NEW YORK — The news that Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, 87, the retired archbishop of Washington, faces “credible and substantiated” allegations of sexual abuse of a minor for incidents dating back almost a half-century has reverberated throughout the Catholic Church.

And in light of the related disclosures that Cardinal McCarrick had engaged in questionable behavior with adult males during the period he served as bishop of two New Jersey dioceses, resulting in a pair of legal settlements, and that some media outlets had received disturbing information about his actions more than 15 years ago but declined to publish any articles, a pair of hard questions now are being asked: Why did the public silence about the cardinal’s behavior persist for so long? And why did he continue to move upward, into the highest ranks of the Church’s hierarchy?

Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York confirmed in a June 20 statement that he had received a report “alleging abuse from over 45 years ago by the now-retired archbishop of Washington, Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, who, at the time of the reported offense, was a priest here in the Archdiocese of New York.”

Cardinal Dolan’s statement also communicated that Cardinal McCarrick has “maintained his innocence,” but he has accepted the Vatican’s judgment to suspend his public ministry until a final decision is made, following a canonical process. (See related story.)

In a separate statement, the Archdiocese of Washington said that while it was “saddened and shocked” by the allegation, it would await “the final outcome of the canonical process and in the meantime asks for prayers for all involved.”

According to statements issued at the same time by Cardinal Joseph Tobin of Newark and Bishop James Checchio of Metuchen, Cardinal McCarrick also previously faced three allegations of sexual misconduct involving adults that dated back to his years leading the local Church in Metuchen and then Newark. Those allegations resulted in two financial settlements.

The New Jersey disclosures did not specify the dates of the allegations, nor whether the misconduct involved seminarians or priests under McCarrick’s authority at the time.

 

The New Allegation

Now, however, there is a new allegation of sexual abuse involving a minor — a matter that, unlike abuse involving adults, must be addressed according to the process specified by the U.S. bishops’ Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People.

The victim who accused Cardinal McCarrick came forward after the Archdiocese of New York recently introduced its Independent Reconciliation and Compensation Program, which provides financial settlements to those with credible accusations of abuse dating back to their childhoods.

According to an account published in The New York Times, the victim was a student at Cathedral Prep Seminary in Manhattan and had been selected to serve as an altar boy for the 1971 Christmas Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral when he first drew the attention of then-Msgr. McCarrick.

The victim claims Msgr. McCarrick inappropriately touched him on one occasion and that he fought off a sexual assault in a second incident during preparations with the senior cleric at the time of the 1972 Christmas Mass.

At that time, Msgr. McCarrick served as the secretary for Cardinal Terence Cooke of New York.

In 1977, he was named an auxiliary bishop of New York. He subsequently was appointed bishop of Metuchen in 1981 and then as archbishop of Newark in 1986.

In November 2000, Pope John Paul II appointed him archbishop of Washington, D.C., and raised him to the rank of cardinal shortly afterward. He remained in that post until 2006, when the resignation that was required because he had reached the mandatory retirement age of 75 was formally submitted to Pope Benedict XVI and accepted.

 

Media Criticism

The June announcements regarding Cardinal McCarrick sparked sharp and immediate criticism from news outlets, as commentators asserted that his sexual misbehavior with seminarians and young priests was well-known to local journalists and Church insiders well before his appointment to Washington, D.C.

“The most important reason why the secret remained secret so long [is that] people who knew the truth, and could provide solid evidence, declined to do so,” Philip Lawler, the author of The Faithful Departed: The Collapse of Boston’s Catholic Culture, said to the Register of past concerns about Cardinal McCarrick’s behavior.

Rod Dreher, the author of The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation, said he first learned about Cardinal McCarrick’s alleged misconduct around 2002.

“I received a tip from a priest who had gone on his own dime to Rome, along with a group of prominent U.S. Catholic laymen, to meet with an official for the Roman Curial congregation that names bishops,” Dreher recalled in a June 20 blog post on “The American Conservative” website.

Dreher wrote that rumors were circulating at the time of that trip that Archbishop McCarrick soon would become the next archbishop of Washington, and concerned U.S. Catholics sought to warn the Holy See about his reported propensity for compelling seminarians to share his bed for cuddling.

“These allegations did not involve sexual molestation, but were clearly about unwanted sexual harassment,” said Dreher, who dropped the story after his sources refused to go on the record.

Dreher, along with other commentators, cited reports about Cardinal McCarrick’s behavior that have been posted for years on the website of Richard Sipe, a psychologist and sociologist with expertise on clergy-abuse issues.

In 2010, Sipe, who is a former priest, provided a graphic account of Cardinal McCarrick’s alleged misconduct culled from documents apparently related to a 2006 financial settlement that involved a New Jersey priest. Sipe did not respond to a request for comment form the Register.

 

Vatican Knowledge?

Over many decades, Cardinal McCarrick earned a reputation as an influential advocate for migrants and refugees, was appointed to numerous papal councils and commissions, and proved to be a prodigious fundraiser.

He established the Papal Foundation, which raises large sums from wealthy Catholics, and formed an organization that has kept inner-city Catholic schools in New York afloat.

With this remarkable legacy in mind, Vatican watchers now speculate that Pope Benedict’s prompt acceptance of Cardinal McCarrick’s resignation, after the Washington archbishop’s 75th birthday, was designed to draw minimal attention.

But without specific details regarding the three allegations linked to Cardinal McCarrick’s time in New Jersey, this remains speculative.

A representative from the Archdiocese of Newark told the Register that “confidentiality issues” made it impossible for officials to release information about the settlement dates or whether the victims were seminarians or priests.

“We have a practice of not discussing details about any settlements or litigation out of respect for the privacy of the individuals who have come forward,” Jim Goodness, a spokesman for the Archdiocese of Newark, told the Register. “However, we would have no objection if those individuals discussed them on their own.”

Yet, the 2010 post on Sipe’s website suggested that one settlement may have been finalized in 2006, after Cardinal McCarrick’s resignation as archbishop of Washington was accepted. And June 26, Rocco Palmo, who monitors Vatican affairs on his “Whispers in the Loggia” website, reported in a brief online post that two unidentified sources had confirmed that the second settlement was approved in 2005. The dates of all of the alleged sexual misconduct with adults have not been established.

Robert Hoatson, a former Newark priest and an advocate for victims of clergy sex abuse, who co-founded a nonprofit called Road to Recovery that provides assistance, told the Register that Church officials were well aware of Cardinal McCarrick’s pattern of behavior and sought to bring it under control.

During a 1994 meeting with a Newark archdiocesan official, Hoatson asked if Cardinal McCarrick was still “sleeping with the seminarians.”

According to Hoatson, he was told that such behavior had ceased and that the archbishop’s beach house in Sea Girt, New Jersey, where he reportedly invited seminarians to share his bed, had been sold, following reprimands from then-Auxiliary Bishop James McHugh of Newark and the papal nuncio.

Bishop McHugh served as Archbishop McCarrick’s auxiliary in Newark between 1988 and 1989 and died in 2000, after taking the helm of the Diocese of Camden.

If Hoatson’s account is correct, Church officials must have known about Cardinal McCarrick’s actions by 1989, more than a decade before he was named archbishop of Washington.

 

Lack of Clarity

In an attempt to provide a more complete timeline about when information about the cardinal’s problematic behavior might have been circulated, the Register asked the Archdioceses of New York, Newark and Washington, as well as the Diocese of Metuchen, to confirm whether they had received or forwarded communications from other dioceses or the Vatican concerning Cardinal McCarrick’s misconduct in the years after he arrived in New Jersey.

Joseph Zwilling, the spokesman for the New York Archdiocese, confirmed that it had not been asked to address any concerns about Cardinal McCarrick’s conduct with minors or adults and only contacted the Vatican after it received the recent single allegation of sexual abuse involving a teenager.

Chieko Noguchi, the spokeswoman for the Archdiocese of Washington, said that the archdiocese was “not advised of the allegations in Newark and Metuchen, nor were we aware of, or participate in, the settlements.”

A joint statement from the Archdiocese of Newark and the Diocese of Metuchen emphasized that they had only recently learned of the allegation against Cardinal McCarrick that involved a minor, but it did not answer the query about whether they had handled allegations involving adults.

The muted reaction provides a striking contrast to Church leaders’ more open response to allegations involving the abuse of minors.

Article 7 of the Charter for the Protection of Young People requires transparency in the handling of claims that involve children. But the charter does not apply to sexual misconduct with adults, though dioceses have established administrative procedures for such matters.

The Archdiocese of New York “has a code of conduct for clergy and a policy on sexual misconduct,” said Zwilling.

This formal framework covers “conduct with both minors and adults and includes prohibitions against all forms of harassment and exploitation.”

“Each case would be evaluated on its own merits and judged on the frequency and severity of the actions and other circumstances,” he said.

In the Archdiocese of Washington, Noguchi said, “All priests and seminarians in the Archdiocese of Washington go through Virtus training and background checks, and, in addition, there is a ‘Code of Conduct’ for all clergy, employees and volunteers.”

Guidelines for responding to allegations that involve minors reflect the fact that the abuse is defined as a crime by both Church and civil authorities.

 

Canon Law

The Church views sexual misconduct by a cleric with an adult as a sin and a canonical crime, but it is not generally given the same weight in administrative policies or in the Code of Canon Law — unless coercion or force is involved.

“The sexual abuse of an adult by a cleric is abhorrent and should never be tolerated, even more so if perpetrated by a superior abusing his ecclesiastical power or position,” Ben Nguyen, canonical counsel and theological adviser to the Diocese of Corpus Christi, Texas, told the Register.

Nguyen outlined the established procedures for addressing claims involving sexual misconduct with adults. If the accused is a priest or deacon, the ordinary handles the case (Canon 1717). If the allegation involves a bishop, then Rome handles it and could appoint a local bishop or send its own personnel.

When a superior is found to have abused his position or ecclesiastical power, said Nguyen, “According to Canons 1389.1 and 1395.2, the cleric ‘is to be punished with just penalties, not excluding dismissal from the clerical state, if the case so warrants.’”

Church authorities have yet to explain how the three allegations against Cardinal McCarrick that involved adults were handled or the findings of investigations in each case.

But this scandal has opened up an important and timely debate about transparency and accountability in the Church’s response to sexual misconduct that involves senior prelates and adult subordinates.

Those who hope for an explanation of what went wrong — why his behavior was not addressed by local dioceses nor flagged by the Vatican’s vetting process for episcopal candidates — want answers.

“How could someone with that on his record ever have become a cardinal?” Russell Shaw, the author of Nothing to Hide: Secrecy, Communication and Communion in the Catholic Churchasked at the outset of a post for “The Catholic Thing” website.

While Cardinal McCarrick did serve the Church well in some respects, “he also did things that ought to have disqualified him for high ecclesiastical office,” said Shaw, who once served as a spokesman for the U.S. bishops’ conference. “We need to pray for him — and the whole Church — now.”

Joan Frawley Desmond is a Register senior editor.