WASHINGTON — Among the claims made in Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò’s bombshell letter released last week is the contention that then-Pope Benedict XVI ordered Cardinal Theodore McCarrick to quietly withdraw from active ministry in 2011 and that the penalty was lifted by Pope Francis in 2013.
While Pope Francis has yet to respond to this specific allegation, Archbishop Viganò’s statement has prompted a review of Cardinal McCarrick’s activities during the past five years since Pope Francis’ election in 2013.
The former cardinal retired from active ministry June 20, following confirmation from the Archdiocese of New York of a “credible and substantiated” allegation of sexual abuse involving a minor.
But until that time, he moved freely across the national and global stage, from high-profile visits to China and Cuba to Masses concelebrated with cardinals and bishops and board meetings for the Papal Foundation and Catholic Relief Services.
Though some Catholic commentators have argued that the disgraced cardinal was no more active during Pope Francis’ papacy than during the tenure of his German predecessor, some news outlets registered a notable uptick in McCarrick’s profile post-2013.
“McCarrick is one of a number of senior Churchmen who were more or less put out to pasture during the eight-year pontificate of Pope Benedict XVI,” wrote David Gibson for a 2014 Religion News Service story, which made a point echoed by a recent Washington Post story. “But now Francis is pope,” Gibson’s article continued, “and prelates like Cardinal Walter Kasper … and McCarrick himself are back in the mix and busier than ever.”
Asked to explain why he was less visible previously, Cardinal McCarrick told Religion News Service that Pope Benedict was “anxious to bring the Church back to where he thought it should be, and I guess I wasn’t one of those who he thought would help him on that. I would have obviously done what he asked.”
In the wake of Pope Francis’ election, McCarrick ramped up his already active travel schedule. He visited typhoon victims in the Philippines and flew to China and Iran “for sensitive talks on religious freedom and nuclear proliferation,” according to the RNS article. He also joined the Pope for a pilgrimage to the Holy Land and was appointed to an interfaith delegation organized by the U.S. State Department that traveled to the Central African Republic.
Back in Washington, D.C., he pressed for immigration reform during a chat with then-Speaker of the House John Boehner. Sandwiched in between these high-level talks were weddings and baptisms, as he stayed in touch with an ever-widening circle of friends and contacts.
“I’m just trying to get people to talk to each other, and hopefully to get people to like each other,” he said in the 2014 interview. “I’m not the smartest guy in the world, by any stretch. I’m not a great theologian. I’m not anything. But I’m not lazy. My great gift is presence.”
At that time, Cardinal McCarrick was a regular visitor to the Obama White House, a member of the president’s “spiritual cabinet,” just as he had once found a role in the Clinton and the George W. Bush administrations.
“Cardinal McCarrick was the face of the Catholic Church for many foreign governments and to our own government,” said Nina Shea, a leading advocate for persecuted Christians who has known the Church leader since 1999, when they were both appointed to the U.S. Commission for International Religious Freedom.
Over the years, their paths continued to cross, as they took part in policy debates at the U.S. State Department and on Capitol Hill.
In 2016, Shea interviewed Cardinal McCarrick for an article published in a Catholic newsletter.
During the interview, he spoke about his recent trips to Iraq, Morocco, China and Iran and was able to speak with detailed knowledge about various challenges facing the Church in these countries.
But Shea and Cardinal McCarrick had also disagreed on sensitive religious-freedom issues, including the best path for strengthening the status of Christians in Iraq and China, and she contended that his voice was often “mute” when robust advocacy was needed.
In a 2016 interview with the China-based Global Times, a pro-government news outlet, Cardinal McCarrick sought to strike a balance between the common concerns that could draw the Vatican and China closer and points of disagreement that needed to be resolved, like the appointment of Chinese bishops by the Pope.
“A lot of things that China worries about, [Pope Francis] worries about, about the care of [the] poor, older people, children, our civilization and especially ecology,” said the cardinal during his interview.
Prominent in Cuba
Cardinal McCarrick also continued to play an active role in the Church’s engagement with Cuba. In 2015, he asked to join a pilgrimage to Cuba organized by Cardinal Sean O’Malley. The Boston pilgrims would be present for Pope Francis’ historic visit to the island-nation, following Obama’s 2014 decision to lift travel and financial restrictions.
“We had a wonderful group of people, including Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, who had learned about the trip and wanted to go with us, as well,” noted Cardinal O’Malley on his official blog. The day after the pilgrims’ arrival, he added, the agenda included a “talk by me and Cardinal McCarrick, speaking a little bit about the history of U.S.-Cuba relations and our experience visiting there over many years.”
Cardinal McCarrick later joined the Cuban bishops and other Church leaders to concelebrate Sunday Mass with Pope Francis in Havana’s Revolution Square. And after the Boston pilgrims returned home, the two U.S. cardinals flew to Washington to be present for Pope Francis’ visit to the nation’s capital.
Closer to home, Archbishop McCarrick also maintained his active support for Catholic Relief Services.
“Archbishop McCarrick was on the CRS board from 2000 to 2014,” William O’Keefe, the vice president for government relations and advocacy at CRS, told the Register. “In 2006, he joined CRS’ Foundation Board, which is a group of strong supporters committed to raising funds for our work. He was a member of this group until 2018, when he was removed.”
Further, Archbishop McCarrick stayed involved with board duties at the Papal Foundation, which has given an estimated $100 million to the Holy See and Catholic organizations in the developing world since 1990.
Earlier this year, the foundation was enmeshed in public controversy over a multimillion-dollar grant it provided to an Italian hospital, at the Pope’s request. The hospital has been accused of financial irregularities, and lay members of the Papal Foundation board, who contribute large sums annually, raised questions about the decision to provide the funds.
Though the archbishop has served on the foundation’s board for almost three decades, he did not take the lead in defending the handling of the grant. He was 88, an age more appropriate for a victory lap than crisis management.
Cardinal Cupich’s Tribute
In fact, he had already received a number of honorary degrees and awards for his services to the Church and the marginalized, like the 2016 “Spirit of Francis” award from Catholic Extension.
Now, however, the decision to honor Cardinal McCarrick has become a sore point for Catholic Extension and Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago, who approved the decision to celebrate the retired archbishop and paid tribute to him at the awards event.
During an Aug. 27 interview with an NBC 5 Chicago reporter, Cardinal Cupich acknowledged that he had endorsed the plan to single out Archbishop McCarrick and said it offered further proof that he had no prior knowledge of the allegations against the honoree.
“I was consulted about that, and I agreed to” the decision to recognize Archbishop McCarrick, said the Chicago cardinal. “I think that’s a good indication that I didn’t have prior knowledge. I surely wouldn’t choose somebody that had that kind of record.”
Catholic Extension has appeared to have scrubbed information about the McCarrick award from its website, a reminder that a wide range of institutions and individuals that once benefited from his remarkable gifts as a Church leader and fundraiser are now distancing themselves from his toxic profile.
Until recently, Archbishop McCarrick had been a leading patron of the Institute of the Incarnate Word (IVE), a small missionary order founded in Argentina. Members of the order reciprocated by allowing him to live in a building near their house of formation, on the grounds of a Chillum, Maryland, parish.
Now the order has been yanked into a harsh spotlight, amid reports that several seminarians were stationed at the archbishop’s residence to provide assistance with his daily needs and his travel schedule.
On Aug. 26, a website critical of the order posted photographs of Archbishop McCarrick with teenage seminarians at IVE’s Blessed José Sanchez Del Rio High School Seminary in Mankato, Minnesota. The images posted on the website include a picture of a student embracing the former cardinal at a public gathering.
Father William Valle, the head of school, acknowledged in an Aug. 29 telephone interview with the Register that Archbishop McCarrick had made a visit, but could not provide a date, as it was before the priest’s tenure.
The images of the cardinal with the students have stirred parental concern, he said, though the website that criticized the order did not suggest that any type of misconduct had occurred.
The Archdiocese of Washington has insisted that Archbishop McCarrick made his own living arrangements and that local Church authorities only intervened after the archbishop suffered several falls and finally was moved to a nursing home run by the Little Sisters of the Poor some time over the past year.
But the retired archbishop was still able to mark his 60th anniversary as a priest, concelebrating Mass with Washington Cardinal Donald Wuerl and delivering an address at a May 2 banquet for fellow jubilarians in the archdiocese.
By then, according to the public record, Archbishop McCarrick had been informed that Church authorities were investigating an allegation of clergy abuse involving a minor that dated back almost 50 years, when he served as a priest in the New York Archdiocese. The victim alleged that he had fought off his pursuer’s advances while they were preparing for Mass on Christmas.
“There are saints in this crowd,” Archbishop McCarrick told his fellow jubilarians at the May 2 banquet. “When we were together for God’s people, I could sense the holiness and devotion here, [your] willingness to serve God’s people and the Pope,” he added in remarks that closed with a standing ovation, but must now stir very different emotions in his audience.
“Never lose that, dear brothers — that desire to be holy men, to be in love with the Lord, in love with your people, in love with the Church.”
Joan Frawley Desmond is a Register senior editor.