What the New Vatican Report Shows About the Church’s Failures in Addressing Sexual Abuse

The report that the Vatican released last week, on allegations against Theodore McCarrick, the former Cardinal Archbishop of Washington, is unlike any other public document the Church has ever produced. Pope Francis ordered McCarrick removed from the ministry in 2018, after a man, in a claim to a victims-compensation program established by the Church, accused McCarrick of committing acts of criminal sexual conduct against him, beginning in 1971, when McCarrick was a priest in New York City and the man was sixteen. Other allegations followed, including one from a man who, in an interview with the Times, accused McCarrick of abusive behavior that started in 1969, when the man was just eleven, and escalated over many years. McCarrick resigned from the College of Cardinals, and, in 2019, he was defrocked.

There were multiple other allegations made in the course of more than three decades, of acts committed against adult men and minors, and the report, which runs to four hundred and forty-nine extensively footnoted pages, makes for deeply disturbing reading. It includes contemporaneous memoranda from bishops detailing the allegations, excerpts from recent interviews with alleged victims and others who knew of the alleged abuses, and a series of seven anonymous and pseudonymous letters sent to and circulated among several archbishops and attorneys for the Church, in 1992 and 1993, that called McCarrick “a consummate sex offender” and warned that charges against him “will shatter the American Church.” The report does not examine McCarrick’s culpability under criminal law or canon law (he was found guilty of “sins against the Sixth Commandment,” in 2019), focussing instead on recording the Church’s “institutional knowledge and decision-making” processes. (McCarrick, who is now ninety, has denied any wrongdoing.)

How did McCarrick rise in the hierarchy, even as accounts of his misconduct circulated in the Church? News reports have seized on evidence implicating Pope John Paul II, now Saint John Paul II. McCarrick, born in 1930 in Manhattan, was ordained in 1958, and became a secretary to Cardinal Terence Cooke. Adept in languages, he interpreted for Cardinal Karol Wojtyla, the Archbishop of Krakow (and for his secretary, Monsignor Stanislaw Dziwisz), on a visit to New York in 1976; two years later, Wojtyla was elected Pope, taking the name John Paul II. McCarrick was named an auxiliary bishop, then Bishop of Metuchen, New Jersey, in 1981, and Archbishop of Newark in 1986. He retained the Pope’s favor, leading fund-raising for a papal foundation, travelling to Eastern Europe to support the Church’s efforts there, and writing John Paul (and Dziwisz) a stream of personal letters about that work. In the nineties, officials aware of the allegations against McCarrick counselled John Paul not to appoint him to a more prominent “see” than Newark. Yet the report mentions that the Pope may have been leery of indirect allegations, which the Communist regime in Poland had used to smear clerics.

Among the officials who knew the most about the various claims regarding McCarrick in those years was one of the most prominent figures in American Catholicism: Cardinal John O’Connor, the Archbishop of New York from 1984 until his death, in 2000. O’Connor, a Navy chaplain and admiral, had a reputation for being a straight-talking leader undaunted by conflict. He travelled to Rome frequently and was the Church’s point man in the United States for teachings on sexual and marital matters: against divorce, premarital sex, abortion, homosexual acts, and condom use. The new report establishes that O’Connor sought, as forcefully as anyone, to alert John Paul to concerns about McCarrick. Yet the documents included in the report make clear why those efforts were unsuccessful. The Archbishop, famously blunt when speaking to reporters, couched his concerns about McCarrick in the opaque and equivocal language of Vatican protocol, and the failure of his approach goes to the root of the Church’s inability to deal effectively with clerical sexual abuse: its refusal to describe the problem in frank, clear terms.

According to the report, in 1986, O’Connor—who was a member of the Congregation for Bishops, which advises the Pope on episcopal appointments—called McCarrick “almost ‘made to order’ ” for the assignment of Archbishop of Newark. Thereafter, the two men served as archbishops on opposite sides of the Hudson, had regular encounters with the Pope, and vied for the attention of wealthy Catholics in New York City, McCarrick’s home territory. (“Archbishop McCarrick is here, so sew up your pockets,” McCarrick recalled O’Connor telling an audience at one event.) In 1992 and 1993, O’Connor was one of the churchmen who received several of the seven letters, most of which were postmarked in Newark, written in capital letters, and composed in language that mingled ad hominem vitriol with clerical argot. O’Connor forwarded copies of the letters to McCarrick on at least two occasions, with personal notes. (“This stuff drives me crazy. I hate to send it to you, but would want you to do the same for me.”)

In the following years (if not before), persistent rumors about McCarrick reached O’Connor: namely, that he used a beach house in Sea Girt, New Jersey, for outings with seminarians, adult men, one of whom he would compel to sleep in his bed, on the ground that there were more men than beds. When a priest talked to O’Connor in a phone call about those rumors, O’Connor said that he would “do something about it in Rome,” though there is no indication that he did. Prior to John Paul’s 1995 visit to the United States, O’Connor did have a “trusted person” look into the rumors, lest they attract adverse publicity, and concluded that there were “no impediments” to the Pope’s visiting McCarrick’s archdiocese, Newark.

Those rumors were then bolstered by specific accusations about McCarrick made by another priest and conveyed to O’Connor by people he knew and trusted. This priest said that, while still a seminarian, he had seen McCarrick engaging in sexual activity with another priest on a fishing trip in New York State, with the two making confession to each other afterward, and that McCarrick had made numerous sexual advances to him after compelling him to share a bed at an apartment in Manhattan—O’Connor’s own archdiocese. O’Connor’s responses to what another archbishop called the “cloud” over McCarrick seemed alternately protective and dismissive. He reportedly phoned McCarrick, mentioned the beach-house accusations, and told him, “You’ve gotta knock this stuff off.” That statement, recounted to a priest by McCarrick himself, suggests that O’Connor may have believed at least some of the rumors. But he stood back from the claims of the priest who said that McCarrick had made sexual advances to him in Manhattan, in part because that priest himself had a history of sexual misconduct. A psychiatrist and then a priest-psychologist who had been asked by O’Connor to assess the matter spent time with the priest and seemed convinced that his claims were true, but O’Connor was not.

In 1997, the Congregation for Bishops considered McCarrick for the role of Archbishop of Chicago. The Congregation counselled against the promotion, noting, cryptically, that “a less reassuring voice has surfaced that now seems to have fallen silent” and referring to the “flammable Chicago environment.” McCarrick did not get the post. But, two years later, O’Connor learned that John Paul was considering promoting McCarrick, possibly as his successor in New York. O’Connor mentioned to the papal nuncio, or ambassador, based in Washington, “some elements of a moral nature that advised against” it. The nuncio asked him to describe those elements in a letter.

O’Connor wrote the letter in October, 1999, weeks after undergoing surgery for terminal brain cancer. The letter is included in the report and is an exquisite piece of clerical indirection and equivocation. Citing “absolutely impeccable authorities,” O’Connor summarizes the allegations about the beach house and that McCarrick had male visitors he called “cousins” come to the Archbishop’s residence in Newark, to have supper and then spend the night—usually “they shared a bed.” He then quotes the authorities as saying, “It is reliably reported that the various events and behavioral activities described above have changed completely, and that no similar events have occurred in recent times.” He suggests that McCarrick may simply have called the men “cousins” because he had “no living relatives” and had grown close to a “well-adjusted family,” and might perhaps have referred to men in this family that way. He says he did not find his discussion with the priest-psychologist or the findings of the psychiatrist regarding the priest’s claims to be “definitely persuasive,” but adds that he could not dismiss them, “because of the gravity of the allegations.” Of the seven letters (he attached four), he says: “If verifiable, obviously, these letters would be severe indictments.” Concluding, he advises against promoting McCarrick, citing the “grave scandal” the rumors would bring if they became public. But he shows no similar concern about the “moral nature” of McCarrick’s actions as such, or for people McCarrick might have harmed and might still have been harming.

According to the report, O’Connor’s letter was sent to Rome, and the summaries of the allegations, as he presented them, were shared with John Paul. The nuncio did consult four bishops who had served in New Jersey (one of whom O’Connor had suggested he contact), and, according to the report, three of the four “provided inaccurate and incomplete information.” Indirection and equivocation are, of course, typical tools of the Church bureaucracy, serving to protect powerful people and shelter the institution from legal action. Yet O’Connor bears some personal responsibility; a prince of the Church, at the end of a storied career, he had nothing to lose and nothing to fear from anyone in the hierarchy. Early in his tenure as Archbishop, he warned Catholic politicians that they risked excommunication by supporting legal abortion (an act “precisely the same” as the Nazis’ murder of Jews), and of the peril of homosexuality generally. In opposing a city gay-rights ordinance, he was quoted as saying that he would “close all my orphanages, rather than employ one gay person.” Later, he denounced some rock music as “a help to the Devil,” and railed against Major League Baseball for scheduling a game on Good Friday. Yet, when it came to assessing the “unfortunate allegations” about McCarrick and presenting them for the Pope, O’Connor equivocated.

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