Deep Dive: The McCarrick Report and the popes it implicates
In a long awaited act of transparency, fulfilling a commitment from Pope Francis, the Vatican has today published a report based on a two-year internal investigation into the career of former cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick. The report reveals hitherto top-secret information that explains how and why McCarrick, who abused minors and young adults, rose to become a leading figure in the Catholic Church in the United States.
According to the report’s executive summary, Vatican authorities, the U.S. bishops conference and the apostolic nuncio to the United States had heard scattered allegations about misconduct by McCarrick—some U.S. church leaders even received an anonymous report alleging his abuse of a minor—but discounted them because their sources were considered unreliable. Advised by the nuncio that there was no proof to back up misconduct allegations, John Paul II accepted McCarrick’s complete denial of wrongdoing when making the decision to appoint him as archbishop of Washington.
Pope Francis ordered the internal investigation in October 2018 after the review board of the Archdiocese of New York declared “credible” an allegation against then-Cardinal McCarrick of the sexual abuse of a minor in the early 1970s. Pope Francis authorized the publication of the full report today, despite internal resistance, because, according to a Vatican source, he believes American Catholics, who have been shocked and deeply wounded by this whole affair, have a right to know the unadulterated truth. (Full disclosure: Cardinal McCarrick was a longtime friend of this magazine and delivered the homily at our centennial celebration in 2009.)
Vatican authorities, the U.S. bishops conference and the apostolic nuncio heard scattered allegations about misconduct by McCarrick but discounted them because their sources were considered unreliable.
Vatican authorities, the U.S. bishops conference and the apostolic nuncio heard scattered allegations about misconduct by McCarrick but discounted them because their sources were considered unreliable.
The 445-page report, available on the Vatican website, is officially called “Report on the Holy See’s Institutional Knowledge and Decision-Making Related to Former Cardinal Theodore Edgar McCarrick (1930-2017).” According to the report, Benedict XVI did not impose “sanctions” on former cardinal McCarrick and the accusation against Francis that he weakened or canceled them is not true. It finds that Francis took decisive action once the first credible case of the abuse of a minor by McCarrick arrived on his desk.
[Editor’s note: This article is based on a reading of the executive summary of the report and will be updated as needed when the full text is published.]
It reveals that prior to 2017 the Holy See had not received a specific accusation that McCarrick had sexually harassed or abused a minor. It explains the reasons that led to John Paul II’s decision to appoint McCarrick to Washington in November 2000, after first deciding against it. Those reasons, as explained below, included mistakes, omissions and a reliance on partial and incomplete information from three U.S. bishops as well as the Holy See’s own failure to properly investigate rumors and anonymous letters accusing McCarrick.
A key factor in McCarrick’s ascent was Pope John Paul II’s willingness to give total credence to an extraordinary letter from McCarrick, whom he had known since 1976, that denied all the allegations of sexual abuse against him. The report suggests that the pope could have also been influenced by his experience in Poland, where the communists used all kinds of false accusations to discredit bishops and priests.
The investigation on which the report is based was supervised by the Secretariat of State. Its team examined documentation in the archives of relevant Roman Curia dicasteries and the nunciature in Washington. It also obtained information from the four dioceses where McCarrick was bishop and from Seton Hall University, which had authority over two New Jersey seminaries where now confirmed reports of harassment and abuse surfaced.
A key factor in McCarrick’s ascent was Pope John Paul II’s willingness to give total credence to an extraordinary letter from McCarrick that denied all the allegations of sexual abuse against him.
More than 90 individuals were interviewed during the investigation, including former and current Holy See officials, cardinals and bishops; officers of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops; former seminarians and priests from various dioceses; several of McCarrick’s former secretaries and laypeople in the United States, Italy and elsewhere. Numerous individuals who had direct physical contact with McCarrick were interviewed over the course of the investigation, and they described “a range of conduct, including sexual abuse or assault, consensual sexual conduct, intimate physical contact, and the sharing of beds with physical touching.”
The report covers McCarrick’s life from his birth in New York in July 1930 to his fall from grace following the finding in June 2018 that he had abused a minor, the allegation that led to his removal from the College of Cardinals in July 2018 and dismissal from the priesthood in February 2019.
In a statement accompanying the report, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican secretary of state, advises anyone seeking answers “to read the entire document and not be misled into believing that the truth can be found in one part rather than in another.”
The Report’s Findings
The report examines the information that was available to the Holy See at the time decisions regarding McCarrick were taken in the Vatican during the pontificates of Paul VI (1963-78), John Paul II (1978-2005), Benedict XVI (2005-13) and Francis (2013-present).
During the Papacy Of Paul VI
According to the report, Pope Paul VI appointed McCarrick auxiliary bishop of New York in 1977 after an extensive investigation of his background. It reveals that most informants at that time strongly recommended him, and “no one reported having witnessed or heard of him engaging in improper behavior with either adults or minors.”
During the Papacy Of John Paul II
The report states that John Paul II’s decision to appoint McCarrick as bishop of Metuchen in 1981 and then as archbishop of Newark in 1986 “were based upon his background, skills and achievements.” At that time McCarrick was “widely lauded” as “a pastoral, intelligent and zealous bishop” and “a hard worker, active in the episcopal conference and on the national and international stage” as well as “an effective fundraiser, both at the diocesan level and for the Holy See.” It reveals that “no credible information emerged suggesting that he had engaged in any misconduct.”
Allegations against McCarrick “were generally summarized in a 28 Oct. 1991 letter from Cardinal O’Connor of New York to the Apostolic Nuncio and were shared with John Paul II shortly thereafter.”
The report then focuses on the decision to appoint McCarrick as archbishop of Washington in November 2000 and states, “John Paul II personally made the decision to appoint McCarrick and did so after receiving the counsel of several trusted advisors on both sides of the Atlantic.”
It reveals that “at the time of his appointment, the allegations against McCarrick generally fell into 4 categories”:
- “Priest 1,” formerly of the Diocese of Metuchen, claimed that he observed McCarrick’s “sexual conduct” with another priest in June 1987 and that “McCarrick attempted to engage in sexual activity with him later that summer.”
- “A series of anonymous letters” sent to the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, the apostolic nuncio and various cardinals in the United States in 1992 and 1993 “accused McCarrick of pedophilia with his ‘nephews.’”
- McCarrick was known to have “shared a bed with young adult men” in the bishop’s residence in Metuchen and Newark.
- McCarrick was known to have “shared a bed with adult seminarians at a beach house on the New Jersey shore.”
According to the report, these allegations “were generally summarized in a 28 Oct. 1999 letter from Cardinal O’Connor of New York to the Apostolic Nuncio and were shared with John Paul II shortly thereafter.” It says this information “led to the conclusion that it would be imprudent to transfer him to another see on three occasions, namely Chicago (1997), New York (1999/2000) and initially Washington (July 2000).” It is not clear from the summary why no further investigation into allegations received by anonymous letter in 1992 and 1993 was conducted, and that question remains to be addressed from a reading of the full report.
According to the report, “Pope John Paul II seems to have changed his mind in August/September 2000, ultimately leading to his decision to appoint McCarrick to Washington in November 2000.” It offers seven “main reasons” to explain this:
“Three of four American bishops,” unnamed in the summary, “provided inaccurate and incomplete information to the Holy See regarding McCarrick’s sexual conduct with young adults.”
First, it says “at John Paul II’s request, in May-June 2000, Archbishop [Gabriel] Montalvo, the nuncio in the United States, conducted a written inquiry directed at 4 New Jersey bishops to determine whether the allegations against McCarrick were true.” It reveals that the bishops’ responses “confirmed that McCarrick had shared a bed with young men” but “did not confirm with certainty that McCarrick had engaged in any sexual misconduct.”
It states, however, that the internal investigation for the report, discovered that “three of the four American bishops,” unnamed in the summary, “provided inaccurate and incomplete information to the Holy See regarding McCarrick’s sexual conduct with young adults.”
It reports, “This inaccurate information appears likely to have impacted the conclusions of John Paul II’s advisors and, consequently, of John Paul II himself.”
The report lists a second reason, which reveals that “on 6 August 2000, McCarrick wrote a letter to Bishop [Stanislaw] Dziwisz,” the secretary to John Paul II, “which was intended to rebut the allegations made by Cardinal O’Connor.” Someone, unnamed in the executive summary, appears to have informed McCarrick about these allegations and so, in his letter, McCarrick declared, “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, nor have I ever abused another person or treated them with disrespect.”
“Priest 1, the only individual at the time to claim sexual misconduct by McCarrick, was treated as an unreliable informant, in part because he himself had previously abused two teenage boys.”
The report makes clear that “McCarrick’s denial was believed” by John Paul II and others when they were received in August 2000, “and the view was held that, if allegations against McCarrick were made public, he would be able to refute them easily.” Though the report does not make this observation, the timeframe, immediately before the sexual abuse crisis became major news in Boston, may have made this denial easier to accept uncritically.
A third reason that may have helped change John Paul II’s mind lay in the fact that “at the time of McCarrick’s appointment to Washington, and in part because of the limited nature of the Holy See’s own prior investigations, the Holy See had never received a complaint directly from a victim, whether adult or minor, about McCarrick’s misconduct.”
“For this reason,” the report states, “McCarrick’s supporters could plausibly characterize the allegations against him as mere ‘gossip’ or ‘rumors.’”
A fourth reason relates to the fact that “Priest 1, the only individual at the time to claim sexual misconduct by McCarrick, was treated as an unreliable informant, in part because he himself had previously abused two teenage boys.” Furthermore, “the Holy See did not receive any signed statement from Priest 1 regarding his allegations against McCarrick.”
A fifth reason is that “Although McCarrick admitted [in the letter] that his sharing of a bed with seminarians at the beach house was ‘imprudent,’ he insisted both that he had never engaged in sexual conduct and that claims to the contrary, including the anonymous letters, constituted calumnious and/or politically motivated gossip.”
In a significant comment, the report states that “though there is no direct evidence, it appears likely from the information obtained that John Paul II’s past experience in Poland regarding the use of spurious allegations against bishops to degrade the standing of the Church played a role in his willingness to believe McCarrick’s denial.”
Presenting a sixth reason, the report says McCarrick was recognized over two decades as “an exceptionally hardworking and effective bishop, able to handle delicate and difficult assignments both in the USA and sensitive areas of the world including formerly Eastern bloc countries, especially Yugoslavia.”
“It appears likely that John Paul II’s past experience in Poland regarding the use of spurious allegations against bishops played a role in his willingness to believe McCarrick’s denial.”
The seventh reason lay in the fact that “John Paul II had known McCarrick for years,” since 1976 when they first met in New York. In the following years, “McCarrick had interacted with the pope frequently, both in Rome and during trips overseas, including at the time of the pope’s visit to Newark in 1995 and during the annual trips to Rome for the Papal Foundation,” a U.S.-based fundraiser for the Holy See and charities of interest to the pope. The report concludes: “McCarrick’s direct relationship with John Paul II also likely had an impact on the pope’s decision-making.”
During the Papacy of Benedict XVI
According to the report, “soon after his election, April 2005, on the recommendation of the nuncio and the congregation for bishops, Benedict XVI extended McCarrick’s tenure in Washington, which was viewed as successful, by 2 years.”
Nevertheless, it says, “in late 2005, based on new details related to Priest 1’s allegations, the Holy See reversed course” and “urgently sought a successor for the Archbishopric of Washington, requesting that McCarrick ‘spontaneously’ withdraw as archbishop after Easter 2006.”
The report reveals that “over the next two years, Holy See officials wrestled with how to address issues regarding Cardinal McCarrick.”
It finds that “while serving in the Secretariat of State, Archbishop Viganò wrote two memoranda, one in 2006 and the other in 2008, for the purpose of bringing questions related to McCarrick to the attention of [his] superiors. The memoranda referred to the allegations and rumors about McCarrick’s misconduct during the 1980s,” but not about the possibility of the abuse of a minor, “and raised concerns that a scandal could result given that the information had already circulated widely.”
But, it says, “Noting that the allegations remained unproven (“Si vera et probate sunt exposita”) and recognizing that only the pope can judge a cardinal under canon law, Viganò suggested that a canonical process could be opened to determine the truth and, if warranted, to impose an ‘exemplary measure.’”
Significantly, it reveals that “Viganò’s superiors, Secretary of State Bertone and Substitute Archbishop Sandri, shared Viganò’s concerns and Cardinal Bertone presented the matter directly to Pope Benedict XVI.” But, it notes, “Ultimately the path of a canonical process to resolve factual issues and possibly prescribe canonical penalties was not taken. Instead, the decision was made to appeal to McCarrick’s conscience and ecclesial spirit by indicating to him that he should maintain a lower profile and minimize travel for the good of the church.”
According to the report, “Until 2017, no one—including Cardinal Parolin, Cardinal Ouellet, Archbishop Becciu, or Archbishop Viganò—provided Pope Francis with any documentation regarding allegations against McCarrick.”
It finds that “In 2006, Cardinal [Giovanni Battista] Re, the prefect of the congregation for bishops, instructed Nuncio [Pietro] Sambi to convey these indications to McCarrick in writing.” The report clarifies, however, that while Cardinal Re’s approach was approved by Pope Benedict XVI, “the indications did not carry the pope’s explicit imprimatur, were not based on a factual finding that McCarrick had actually committed misconduct and did not include a prohibition on public ministry.”
The report asserts that “a number of factors appear to have played a role in Pope Benedict XVI’s declination to initiate a formal canonical proceeding: there were no credible allegations of child abuse; McCarrick swore on his ‘oath as a bishop’ that the allegations were false; the allegations of misconduct with adults related to events in the 1980s; and there was no indication of any recent misconduct.”
It states, moreover, that “in the absence of canonical sanctions or explicit instructions from the Holy Father, McCarrick continued his activity in the United States and overseas” and “he remained in active public ministry.” McCarrick “continued his work with Catholic Relief Services (including foreign travel), traveled to Rome for various meetings or events, remained a member of Holy See dicasteries (Administration of the Patrimony of the Apostolic See and pontifical councils), continued his work in the Middle East with the United States Department of State, and served on USCCB committees. He also undertook other engagements with the approval of officials of the Roman Curia or the Apostolic Nuncio.”
According to the report, “after mid-2009, Nuncio Sambi became the main point of contact for McCarrick and, with Sambi effectively taking charge of the situation, neither Benedict XVI nor the Congregation for Bishops appears to have been kept apprised of McCarrick’s activities in the USA or overseas.”
It states that “once Archbishop Viganò was appointed nuncio to the United States in late 2011, McCarrick kept Viganò regularly informed of his travels and activities.”
The report reveals that “towards the end” of Benedict’s papacy, “Priest 3, another priest of Metuchen, informed Nuncio Viganò about Priest 3’s lawsuit alleging that overt sexual conduct between him and McCarrick had occurred in 1991.”
It says, “Viganò wrote to Cardinal [Marc] Ouellet, the new prefect of the Congregation for Bishops, about this in 2012 and Ouellet instructed Viganò to take certain steps, including an inquiry with specific diocesan officials and Priest 3, to determine if the allegations were credible.” The report states that “Viganò did not take those steps and therefore never placed himself in the position to ascertain the credibility of Priest 3.” As for McCarrick, he “continued to remain active, traveling nationally and internationally.”
America has learned from informed Vatican sources that the Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI has read the section of the report that relates to his pontificate and agrees with what is written there.
During the Papacy of Pope Francis
According to the report, “Given McCarrick’s retirement and age, Holy See officials during 2013 to early 2017 rarely addressed the indications originally given to McCarrick back in 2006 and 2008, which had been modified in their application during the papacy of Benedict XVI.”
“Believing that the allegations had already been reviewed and rejected by Pope John Paul II, Pope Francis did not see the need to alter the approach that had been adopted in prior years.”
Significantly, the report states that “neither Pope Francis, nor Cardinal Parolin, nor Cardinal Ouellet lifted or modified the prior ‘indications’ related to McCarrick’s activities or residence.” As for McCarrick, it says, he “generally continued his religious, humanitarian and charitable work during this period, sometimes with renewed focus and energy, but also with increased difficulty due to his advanced age.”
It says that “on a few occasions, McCarrick’s continued activities, and the existence of prior indications, were raised with Pope Francis by Substitute Becciu and Secretary of State Parolin.” Moreover, it says “Nuncio Viganò first claimed in 2018 that he had mentioned McCarrick in meetings with the Holy Father in June and October 2013, but no records support Viganò’s account and evidence as to what he said is sharply divided.”
It says, “Pope Francis recalled a brief conversation about McCarrick with Substitute Becciu and did not exclude the possibility of a similarly short exchange with Cardinal Parolin,” but “Before 2018, the Holy Father never discussed McCarrick with Cardinal Ouellet, who was prefect of the dicastery with primary competence over the matter, or with Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI.”
According to the report, “Until 2017, no one—including Cardinal Parolin, Cardinal Ouellet, Archbishop Becciu, or Archbishop Viganò—provided Pope Francis with any documentation regarding allegations against McCarrick, including the anonymous letters dating back to the early 1990s, or documents relating to Priest 1 or Priest 3.” Furthermore, it says, “Pope Francis had heard only that there had been allegations and rumors related to immoral conduct with adults prior to McCarrick’s appointment to Washington.”
But, the report continues, “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 in prior years.”
The report says that “In June 2017, the archdiocese of New York learned of the first known allegation of sexual misconduct by McCarrick with a victim under 18 years of age, which occurred in the early 1970s. Shortly after the accusation was deemed credible, Pope Francis requested McCarrick’s resignation from the College of Cardinals. Following an administrative penal process by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, McCarrick was found culpable of acts in contravention of the Sixth Commandment of the Decalogue involving both minors and adults, and on that basis was dismissed from the clerical state.”
The church has learned many painful lessons from this tragic case that has brought such suffering to so many people and in the first case to victims. It is possible to read several of the measures taken by Pope Francis to combat the triple abuse of minors and vulnerable adults—the abuse of conscience, abuse of power and sexual abuse—through the lens of the McCarrick case. One can see this in the instructions to bishops and religious superiors in the apostolic letter, “Vos Estis Lux Mundi,” and in the decision by the pope to abolish the pontifical secret, as well as the instruction in the Vademecum of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, not to automatically discard anonymous denunciations.
The report just published does not close the discussion. It is likely to raise many questions, both in the United States and Rome: Will the findings of the report help solidify the reforms introduced by Pope Francis to eliminate clericalism and ensure transparency and accountability in the church, particularly in the protection of minors and vulnerable adults? Will it lead to a proper way of dealing with anonymous communications, as advocated by the Vademecum? Will it improve how expediently information is dealt with in combatting abuse of power, abuse of conscience and sexual abuse of minors and vulnerable adults by clerics? Will it ensure that bishops provide complete and honest information when asked for by the nuncio, also in the investigation and assessment of candidates to be named bishops?
The report is sure to spark discussion at next week’s plenary assembly of the U.S.C.C.B. and could provoke questions regarding where responsibility lay within the conference in the McCarrick case.
More Stories from America:
– U.S. Catholic leaders react to the McCarrick report
– Explainer: What the church has done to fight clergy sex abuse since 2018’s ‘summer of shame’
– A 3-minute summary of what the McCarrick Report reveals