Cardinal McCarrick: What Did the Vatican Know and When?

Without the dates of the three allegations and two settlements in New Jersey, it will be difficult, if not impossible, to know if the Vatican knew about the allegations in time to stop the appointment.

(photo: U.S. Navy photo by Photographer's Mate 1st Class Michael W. Pendergrass. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, the retired archbishop of Washington, D.C., was suspended from public ministry on Wednesday, after an allegation that he had sexually abused a minor was found to be credible. 

According to a statement released by the Archdiocese of New York, McCarrick was accused of abusing a teenage altar boy almost 50 years ago, while serving as a priest in the Archdiocese of New York. The Vatican had directed Cardinal Timothy Dolan to investigate the claim and it was found to be “credible and substantiated.”

But that was not the only disturbing news to be disclosed about McCarrick’s record. 

In a statement issued by Cardinal Joseph Tobin of Newark, the public learned that McCarrick had faced three accusations of sexual misconduct involving adults.

“In the past, there have been allegations that he engaged in sexual behavior with adults,” read Cardinal Tobin’s statement, which referenced McCarrick’s previous posts as archbishop of Newark (1986–2000) and bishop of Metuchen (1981–1986).

“This Archdiocese and the Diocese of Metuchen received three allegations of sexual misconduct with adults decades ago; two of these allegations resulted in settlements.”

The shocking statement raised additional questions about whether the Vatican learned of the three allegations of sexual misconduct before or after McCarrick was named archbishop of Washington, D.C., in 2001, serving until 2006.

The Register contacted the Archdiocese of Newark and was told that neither the settlement dates, nor details about identity of the victims—whether they might have been seminarians or young priests—would be provided.

“We don't release that kind of information because of confidentiality issues,” Jim Goodness, the spokesman or the Archdiocese of Newark, told the Register.

Without the dates of the three allegations and two settlements, it will be difficult, if not impossible, to know if the Vatican knew about the allegations in time to stop the appointment. 

However, the record shows that McCarrick was born July 7, 1930, and that his resignation was accepted by Pope Benedict XVI on May 16, 2006, after he turned 75.

Given that McCarrick remained very active on the national and global stage for another 12 years, some Vatican watchers will likely conclude that Pope Benedict handled concerns about McCarrick’s record in a manner that did not draw much scrutiny. 

It is also possible that the Holy See learned about claims regarding McCarrick’s sexual misconduct with adults from another, unexpected source.

Author Rod Dreher, in a June 20 post on his blog, The American Conservative, reported that a self-appointed delegation of prominent Catholic laymen, and a priest, traveled to Rome almost 20 years ago, hoping to block McCarrick’s appointment to Washington, D.C., because of concerns about his sexual misconduct with seminarians and young priests. 

“Back then, I received a tip from a priest who had gone on his own dime to Rome, along with a group of prominent US Catholic laymen, to meet with an official for the Roman Curial congregation that names bishops,” said Dreher.

“This group traveled to Rome to warn the Vatican that McCarrick was a sexual harasser of seminarians. The story this priest shared with me was that McCarrick had a habit of compelling seminarians to share his bed for cuddling. 

“These allegations did not involve sexual molestation, but were clearly about unwanted sexual harassment.” 

Dreher began to investigate McCarrick’s record in earnest. He found priests who confirmed that McCarrick had harassed them, but no one would go on the record, and Dreher finally dropped the story.

“I hope and pray to God that Theodore McCarrick is about to have his #MeToo moment,” he said.

More information and even additional allegations could be forthcoming. 

But the news about McCarrick could also prompt an evaluation of the Vatican’s handling of clergy sexual misconduct involving adults, especially when that involves a bishop and a priest or seminarian under his authority. 

“If a priest was accused of having sex with seminarians who are adults, it is not defined as a canonical crime, but it would be taken more seriously. The same would go for a bishop,” said JD Flynn, a canon lawyer who also leads the Catholic News Agency, the Register’s sister news wire service.