The downfall of Cardinal Theodore McCarrick

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Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick, retired archbishop of Washington, is seen during the opening Mass of the National Prayer Vigil for Life at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington on Jan. 18. CNS

In another blow to the U.S. Church, Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick was suspended June 20 from active ministry by the Holy See following a substantiated and credible allegation of sexual abuse of a minor. The retired archbishop of Washington, who previously served in dioceses in New York and New Jersey, becomes the highest ranking American bishop to be so charged.

In a statement, Cardinal McCarrick said, “I have absolutely no recollection of this reported abuse, and believe in my innocence.” His fate is uncertain at this time, and a final verdict from Rome is pending. If the case goes to canonical trial and the cardinal is found guilty, penalties can include loss of rights and privileges of a cardinal, assignment to a life of prayer and penance or even laicization.

Specifics of the claim

The abuse claim dates back nearly 50 years to two separate episodes in the early 1970s when Cardinal McCarrick was a priest of the Archdiocese of New York. An attorney for the victim said that his client was a high school seminarian at the time the abuse occurred, while then-Msgr. McCarrick was serving as private secretary to New York’s archbishop, Cardinal Terence Cooke.

The abuse claim was received by the Archdiocese of New York a few months ago as part of their Independent Reconciliation and Compensation Program, through which victims of clerical sexual abuse are invited by the archdiocese to come forward with their claims as a means to bring healing and reconciliation with the Church. And although the Holy See reserves the right to investigate claims made against a cardinal, Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York was delegated by the Holy See to oversee this initial investigation.

The claim of abuse of a minor on the part of Cardinal McCarrick came as a shock and surprise to many. But alongside that announcement, two of Cardinal McCarrick’s successors in New Jersey announced there had been previously undisclosed claims of sexual misconduct with adults by Cardinal McCarrick. Two of these allegations resulted in settlements, according to Cardinal Joseph W. Tobin of Newark and Bishop James F. Checchio of Metuchen. On June 22, Cardinal Tobin announced he released those victims from their confidentiality agreements so that they may be free to speak, and he encouraged them to do so.

The recently disclosed allegations of sexual misconduct with adults accompany rumors and claims that, as reported by many, have circulated for years about Cardinal McCarrick regarding sexual harassment and sexual behavior with priests and seminarians in particular.

Questions remain

There remain many unanswered questions. Why are these claims only being made public now? Who knew about these claims against Cardinal McCarrick and remained silent? Was money part of the settlements? If so, from where did it come? And how was it possible that Cardinal McCarrick continued to serve in public ministry and advance to more prestigious and influential positions in the Church despite reports of sexual misconduct?

‘Saddened and Shocked’
The following is a portion of the statement of Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan of the Archdiocese of New York, where the abuse is said to have taken place:

While over a decade and a half ago the sexual abuse crisis erupted as a failure to deal with the systemic problem of predators among priests, the McCarrick story potentially opens up a new, uncomfortable chapter of systemic abuse of power and cover-ups among scandals within the hierarchy.

Other accused cardinals

Cardinal McCarrick becomes the fourth cardinal to be implicated in a sex scandal in recent memory. In 1998, Pope John Paul II requested that Austria’s Cardinal Hans H. Groer leave office after three years of being dogged by allegations of sexual abuse of minors. In 2013, it came to light that Scotland’s Cardinal Keith O’Brien was a sexual predator to priests and seminarians under his authority. He was forced to resign from office as archbishop of Saint Andrews and Edinburgh and renounced all rights and privileges as a member of the College of Cardinals.

And since last year, after several vindications in spite of previous allegations, Australia’s Cardinal George Pell has been fighting off allegations of sexual abuse of minors. Cardinal Pell is on a leave of absence from his service as the Holy See’s Secretary for the Economy.

Michael R. Heinlein, editor of The Catholic Answer online, writes from Indiana.

Michael R. Heinlein

Michael R. Heinlein is editor of OSV's Simply Catholic and author of "Glorifying Christ: The Life of Cardinal Francis E. George, O.M.I."