Former Seminary Investigator: McCarrick Was ‘Epicenter’ of Problems

Father John Lavers, who led a 2012 investigation into allegations of homosexual activity among seminarians at Holy Apostles Seminary, assesses the findings of the McCarrick Report

(photo: Lisa F. Young/Shutterstock)

VATICAN CITY — What are the strengths and weaknesses of the McCarrick Report, and what can be learned from it that could be applied to similar cases in the future? 

Father John Lavers, a Canadian priest of the Diocese of Portsmouth in England, currently serves as the director of chaplaincy with Stella Maris (Apostleship of the Sea) in the United Kingdom. He led a 2012 investigation into allegations of homosexual behavior and activity at Holy Apostles College and Seminary in Connecticut that led to the removal of 13 seminarians, primarily from the Archdiocese of Hartford and Diocese of Paterson, New Jersey. 

Father Lavers’ investigation also indicated that a homosexual “pipeline” had been created that funneled vulnerable Latin American candidates into some U.S. seminaries where they were sexually exploited, and subsequently ordained as actively homosexual priests in some American dioceses. 

And on the basis of the evidence collected for the Holy Apostles investigation, Father Lavers concluded that it was Theodore McCarrick himself who was at the “epicenter” of this powerful influential network that has preyed on seminarians, and has advanced homosexually active clergy within the U.S. Church. 

Prior to becoming a priest, Father Lavers served in Canadian law enforcement and national security work. In this interview with the Register, he explains the nature of the report, how it falls short, and what he believes the next steps should be.  


Father Lavers, what has been your initial reaction to the McCarrick Report?

I think the expectation of the report may have been overstated, even over-expected by people. It’s a report that would not be classified as investigative, but more of a gathering of data and analysis — almost like how you would approach an academic function: looking at the documents that the Vatican archives would have, as well as other information that they would have pulled from the various dioceses of the United States. But it’s not an investigative report. 

And when I use the term “investigative report,” I use it from the perspective of how professional law enforcement, and/or intelligence services, would do, say, an investigation into this and in following all the leads as well as following the evidence. This report does not do that.


Do you nevertheless find it helpful, despite the fact that it hasn’t been done that way?

I think it really depends. What we don’t really know from the report is what were the instructions given to an individual and individuals that were involved in preparing the report. Who was the overseer? Was it a person or a team? And who are they? And who supported the work in pulling this document together?  

And then there is an editorial aspect to this, and how it has been applied to the report, where different pieces of information would be redacted from the report for various reasons. Some may be political, some may be from a judicial perspective. Or there may be other ongoing investigations that we’re not aware of that would not be properly found in this report, that could be ongoing somewhere else. We just don’t know the answers to these broad questions. 


One of the criticisms of the report is that it’s not really an independent investigation or study as it has been overseen by people who have been involved with McCarrick and perhaps have a conflict of interest. Do you think that’s a weakness?

Yes, absolutely. It’s a big weakness in the document, because again, we will not have access to, say, first drafts, second drafts. What was the editorial application to various documents? We don’t know who are the key gatekeepers of the initial and critical data that came in to form the early drafts of the report. We don’t know what sort of filters have been applied to information that may have been gathered from the U.S. particularly, as well as what was in the archives. We don’t know if all of the correspondence has been looked at, or was there a selection of certain correspondence to fit a particular narrative. We just don’t know the answer to this question.  This would take another type of oversight function concerning the individuals associated with the preparation of this document.


Can you give an example of this?

If you look at what is covered around page 382 and 383, where it talks about the correspondence and the communications between Archbishop [Carlo] Viganò and, at that time, Cardinal [Donald] Wuerl, when he was archbishop in Washington, Cardinal Wuerl comments that he wasn’t aware of different things associated with the conversation [with Archbishop Viganò]. However, when you look at what came out of the Pennsylvania Investigation and what Wuerl knew when he was bishop in Pittsburgh, he had knowledge of McCarrick and his activities at the time. But when you look at how the footnotes are arranged within the McCarrick Report, there is no correlation linking Wuerl’s knowledge and what he knew when he was bishop in Pittsburgh, and his conversation with Viganò.

So looking at it from a forensic perspective, even in the footnotes, it says Cardinal Wuerl recalled Viganò had made a “very quick call.” Now that’s a very specific recollection of a telephone call. Why would he say that? But at the same time, he says he doesn’t know, or wasn’t aware, or that he blames Viganò in not telling him all of the related allegations or passing on any information, when in fact Cardinal Wuerl knew from his time in Pittsburgh that McCarrick was obviously on the radar and that he had a file on this which, according to Wuerl himself, had been sent to Rome. So the claim that there was nothing, or putting the blame on Viganò and saying that he didn’t know anything because it was Viganò’s fault for not telling him, it is clear that Wuerl knew of McCarrick’s history going back to his time in Pittsburgh. That’s not mentioned in the footnotes, nor covered in the main body, but it gives an additional context and almost squares the circle of information that was known by a senior prelate in the U.S. Church. But how that information was then taken, prepared and then written up in the report would suggest, if you read it on its face value, that Wuerl knew nothing, when in fact we know that’s not true. 


By not including those aspects, is the report giving us sort of half-truths because it doesn’t put it in context with what we already know?

Exactly. It’s a half-truth, but not the complete truth. The full context and the impact of what was known at the time is not being brought forward into the document. And the very fact that Archbishop Viganò was not contacted — as he has said in some of his press reports — by the drafters, or those that are putting together the report would not interview a primary witness like this, is quite astonishing. 


Although it seems very comprehensive, are there some major gaps that make it incomplete?

Yes, and that’s just one example, but there are many others. I haven’t had a chance to go through it with a fine tooth-comb, but I thought that was one glaring example. Another example is around page 379 about how “Priest 3” comments that he came into North America. That spoke volumes to me. The priest said, “Early in my time in North America, I was sexually assaulted by Cardinal Theodore McCarrick.” And it goes on to describe problems and touching. That’s classically associated with what we had discovered in terms of the pipeline of seminarians into North America that emanated from Latin America — places like Colombia, Mexico, Puerto Rico, Costa Rica. When I read that in the report, that raised a lot of flags for me. [From] our investigations, we know that a number of seminarians, like this priest, for example, came from Latin America. And what this “Priest 3” was describing is very close to what some of the confidential informants who came to us said, both seminarians and priests from Latin American countries. 

Reading this further, and the report mentioning the Waldorf Astoria and other places in New York, we know that there were certain key locations in New York City where priests and seminarians and other people would meet to have liaisons with each other, including other places, like unused presbyteries, including McCarrick's well-known beach house. Some of the meetings took place in New York and then were continued on the Jersey Shore. Looking at some of the material of “Priest 3,” this person could be one of our undisclosed or confidential informants from the original Holy Apostles investigation in 2012, because of what “Priest 3” says in the report.


Some critics in the Vatican have said this report throws up more questions than it answers, that it cries out for these questions to be answered. Would you agree with that?

It does. Yes, absolutely, a lot of questions, an awful lot of questions. There’s a surface level aspect to this, but when you scratch the surface, as we started to do in the 2012 investigation, we were being led to priests, auxiliary bishops, bishops, archbishops and even to McCarrick himself. And as the investigation was forming up, again, still concentrating on the issues at Holy Apostles, we could see that ground zero was leading us to McCarrick. All avenues of this were leading back to McCarrick … . How aspects of recruiting and grooming seminarians were all done by people that owed an allegiance or something else, obviously, to McCarrick. 

So where the investigation started in one area, that is at the seminary, its epicenter of all the major problems [was] one man: essentially, McCarrick. However, it is important to realize that he [McCarrick] continues to have many supporters within the Church who owe much to him for their own personal careers and positions of influence and power, and this support is in the form of silence that many have continued to give McCarrick.


Given what you know, why do you think the drafters didn’t contact you? As you say, it’s not an investigation, so perhaps that’s why they didn’t go that far, but could it also have been a cover-up? 

It’s not an impossible conclusion because, again, the final draft, the inclusion of certain information, the exclusion of other parts of information, either the failure or the deliberate turning away from other information associated with McCarrick, there really hasn’t been a full and complete investigation into all aspects of McCarrick’s life, and who and why he chose to advance certain people who would be loyal him. Then there is the culpability of individuals receiving so much money from McCarrick over a long period of time, either linked into various rings of pedophilia, or homosexual activity leading to pedophilia. All these things together develop a certain layer of cover-up and confidentiality within sub-organizations, within larger organizations, which of course is not good. And this has a direct impact on the report. Evidence that I’ve seen in the report suggests that not all of the information that is publicly available is in the report. And the question is, “Why not?”


Would you want to see a further investigation, an independent one, taking leads, if you like, from this report? 

Absolutely. In my report, of the Holy Apostles investigation of 2012, I provided a comprehensive list of recommendations, including the need to have an independent investigation, to continue on with what we had found at Holy Apostles. The primary problem is that once you go outside the jurisdiction of a seminary, everybody can shut the door on you. But we needed to have an ability to break down the barriers and go into the secret archives of various dioceses and obtain information, either off laptops or computers or mobile phones as well as having unrestricted access to interview people linked to a serious issue or line of enquiry. And to examine all documents as necessary.

You need to have that ability, either through select individuals within the Church with a background in legal, law enforcement and or security and intelligence matters working with outsiders with a background in judicial, legal and law enforcement, or someone or group completely independent of the church, but it needs to have basically the jurisdiction and authority within the Church to go anywhere and open anything to discover the truth. Right now, we don't have that.


Critics have said the report appears to evade the issue of pervasive homosexuality among the clergy, and the report showed the hierarchy being rather cavalier in their attitude to inappropriate homosexual behavior with seminarians and young priests when it shouldn’t be tolerated at all. What’s your view on that?

Cavalier is probably one word of describing it. I think opportunistic and predatorial is probably a better word, I would say, based on what I’ve seen through the seminary investigation. Additionally, this has also been my experience investigating bishops and priests in the Church going back to the early to mid-nineties, for various civil authorities. 

At Holy Apostles, where seminarians were being recruited and coming from the Latin American countries, they were probably the most vulnerable of individuals. They’re thousands of miles away from home. They’re essentially seeing themselves in the land of milk and honey in the U.S. You’ve got unlimited budgets given to various vocations directors, wining and dining them into an illicit lifestyle, and introducing them to a lifestyle where having relationships with men, from a sexual appetite perspective, was considered to be okay.

So introducing and grooming young seminarians like this, that have no recourse to home and no immediate family, they’re totally dependent on individuals within the host country, and this makes one very susceptible to suggestions. And that all starts at a low level and works itself upwards, again in terms of grooming vulnerable people. So, it begins with having them become dependent on various priests or individuals within various dioceses. Then the money is flowing, good places to live and the good meals, the travel and vacations and so forth, and then large parties with much alcohol, and then the parties that move into more explicit type of partying, from a sexual perspective. And then that breeds a sense of participation and belonging. 

The concept of now you belong to a special group of people which develops the need to protect and cover for each other. And then of course, the silence and secrecy comes into it, suggesting that, “If you liked this and you enjoy this and you want to stay here, then you have to keep silent.” 

This is how the system works in such a way that everybody who is exposed to this almost has a piece of information on somebody else, and so then there’s a collaboration of silence to be maintained. So, no one tells on the other person, as long as the gravy train of sex, money and power is moving in the right direction and everyone in the sub-group can protect and advance each other within the organization.


How does the vulnerability of these priests and seminarians play into this behavior? 

It’s all built on the vulnerability of individuals. You have certain individuals among North American seminarians who may be chosen to help and corral the younger seminarians. We saw that in the 2012 investigation, there were certain older seminarians who were providing younger seminarians with opportunities to meet other priests, monsignors, vicar generals, going up to bishop level, within the various dioceses. And then all of a sudden, like what has been discovered about McCarrick’s exploits, we found in our investigation, was that young seminarians were being brought around to different places for special parties, driven by priests, and given over to other priests and other people in various presbyteries in New Jersey, Connecticut, New York and Newark areas, and the Jersey Shore, which led to the beach house belonging to McCarrick.

Additionally, one of the difficulties in identifying the key individuals is that when they come together for the parties and the young vulnerable seminarians are being indoctrinated into this world, the people that are going to abuse them sexually are not wearing clerics. They’re all in civilian attire. So the person going into this situation doesn’t know a priest from, say, the monsignor to, say, a cardinal. They just know it’s a bunch of middle-aged to older men that he’s there to party with, who are connected in various positions within the Church. So it’s only over a period of time, if they see pictures or come into contact with say a McCarrick or a bishop or a monsignor, or a vicar general over the course of regular Church-related activities, that they can put two and two together. But by this time, once they’re exposed to senior people within these groups, they are pretty well-groomed to keep silent if they don’t want to be sent back to their home country.


Why does no one ever seem to speak up in these circles? Is it because they’re all complicit in some way, because this behavior is so prevalent?

It is. There’s a complicity to this, because of either being embarrassed or fearful of rejection, or having a dependency on a particular person in the Church or threatened with physical harm personally or having family members threatened back home or they simply owe something to somebody else. Again, there are many within the clergy who owe a lot to McCarrick because of what he did or they wish to keep silent because of what they themselves were complicit in with McCarrick. So it’s the “don’t bite the hand that feeds you” scenario. 

In the 2012 investigation, we were involved in situations where we provided some bishops with direct evidence of information associated with priests and seminarians. At times it was deemed prudent to not share all the information within a line of enquiry knowing already of their direct involvement in being complicit in suppressing information, but also to test to see if they would actually do something. 


And they wouldn’t?

They wouldn’t. For example, the investigation would reveal further evidence, that is direct proof and clarification, which would be made known to a certain bishop or an archbishop and that person would be complicit in the deflection and suppressing of information, even to the point of destroying evidence — in some cases providing a bishop with information that the evidence exists, where to find it, who has it, and then finding out afterwards that it had disappeared without a trace. And this was common, and unfortunately remains common.


What good can come from the McCarrick Report? What do you think could be drawn from this report which actually could be used to stop these circles of silence and complicity?

I look at the report and I see and recall many of the reports that have been generated, for example, in Canada and the U.S., on this very subject, written by either the office of the attorney general or a justice department, or a law enforcement agency or in Canada, Royal Commissions and so forth. And what has happened to all of them is that they’ve ended up on a bookshelf, without many of the recommendations being implemented. 

We talk about changing a culture, which needs to happen, but which is not happening. We still have elements of conspiracy and cover up that run through the whole of the system.

One could argue, for example, when you look at the Code of Canon Law, before the changes in 1983, that the penalties were much stiffer on clerics at that time. You look back at the Dallas Charter, when McCarrick was involved in writing that document, and the focus was on priests, but for bishops there was a light touch. So there’s almost an insulation of a certain group of people versus another group of people. 

There needs to be a stricter, more robust capability to investigate and then to take action against all within the Church to be truly effective in responding to these serious issues which affect the lives of many people. 


Do you also think the punishments need to be harsher for this kind of behavior, too, as they once used to be in society, if not the Church?

Absolutely. If you look, for example, at what has happened, as an example, the developments within police forces, when there was wrongdoing by a police force, they used to investigate themselves. And this was found to be flawed, and the Church did the same thing. Police forces then moved beyond that to establish internal affairs departments and divisions, so that internal affairs could investigate police officers within a force. That had some success: but fellow officers within a force, investigating themselves was not the answer. We’ve had that in the Church, as well.

Then police forces got other police forces to conduct an investigation and that is also flawed, as well. And in some cases we’ve had that within the Church, when another bishop would come in and investigate a local bishop within a diocese, however and was also open to interference as there’s always the opportunity for manipulation or sleight of hand with regards to that process. Then police forces had to give over that responsibility of internal investigations to the civilian authorities, such as the office of the attorney-general in a state, or department of justice in Canada and or other jurisdictions, so independent police commissions were created for investigating the police — totally outside of the organizational culture and structure of a police force. That has allowed for a much more thorough and comprehensive, independent investigation to take place. 

In the McCarrick case, this has not been done. Perhaps a select group of identified clerics working together with external experts would be at least a first step in conducting an investigation to better understand the totality and devastation of McCarrick’s activities, including identifying and removing senior priests and bishops who were and are complicit in the suppression of information about themselves and their relationship with McCarrick in regards to the sexual abuse of so many victims.


So that could be the next step?

That could be the next step, but it really needs to have the horsepower, whether it’s at the national level or at the Rome level. There has to be very clear, robust rules in place for conducting such an investigation, and the ability to open and turn over information, interviewing witnesses, potential suspects, all of that. It really needs to have the robustness of a national security and or police-type of investigation. It would have to be similar to a major crime investigation, essentially. It needs to be handled in that way.