminarians and priests.” But he said Francis effectively rehabilitated McCarrick and made him a trusted counselor.
The public record, however, is rife with evidence that McCarrick lived a life devoid of any sanction from 2009 onwards, including evidence that he and Vigano attended events together, and Vigano later backtracked and said the sanctions were privately communicated.
Francis initially vowed to remain silent about Vigano’s bombshell allegations. But in a 2019 interview with a Mexican broadcaster, Francis said he knew nothing about McCarrick’s past and had no memory of Vigano ever mentioning his sexual misdeeds.
In a recent interview with The Associated Press, McCarrick’s successor as archbishop of Washington D.C., Cardinal-designate Wilton Gregory, said he hoped the Vatican’s report would be “complete, fair and transparent.”
AP reporter Sarah Rankin contributed from Richmond, Virginia.