Caught in the Middle

What Figueiredo’s Letters Reveal about McCarrick’s Sanctions
Msgr. Anthony J. Figueiredo in 2017 (CNS photo/Mike Stechschulte, The Michigan Catholic)

When Archbishop Carlo Viganò published his “testimony” last August accusing Pope Francis and many other high-ranking church officials of a sex-abuse cover-up, Monsignor Anthony Figueiredo had kind words for him. “I know him personally. I know him as a man of great integrity, honest to the core,” he told CBS News. “He’s worked for three different popes, and [was] sent to a Vatican position, a diplomatic position as big as the United States, which means he’s a trusted man.”

Figueiredo was speaking in his role as a Vatican-based CBS News consultant, commenting on what he said was “like an earthquake for the church”—charges from the former papal nuncio to the United States that prelates covered up long-standing accusations that former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick sexually harassed and abused seminarians. As for the pope, he said, “Let’s be clear, if the Holy Father knew about Cardinal McCarrick on the twenty-third of June [2013], as Archbishop Viganò claims, and did nothing about it, then it’s serious, as the pope himself has said.” He was referring to Viganò’s assertion that he told Francis about McCarrick’s offenses at the outset of his papacy—which the pope says he does not remember.

The monsignor was in a very tricky position, for he was a quiet facilitator for McCarrick in the Vatican, pressed into the service of the retired cardinal-archbishop’s energetic efforts to slide past whatever low-decibel disciplinary restrictions Pope Benedict XVI had imposed in 2008 for McCarrick’s sexual misdeeds.

Figueiredo made that public by voluntarily releasing excerpts from his correspondence with McCarrick on May 28, which coincided with the twenty-fifth anniversary of his ordination—by McCarrick, then the archbishop of Newark. He served as McCarrick’s personal secretary from September 1994 to June 1995 and, he relates, “also assisted him in a secretarial capacity during his many visits to Rome in my nineteen years of ministry there.”

The newly released excerpts of correspondence don’t shed any light on what Pope Francis knew or did not know, but Figueiredo refers to the pope warmly in a preamble on his website, thanking him for his “efforts to address the scourge of abuse” and pledging his “unswerving affection, loyalty and support.” Part of his work in Rome had been to help Francis pursue the church’s pro-immigrant agenda.

What we do learn is that around August 2008, Pope Benedict took an action that McCarrick understood as a requirement that he change his residence and also clear his future public appearances with the Holy See or its nuncio in Washington. Figueiredo quotes from an August 25, 2008 letter McCarrick wrote to the papal nuncio, Archbishop Pietro Sambi, that refers to these restrictions: “In summary, in the future I will make no commitments to accept any public appearances or talks without the express permission of the Apostolic Nuncio or the Holy See itself.”

The correspondence indicates that Pope Benedict’s decision about McCarrick was contained in a letter Sambi had handed to McCarrick three days earlier; it was written by Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re, prefect of the Congregation for Bishops. That letter has not been made public but, Figueiredo suggests, it should be in archives both at the Congregation for Bishops and at the papal nunciature in Washington, and possibly the Archdiocese of Washington.

An “open letter” to Viganò that Cardinal Marc Ouellet, the current prefect of the Congregation for Bishops, issued last October, apparently referred to the same letter. “After re-examining the archives, I can ascertain that there are no corresponding documents signed by either Pope, neither is there a note of an audience with my predecessor, Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re, giving Archbishop Emeritus McCarrick an obligatory mandate of silence and to retire to a private life, carrying canonical penalties,” Ouellet wrote. “The reason being that at that time, unlike today, there was not sufficient proof of his alleged guilt.”

He continued: “Hence, the position of the Congregation was inspired by prudence, and my predecessor’s letters, as well as mine, reiterated through the Apostolic Nuncio Pietro Sambi, and then also through you [Viganò], urging a discreet style of life, of prayer and penance for his own good and that of the Church.”

If Figueiredo is right, the admonition to McCarrick in 2008 was more specific than Cardinal Ouellet has indicated. But there are still a lot of pieces missing from this puzzle. Figueirido has released excerpts of certain correspondence, but not the complete letters or emails. And the correspondence he has reflects mainly what McCarrick was willing to let him know.

None of the disclosures made so far has answered a central question: What sort of effort did Vatican authorities make in 2008 to gather and investigate the veracity of allegations?

Figueiredo relates that he translated into Italian a letter McCarrick drafted for Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, then the Vatican secretary of state, explaining his situation. McCarrick admitted to “an unfortunate lack of judgment,” that he shared a bed with seminarians or priests at his summer house when it was overcrowded. But, he added, “I have never had sexual relations with anyone, man, woman or child, nor have I ever sought such acts.”

Ultimately, a church investigation found otherwise. The Vatican announced on February 16 that McCarrick had been found guilty of sexual offenses against minors and adults, and of soliciting for sex while hearing confession. A “thorough study” of how McCarrick managed to rise in the hierarchy and hang on to his influence despite insiders’ knowledge of his situation is still under way, officials said.

None of the disclosures made so far—whether by Viganò, Ouellet, and now Figueiredo—has answered a central question: What sort of effort did Vatican authorities make in 2008 to gather and investigate the veracity of allegations that had been making their way to the Holy See for years?

Bishop Emeritus Paul Bootkoski of the Diocese of Metuchen has disclosed that he reported allegations regarding McCarrick to the papal nuncio to the United States, Archbishop Gabriel Montalvo Higuera, in December 2005. A legal settlement had already been reached with a former seminarian who said he was a victim of McCarrick’s sexual misconduct, and another claim was being investigated. Similarly, the Archdiocese of Newark has said it reported a settlement to the Vatican in 2007. In the correspondence Monsignor Figueiredo disclosed, there is no reference to the settled cases.

Those cases corroborated concerns previously communicated to the Vatican by the Rev. Boniface Ramsey, a professor from 1986 to 1996 at the Immaculate Conception Seminary in South Orange, New Jersey. As he wrote in Commonweal, he had been raising his concerns about McCarrick with higher officials since the late 1980s, and in 2000 he notified Montalvo about seminarians’ experiences with McCarrick’s advances. At Montalvo’s request, he put it in writing on November 22, 2000, the day after McCarrick’s appointment as archbishop of Washington, D.C. was announced.

It became clear that Ramsey’s letter to the nuncio reached a high level in the Vatican when he received a letter in 2006 from then-Archbishop Leonardo Sandri, who was a key official in the Secretariat of State. Sandri asked about a priest being vetted for a Vatican post at the time—it was Figueiredo—and noted that he’d studied at the seminary where Ramsey taught. “I ask with particular reference to the serious matters involving some of the students of the Immaculate Conception Seminary, which in November 2000 you were good enough to bring confidentially to the attention of the then Apostolic Nuncio in the United States, the late Archbishop Gabriel Montalvo,” Sandri wrote.

So the Secretariat of State had record of the allegations throughout the same period that it made use of McCarrick’s  extensive diplomatic contacts, which are recounted in McCarrick’s gloating emails to Figueiredo.

Figueiredo got his job with the Pontifical Council Cor Unum, a Vatican agency that distributes papal relief funds, in 2006. With his consulting for CBS and EWTN, his international relief missions for the papacy, and his work as spiritual director of the Pontifical North American College, the priest from the Newark archdiocese established a high profile in Rome.

But in October 2018, he was arrested on a drunk-driving charge in the United Kingdom after a traffic collision. He alluded to this in his posting: “The hierarchy’s abuse of authority and cover up, in their various and serious manifestations, have inflicted consequences upon me, too,” he wrote. “Especially as a priest, I regret unreservedly the harms that I caused as a result of them through seeking consolation in alcohol. Now I am deeply grateful for the therapeutic treatment that I am receiving, which has allowed me to embrace a life of sobriety.”

He was called back to his home archdiocese in New Jersey. A spokeswoman for the Newark archdiocese, Maria Margiotta, responded to Commonweal’s queries about Figueiredo with a short statement: “The information and correspondence publicly released by Monsignor Anthony Figueiredo properly belong to the Holy See to investigate. Our understanding is that the Holy See intends to issue a statement regarding former Cardinal McCarrick and we look forward to that.”

On his website, Figueiredo seemed to indicate that his line of communication with church officials was blocked. His decision to disclose portions of his correspondence “follows attempts since September 2018 to share and discuss these with the Holy See and other Church leaders,” he wrote.

In an interview with CBS, he was more direct. “I would be part of the cover-up if I simply kept that correspondence to myself,” he said.

Paul Moses, a contributing writer at Commonweal, is the author of The Saint and the Sultan: The Crusades, Islam and Francis of Assisi's Mission of Peace (Doubleday, 2009) and An Unlikely Union: The Love-Hate Story of New York's Irish and Italians (NYU Press, 2015). Follow him on Twitter @PaulBMoses. 

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