Podcast: The Rise and Fall of Theodore McCarrick
The Vatican’s long-awaited report on the rise of former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick was finally published yesterday. The document reveals that complaints about Mr. McCarrick’s abuse of seminarians reached all the way to Pope John Paul II, and that allegations of his abuse of children reached at least to John Paul’s top advisors.
In this deep dive episode of “Inside the Vatican,” America’s Vatican correspondent Gerard O’Connell and producer Colleen Dulle explain the rise and fall of Theodore McCarrick, once the most prominent prelate in the U.S. Catholic church.
The two unpack the accusations made in Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò’s incendiary 2018 letter and how those are addressed in the Vatican’s recent report. Gerry gives an up-close view of how the events of the last two years unfolded, and Colleen raises questions about whether this report will usher in a new era of accountability.
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Colleen Dulle: Hey Inside the Vatican listeners, it’s Colleen. We have a special episode for you this week, but I want to warn you, it’s about sexual abuse, and some of the details may be disturbing.
Our story this week is about Former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick. He was one of the American church’s most prominent leaders. He was charismatic and popular—and a very successful fundraiser.
In 2018, though, that all came crashing down when reports came out that McCarrick had sexually abused children and seminarians for decades, all while climbing the ranks of the church hierarchy.
Archival news clip: Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, the former archbishop of Washington and a prominent figure in the Catholic Church, has submitted his resignation to Pope Francis.
Colleen Dulle: In June 2018, a New York diocesan review board found McCarrick to be credibly accused of sexually abusing an altar boy in the 1970s.
Archival news clip: The 88-year-old is reportedly the first cardinal to step down because of sexual abuse allegations.
Colleen Dulle: After that, more survivors and whistleblowers went public with their stories. They described McCarrick’s abuse as an “open secret.”
Between the mid-90s and early 2000s, concerned priests had written letters to their superiors all the way up to Pope Benedict warning them not to promote McCarrick. And yet, he received promotions at an alarming speed, becoming the archbishop of Washington and then, three months later, cardinal. It raised a lot of questions: Who knew, when did they know, and why was nothing done?
The Vatican has spent two years investigating those questions, and this week, we finally got their answer.
Who knew, when did they know, and why was nothing done? The Vatican has spent two years investigating those questions, and this week, we finally got their answer.
I’m Colleen Dulle; this is Inside the Vatican.
Let me take you back to summer 2018.
Archival news clip: Now, new developments in the sex abuse scandal rocking the Catholic Church. The Vatican breaking its silence, expressing, quote, “shame and sorrow” over the allegations made in the grand jury report.
Archival news clip: Moments ago, the largest, most comprehensive report into child sexual abuse within the Catholic Church ever produced in the United States was released.
Colleen Dulle: It’s August. The McCarrick revelations and a Pennsylvania grand jury report detailing decades of abuse and cover-up have sparked a new wave of the abuse crisis, and the shock is felt around the world.
Pope Francis is headed to Ireland, one of the places the scandal has hit hardest, causing countless Catholics to cut off their relationship with the church. As soon as he lands, he's handed a letter from the country's minister for children detailing how unwed mothers had their children taken from them by church-sponsored institutions.
Then, on the second day of the pope’s trip, in the wee hours of the morning, an explosive letter is published by the Vatican’s former ambassador to the United States, Carlo Maria Viganò.
He claims that the Vatican knew about accusations against McCarrick as early as 2000, and that Pope Francis also knew. Viganò called on the pope to resign.
My co-host Gerard O’Connell was with the pope in Ireland when news broke about the letter.
Gerard O’Connell: I came down to breakfast about 5:30 in the morning in a hotel in Dublin. I had, I was on the Pope's plane. I was traveling with him, and everybody had picked up this strange document that had been released in the United States. And, uh, then we got copies of it quickly and people were quite astounded. Here was the man who had represented the pope in the United States now calling for his resignation and accusing him of coverup and accusing so many of the top Vatican officials of coverup.
And then he pointed the finger at so many senior Vatican officials accusing them of coverup, and he was the only saint apparently in the midst of this gang of sinners.
Colleen Dulle: Viganò made a bunch of attention-grabbing accusations in this 11-page letter. He claims that he forwarded a number of complaints about McCarrick’s abuse of seminarians to his higher-ups, but that they were ignored or covered up by bishops who were part of a, quote, “homosexual current” in the Vatican—a group of gay bishops who cover up each other’s abuse in order to advance each other’s agendas.
He names a lot of names, and we’re not going to go through them all. But his accusation against Pope Francis is this: Pope Benedict, he says, learned about McCarrick’s abuse of seminarians and placed canonical sanctions on him. Those said McCarrick had to leave the seminary where he was living and stop participating in public events like Masses and travel.
Viganò said he told Francis about McCarrick’s behavior too, but that Francis lifted the sanctions on McCarrick and was an ally to him, even after knowing he abused seminarians.
Again, these are Viganò’s claims.
And the timing couldn’t have been worse. The pope’s trip was already marred by the abuse crisis and now here was Viganò claiming Francis was at the top of the cover-up. That led some to flag this as a coordinated sabotage.
Colleen Dulle: Was this viewed right off the bat as an attack on the pope? Like, was it seen right away as a coordinated attack? Because I know we've talked about how this was perfectly timed to this very challenging trip that the pope was taking to Ireland.
Gerard O’Connell: How else could it be interpreted?
It was very carefully, strategically arranged so that it would hit on the morning that the pope was—the final day of the pope in Ireland.
Colleen: Was Viganò's letter viewed right off the bat as an attack on the pope?
Gerry: How else could it be interpreted?
Colleen Dulle: The media pressed Francis for answers. Gerry was there on the plane when Francis first addressed Viganò’s letter.
Gerard O’Connell: Well, Francis remained very calm. And he said, I saw this document this morning, I do not intend to say anything. You’re professional journalists. You’re experienced in your field. You go and study, really study the document, and do your research and draw your own conclusions. And then, when you have done all this, then I will speak.
Colleen Dulle: Pope Francis refused to speak further on the subject. But people wanted answers. They wanted the pope to defend himself, or to clarify what happened at the Vatican that enabled McCarrick to ascend the ranks for so long, unchecked. Gerard O’Connell: I mean, we're living in a world where people want instant answers, like instant coffee. But Francis really takes his direction from Jesus in the gospels where, you know, in front of Pilate, he doesn't answer.
Francis, how could he respond in one sentence to such a thing? And Francis also doesn't want to provide answers for people. He wants people to think through the question. And that's what he was telling the journalists, but also he was asking the American Catholic community and the bishops there.
You know, really, here was a bishop among you, whom you knew, whom you saw, whom you worked with. You should think what you saw, what you lived through. What have you to say about all this?
Pope Francis (archival, in Italian): I read the letter this morning. Read it carefully and make your judgment yourselves. I will not say one word on this. I believe that the letter speaks for itself. And you have sufficient journalistic capacity to reach conclusions.
Colleen Dulle: And the journalists did investigate. They found that sanctions like the ones Viganò described had either never existed or they’d never been enforced. McCarrick had kept up a robust schedule of traveling and celebrating public Masses, even under Pope Benedict who had supposedly placed the sanctions on him.
After the journalists had done their work, a few questions remained.
First, why was McCarrick able to continue his public ministry if he had been sanctioned by Benedict?
And, if he was sanctioned, what did those look like?
And then, what was Pope Francis told about McCarrick? Did he know about McCarrick’s abusive behavior and still allow him to act as a global diplomat?
For two years now, Pope Francis has not responded to Viganò’s accusations. But the Vatican did start an investigation that would look at who knew what and when. This report had to be watertight, responding to Viganò’s accusations and leaving no room for doubt, so that it could be the Vatican’s final answer.
That brings us to today.
On Tuesday, Nov. 10, the Vatican released the official report on McCarrick. It is 445 pages long and details the rise of McCarrick from priest to bishop to archbishop of Washington, D.C. to cardinal, and how his history of abuse went undetected for so long.
Gerard O’Connell: So this report, they interviewed 90 people. That included cardinals, bishops, lay people, also, I think, about 17 people who in one way or another had been abused or physically in contact with him. It's a lot of people, and those interviews lasted from half an hour to 30 hours. So, some were really in depth interviews. So you understand why it took two years, Colleen.
Look, anybody who's done a PhD or who's put together a book will understand. You've got a lot of information. So much. I mean, when you've got 445 pages, it's a book.
Colleen Dulle: One thing is for certain: The Catholic church keeps detailed records. Every letter. Every correspondence. It all made its way into McCarrick’s dossier.
Gerard O’Connell: So, they have a big file on you from day one, and that file gets bigger. So by the time he got to Washington, there was a very big file on him in the Congregation for Bishops, but also elsewhere. And as the report says very clearly, there was widespread praise for him. Everybody seemed to know him, and he seemed to know many people, and he seemed to remember quite a lot about them. So he was a very good networker.
And, of course, he was a great fundraiser. He had no difficulty going up to people and more or less saying, you know, open up your wallet and give me some money.
Colleen Dulle: Yeah, there was kind of a funny quote from Cardinal John O'Connor of New York in this report where he says, he remembers saying, Archbishop McCarrick is here. Sew up your pockets.
Gerard O’Connell: Well, it's true! And people trusted him, and so they felt he'd use the money well and he wouldn't use it for himself.
"Archbishop McCarrick is here. Sew up your pockets."
Colleen Dulle: All right. So, let's get into this question of who knew what and when, because that's obviously the big question this report was supposed to go through. The most significant part of this document, the biggest chunk, I guess, is about John Paul II’s papacy. And our story basically starts there in 2000.
Gerard O’Connell: Well, in the year 2000, two things. First of all, in the previous, I think, four or five years, he'd been considered as a possible candidate to be archbishop of Chicago first and then Archbishop of New York. But because of these rumors, allegations, and it was known that he was going to the beach house with seminarians, et cetera... But there was no actual accusation of sexual abuse or something of that nature.
Colleen Dulle: Right, we should be clear right now that we're talking about allegations of abuse of seminarians, right?
Gerard O’Connell: Absolutely. You're talking about adults, not minors.
Colleen Dulle: Right. That didn't come up until later.
Gerard O’Connell: Well then, in the summer of June of the year 2000, John Paul II must have had at the back of his mind that he'd like to put him in Washington, because obviously he was a political actor as well and this was the perfect setting for him in a way.
And so he asked the nuncio, [Gabriel] Montalvo, to speak with the four bishops in the dioceses where he had been to check out the allegations that were against him. And the bishops came back and they said, yes, it's true that he was, he's been sleeping with seminarians and young men. But, they said, they didn't come up with any clarity. They said there was no certainty that there was any kind of sexual activity.
And in the meantime, somebody, presumably in the Vatican, tipped off McCarrick and said, look here, you were being considered for Washington, but there's opposition. And so McCarrick wrote a personal letter. And in that letter, he said, you know, yes, it's true. I was imprudent. I slept with young men, but there was no sexual activity. I've never had sexual involvement with man, woman, or child, male or female.
Colleen Dulle: And John Paul II was very willing to believe this, right? Why was that?
Gerard O’Connell: He trusted him. And John Paul II also had experience from his years in Poland under the communists that the communists find every ruse, every excuse to tarnish the good name of a priest or a bishop. So they would often use sexual scandals, to destroy the good name of this pastor. And so John Paul II seemed to read the McCarrick story in a similar light: There were people out there who just didn't like him and who were trying to damage him, but really he hadn't done any wrong.
Colleen Dulle: In 1999, when McCarrick was being considered for a promotion to Washington, the Cardinal of New York, John O’Connor, summarized abuse complaints against McCarrick in a letter he sent to Rome.
The most troubling accusation, though it was not clearly described, involved several anonymous letters which accused McCarrick of “pedophilia” with young men.
Because these claims were made anonymously and didn’t include details, they were not further investigated. While we know the anonymous letters made it to Rome, we don’t know how they were described to John Paul II.
And then, in 2005, Pope Benedict 16th becomes pope, and some more details emerge from an earlier case concerning McCarrick and seminarians. But just like before, none of these allegations could be proven. Pope Benedict trusted the judgment of his predecessor, Pope John Paul II, and concluded that these must be false rumors, and that they only risk they posed to the church was gossip and scandal.
Gerard O’Connell: And so what they were worried about was a scandal breaking out, which would tarnish the good name of the church, damage its image. So it was a precautionary measure that they asked him to resign and to lead a quieter life.
Because the claims of pedophilia were made anonymously and didn’t include details, they were not further investigated.
Colleen Dulle: In other words, Benedict didn’t punish or sanction McCarrick because he didn’t have evidence that he did anything wrong. But he did ask McCarrick to lay low so he wouldn’t provoke scandal.
Gerard O’Connell: So they said, look, you lead a quieter life. Keep a low profile, don't travel as much, et cetera, but these were what the Italians call concilii. In other words, counsels. Recommendations. The report calls them indications. There were no sanctions.
They did not tell him, stop, don't travel. They said, reduce. Do less travel. Keep a low profile. The whole idea was not to draw attention to himself which might draw more scandal.
Colleen Dulle: This brings us to Pope Francis. In his damning letter, Viganò claims that Pope Francis knew about the supposed “sanctions” imposed by Pope Benedict on McCarrick and that Francis lifted them. But in fact, today’s report makes clear that there were no sanctions and that Pope Francis received nothing in writing about the McCarrick scandals. The only instructions from the Vatican were to monitor McCarrick’s travel.
Gerard O’Connell: And so McCarrick was very able, I said earlier, he was a charming person. He was very able at maneuvering as well. And he would give a report almost everywhere he went. He'd send a report, advise the nuncio, I'm going here. I'm going to, I don't know, I'm going to Puerto Rico. And if you look at the report, the travel documentation is extraordinary. I don't know how many countries they put. So many, so many.
And when Viganò became nuncio, he did the same. He gave Viganò all his program. And there is no evidence Viganò said, stop, don't go there, don't go there. Viganò had that responsibility to put those restrictions. And he never did.
News clip: A report said the alleged happened when he was a priest in New York. Cardinal McCarrick says he’s innocent, but the investigation said the allegations are credible.
News clip: And so, McCarrick is now banned from any public ministry until a final decision is made.
Colleen Dulle: In June 2018, the Archdiocese of New York’s lay review board found McCarrick credibly accused of abusing minors. This turned rumors into facts. And it set into motion the church’s own mechanisms for dealing with abuse, beginning with from the top.
Gerard O’Connell: When he got the information, he acted very decisively. Francis came down very hard on McCarrick, because after preventing him from exercising ministry, he then removed him from the college of Cardinals. He's the first ever that a man has been removed from the College of Cardinals for sexual abuse.
And then he had the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith carry out a penal process, administrative process, which is trial, and they concluded and voted that he should be removed from the ministry, removed from the priesthood. And Francis did that.
Colleen Dulle: Right, and since all of this happened, since McCarrick’s fall from grace in 2018, we've also seen Francis take a lot of steps towards preventing this kind of thing from happening again.
Gerard O’Connell: Francis in a document called Vos estis [lux mundi] the following summer, he laid down that anybody who has information about the abuse of children has an obligation to denounce it. And the obligation is very serious on the, on the case of bishops and of heads of religious orders, but it's also for everybody. It's really moving into putting down a legal structure that you can be removed from office if you fail to take action to denounce such abuse.
Secondly, there is the question which came in the vademecum which I've mentioned in my report.
Colleen Dulle: This is the handbook that we've talked so much about.
Gerard O’Connell: The handbook to guide priests and bishops worldwide on how to deal with the abuse. It lays down specifically, you cannot just throw anonymous letters in the dustbin. You have to take action. You have to examine them.
And then of course there was the lifting of the [pontifical] secret.
Colleen Dulle: This is a kind of level of classification, right? A confidentiality level.
Gerard O’Connell: Absolutely. It was a high level of confidentiality, and there were penalties for breaking it.
Colleen Dulle: And Pope Francis did away with that, what, at the end of last year?
Gerard O’Connell: The end of last year. And this was a major step and there was a lot of internal resistance in the Vatican and also among some of the bishops to him doing this. But he has been breaking ground.
Since McCarrick’s fall from grace in 2018, we've seen Francis take a lot of steps towards preventing this kind of thing from happening again.
Colleen Dulle: So let me ask you, we've got the U.S. bishops meeting next week, and some have speculated that this report was intentionally released shortly before that meeting. I'm curious how we'll see follow up from this document. You know, do you expect there to be any kind of punishments for folks who are named in it? Do you expect there to be any kind of new norms created from this report? I'm really curious about that.
Gerard O’Connell: Punishment, I don't expect this. For a start, some of the people involved are dead and some who took decisions are dead.
Colleen Dulle: But not all, right?
Gerard O’Connell: Not all. But what the church is anxious, at this stage, is to prevent this happening in the future. I mean, the church isn't a lynch mob.
Colleen Dulle: But are you saying that you don't think that anyone is going to be held accountable for what's named in this report?
Gerard O’Connell: That was not the point of the report, to find the guilty ones. It was to identify what knowledge was possessed in the Vatican when the decisions were taken. I think what is important is that the culture is changed, that the clericalism is changed, and this is a big battle.
I think the fact that the Vatican has put out publicly, that the pope has authorized—in fact, instructed them to publish this thing is, is very significant. And it makes clear also that nobody is, as I've said in the past, a protected species in the church. No matter what your rank is, whether you’re priest, bishop, head of a religious order, cardinal, anywhere. There is nobody above the law, and everybody must respect and build a culture which protects children.
Colleen Dulle: Gerry, I know it's a crazy day in the Vatican right now, and I really appreciate you taking some time to talk to me about what's going on with this report.
Gerard O’Connell: Thank you, Colleen. These are very important moments in the life of the history of the church and especially for the Catholic community in the United States. I think it’s very important that they see that the pope has listened to them and has sought to answer the questions that so disturbed them in these past two years.
Colleen Dulle: And I doubt that we've heard the last of this. So, we will keep our listeners up to date here on Inside the Vatican. All right, Jerry, I will talk to you next week.
Gerard O’Connell: Thank you.
Colleen Dulle: America Media has more coverage of the McCarrick report including articles and videos available now at americamagazine.org. I’ll link to those in the show notes.
One last note: It takes a lot of work and resources from our whole team at America to put together a deep dive like this. If you want more deep dives, please consider supporting our work by making a donation at americamag.org/donate. That’s americamag.org/donate.
Inside the Vatican is a production of America Media.
This episode was produced by Maggi Van Dorn.
Production assistance from the Jesuit Curia in Rome and from Kevin Christopher Robles.
Inside the Vatican is mixed by Noah Levinson.
For America Media with Gerard O’Connell, and I’m your host and producer Colleen Dulle. We’ll see you next time.