There are two jaw-dropping revelations in the Vatican report on the apparently irresistible rise of former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick.
The first is that St John Paul II personally made the decision to name McCarrick Archbishop of Washington in November 2000 despite being fully aware of many reports of his predatory sexual behavior as head of two previous dioceses, including sleeping with seminarians and soliciting sex from priests. The decision is even more astonishing given that the pope had already passed over McCarrick for two other important sees because of those same reports.
The second astonishing reveal comes 12 years later, after Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò’s appointment as apostolic nuncio to the United States.
When a priest (described in the report as “Priest 3”) in McCarrick’s former diocese of Metuchen informed the nuncio of his lawsuit he was bringing over McCarrick’s sexual misconduct, Viganò naturally informed Cardinal Marc Ouellet, prefect of the Congregation for Bishops in Rome. Ouellet told him to launch an inquiry into the allegation, following a series of steps.
Yet “Viganò did not take these steps,” the report says, “and therefore never placed himself in the position to ascertain the credibility of Priest 3.”
The difference between the two revelations is that the report offers a convincing explanation of the first: not justifying it, but providing context to understand how it could have happened. The disobedience and negligence of Viganò, on the other hand, are left hanging, crying out for an explanation for which there appears to be none.
Given the former nuncio’s extravagant efforts to paint himself as a lonely righteous crusader vainly seeking to persuade authorities to act against McCarrick, the revelation will come as a major shock to those convinced of his integrity. For others, it will revive suspicions that Viganò’s true motive in attacking Pope Francis over McCarrick was to deflect attention from his own complicity in the cover-up.
The “Report on the Holy See’s Institutional Knowledge and Decision-Making related to former Cardinal Theodore Edgar McCarrick” was compiled by unnamed officials of the Secretariat of State under instructions from Pope Francis from primary sources, including a vast cache of documents and 90 witness interviews on both sides of the Atlantic.
“No limit was placed on the examination of documents, the questioning of individuals, or the expenditure of resources necessary to carry out the investigation,” it says at the start of a 16-page summary released to journalists prior to the publication of the full 400-page report.
The summary does not make excuses, nor attempt to justify failings. But nor does it pass judgment. It lays bare facts, provides context, and suggests explanations. Overall, it is a bracingly candid account of how the disgraced former archbishop rose through the episcopal ranks under John Paul II, and how he was able to continue to act freely under Benedict XVI, even when the stories of his sexual proclivities had been shown to be well-founded.
The report leaves readers to draw their own conclusions about the process of decision-making that failed to stop McCarrick or properly hold him responsible until June 2018, when the Archdiocese of New York announced a “credible and substantiated” allegation that McCarrick had abused a minor. The ensuing investigation unveiled his past as a sexual predator, as victims stepped forward with accounts of harassment and abuse.
The scandal that followed—which the traditionalist Viganò attempted to exploit in his campaign to undermine Pope Francis—led to McCarrick’s removal from the college of cardinals and laicization. It also led to changes that will make it much harder for the same to happen again, including new procedures mandating the investigation of bishops accused of abuse, and laws extending the definition of abuse to include adult victims.
As part of that response, Francis also commissioned this long-awaited report, which is itself a milestone in the Vatican’s road to greater transparency and accountability. There are not many institutions that would choose to expose themselves in this way.
John Paul II and McCarrick
Although it was Pope Paul VI who made McCarrick an auxiliary of New York in 1977, it was John Paul II who named him Bishop of Metuchen in 1981, Archbishop of Newark in 1986, and Archbishop of Washington in 2000, and who elevated him to cardinal the following year. McCarrick was “widely lauded as a pastoral, intelligent,” and zealous bishop, and no “credible” information about any misconduct arose in the process of naming him to Metuchen and Newark, says the summary.
Yet by the 1990s, there were a number of accusations: anonymous letters alleging pedophilia with “nephews” and stories that he had shared a bed with young adult men in his bishop’s residence and with seminarians at a New Jersey beach house. A priest (“Priest 1”) also claimed to have had sexual relations with McCarrick in Metuchen in 1987.
These allegations were summarized by the Archbishop of New York, Cardinal O’Connor, in a letter to the nuncio, who forwarded it to Rome. The letter “led to the conclusion that it would be imprudent to transfer [McCarrick] from Newark to another See”, says the Report, on three occasions: Chicago in 1997, New York in 1999/2000, and (initially) Washington in June 2000.
But then “Pope John Paul II seems to have changed his mind in August/September 2000,” the report laconically notes.
Over two and a half pages of bullet-points, the Report sets out the reasons behind that decision, none of which—in the light of what is known and done now—seems adequate. Yet, taken together, they provide a comprehensible account of Pope John Paul’s extraordinary decision. One was simply the lack of reliable information: no victim made a direct complaint to the Holy See, while the priest making the claim was regarded as unreliable because he was himself an abuser. The lack of clear evidence made it easy for McCarrick and his supporters to claim that the accusations were slander and gossip, while McCarrick himself fervently insisted on his innocence, swearing on his oath as a bishop that he was a virgin.
Why did the Pope believe him? The Report points to John Paul’s experience of the communist government in Poland using spurious allegations to undermine the Church, but ultimately suggests it was because he liked and trusted McCarrick. They knew each other well from many trips and visits. “McCarrick’s direct relationship with John Paul II also likely had an impact on the Pope’s decision-making,” the Report concludes.
What of the money McCarrick was famous for raising, and the gifts of cash he spread around the Vatican? The Report dances on eggshells over this point, acknowledging that “although McCarrick’s fundraising skills were weighed heavily” – that is, they were part of what was admired in him as a bishop – “they were not determinative” with respect to “major decisions made relating to McCarrick, including his appointment to Washington in 2000.” Nor was evidence found that “McCarrick’s customary gift-giving and donations impacted significant decisions made by the Holy See regarding McCarrick during any period.”
Still, you can understand why Pope Francis decided recently to take management of money away from the Secretariat of State.
Benedict XVI and McCarrick
Not long after Benedict’s election in April 2005, McCarrick turned 75, and submitted his resignation offer to the pope, as canon law mandates. Benedict asked him to stay on as Archbishop of Washington for another two years, but abruptly reversed that decision a few months later, asking that McCarrick “spontaneously” stand down after Easter 2006. The reason, according to the report, was “new details related to Priest 1’s allegations” from Metuchen in 1987, which were clearly credible.
As the papal response to the allegations shifted from disbelief to belief, “Holy See officials wrestled” with how to deal with McCarrick.
During this time, Viganò—then an official in the Secretariat of State—wrote two memoranda on the issue. Acknowledging that the allegations were unproven, he urged a canonical process to investigate them, which could lead to an “exemplary measure” against the retired archbishop.
But Benedict XVI decided against a canonical process. Instead, he appealed to McCarrick’s “conscience and ecclesial spirit,” urging him to lie low. There were no sanctions imposed, as Viganò claimed in 2018, merely an indication from the Secretariat of State that McCarrick should “maintain a lower profile and minimize travel.” The Report points out that there had been no “factual finding that McCarrick had actually committed misconduct,” and therefore no basis for sanctions. Nothing, in other words, prevented McCarrick from continuing to act as a priest in good standing.
Why did Benedict not open a canonical process against McCarrick? The Report again lists the factors: there were no credible allegations of abuse of minors (no crimes, in other words, were involved); McCarrick swore on his “oath as a bishop” he was innocent; the allegations of sex with adults related to the 1980s; there had been no new allegations of misconduct; the cardinal was by now retired.
Far from lying low, however, McCarrick continued to travel widely on behalf of a number of organizations. He did so with the acquiescence of the new nuncio, Viganò, following his appointment in 2011. “McCarrick kept Viganò regularly informed of his travels and activities,”the Report calmly observes. The following year, when Priest 3 issued a lawsuit, Viganò was instructed to investigate but failed to act.
Both of these findings—as the Report has no need to point out—are impossible to square with the then-nuncio’s claim that everyone but he was complicit in covering up for McCarrick’s misdeeds.
Francis and McCarrick
The report finds no basis for Viganò’s discredited claim in 2018 that Francis had somehow rehabilitated McCarrick. Between Francis’s election in 2013 and 2017, the McCarrick issue was rarely addressed, finds the Report. McCarrick—by now in his eighties—continued to work and travel as before, but never on behalf of the Holy See, and not as often because of his advanced age.
Francis knew of the allegations and rumors relating to McCarrick’s past, the Report finds, but saw no reason to alter the decisions taken by his predecessors. (Had Viganò bothered to investigate Priest 3’s claims, the Report does not need to add, there could have been a reason for Francis to act against McCarrick.)
In response to Viganò’s claims that he had mentioned McCarrick in meetings with Francis in June and October 2013, “no records support Viganò’s account,” says the Report, “and evidence as to what he said is sharply disputed.”
Then came the allegation of sex abuse by McCarrick of a minor in the 1970s, which triggered the Archdiocese of New York’s investigation. Once the allegation was deemed credible, Francis stripped McCarrick of his red hat. After a canonical trial found him guilty, he was dismissed from the clerical state.
It was the first clear, decisive, punitive action taken by a pope against McCarrick in 40 years.
But the Report’s purpose was never to blame or exonerate. As the Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin comments, the appointment of bishops—like almost any human procedure—depends on the honesty of those concerned. McCarrick was an impressive bishop whose denials were convincing. His victims were not just those he preyed on, but those who believed his denials.
Dr. Austen Ivereigh, a contributor to Where Peter Is, is Fellow in Contemporary Church History at Campion Hall, Oxford, the author of two major biographies of Pope Francis (The Great Reformer, 2014, and Wounded Shepherd, 2019) and his collaborator on the book Let Us Dream: the Path to a Better Future. Follow him on Twitter (@austeni) and his website (austeni.org).