Joan Frawley Desmond, is the Register’s senior editor. She is an award-winning journalist widely published in Catholic, ecumenical and secular media. A graduate of the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies of Marriage and Family, she lives with her family in California..
Eighteen years ago, while most of his countrymen prepared for a Thanksgiving feast, Dominican Father Boniface Ramsey swallowed his fears and wrote a letter to Archbishop Gabriel Montalvo, the Vatican’s representative to the United States.
The priest’s letter contained shocking allegations against Archbishop Theodore McCarrick, the U.S. Church leader slated to take the helm of the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C. And today, almost two decades later, and in the wake of a bombshell letter publicly released Saturday by Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, Father Ramsey is back in the news.
Archbishop Viganò singled out the American priest for his dogged efforts to expose McCarrick, from contacting the nuncio in 2000 to alerting Cardinal Sean O’Malley in 2015. Nevertheless, Father Ramsey told the Register that Archbishop Viganò’s account wasn’t quite accurate, and so it was his turn to bring the specific details of that pivotal moment to light. “Archbishop Viganò put it as if I had been requested to write the letter,” Father Ramsey told the Register, during an Aug. 27 phone call from his rectory at St. Joseph Church in Yorkville, New York. “But I wrote the letter on my own.”
His story begins Thanksgiving week in 2000. “I wrote a letter to Archbishop Montalvo on Nov. 22, 2000, and nobody asked me to do it. Afterward, I phoned the nunciature to let Montalvo know the letter was coming. I got him on the phone in just a few seconds.”
Then Father Ramsey called a friend to share his plans. This friend, an “upright priest in the Archdiocese of Newark, who I respect a great deal, warned me against sending the letter,” said the Dominican priest.
“His view was that the nuncio would show the letter to McCarrick, and I would be destroyed.”
At that time, plans were already afoot for Father Ramsey to be transferred to Washington, D.C.
The day after Thanksgiving, Father Ramsey called the nuncio again, this time to explain why he would not be sending the letter after all. But Montalvo challenged that decision, and convinced the priest to follow through on his plan. “Montalvo told me, ‘Send the letter, what do you think we are, fools?’ I know they got the letter, but I never got an acknowledgement.”
At the time, the priest did not make a copy of his letter, fearful that it might get into the wrong hands.
“I considered this so delicate, secret — sacred, almost — that I didn’t think it would be appropriate to keep a copy. Suppose someone else would see it? I feel differently now.”
Turning to the broad scope and often angry tone of Archbishop Viganò’s bombshell letter, Father Ramsey described the language as “overly emphatic.”
“You don’t attack the pope publicly like this,” he said. “You don’t make gratuitous insults … if you are providing serious testimony.”
But even as Father Ramsey sharply criticized elements of Archbishop Viganò’s testimony, he did not suggest the charges should be dismissed out of hand.
“That doesn’t mean what he is saying isn’t true,” the priest said.
Despite his long campaign against McCarrick, Father Ramsey also appeared uncomfortable with Archbishop Viganò’s strongly stated indictment of homosexual networks that sought to advance the careers and agendas of specific prelates. Thus, he stressed that a push for additional reforms to address unresolved sexual misconduct and abuse at seminaries shouldn’t turn into a “witch hunt” against homosexuals in the priesthood.
“I was talking to a priest from Newark this morning, and voiced my opinion that I am opposed of going after gay people,” Father Ramsey said. “He agreed, and said a large percentage of the Archdiocese of Newark would be out if they ‘outed’ gay people.” Meanwhile, three seminaries are being investigated, including Immaculate Conception Seminary, where Father Ramsey served for a decade as a professor.
He had little information, and no details about what had prompted the investigation. But the news caused him to reflect on his own experience as part of the faculty of the Immaculate Conception at Seton Hall University in New Jersey during Archbishop McCarrick’s tenure.
“I taught at the seminary from 1986 to 1996, and would say the term ‘gay subculture,’ is a strong term, though there were certainly gay seminarians there,” he said.
“I always understood that you could be gay … and be a good priest or seminarian. Possibly, a few people were ‘hardened,’ you might say, but very few.”
But even as Father Ramsey sought to distance himself from a sweeping ban on seminarians with established homosexual inclinations, he made clear that he had remained vigilant during his years as a New Jersey seminary professor.
“I did see something that was egregious, irredeemable. It seemed to involve sexual abuse, homosexual abuse, and I was largely behind expelling that person,” he recalled.
At the time, Father Ramsey was on “the voting faculty,” so he could formally register his opposition to a particular candidate for the priesthood. “I voted against [the seminarian]. McCarrick fired me from the voting faculty, because the person I [helped to expel] was one of ‘his’ [seminarians]. McCarrick didn’t like that.”
Father Ramsey continued to serve as a member of the seminary faculty and a spiritual adviser, but he no longer had the power to formally register concerns about a candidate.
“I want to make it clear,” he added. “When there were things going on that I thought were really evil and not just faults that people occasionally engage in, I acted.”
There is every reason to believe that Father Ramsey will continue to play an outsized role in the crisis engulfing the Church, as Archbishop Viganò and others single out his courage and fortitude.
But the priest still hasn’t spoken personally with Cardinal O’Malley since the Boston archbishop publicly apologized for failing to act on the priest’s 2015 letter warning of McCarrick’s alleged abuse of seminarians and young priests.
“I never heard from Cardinal O’Malley,” said Father Ramsey, though he did not seem perturbed. “What should he have done?” he asked, revealing no ill will toward Pope Francis’ point man on clergy sexual abuse. The important thing, Father Ramsey seemed to be saying, was that after almost 18 years of advocacy, his efforts had finally paid off. Church authorities were taking action.