Former Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick in 2017 (CNS photo/Bob Roller)

The Case of Theodore McCarrick

A Failure of Fraternal Correction

I taught at Immaculate Conception Seminary from the late 1980s until 1996, when Theodore McCarrick was archbishop of Newark and Immaculate Conception was his seminary. What I heard in those days about McCarrick’s misbehavior with seminarians I used to refer to, until very recently, as rumors. Now I realize that “rumors” was not the right word, because rumor suggests uncertainty. What the seminarians would talk about among themselves and with some members of the faculty were experiences that they themselves had undergone, or that they had heard others had undergone. It may have been gossip, but it was gossip about real events.

Most people who have been following the case of Theodore McCarrick know by now that he had a beach house on the Jersey Shore at his disposal and that he would regularly request seminarians to visit it with him. This is how it went: he or his secretary would contact the seminary and ask for five specific seminarians, or would just contact the seminarians directly. Understandably, a request from one’s archbishop could not easily be refused. When McCarrick and the five seminarians arrived at the beach house, there were six men and only five beds. McCarrick would send four of his guests to four of the available beds and then tell the fifth seminarian that he would “bunk” with him in a separate room. When bedtime came, McCarrick stripped himself naked, almost always in front of the seminarian, before putting on some bedclothes. The expectation was that the seminarian would do the same, although some managed to avoid this by going to the bathroom or by some other ruse. Sometimes, I was told, the five seminarians raced from the car to the house to claim beds for themselves, and the slowest ended up with the archbishop.

Whenever a seminarian who had slept in the same bed as McCarrick shared his experience with a faculty member, the common response was “Did he touch you?” As I search my memory for what happened thirty years ago, this may very well have been my response, too. I never heard that McCarrick touched anyone. Since there was no touching and concepts like sexual harassment and abuse of power were rather unfamiliar at the time, and since there was no precedent for how to deal with an archbishop who slept with his seminarians but didn’t touch them, there seemed nothing to do but to accept this unusual behavior.

The behavior was not only unusual; it was also wrong. But why? Because it was unbecoming of an archbishop? Because some seminarians were the objects of their archbishop’s attention and others weren’t? (He liked to refer to his favorites as “nephews” and to himself as their “Uncle Ted.”)  Because it was a near occasion of sin? In any event, what member of the faculty would approach the archbishop to tell him that it just wasn’t right?

It must be emphasized here not only that sexual harassment and abuse of power were things people worried less about back then, but also that no one at the time knew anything of the allegations of child abuse that would be made against McCarrick and revealed by the New York Times in June of this year. There was only his unusual behavior with seminarians, which seemed to be accepted by everyone.

The unusual behavior was exacerbated by the silence surrounding it; I sensed no disapproval, just a kind of resignation.

Eventually, though, I began to have difficulty accepting it. The unusual behavior was exacerbated by the silence surrounding it; I sensed no disapproval, just a kind of resignation. I was a newcomer on the seminary scene and, at that time, a Dominican friar rather than a priest of the diocese of Newark. Perhaps I was able to view the situation with more critical distance than the other faculty members. In search of advice, I spoke with a fellow Dominican whose counsel I respected. It was obvious to him that I should bring my concerns to the rector of the seminary, which I did sometime in the late ’80s (I no longer remember exactly when). The rector knew exactly what I was talking about and promised to do what he could to stop it, after admitting that he felt strung between his loyalty to his archbishop and his realization that what the archbishop was doing wasn’t right. Whatever the rector may have done—and I believe he took some sort of action—McCarrick was unperturbed, and the visits to the beach house continued.

Sometime in the early ’90s (again, I no longer remember the exact date), the voting members of the faculty had their customary meeting at the end of the academic year to discuss the seminarians and their possible promotion to the next year. One of those seminarians was a man who, for several reasons, I believed should be expelled. I raised my concerns with the other voting members; they agreed with me, and the student was expelled. When I returned to the seminary to begin the next academic year, the rector (different than the one to whom I had brought my concerns some years previously) told me that McCarrick knew that I was largely responsible for the expulsion of the seminarian in question, and that in consequence he had removed me from the voting faculty. I have come to realize, in retrospect, that McCarrick must have learned this from another member of the voting faculty who was present, and that this was a breach of confidence.

Shortly after this I telephoned the archbishop of Louisville, Thomas Kelly, a friend of mine now deceased, to tell him what had happened. I recall what he said—that “we all know” that McCarrick had “picked up” someone at an airport. From what I understand, McCarrick had met a good-looking flight attendant and invited him to become a seminarian then and there. (I’ve been told this was not the only such spontaneous invitation.) Whether this person shared McCarrick’s bed at the beach house or anywhere else, I don’t know, but he was clearly significant enough in McCarrick’s eyes for McCarrick to fire me when I led the charge to have him expelled. I understood that the “we” of “we all know” meant McCarrick’s fellow bishops. This was my first inkling that knowledge of McCarrick’s behavior was not restricted to the seminary, or to the archdiocese of Newark, but was widespread among the American bishops.

In late 1995 a change of assignment in the Dominican province made it impossible for me to continue teaching at Immaculate Conception, and I resigned from my professorship there in the spring of 1996. While at my new assignment I didn’t forget McCarrick and his strange behavior with seminarians, but it wasn’t something that I dwelled on—that is, not until November 2000, when the nunciature in Washington announced that McCarrick had been appointed archbishop of Washington, D.C. The idea that someone who had shared a bed with his own seminarians would now move from Newark, to the prestigious see of Washington, and inevitably become a cardinal, flabbergasted and enraged me. Didn’t people know of McCarrick’s reputation? I put my thoughts on the matter in a letter addressed to the nuncio, Archbishop Gabriel Montalvo, and telephoned him to tell him to expect a letter from me. I decided to mention my letter to a priest friend in Newark, who warned me not to send it. He said that it would be shown to McCarrick, who would try to hurt me in some way. Two days later I telephoned Archbishop Montalvo a second time in order to tell him that he shouldn’t expect a letter from me because I was afraid that McCarrick would see it. (So much for the courage that some people have attributed to me!) I remember Montalvo’s response clearly: “Send me the letter!” he said.  “What do you think, we are fools? Send the letter!” I have never known for sure why Montalvo was so emphatic. Was it perhaps because he needed documentation to use in an argument of his own against McCarrick? I mailed the letter the same day, November 24, and never received an acknowledgement.

A letter dated Oct. 11, 2006 from Archbishop Leonardo Sandri, then substitute for the Vatican Secretariat of State, to Father Boniface Ramsey (CNS photo/courtesy of Father Boniface Ramsey)

A sort of acknowledgement, however, did arrive six years later in the form of a request in October 2006 from Archbishop Leonardo Sandri, a high official in the Vatican Secretariat of State. Without mentioning McCarrick’s name, Sandri asked me if I knew whether a young priest of the archdiocese of Newark who was being considered for a post in the Vatican had been implicated in the activities I had cited in my letter of November 2000 to Archbishop Montalvo. I replied that, as far as I knew, he had not been involved. Importantly, Sandri’s letter proved that the nuncio had indeed received my letter and that it had been forwarded to the Vatican, where its contents were undoubtedly known not only to Sandri but to others as well.

Meanwhile, in July 2004, in the course of a conversation with New York’s Cardinal Edward Egan, who had welcomed me into his archdiocese as a diocesan priest, I had an occasion to bring up the topic of McCarrick’s behavior. Cardinal Egan did not want to discuss this, and we went on to other topics. But it was perfectly obvious from his immediate reaction that he knew about McCarrick.

During the years between 2006 and 2015 I was not involved in anything related to McCarrick. But it was not an uneventful time for those who were building a case against him. If one is to trust the testimony of Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, accounts of McCarrick’s misbehavior with seminarians had by now reached the ears of Pope Benedict XVI. And all the while stories were being circulated that went far beyond anything that had occurred at the beach house on the Jersey Shore. If one were curious, one could go online, search Theodore McCarrick, and come up with material that was hardly imaginable even to those whose respect for the man was close to nil.

In March 2015 I attended Cardinal Egan’s funeral in St. Patrick’s Cathedral, and I noticed McCarrick among the concelebrants. I felt anger and bewilderment. What was he doing there? Didn’t everyone know about him? Hadn’t Egan himself known? The person to whom I thought I could express my concerns was Cardinal Sean O’Malley, the archbishop of Boston, who headed the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors. If there was anyone who might know how to deal with the sexual harassment of seminarians, surely it was he. Consequently I wrote to O’Malley in June of that year, and asked that he forward my letter to the relevant authorities if my concerns did not come under his mandate. The cardinal’s secretary replied within a few days and said that information I had brought forward did not fall under the cardinal’s jurisdiction. Not a word about forwarding my letter, which I suspected O’Malley had not read.

Soon after that I asked the same friend who had advised me in the late ’80s to talk to the rector of Immaculate Conception Seminary whether or not I should continue to pursue McCarrick. He felt that I shouldn’t, and that McCarrick should be left in his old age to deal with his conscience, and with God. I decided to leave it at that.

 

Father, then bishop, then archbishop, then cardinal: Theodore McCarrick had those titles and the corresponding responsibilities for our sake; his betrayal of them for his own purposes has made them meaningless.

What a surprise it was for me to read in the New York Times in late June of this year that allegations of child abuse had been leveled against McCarrick. Most of us thought that he was interested only in young men, and that he might have been satisfied only with physical proximity. With the new allegations we were entering another realm entirely. This is when I contacted reporters at the Times and told them about my efforts to report McCarrick’s behavior with seminarians. Now so much that had been covered up for so many years at last came out—though quite likely not everything. And of course the revelations about McCarrick were soon followed by the report of the Pennsylvania district attorney. The second phase of the American church’s sexual-abuse crisis had begun.

The anger that has arisen among Catholics in response to the cascade of information about McCarrick has been aimed at two things. First, there are the acts that McCarrick was accused of having committed. Second, there is the fact that many of McCarrick’s peers in the hierarchy seem to have been aware of at least some of those acts—specifically, those having to do with seminarians—and said nothing. McCarrick’s brazenness and lack of shame, his indifference to what others who knew of his behavior might have thought of him (and he ought to have known that they knew), are shocking enough. The fact that those who knew about at least some of his misconduct did not shun him—that he was accepted and even fêted by his peers—is every bit as shocking.

There is talk now of a mechanism to address malfeasance in the hierarchy. Would I be naïve if I said that such a mechanism already exists and that its classic name is fraternal correction? There is a warrant for it in the Gospel: “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault” (Matthew 18:15). At the very least, the bishops who knew about McCarrick should have asked him if what was being said about him was true. Who knows how he would have answered, but at least his brother bishops would have opened the door to fraternal correction. Of course, the worst deeds McCarrick is accused of were already behind him by the time he became a bishop, and there is no reason to suppose that other bishops knew about those. But if they had questioned him about his misconduct with seminarians, they would not have been dragged down with him when that misconduct later became public. As it is, his sins have tarnished them, and they are all too well aware of it.  The case of Theodore McCarrick is, among other things, a case of the failure of fraternal correction.

One way to make up for this failure would be for the ecclesiastical authorities, including Pope Francis, to act in a manner that is not only fair and swift (justice delayed is justice denied), but that also makes sense to the general public. An example of what doesn’t make sense to most people was the 2004 appointment of Cardinal Law as archpriest of the Basilica of Saint Mary Major in Rome after his missteps as archbishop of Boston brought the abuse crisis to a head in 2002. The Vatican may have viewed this as a demotion, but to the majority of the laity it seemed like a rather cushy assignment. McCarrick has recently been relegated to a religious house in Victoria, Kansas, where he is to live “a life of prayer and penance,” but such a discipline may sound medieval and all too remote from the common experience of most Catholics today. If he is guilty of what he has been accused of, and if prison is not an option because of the statute of limitations, McCarrick’s public removal from the priesthood, not just the College of Cardinals, would be an appropriate and generally understandable response to his crimes and sins. The laicization of the cleric who was perhaps the most public face of the institutional church in the United States would also demonstrate that the victims of abuse, both children and adults, count for more in the church than the institution. After all, that institution exists for the sanctification of the individual members of the Body of Christ; the members do not exist for the institution. Father, then bishop, then archbishop, then cardinal: Theodore McCarrick had those titles and the corresponding responsibilities for our sake; his betrayal of them for his own purposes has made them meaningless.

 

Correction: This article originally stated that Theodore McCarrick "has recently been relegated to a religious house in Salina, Kansas..." In fact, the house is in Victoria, Kansas, which is in the Diocese of Salina.

Published in the November 9, 2018 issue: 

Boniface Ramsey is a priest of the Archdiocese of New York and the administrator of the parish of St. Joseph-Yorkville in Manhattan.

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