By Sara Larson, Executive Director, Awake
and Erin O’Donnell, Editor, Awake Blog
Today the Vatican finally released its report on former cardinal Theodore McCarrick, once considered one of the most powerful cardinals in the United States. The document is 461 pages long, and will take time to read and digest fully, but here Awake offers some basic information about the report and our early response to its contents.
WHO IS THEODORE McCARRICK?
Theodore McCarrick is a former cardinal and archbishop of the Archdiocese of Washington. Earlier in his career he served as bishop of two dioceses in New Jersey. A high-profile representative of the Church, he was known for being charismatic and a skilled fundraiser. Pope Francis abruptly removed McCarrick from ministry and the College of Cardinals in the summer of 2018, after the Archdiocese of New York revealed that McCarrick was credibly accused of abusing a 16-year-old altar boy in New York in the 1970s. News reports surfaced that McCarrick had a history of abusing children as well as seminarians.
McCarrick was laicized in February 2019. Now age 90, he lives in an undisclosed location.
WHAT IS THE McCARRICK REPORT?
Released on November 10, 2020, the report describes the Vatican’s institutional knowledge and decision-making related to McCarrick. It is the result of an investigation launched by Pope Francis in June 2018, after the formal allegation that McCarrick had abused a minor.
To compile the report, the Vatican reviewed files and documents and conducted more than 90 interviews of witnesses including current and former Vatican officials, cardinals and bishops in the United States, former seminarians and priests, several of McCarrick’s secretaries, and “lay people in the United States, Italy, and elsewhere.”
The report was initially expected in early 2020, and some U.S. bishops and Catholics were impatient about the delay.
WHAT DOES IT SAY?
The report describes McCarrick’s ecclesiastical career alongside detailed firsthand accounts from victims and witnesses of his abusive behavior. What emerges is a disturbing picture of a popular cleric who used his considerable talents to manipulate and sexually abuse children, teenagers, and young adults, and to convince other church leaders of his innocence. While the report maintains that no formal allegations of abuse of minors were made until 2017, many church leaders were well aware of McCarrick’s inappropriate behavior with young adults and did nothing to stop him for decades. The report does not shy away from naming names; three now-deceased United States bishops are implicated in providing inaccurate information to the Vatican about McCarrick’s record. Pope John Paul II is reported to have personally approved McCarrick’s appointment to the Archdiocese of Washington in November 2000, even after receiving reports of McCarrick’s abusive behavior with adults. Pope Francis is said to have relied on his predecessors’ assessment in allowing McCarrick’s continued ministry during his pontificate.
These two articles provide a helpful summary of the contents of the report:
WHAT IS THE ARCHDIOCESE OF MILWAUKEE’S RESPONSE?
Archbishop Jerome Listecki sent a letter to priests, deacons, parish directors and leaders of parishes within the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, which said, in part:
“The news of the … release of the McCarrick report is painful, but necessary. The victims of abuse, the Church and its members, along with the rest of society and future generations, all suffer from clergy sexual abuse, misconduct and scandals. Not bringing these crimes into the light only deepens the wound and does not allow the Church a process of exposing the wrongdoing and sin.”
Listecki’s letter included information on how to report sexual abuse by clergy or Church personnel, which is also available here.
WHAT ARE SURVIVORS SAYING?
Survivor Jan Ruidl, who is based in Racine, was particularly disturbed that Church officials did not investigate the many rumors about McCarrick. For example, the report notes that one mother sent anonymous letters to every U.S. cardinal in the 1980s describing McCarrick’s sexual abuse of her teenage sons. “This whole thing is sad,” Ruidl says. “All of these gigantic red flags with flashing lights went unseen, were ignored and denied. Officials chose to ignore them and not to seek more information.”
“Their concern really was about the Church,” Ruidl adds, “and it doesn’t appear that there was ever a thought about victims, or how this might affect them.”
Deacon Larry Normann, who serves at both St. Joan of Arc in Nashotah and St. Catherine of Alexandria in Mapleton/Oconomowoc, says that reading the report brought up memories of his own abuse in the seminary by his supervisor. He was disturbed to note that when the report refers to McCarrick’s behavior toward seminarians, it uses the term “immoral conduct,” and only his behavior toward minors is called “sexual abuse.”
Although the seminarians were legally adults, they were manipulated and abused by McCarrick, a person who held considerable power over them and their careers. “All of this is sexual abuse,” Normann says. “Crushing trust and innocence doesn’t just apply to minors. I think the Church still doesn’t get that.”
Yet Normann found some hope at the conclusion of the report, which quotes a section of the “Letter of the Holy Father Francis to the People of God” written in August 2018, after McCarrick was suspended. “In that letter, Pope Francis expressed, at least in my opinion, a real sensitivity and understanding of the pain and suffering of all who have endured clergy abuse,” Normann says. “He made it clear in that letter that the priority for the Church is ministry to those people.” After reading in the report about many failings of Church leaders, this “was a positive note,” Normann says.
WHAT CAN We LEARN FROM THE REPORT?
While we will need much more time to thoroughly dissect the contents of this report, several key lessons are apparent.
The Catholic Church needs to give serious attention to sexual abuse of adults by clergy. While no formal allegations of McCarrick abusing a child were brought to the Church until 2017, there were many allegations of abuse and manipulation of young adults, especially seminarians, made over the past thirty years. The dismissive reaction to these allegations, even in recent years, makes clear that the Church has not yet prioritized protecting adults from sexual harassment, assault, and abuse by clergy, nor grappled with the abuse of power often tied to this abuse. This must change.
The Catholic Church needs to move from a culture of complacency to a culture of proactive personal responsibility. The McCarrick Report is full of stories of church leaders ignoring rumors, “passing the buck,” and failing to respond to or seriously investigate allegations. If even one Church leader had been willing to ask hard questions, pursue a full investigation, or fight for the vulnerable, many people might have been protected from McCarrick’s predation. Instead, the people who knew something was amiss declined to take personal responsibility and allowed his behavior to continue for decades. This must change.
The Catholic Church needs to be conscious of which voices are heeded and which are dismissed. The McCarrick Report recounts many instances in which lay people, seminarians, or lower-ranking church officials tried to raise an alarm about McCarrick’s troubling behavior. Their concerns were repeatedly overshadowed by assurances from bishops—and even from McCarrick himself—that these allegations were simply unfounded rumors. At every opportunity, the voices of those with power were valued over the voices of those speaking the truth. This must change.
Theodore McCarrick’s abusive behavior is horrifying, but his story is just one piece of the full reality of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church that Awake is committed to addressing. We are grateful for every step taken toward greater transparency, and we thank the courageous survivors who have come forward to share their stories. As always, we stand with those who have experienced sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, and we are committed to the ongoing work of transformation and healing to build a safer, more compassionate Church.