Then-Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick at the Vatican, March 4, 2013 (CNS photo/Max Rossi, Reuters)

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.

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.

He compensated by making himself indispensable. He worked harder than anyone else, raised more money, and charmed popes and pols, finagling his way into every event and photo op he could find. He made a name for himself in arenas beyond Church circles, in ecumenism and international relations and domestic politics. He was great with the press—at a time when many Church leaders were media-averse sourpusses who couldn’t be bothered to provide a decent sound bite. McCarrick was accessible, insightful, genial, and always good for the perfect anecdote. The report confirms that these attributes were recognized even by Church leaders who disliked McCarrick; they saw him as “self-promoting,” but they also tapped him for money and sent him around the world on diplomatic missions where his personal skills came in handy. McCarrick was the overeager nerd the jocks pick on—until they need him to do their homework. It was a dysfunctional dynamic that created the space for McCarrick to survive, and even thrive. 

It also helped McCarrick that twenty or thirty years ago, rumors of sexual misconduct did not disqualify a priest from a promotion as long as there was some degree of plausible deniability. Victims were much less likely to come forward than they are today, so we in the media had no firsthand accounts and Church officials could dismiss allegations as anonymous score-settling or secondhand rumors—an approach they were all too eager to adopt in order to save face or, as they often put it, “protect the faithful from scandal.”

The Vatican report suggests that John Paul was so “conditioned” by living under a Communist regime where false accusations were used to target churchmen that he would reflexively dismiss allegations against clergy. “Attacking the bishop attacks the flock,” the Polish pontiff is quoted as saying. Yet as Michael Sean Winters writes in his analysis for the National Catholic Reporter, the Cold War thesis goes only so far in explaining what happened. John Paul also “found it easy to ignore allegations against Fr. Marcial Maciel Degollado, the depraved founder of the Legionaries of Christ,” Winters notes, and there are many other examples of churchmen during the reign of John Paul whose grave personal failings were excused by their vocal “orthodoxy” and by the Vatican’s insistence that what happens in the hierarchy stays in the hierarchy.

This attitude was carried into the next papacy. In the McCarrick report, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI (who was also interviewed) comes across as largely ineffectual and uninterested in reining in McCarrick, even after clear evidence of his improper behavior with seminarians and priests began to filter into Rome. One episode not included in the report makes it perfectly clear where Benedict stood, and why we are still rehashing a case like McCarrick’s. In an Easter 2010 homily at St. Peter’s, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the powerful former secretary of state who had protected Maciel, among others, dismissed sex abuse allegations against clergy as “petty gossip,” a shocking slap at victims and the sensibilities of the flock. A month later, in an unusual public rebuke by a fellow cardinal, Cardinal Christoph Schönborn of Vienna said Sodano had “deeply wronged the victims.” Schönborn noted that it was Sodano who had tried to block an investigation of Schönborn’s predecessor in Vienna, Cardinal Hans Hermann Groer, who had been publicly accused of molesting students and other clerics, and was eventually sent to live in a monastery. For his frankness, Schönborn was called on the carpet in Rome in front of Benedict and Sodano, and the Vatican issued a statement declaring that Church officials must “show due respect” to each other and that “in the Church, only the pope has the authority to accuse a cardinal.”


It was all fundamentally self-serving, and it is an approach that would eventually find its most vocal exponent in Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, the former nuncio to Washington who was dispatched to the United States by Benedict in 2011 and sent packing in 2016 when Pope Francis grew tired of his mischief.

Viganò’s most notorious operation was ambushing Francis at the end of his 2015 trip to the United States by arranging a meeting at the Washington nunciature with Kim Davis, a Kentucky county clerk who had famously refused to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Francis had no idea who Davis was, but when word of their meeting became public it created a firestorm that overshadowed the pontiff’s otherwise successful visit. Viganò, whose resentment at being sidelined by Francis and bypassed for a cardinal’s hat seems to grow more intense every year, used the recent McCarrick revelations for a new ambush in August 2018. On the final night of Francis’s trip to Ireland, Viganò released an eleven-page letter whose most explosive claim was that he had told Francis all about McCarrick’s abuses and that Francis brushed aside his warnings and rehabilitated McCarrick, elevating him to a position of unparalleled influence. Viganò concluded his letter by calling on the pope to resign.

In this hierarchical house of mirrors, Viganò was a reflection of McCarrick.

Viganò’s attempted coup d’eglise was unheard of, and ultimately unsuccessful. Yet he received an astonishing degree of support from dozens of U.S. churchmen and several major conservative Catholic media outlets, which helped orchestrate and amplify his claims. In the years since, Viganò has become an increasingly bizarre figure, embracing QAnon-level conspiracy theories about the machinations of the “deep Church” and the “children of darkness.” He has also developed a disturbing relationship of mutual support and admiration with Donald Trump, and has even begun promoting—from his hidey-hole somewhere in Europe—Trump’s spurious claims of massive voter fraud.

Viganò is still depicted by his allies as a courageous whistleblower, but the McCarrick report shows he was just blowing smoke. Viganò had already embarrassed himself when it emerged that he had tried to block investigations of Archbishop John Nienstedt of St. Paul and Minneapolis, who was eventually forced to resign in 2015 after accusations that he did not take action against priests accused of abusing children and was himself guilty of sexual misconduct with men. Nienstedt was an anti-gay culture warrior allied with Viganò, and that was enough for the homophobic nuncio. “We cannot give in to the enemies of the Church, the media, the attorneys, and others who oppose the Church,” Viganò told John Carr, a former USCCB official now at Georgetown University, when Carr complained about the lack of action against Nienstedt.

Yet at the same time as he was protecting Nienstedt, Viganò was also covering for McCarrick—the very thing he would later accuse Pope Francis of doing. The report shows that in 2012 the Vatican told Viganò to investigate a priest’s claim that McCarrick had abused him, but Viganò did not follow through. Contrary to Viganò’s claims in his 2018 manifesto, no “sanctions” were ever imposed on McCarrick by Benedict, which means there were no sanctions for Francis to lift. Viganò himself frequently appeared with McCarrick at public events while in Washington, offering fulsome praise for the cardinal and maintaining a regular communication with McCarrick on the former cardinal’s comings and goings. There was no rehabilitation of McCarrick by Francis, no evidence that McCarrick had any influence on major episcopal appointments, and no stern warning from Viganò to the pope in 2013 to do something about McCarrick. The disinformation in Viganò’s letter was aimed at deflecting suspicion from himself and at bringing down his foes. In this hierarchical house of mirrors, Viganò was a reflection of McCarrick.

There are so many double agents in this drama, and their loyalties shift between their own interests and those of the Church, between one ideological camp and another depending on who is in charge. They are traitors or heroes, depending on where you stand. The demands of the Gospel and the needs of the flock rarely come into play.

While the report has critics on both sides, the simple fact of the report is an encouraging sign. Nothing like this would have existed even a few years ago. It could have been better, sure, but it also could have been much, much worse. Some are calling it a “whitewash” and are demanding an inquisition that would publicly punish the guilty. The problem is that most of those who were most responsible are dead or infirm, and that the culpability is spread so widely, and over so many years. Those who can still be disciplined for their involvement in mishandling the allegations against McCarrick should be disciplined, while the secretive process for selecting bishops should be opened up to wider consultation. But focusing on one or two culprits, or reforms, would be a mistake. It would make things too easy for everyone else.

Conservatives wanted the McCarrick report to show that homosexuality was the problem, or that a cabal of progressives was secretly running the Church. Anything less was a cover-up in their eyes. Others have argued that focusing on anyone besides McCarrick, an evil genius of historic proportions, was a diversion. “[L]et the focus of wickedness in this tawdry affair be identified accurately as Theodore McCarrick, not John Paul II,” George Weigel wrote in a strained defense of John Paul in First Things. But fixating on McCarrick himself is what allows people like him and Nienstedt to maneuver, by allowing those who have recklessly enabled abusers to present themselves as victims of deceit, guilty of nothing worse than naïveté.

A friend of mine in Rome recently wondered whether the report would show that McCarrick “was a product of the system or a master manipulator of the system.” I suggested it was both. McCarrick has been punished by the Church as much as he can be at this point, and exile itself is the harshest sentence for a man like him. “When you are out you are out. Everybody moves on,” McCarrick is quoted as saying in the report. He was talking about his desire to remain “relevant” even after he retired. His only relevance now is as a warning about a clerical system that desperately needs an overhaul.

David Gibson is the director of Fordham’s Center on Religion & Culture.

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Published in the December 2020 issue: View Contents
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