Clearing the Air Regarding St. John Paul II and Theodore McCarrick

COMMMENTARY: If carefully read, the McCarrick Report helps to explain what John Paul did know about the allegations against McCarrick, what he did with that knowledge, and why he may have done it.

What is the impact of the McCarrick Report on the sainted memory of Pope John Paul II?
What is the impact of the McCarrick Report on the sainted memory of Pope John Paul II? (photo: Photo by Josh Applegate by Unsplash)

 A month after the release of the McCarrick Report, some of the dust has settled, and it is possible to better digest the mass of information published. It is possible, then, to turn more soberly to the question of the impact of the McCarrick Report on the sainted memory of Pope John Paul II.

In the days immediately following the report’s release, there were voices who eagerly put the blame on John Paul, claiming that report proved that he was aware of McCarrick’s misconduct and promoted him anyway. Many who were detractors of St. John Paul II in life characterized the report as tainting his memory. 

One report from a customarily hostile publication put it this way: “Vatican’s explosive McCarrick report largely places blame on John Paul II.”

Defenders claimed that John Paul was deceived and thus is not culpable of the mistaken promotion. Papal biographer George Weigel argued that John Paul was deceived, that there was “massive system failure,” and that a report about McCarrick should not be manipulated to become “an assault on John Paul.”

The question of deception does not resolve the matter entirely, however. It still leaves questions about what John Paul did know, what he did with that knowledge, and why he may have done it. The report, beyond the headlines and the summary, helps to explain that, if carefully read.

Just last week, the president of the Polish bishops’ conference, Archbishop Stanisław Gądecki, criticized the “attacks” on John Paul, arguing that the late Holy Father’s record on sexual abuse was pioneering and creditworthy, as he “initiated the process of detecting sexual crimes and punishing clergymen who perpetrate them.”

Archbishop Gądecki cited the apostolic constitution Sacramentorum Sanctitatis Tutela, which was promulgated by John Paul in April 2001. To this day it remains the centerpiece of the Vatican response to sexual-abuse cases, requiring that every credible allegation of sexual abuse of a minor be reported to Rome. It is noteworthy that John Paul took that key initiative some nine months before the Boston scandals broke. 

Nevertheless, effective action in general does not address McCarrick in particular. The report offers the reverse approach, looking only at the McCarrick case in particular and refraining from general conclusions.


Status of the Report

Sober analysis begins with the status and scope of the McCarrick Report itself. 

It was commissioned by Pope Francis and carried out by the Secretariat of State following the August 2018 “testimony” of Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, who accused the Holy Father of rehabilitating McCarrick after Benedict XVI had sanctioned him. It is fair to point out that the report is not an independent examination. It is convenient — perhaps accurate, but nevertheless convenient — that all the senior Roman officials still living are more or less exonerated, Pope Francis first among them. 

It remains a surprising omission that Archbishop Viganò himself was not interviewed, especially as the report takes pains to highlight shortcomings in his handling of the McCarrick file. It presents some testimony at face value without further probing, notably from Cardinal Kevin Farrell and Cardinal Donald Wuerl. The latter’s claims of ignorance in the report are at odds with the report’s own account of his role forwarding allegations about McCarrick to Rome.

The report, thus, has weaknesses. At the same time, the volume of documentation and disclosures of confidential correspondence are both impressive and unprecedented. A month after publication, there are no clear grounds for holding that the information in the McCarrick Report is incorrect, even if it might be incomplete. 


Scope of the Report Regarding John Paul

McCarrick was appointed a diocesan bishop, archbishop and cardinal by John Paul II. The decision on Washington was made by John Paul himself, who first excluded, but then appointed, McCarrick. Archbishop Viganò’s claim that John Paul was too sick and weak to make the real decision regarding Washington is clearly refuted by contemporaneous documents and interviews with his closest collaborators at the time. 

There were no allegations anywhere about McCarrick when he was made an auxiliary bishop of New York under St. Paul VI in 1977, nor were there any allegations of any kind when John Paul appointed him bishop of Metuchen, New Jersey, in 1981, or archbishop of Newark, New Jersey, in 1986.

Hence, the scope of the McCarrick Report on John Paul is quite narrow. The key question the report takes up is the promotion of McCarrick from Newark to Washington in November 2000 and his creation as a cardinal shortly thereafter in February 2001. The apparent reason for the transfer was so that McCarrick could become a cardinal.


What Was Known in the Mid-1990s?

There had been anonymous allegations of sexual misconduct with minors made in 1992 and 1993 that were reported both to the nuncio in Washington and to law enforcement — by McCarrick himself. Canny and clever, he presented himself as the victim of false allegations, a very credible claim because, in 1993, Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago was the victim of false allegations that made global headlines.

Cardinal John O’Connor of New York was one of those who received the anonymous allegations. He forwarded them to McCarrick, as was his practice when anonymous letters arrived. In March 1993, when sending one such allegation, he wrote to McCarrick: 

“This stuff drives me crazy. I hate to send it to you, but would want you to do the same for me. Your letter about the Priests Council and your daily schedule reflects your outstanding wisdom and prudence” (Page 101, all citations here to the McCarrick Report).

In the 1990s there was talk about McCarrick sharing a bed with seminarians at the archdiocesan beach house. It is not accurate to say that there were “rumors” about this. It was out in the open; McCarrick’s secretary made the invitations, dozens upon dozens of seminarians witnessed it, and the seminary administration was aware of it. The non-sexual sleeping arrangements were strange, to be sure, but there were no complaints about them. And there were no allegations of improper sexual contact that reached Rome or the nunciature in Washington. 

The report includes a letter from a “witness who frequently shared a bed with McCarrick in the Archbishop’s Residence in Newark as a young man.” The letter states: “At some point in 1993, [McCarrick] told me that he had to impose a ‘no sleep-over’ policy on all priests within the Archdiocese, a policy that he — as the bishop — would also have to observe” (Footnote 462).

This seems to be confirmed by “a priest who worked closely with McCarrick in Newark,” who said that: 

“McCarrick told him, at the beach house in the mid-to-late 1990s, that he had received a ‘disturbing’ telephone call from Cardinal O’Connor regarding the sharing of beds with seminarians at the house. … Cardinal O’Connor [said] “What’s going on? Word is going around that you are having seminarians down at the Sea Girt house and people are talking about it. … You’ve gotta knock this stuff off.” The priest stated that, “from that point on, and this is what I remember crystal clear. After that, boom! No seminarians were invited down again. And, as a matter of fact, the priests that he would invite down changed and only his closest collaborators were invited” (Footnote 481).

The sleepover chatter was so sufficient that, ahead of the papal visit to Newark in 1995, the nuncio asked Cardinal O’Connor of New York for his opinion on whether a visit to McCarrick’s archdiocese would be wise. Cardinal O’Connor looked into the matter and reported to the nuncio that there “no impediments” to a papal visit to Newark. Cardinal James Hickey of Washington was also consulted and gave a robust defense of McCarrick (Pages 115-116).

It is possible that John Paul was aware of these consultations, as the reports were received by the sostituto or papal chief of staff. The report does not indicate that, but had John Paul been briefed about what was known in 1995, it would have included the following:

1) No victims of sexual misconduct have come forward to make allegations against McCarrick. (Bishop Edward Hughes had been told by two priests about McCarrick but did not pass their allegations along. It would not be until 2005 that victims brought allegations in formal proceedings.)

2) There have been anonymous allegations, which McCarrick himself has reported to the nuncio and the police.

3) McCarrick has been confronted about the sleeping arrangements, and it has stopped.

4) Two senior U.S. cardinals were consulted in regard to the 1995 papal visit to Newark and advised in favor of it.


McCarrick on the Cardinalatial Track

By 1996, upon the death of Cardinal Bernardin of Chicago, McCarrick was clearly being considered for cardinalatial sees. It might be helpful to consider how John Paul thought about making cardinals, though the McCarrick Report does not address that question.

It was John Paul’s practice to make cardinals who represented the full spectrum of the Church. While certain cardinals, like O’Connor in New York, Francis George in Chicago, Jean-Marie Lustiger in Paris and Alfonso Lopez Trujillo of Colombia, are remembered as particular favorites, John Paul also appointed leading liberal cardinals: Bernardin of Chicago, Roger Mahony in Los Angeles, Walter Kasper in Germany, Godfried Danneels in Belgium and Carlo Maria Martini in Milan. By 1997, especially after the death of Bernardin, McCarrick was the leading archbishop of the progressive wing of Catholicism in the U.S., and John Paul would have considered that as important.

John Paul also put men on the cardinalatial track to recognize some particular service. 

For example, in 1982, the Holy Father personally reviewed the draft of the revised Code of Canon Law with a small commission of seven canonical experts. The Holy Father evidently judged that collaboration to be of signal importance, as all seven went on to become cardinals, including Edward Egan of New York, Rosalio José Castillo Lara of Venezuela, Zenon Grocholewski of Poland and Julian Herranz of Spain.

A U.S. example would be Cardinal Francis Stafford of Denver, host of the 1993 World Youth Day. John Paul brought him to Rome and created him a cardinal as head of the Pontifical Council for the Laity, partially in recognition for what the Holy Father regarded as a turning point in his papacy.

By the mid-1990s, McCarrick was one of those John Paul thought should be rewarded. He was indefatigable, ordained more priests than any other bishop in the United States, had begun the Papal Foundation to raise money for papal charities, and had delivered to the Holy Father the most important icon in Russian Christianity, a key factor that is often ignored. The story of the Madonna of Kazan, which John Paul kept in his private chapel for more than a decade, should not be overlooked. 


Priest 1 and Chicago, 1997

When Cardinal Bernardin died in November 1996, McCarrick was already on the cardinalatial track. 

In 1996 and 1997, a psychiatrist, Richard Fitzgibbons, was treating “Priest 1” of Metuchen, who himself was guilty of sexual abuse of minors. Priest 1 claimed as an adult to have been sexually abused by McCarrick — more than the sleepover behavior. That information was shared with Cardinal O’Connor; and on March 11, 1997, Fitzgibbons made a written report to the Congregation for Bishops. The next day, the congregation’s secretary made the information known to Cardinal Pio Laghi, who was handling the Chicago dossier on behalf of the congregation. However, Priest 1 did not make an allegation himself (Page 125). Priest 1 would only come forward in 2005.

The congregation’s secretary, Archbishop Jorge Maria Meija, noted that “Cardinal O’Connor, as the Nuncio, has told me in a personal conversation, after having checked the story [regarding Priest 1] with the present Bishop of Metuchen [Edward Thomas Hughes], seems not to consider it reliable. Hughes thought Priest 1, guilty of sexual abuse of minors, was ‘blaming others for his problems’” (Page 126).

On March 20, 1997, the Congregation for Bishops considered the Chicago nomination. The nuncio had recommended McCarrick as the top candidate. Cardinal O’Connor, a member of the congregation and present for that meeting, spoke out against McCarrick, but not on sexual-abuse grounds. He did not consider, at that point, the Priest 1 charges credible. Instead, he argued that McCarrick lacked the “firmness necessary” after Cardinal Bernardin’s tenure (Page 128). Cardinal George would eventually be chosen.


New York, 1999-2000

After Chicago, the next two cardinalatial sees coming open were New York and Washington, where both O’Connor and Hickey would turn 80 in 2000. 

By this time, Cardinal O’Connor had chastised McCarrick for the sleepover arrangements, which had stopped. He had heard the allegations about Priest 1, followed up on them with Bishop Hughes of Metuchen, and found them not to be credible. He had opposed McCarrick for Chicago for other reasons. But he had insufficient reason to make any further investigations about McCarrick. Given that McCarrick was still an active archbishop, had Cardinal O’Connor had convincing allegations, he would have been morally bound to follow up, independent of the issue of promotion. 

In June or July 1999 (Page 129), Cardinal O’Connor met with John Paul in Rome. The Holy Father indicated that he was thinking about McCarrick for New York. Cardinal O’Connor was opposed to the appointment more intensely as his successor than he had been for Chicago. It was at that point that Cardinal O’Connor mentioned to the nuncio that there were “some elements of a moral nature” to block McCarrick. The nuncio asked him to put it in writing.

In October 1999, Cardinal O’Connor wrote to the nuncio about Priest 1:

“I must confess that I did not really find my discussion with the priest psychologist or the findings of the psychiatrist [regarding Priest 1] to be definitely persuasive. At the same time, I could not dismiss their findings, because of the gravity of the allegations” (Page 134).

Cardinal O’Connor’s letter is the strongest recommendation against McCarrick in the McCarrick Report (Page 140):

“I regret that I would have to recommend very strongly against such promotion, particularly if to a Cardinatial See, including New York. Nevertheless, I subject my comments to higher authority and most particularly our Holy Father. I would support unconditionally any appointment of our Holy Father, including an appointment to the Archbishopric of New York, and give every assistance to anyone appointed, including Archbishop McCarrick. At the same time, I consider it a grave obligation to recommend to higher authority, including our Holy Father personally, against such an appointment.

“I must emphasize, finally, that it is conceivable that Archbishop McCarrick has never been given the opportunity to defend himself against these allegations.”

John Paul was given Cardinal O’Connor’s letter. The Holy Father knew that Cardinal O’Connor was opposed to McCarrick succeeding him for other reasons. Were the sexual-misconduct allegations true, or another way of sabotaging McCarrick’s rise? John Paul ordered the nuncio in Washington to investigate the truth of the allegations.

Meanwhile, John Paul decided against McCarrick for New York, a decision taken while Cardinal O’Connor was still alive. He died on May 3, 2000; Cardinal Egan was announced as his successor days later.


Results of Investigation

The investigation ordered by John Paul in November 1999 was completed and reported to Rome in July 2000. Four bishops of New Jersey, including Bishop Hughes, who had dealt with Priest 1, reported back. They did not share what they knew about McCarrick (Page 166). Three of the four exonerated McCarrick, writing that they had no knowledge of sexual misconduct. They did not tell the truth. The fourth spoke of imprudent overnight visits, but not of sexual contact.

Nevertheless, John Paul decided not to include McCarrick for the remaining cardinalatial see of Washington. Cardinal O’Connor’s allegations had not been confirmed by the investigation John Paul ordered, but they were not dismissed out of hand. Cardinal O’Connor’s reservations were still sufficient to prevent McCarrick’s promotion (Page 167).

Had Bishop Hughes told the nuncio what he knew about McCarrick and Priest 1, not only would McCarrick have not been considered for Washington, but his own tenure in Newark may have come under further scrutiny.


McCarrick Appeals to the Pope

On Aug. 6, 2000, McCarrick wrote directly to the papal secretary, Archbishop Stanislaw Dziwisz. He had learned about what Cardinal O’Connor had written about him. The report did not determine how he knew. McCarrick wrote:

“I have heard that, before his death, Cardinal O’Connor wrote to the Holy Father a letter which deeply attacked my life as a bishop, a priest and even as a man. If this is true then it is a very grave accusation and leaves me bewildered. I know that the Cardinal did not want me as his successor. … Never, in all his years of service in New York, did Cardinal O’Connor ever approach me with criticisms or accusations such as apparently are contained in his letter to His Holiness. Your Excellency, sure I have made mistakes and may have sometimes lacked in prudence, but in the seventy years of my life, I have never had sexual relations with any person, male or female, young or old, cleric or lay, nor have I ever abused another person or treated them with disrespect” (Pages 169-70).

The most important part of the crafty letter was not the denial of sexual relations, but McCarrick’s characterization of Cardinal O’Connor’s conduct. If O’Connor truly thought that something was awry, McCarrick argues, he would have raised it with me, but he only brought this up belatedly to block my advancement. 

McCarrick’s total denial — coupled with the consultation with the four New Jersey bishops, against the background of Cardinal O’Connor’s opposition to McCarrick on other grounds — shifted the considerations in Rome.

The report also notes that the history of false sexual allegations made against priests in Communist Poland may have had an effect. 

For example, Cardinal Marc Ouellet is quoted as saying that “the Pope, coming from an ex-communist country, with the procedures of the secret services denouncing priests to weaken the Church … trying to undermine people’s reputations, this left a very strong impression on him” (Footnote 580).

It is not necessary to appeal to the communist past to explain John Paul’s judgment in 2000. There was ambiguity in the reports he was getting, and McCarrick appeared to be transparent. The very witness (Bishop Hughes) whom Cardinal O’Connor called an “impeccable source” did not confirm what Cardinal O’Connor alleged.

So John Paul asked the former nuncio in the United States, Archbishop Agostino Cacciavillan, to review the entire file — Cardinal O’Connor’s 1999 letter, the 2000 consultation of the New Jersey bishops and McCarrick’s August 2000 letter. This was the second special review by Archbishop Cacciavillan that John Paul had ordered; the first was after the consultation with the New Jersey bishops was received. 

Meanwhile, McCarrick himself went to Rome and met with John Paul on Oct. 7, 2000 (Page 181). There is no record of what was said, but one could imagine the slippery McCarrick making his case again that the late Cardinal O’Connor opposed him as too moderate, and therefore was using already-discredited allegations to block him.

Archbishop Cacciavillan made his report. He recommended McCarrick for appointment to Washington. Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re, prefect of the Congregation for Bishops, also endorsed McCarrick for Washington, having previously opposed it (Page 182). 

Other key figures had endorsed McCarrick independent of the Cardinal O’Connor letter and subsequent investigations. The incumbent archbishop of Washington, Cardinal Hickey, strongly endorsed McCarrick. In May 2000, Bishop Joseph Fiorenza of Galveston-Houston, president of the U.S. bishops’ conference, recommended McCarrick as the “perfect fit” for Washington (Footnote 557). Cardinal Adam Maida of Detroit endorsed McCarrick, as did Archbishop James Harvey, then prefect of the papal household.


Evaluating the Decision

After hearing from his advisers again, St. John Paul II made the decision to appoint McCarrick to Washington in October 2000; it was announced in November. 

Upon news of the announcement, Father Boniface Ramsey, a former seminary professor in Newark, wrote a letter to the nuncio about the sleepover arrangements during the 1980s and 1990s (Page 187). Much has been made of the letter, but it did not deal with sexual-misconduct allegations. The sleepover issue by 2000 had already been looked into several times, and the behavior had stopped. John Paul was shown the letter, but made no comment; it had already been raised, and the recent investigations had looked into the more serious allegations. John Paul had, by that time, ordered three reviews of the McCarrick file in the previous year. Father Ramsey’s letter did not add anything new.

The decision to promote McCarrick was a mistake. Indeed, if what was subsequently revealed was known then, John Paul should have sought to remove McCarrick as archbishop of Newark. 

That would not be known until 2005 (sexual misconduct with adults) and 2017 (misconduct with minors). In 1999 and 2000, John Paul knew that Cardinal O’Connor did not want McCarrick promoted. Other cardinals in the United States certainly did. The most serious allegations Cardinal O’Connor raised were, by his own account, not certain, and McCarrick had not had a chance to defend himself. John Paul thus ordered an investigation, and McCarrick did, in fact, defend himself. 

After the investigation among the New Jersey bishops exonerated McCarrick and he defended himself, the former nuncio to the United States and the prefect for bishops recommended McCarrick for Washington, both of them fully aware of Cardinal O’Connor’s objections and the response. 

John Paul was thus not negligent. In fact, he ordered investigations and followed the advice of his most senior advisers, first in excluding McCarrick and then in reconsidering him. 

Pope John Paul II can be faulted for not seeing through McCarrick. That charge could also be made against dozens of leaders at the highest levels of the Church, politics, business and diplomacy. McCarrick fooled almost everyone for a very long time.


The Legacy

Some commentators have suggested that the public cult of St. John Paul II should be limited, or even suppressed, after the McCarrick Report.

Two authoritative voices disagree, both of whom had seen the McCarrick Report well in advance, as it was ready almost a year ago: Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, who argued in May 2020 that the late Holy Father should be known as “John Paul the Great,” and Pope Francis, who published an interview book last spring by that very name.