These have been a heavy few days for Catholics.
Journalists and commentators are working to review the McCarrick report and decipher who is accountable, who has been lying, and who has manipulated the scandal to their own advantage. I want these answers as well—they need to be given and people need to be held to account. But as I make my way through the 449-page report, and seeing the emerging Catholic social media responses, I am overwhelmed by a need to hear the voices of the survivors—not just the stories of those who wronged them.
One of the most damaging aspects of abuse is the internalized shame that breeds in silence and injustice. Victims of clergy sexual abuse are often forced to suffer in silence. The sexual abuse they’ve experienced is also made deeper by the spiritual abuse that so often accompanies it. Our faith can heal so many of our wounds, but that’s much harder when the wounding is done by representatives of the Church and the hierarchy is apathetic in their response.
Be warned—the accounts shared in the McCarrick Report are traumatic and triggering. Their stories speak for themselves, so I tried not to summarize or provide too much of my own commentary. I hope that we can sit and take some time with their stories, allowing them to enter our hearts and listen to their voices in solidarity, grieving, and prayer.
Priest 1’s story is devastating. After being abused by McCarrick, he alleges that he became a perpetrator himself. It’s unclear the extent that he “responded” to sexual advances by a minor, but it is clear that he was consumed with guilt and remorse. He reported himself to his bishop who then sent him to an in-patient treatment facility. The McCarrick report cites the letter from his psychologist at the facility (pp. 120-122):
On 11 March 1997, Dr. Fitzgibbons delivered a signed letter to the Congregation for Bishops, addressed to Prefect Bernardin Cardinal Gantin. Dr. Fitzgibbons wrote:
This priest, [redacted], was unable to respond in an appropriate manner to aggressive sexual advances from an adolescent male. [Redacted]. The priest was troubled by his inability to deal with this situation, and went to his bishop for help. Thus, he was sent for evaluation at [the hospital], and was subsequently hospitalized for over six months.
At the time of my evaluation of this priest, he had been working as a chaplain in a nursing home, with weekend parish ministry, and was doing well in his outpatient therapy.
It is notable that, prior to this incident, he had no previous sexual difficulties in his priesthood, and did not view himself as a homosexual.
During my six session evaluation, this priest told me that, when he was a seminarian at [redacted name of seminary], Bishop Theodore McCarrick (then bishop of Metuchen) called him and invited him to go on a fishing trip with him, which the patient accepted. At the end of the first day, the young priest was shocked when he walked into the bedroom and found Bishop McCarrick engaging in sexual relations with another priest. The bishop, upon seeing my patient in the bedroom, asked him if he wanted to be next. The priest refused. My patient noted that the bishop and the other priest later administered the Sacrament of Reconciliation to each other.
After this incident, Bishop McCarrick called my patient regularly and wrote to him at his summer assignment. Three to four weeks later this priest accepted an invitation to have dinner with the bishop in New York, expecting that the bishop was going to apologize for his behavior on the fishing trip. The dinner ended very late at night, and the bishop told the priest that he had an apartment in New York, with ample room for both of them. When they entered the apartment, which was in a hospital, he was shocked to discover that there was only one bed in the room. This frightened young seminarian reluctantly got into the bed, after which Bishop McCarrick made numerous sexual advances, which he refused.
My evaluation indicated that this priest was a very gentle, loving and somewhat passive young man, who did not have any major emotional, mental or personality disorders. Based on my clinical findings and the numerous interviews, I believed the patient’s stated history of the inappropriate behavior of Bishop McCarrick.
The patient’s inpatient psychologist at [the hospital], aware of the history with Bishop McCarrick, asked him to discuss this emotional trauma with the other priests in the group therapy sessions. The priest refused. However, another patient who was in [the hospital] at the same time did relate in group therapy the sexual trauma he suffered from Bishop McCarrick. This was corroborated by another patient of mine, who was also at [the hospital] at the same time as the two victimized priests.
The patient’s current outpatient psychologist is also aware of this history, and believes it to be true.
Since this was the most troubling history I have heard in over 20 years of practice as a psychiatrist, I felt it necessary to consult with Monsignor James Cassidy, PhD.D., a respected priest psychologist and healthcare administrator in the Archdiocese of New York.
The next listed victim, Priest 2, describes experiences with McCarrick as “inappropriate” and “problematic.” He also notes the power advantage McCarrick carried that pressured him to not resist (p. 225):
I . . . was subjected to inappropriate conduct on the part of Cardinal McCarrick both while McCarrick was the Bishop of Metuchen (and my supervising bishop) and when McCarrick became Archbishop of Newark. I was one of a very small group of seminarians that Cardinal McCarrick periodically took on overnight/weekend trips to the diocese’s shore residence in Seagirt, NJ. The trips, themselves, were problematic. The sleeping arrangements and conduct at bedtime were extremely inappropriate. In that regard, Cardinal McCarrick would chose (sic) a seminarian, often me, with whom he would share a double bed. Once in bed, the Cardinal would ask for a backrub or offer to give me a backrub. Given my circumstance as a seminarian under Cardinal McCarrick, I never felt able to resist his requests, and so I often complied.
The story of Priest 3 is similar, but with an additional layer of manipulation and exploitation by McCarrick, who used his immigration status to manipulate and maintain control over him. The report describes his account (pp. 84-85):
Priest 3 recalled that two other priests, whose names he has not been able to remember, were also guests at the beach house on the overnight trip. Priest 3 stated that at bedtime, and in front of the other guests, McCarrick took Priest 3 upstairs to his bedroom, where he closed and locked the door. After questioning Priest 3 about how he liked living in the United States and the ways it was different from Brazil, McCarrick asked Priest 3 to give him a back massage on the bed. Priest 3 did so, although he felt it was “very strange” to be in a locked bedroom with the Archbishop. At McCarrick’s urging, and despite Priest 3’s reluctance, the massage led to explicit sexual activity.
After the beach house trip, Archbishop McCarrick continued to show interest in Priest 3. On one occasion, also in 1991, McCarrick sent a limousine to pick up Priest 3 from his parish and take him to the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York City. After a meeting in the hotel, McCarrick invited Priest 3 to his hotel room, where sexual activity again took place. A third and final sexual incident occurred that same year, also at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel.
Priest 3 stated that he “knew these things were wrong and tried to object,” but that McCarrick “tried to convince me that priests engaging in sexual activity with each other was normal and accepted in the United States, and particularly in that diocese.” In light of the fact that McCarrick was his superior, Priest 3 felt “conflicted, confused and afraid.” Priest 3 also stated that he felt that he was in a vulnerable position given his immigration status at the time.
After these incidents, McCarrick continued to contact and extend invitations to Priest 3, which made Priest 3’s “life as a priest very difficult.”
After seeking counsel, Priest 3 found the courage to tell Bishop Hughes what was happening. His courage and shame here are both heartbreakingly palpable. The report says (p. 86-87):
Priest 3 said that his intent before his meeting with Hughes was “to try to protect other people. That is what I had in my mind. To alert somebody.”
At one point during their meeting, which lasted “maybe twenty minutes to a half hour,” with Bishop Hughes sitting “behind his desk,” Priest 3 recalled saying, “‘Bishop Hughes, I want to tell you something that is private.’” Although he felt “ashamed” and “humiliated,” Priest 3 then told Bishop Hughes “what [had] happened. I opened my heart to him.” Priest 3 made it “very clear” to Hughes, using explicit language to describe how McCarrick had engaged in sexual conduct with him on more than one occasion and at more than one place. Although Priest 3 could not remember the exact words he used to describe the sexual activity, he stated that he expressed that “[McCarrick] touched me.” He also recalled, “I used the word ‘masturbation’ to explain what had happened.” In an interview, Priest 3 said, “Specifically, I told him about the details. I did not feel comfortable. I felt very afraid. I was trying to follow Father Smith’s direction in talking to him. But it was very hard.”
Priest 3 stated that Bishop Hughes remained impassive during his account of the incidents with McCarrick. “The behavior of Hughes was to not be emotional. He was seeming very distant. Very cold. But he listened.” Priest 3 added that Hughes “was not acting like it was something that surprised him. He acted like it was something normal or something he heard about before.” After Priest 3 finished describing the incidents, Bishop Hughes advised Priest 3 to forget about McCarrick’s misconduct and to forgive McCarrick “for the good of the Church.” Hughes did not offer any further comment on what Priest 3 had reported.
Priest 4 was a seminarian who “had heard that McCarrick was a wonderful bishop who loved the Church” and noted that McCarrick also “had the reputation of being genuinely and charismatically interested in seminarians.” In short, he trusted McCarrick. The report describes McCarrick’s abuse of Priest 4, which began with McCarrick’s noticing a rash on Priest 4’s collar bone (pp. 68-69):
Facing Priest 4 and saying that he wanted to examine the rash, McCarrick put his hand on Priest 4’s shirt and then touched his chest, remarking, “You have a strong hairy manly chest.” Priest 4 explained what happened next:
He unexpectedly pulled [the shirt] over my shoulder. It was a collared pull over. He pulled it off my shoulder from the top down, to look at the rash. And then put his hand there, touched my chest, and fingered the gold chain and medallion I always wore that I had received at communion. Then his hand moved to my shoulder and back across the front of my chest in the middle. . . . And he rubbed his fingers through the hair on my chest…
More than once following the outings, McCarrick visited Priest 4 in his room, where he sat on Priest 4’s bed and, without asking, began lightly touching Priest 4’s shoulders and back. McCarrick accompanied these gestures with words like, “‘Someday I will lay hands on you when I ordain you.’”
At this point, I had to take a break from reading. Spiritual abuse is just so deeply wounding. The cross that this man must have cherished from his first communion was weaponized; the beauty of his ordination was degraded. Our faith penetrates the deepest parts of ourselves, and the wounds against this are immeasurably damaging and unjust.
The report describes McCarrick’s continued grooming of Priest 4, and how Priest 4 feels pressured to attend an overnight visit, lest he be “frowned upon by the Bishop.” The report describes the resulting encounter (pp. 71-72):
In Bishop McCarrick’s bedroom, “with the door closed,” Priest 4 began to change for bed. Priest 4 felt “upset” because “I was placed in the position of having to change into sleeping clothes in front of my bishop.” When McCarrick noticed that Priest 4 was wearing pajamas over his underwear, he was displeased, stating “‘What are you wearing those for? It’s warm.’” McCarrick himself changed quickly in the bathroom and emerged wearing only “tighty-whitey” underwear and a sleeveless undershirt.
Initially, Bishop McCarrick asked Priest 4 to sit with him on the bed and began talking about how he had “‘so many troubles’” and “‘a diocese to run,’” and complained about the fact that his back hurt. McCarrick asked Priest 4 to rub his back, which Priest 4 did “[b]ecause it was very difficult to say ‘No’ in that situation.” Soon McCarrick lay down on the bed and asked Priest 4 to continue rubbing his back. McCarrick then offered to give Priest4 a backrub; although Priest 4 “did not want a backrub from him,” he “found it was very difficult to say no” and felt compelled to acquiesce.
After the exchanged backrubs, the lights went out for sleep. Though on guard, Priest 4 hoped that the touching had ceased and, wishing to avoid any further physical contact, he lay on his side near the edge of the bed turned away from McCarrick. Sometime later, but while Priest 4 was still awake, McCarrick began to rub Priest 4’s back again and, as he drew closer, reached around and rubbed Priest 4’s chest from behind. Then, rubbing his back again, McCarrick worked his way down to Priest 4’s buttocks. Priest 4 felt “frozen and trapped.” As McCarrick “wrapped his body around me,” Priest 4 described himself as being “ensnared” and could feel that McCarrick was sexually aroused. This “shocked” Priest 4 out of his frozen state, and he realized that he “had to escape.” Priest 4 recalled what happened next:
I told him point blank, “I don’t like this.” I didn’t like it. “I don’t like this.” And he said, “Oh, I’m not doing anything;” “Uncle Teddy is under pressure;” “I don’t mean anything;” “Oh, it’s just a rub down, it’s ok.” I said, “You know what? I just can’t sleep here.” And when I objected like that and let him know it would not be OK to continue like that, he got pissed. He got mad. At first, he was trying to convince me to stay and trying to convey that he was doing nothing wrong. He was trying to be reassuring: “It’s OK, it’s between us.” But then he got angry. He got so angry when I left, and when I went downstairs [to sleep on a recliner], he was so pissed off at me. So much so that he did not even address me the next morning.
In a footnote (353), Priest 4 describes the lasting damage caused by the abuse:
Priest 4 stated that the long-term corrosive effect of his experiences had less to do with the physical violations, and much more to do with the way it profoundly undermined his trust in bishops and the power structure in the Church.
The report also describes Priest 5 (pp 74-76), who had suffered sexual abuse from another predator. The McCarrick report describes his experience as a friend to Priest 4. He witnessed the struggles and frustrations that Priest 4 experienced and the Church’s betrayal of his friend by silence and inaction. We cannot forget that the victims of abuse include friends and family who share in the experience of pain and suffering of their loved ones. The effects of abuse ripple and damage the entire Body of Christ.
The experiences of Mother 1, who attempted to report McCarrick, illustrate this point. As a mother myself, I relate to the heartache, worry, and courageous determination of this woman.
McCarrick—exhibiting a quality that applies to all the most effective groomers—befriended Mother 1’s family, noting that she had many sons. Eventually, his behavior alarmed her as she witnessed incidents such as McCarrick putting his hands on her sons’ inner thighs and giving inappropriate massages. After her husband rebuked her concerns, she wrote to the nuncio and several cardinals herself. “I wrote those letters feeling pure anger. I was enraged. That is exactly what I felt” (p. 44).
She describes walking to the mailbox, “When I went there, my heart was beating so hard that I thought it was going to jump out of my chest for someone recognizing me there in Metuchen or if Ted [McCarrick] came out and saw me. My heart was in my throat as I walked to that mailbox. But I got it done” (p. 45). Her letters were never answered, and she describes this as “something I have never stopped thinking about” (p. 47).
The report describes many more unnamed victims as “powerless to report McCarrick’s misconduct because they feared that they would be disbelieved by their parents or by ecclesiastical superiors, or because they were convinced that they would be retaliated against if they came forward…keeping their stories secret for decades had been a terrible burden that exacted a heavy emotional toll” (p. 440). Their stories have common themes: intense grooming, McCarrick becoming a part of their families and relationships, gas-lighting, isolating, fears of retribution, and bullying.
We’ve known for some time that McCarrick’s abuse was prolific. But each of his victims is a person with a unique story. Let us take the time to reflect on each of their stories. Each one of these people is unique and loved by God. Let’s listen to them and reflect on their human dignity and pray for their healing. Their voices were silent for far too long, now let us listen and pray together as one Body, however wounded.
Image: Adobe Stock
Melinda Ribnek is a lifelong Catholic, originally from Savannah, Georgia. She currently lives on California's Central Coast with her husband Brian and their seven children. In her spare time, she volunteers for the Church and in her community.