McCarrick: ‘I Have Trouble With Words’

Theodore McCarrick's eloquence made him a force in the Catholic Church. Now, his loss for words appears to have spared him from criminal prosecution.

Former Catholic Cardinal Theodore McCarrick appears for an arraignment at Dedham District Court, Sept. 3, 2021, in Dedham, Mass. The defrocked Cardinal McCarrick, the highest ranking Roman Catholic official in the United States to face criminal charges in the clergy sexual abuse scandal, was found not competent to stand trial Wednesday, Aug. 30, 2023.
Former Catholic Cardinal Theodore McCarrick appears for an arraignment at Dedham District Court, Sept. 3, 2021, in Dedham, Mass. The defrocked Cardinal McCarrick, the highest ranking Roman Catholic official in the United States to face criminal charges in the clergy sexual abuse scandal, was found not competent to stand trial Wednesday, Aug. 30, 2023. (photo: David L Ryan/The Boston Globe / AP)

DEDHAM, Mass. — Theodore McCarrick’s eloquence vaulted him to the upper echelons of the Catholic Church, and he stayed there, in part, by using that gift to artfully fend off whispers of sexual misconduct that threatened to knock him off his lofty perch.

Now, it’s his loss for words that appears to have spared him a prison sentence from a Massachusetts court.

In a recent psychological evaluation, McCarrick couldn’t remember the words “trial,” “necklace” or “pacemaker,” and he drew a blank when asked for the name of the current president of the United States.

“Yes … the president … president … I see him right in front of me … I knew him when I was in Washington and he was a vice president,” he replied. “Oh, I know him; I just can’t remember his name!” 

On Aug. 30, a state district court judge in the Boston suburb of Dedham dismissed criminal sex-abuse charges against McCarrick, ruling that the now-93-year-old ex-cardinal, who appears frail and severely stooped in photographs, isn’t mentally competent to stand trial. 

Prosecutors in the case requested the dismissal.

The ruling was based on two separate psychological evaluations, one done in December 2022 for McCarrick’s defense team and the other in June by an expert hired by prosecutors. Both assessments concluded that the disgraced former archbishop of Washington, D.C., is too cognitively impaired to actively participate in his defense.

McCarrick remains the defendant in a criminal case in Wisconsin and civil lawsuits elsewhere.

Columbia law professor Daniel Richman told the Register the Massachusetts court’s finding that McCarrick is incompetent to stand trial doesn’t bind courts in other places.

“But you could also imagine that the same factual presentation will be made to other judges in other criminal cases, and the judge there may at least notice, if not be interested in, how another judge resolved the case,” Richman said.



McCarrick was charged in state court in Massachusetts last year with three counts of indecent assault and battery on a person over the age of 14 relating to allegations that he sexually abused a teenager who was a family friend at a wedding he officiated in 1974 at Wellesley College in Wellesley, Massachusetts.

That teenager has publicly identified himself as James Grein, now 64 and originally from New Jersey.

The defense team’s expert, psychologist David Schretlen, related in his report some of the frustrations McCarrick’s lawyers have experienced in preparing his defense. 

Schretlen refers to the former cardinal as “Dr. McCarrick,” an apparent reference to his Ph.D. in sociology. Because Pope Francis dismissed McCarrick from the clerical state in February 2019, the Church formally refers to him as “Mr. McCarrick.”

“His attorneys explained that Dr. McCarrick usually seems to understand their questions and follow discussions of legal matters. However, they noted that he often later asks questions that reflect a failure to either understand or remember important details of their discussions. This can occur both during (i.e., within minutes) and after (i.e., within hours to days) of a meeting,” Schretlen noted.

“He once asked to set up a meeting to discuss a matter that he was ‘excited’ to bring up, only to forget what it was when they met, nor had he written it down,” his report continued. 

“On numerous occasions, Dr. McCarrick ostensibly asks questions to clarify previously discussed matters, but his questions clearly indicate that he has no memory of the previous discussions,” Schretlen reported. “At other times, he will email cryptic messages, such as the single word ‘effrontery,’ that he is unable to explain later.”

Schretlen concluded that McCarrick has a “severe cognitive disorder” and “everyday functional disability” consistent with dementia and most likely caused by Alzheimer’s disease.


‘My Big Problem’

The June evaluation, conducted by psychologist Kerry Nelligan, was based on six and a half hours of conversations with McCarrick at his residence at the Vianney Renewal Center, a Catholic facility in Dittmer, Missouri, run by the Servants of the Paraclete religious order.

Nelligan’s 28-page report, part of the court record, offers a window into McCarrick’s current health and mindset.

Given McCarrick’s advanced age and deteriorating condition, the document also provides what could wind up being the last public words McCarrick ever makes about the scandals that surround him.

Asked by Nelligan about his understanding of the possible evidence that could be used by the prosecution, McCarrick replied, “I can’t imagine there is anything because I’ve never done this.”

Nelligan’s report notes that McCarrick “has myriad medical issues,” including hypertension, chronic liver disease, heart failure and atherosclerotic heart disease. He relies on a pacemaker and has suffered a series of mini-strokes, she noted.

During her conversations with McCarrick, she asked him if he had difficulties with his memory.

“Yes,” he replied. “I have trouble with words. It’s annoying. I can’t come up with the words you want.”

Asked what he had eaten for breakfast the morning of their conversation, McCarrick replied: “Oatmeal with ... beans. No … not beans. Oh, what’s the word?” When Nelligan asked if he meant raisins, he replied, “Oh, yes! Raisins!”

Another time, when she asked him to name items she was wearing or holding, McCarrick said: “You have a silver brace around your neck,” instead of using the word “necklace.” He similarly described her bracelet as a “wrist ornament.”

“Word finding is my big problem. I’m looking for a word, and I get mad because I can’t find it,” McCarrick said. “I do forget some peoples’ names, too.”

McCarrick also appeared to struggle with his awareness of time. While he could provide the month and day, he gave wildly different and incorrect answers when asked about the current year. In one instance, when Nelligan asked at a different time if he knew what the current year was, he replied: “Yes, 0256.”


A Persuasive Communicator

McCarrick’s command of words at the height of his power helped make and keep him an extraordinarily influential Churchman.

In 2000, when McCarrick was archbishop of Newark, New Jersey, and under investigation by the Vatican for occasionally sharing a bed with seminarians at a vacation home on the Jersey Shore owned by the archdiocese, McCarrick issued a comprehensive and apparently heartfelt denial of sexual misconduct with others.

“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,” McCarrick wrote to Pope John Paul II’s secretary, then-Bishop Stanislaw Dziwisz.

McCarrick’s letter seems to have gone right to John Paul’s heart.

“Tell McCarrick that I believe what he said and I am still a friend,” John Paul told Cardinal Angelo Sodano, his secretary of state, shortly before Cardinal Sodano was to visit the United States, according to a 2020 report by the Vatican commissioned by Pope Francis.

“McCarrick’s denial was believed,” the Vatican report states, “and the view was held that, if allegations against McCarrick were made public, McCarrick would be able to refute them easily.”

Three months after McCarrick sent the letter, John Paul promoted McCarrick, appointing him archbishop of Washington. In February 2001, the Pope made him a cardinal.

McCarrick served as archbishop of Washington until 2006, when he resigned at the canon-law retirement age for bishops, 75.

Nelligan’s report provided a measure of McCarrick’s decline since then. ​​McCarrick has fallen from the 98th percentile in IQ to a cognitive ability worse than 92% of reasonably healthy men his age, she reported.

In McCarrick’s interview with Nelligan, he was asked how he spends his free time, McCarrick said: “I pray a lot. I read a lot of church stuff. I play bingo. I won around Easter time … five dollars.”

“He indicated that he gets along with all of the staff at his residence ‘very well,’” the report said. “We all work together,” McCarrick said. “There are a lot of holy people here.”

Shannon Mullen is the Register’s editor-in-chief. Matthew McDonald is a Register staff reporter. Joe Bukuras is a staff writer for Catholic News Agency.