The Vatican’s report on the long career and serial abuses of former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick was finally published on November 10. Clocking in at nearly 450 pages and some 1,400 footnotes, the report relies on interviews with more than ninety people, ranging from senior curial officials to journeymen reporters like me. (I covered McCarrick for many years and got to know him well during my newspaper days in New Jersey, where he spent most of his episcopal career.) The report’s lead author, California attorney Jeffrey Lena, with whom I spoke several times over the summer, has been diligent about providing a comprehensive paper trail on the rise and fall of one of the most prominent churchmen in the United States.
McCarrick, now ninety and retired since 2006, was the subject of rumors about sexual improprieties for years, but nothing ever came of them, at least publicly, until he was accused in 2017 of abusing a minor back in the 1970s while serving in the Archdiocese of New York. An archdiocesan review board found the allegations credible, and in June 2018 Pope Francis barred McCarrick from public ministry. McCarrick resigned from the College of Cardinals that July. In February 2019, following further Church investigations and a slew of new allegations, the Vatican laicized McCarrick, who now lives in an undisclosed location.
The new report, commissioned by the Vatican’s secretary of state, is careful to avoid the kind of sweeping characterizations that could foster simplistic interpretations, and its decades-long scope and documentary thoroughness make it difficult to summarize. “My sources tell me its length will be somewhere between Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, and equally grey,” Reuters’ longtime Vaticanista, Phil Pullella, tweeted ahead of the report’s publication.
Pullella’s sources were right, and it’s because of the report’s length and complexity that one footnote has stuck in my mind, though it has drawn little attention in all the post-publication commentary—the one explaining that after McCarrick became bishop of the Diocese of Metuchen in 1981, his “rising profile drew the attention of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and even the KGB.” Yes, a KGB agent posing as a United Nations diplomat sought out McCarrick, who did not initially realize the man was a spy. The FBI alerted McCarrick to the Russian’s real identity and tried to recruit McCarrick as a “counter-intelligence asset” who would befriend the Soviet agent and relay intelligence to the Americans and disinformation to the Soviets. The FBI was persistent, and McCarrick was intrigued. He wrote to the Vatican’s representative to Washington at the time, Archbishop Pio Laghi, who “thought that McCarrick should ‘not be negative’ about the possibility of serving as an FBI asset and described McCarrick in an internal note as someone who ‘knows how to deal with these people and be cautious’ and who was ‘wise enough to understand and not be caught.’” It’s not clear whether McCarrick acted on the FBI’s proposal, but what the rest of the report makes clear is that the FBI, the KGB, and the Vatican all recognized something in McCarrick that made him a natural for either spycraft or the clerical culture of the Catholic hierarchy. Those two worlds could be remarkably similar. Indeed, the report often reads like a George Smiley Soviet-era spy novel (a comparison Villanova theologian Massimo Faggioli often makes). There is a sprawling cast of characters engaged in plots and sub-plots, developing networks of informants, sending secret missives, and delivering envelopes of cash. Gossip is a double-edged sword that can cut your opponents but also be turned against you. There are wheels within wheels, betrayals and secret alliances, and running through it all is McCarrick’s remarkable talent for survival.
He had to be sharper than most because he was suspect on a number of fronts. The rumors about sex were almost secondary. In the John Paul II era, the quickest route to advancement was to proclaim one’s orthodoxy loudly and insistently, and McCarrick was never convincing on that score. He tried to cover his right flank by doing things like banning general absolution, but it was never enough. McCarrick “is no champion of clarity of ideas and of coherence of conduct in relation to the doctrine of the Church,” complained the late Archbishop Pietro Sambi, then the nuncio to Washington, in a 2008 memo. While news reports often describe McCarrick as one of the most powerful and influential bishops of his generation, in fact he was mainly known for his affable public persona; inside the hierarchy he was always scrambling to stay in the picture. He was passed over for elite sees like Chicago and New York, and even after he nabbed the Washington post in 2001 he was never named to a seat on one of the key Vatican congregations, as one might expect for a person in his position. “Ted” McCarrick was rarely in the room where it happened, but he was always listening at the keyhole.