Vatican admits downplaying sexual abuse claims against former US cardinal

·3-min read

After a two-year investigation, the Vatican this week published its highly anticipated “Report on the Holy See’s institutional knowledge and decision-making process related to former Cardinal Theodore Edgar McCarrick (from 1930 to 2017)”, ordered by Pope Francis in October 2018.

At the time, the Vatican issued a statement saying the Pope was “concerned by the confusion” among Catholics about what occurred in the church that allowed McCarrick to rise to the highest level of the hierarchy despite the multiple allegations of inappropriate sexual behaviour over the years.

The report is based on the interviews of more than 90 witnesses, including cardinals, bishops, American seminarians and priests. The Vatican said “no limit was placed on the examination of documents, the questioning of individuals or the expenditure of resources necessary to carry out the investigation”.

The report contains testimony from people who raised the alarm about McCarrick’s unacceptable and illicit sexual behaviour and abuse of power with minors and adults.

During his long career, first as a priest in New York, then Archbishop of Newark and then cardinal in Washington, McCarrick became one of the most popular and powerful members of the Catholic Church in the United States. It was Pope John Paul II, now a saint, who appointed him Archbishop of Washington in 2000 and then cardinal early the following year.

Church turned a blind eye

The report found that complaints of McCarrick’s abuse were downplayed. It stated that Pope John Paul believed McCarrick's last-minute, handwritten denial: “I have made mistakes and may have sometimes lacked in prudence, but in the 70 years of my life I have never had sexual relations with any person, male or female, young or old, cleric or lay”.

In 2017, a former altar boy came forward with a strong claim that McCarrick had groped him when he was a teenager during preparations for Christmas Mass in 1971 and 1972 in New York.

Pope Francis took action though an investigation and canonical trial that eventually led to the cardinal’s defrocking in 2019. He became the most senior church official to be laicised in modern times for acts of sexual abuse.

Survivors unconvinced

Reaction to the report were lukewarm, as in the case of Becky Ianni of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, or SNAP network.

“We've heard allegations from minors that they were sexually abused for years, but what bothers me in the report is the terms they use," she said.

"They call it ‘inappropriate behaviour.’ They call it ‘misconduct.’ This wasn't misconduct. This was sexual abuse. Cardinal McCarrick was a criminal and I think it's very important for the church to recognise that and to state that."

In his first public comments following the release of the report, Pope Francis on Wednesday renewed his “closeness to the victims of sexual abuse and the commitment of the church to uproot this evil”.

The former cardinal, who has never been criminally charged, now lives in isolation at an undisclosed location as a layman.