My story includes several elements that recur across many accounts of clerical sexual abuse. First, “everyone knew”—an overstatement, but not by much. But apparently no one believed that he or she knew enough to act, or that he or she would be believed. And no one with power decided to investigate the whispers and insinuations and rumors. Second, it helped to be a priest. Priests are accorded an excess of credibility, as opposed to the incredulity that too often meets children when they make allegations of abuse. For how could someone who had sacrificed so much for the Church be guilty of such grievous wrongs? How could such a charming, gregarious, charismatic man have done such things? This was, if not quite unthinkable, at least contrary to the stereotype of the priest, which has been shattered and transformed over the past twenty years. Third, sexual innocence made for sexual vulnerability. What was Father up to? Potential victims lacked the knowledge to interpret his advances and ploys. Fourth, silence. “Everyone knew” something, and some might have known a lot, but the knowledge circulated within limited bounds, and then no more. For example, I didn’t tell my parents or teachers the strange stories that my friend and I had heard. If there were victims before 1991, as I imagine there were, perhaps it was shame that kept them from coming forward.
All these elements appear in the Vatican’s McCarrick report, published in November 2020. For background, Theodore McCarrick, ordained a priest in 1958, was “elevated” to the role of auxiliary bishop in New York in 1977, going on to serve as bishop of Metuchen, New Jersey (1981–1986), archbishop of Newark (1986–2000), and finally archbishop of Washington D.C. (2001–2006), in which position he was made a cardinal by Pope John Paul II, who had taken a liking to him years prior. When McCarrick turned seventy-five in 2005, the age at which bishops must submit their resignation to the Vatican, Pope Benedict XVI initially gave him a two-year extension, only to request that he step down in 2006, amid renewed allegations about his conduct. McCarrick was defrocked in 2019, after being found guilty of what the Vatican termed “solicitation in the sacrament of confession, and sins against the Sixth Commandment with minors and adults, with the aggravating factor of the abuse of power.” The McCarrick report notes that the Vatican began “an active search” for victims and witnesses in 2017, after the “first known allegation of sexual abuse by McCarrick of a victim under 18 years of age.” Seventeen people abused as boys or young men came forward.
[Like what you're reading? Support our work today!]
McCarrick’s is another case where “everyone knew” that something was not right—and many people had known more than that for years. In the words of the report, before his appointment to Washington, “McCarrick was known to have shared a bed with young adult men in Metuchen and Newark.” It was “known and a source of joking among the clergy” that McCarrick often would invite seven seminarians to join him at his beach house in New Jersey, though the house had only seven beds, which led to one of the seminarians having to share a bed with him. Sexual overtures followed. Boniface Ramsey, a Dominican priest who taught seminarians at Seton Hall University in the 1980s and ’90s, attested in a 2000 memo to the papal nuncio that “the archbishop’s behavior seemed to be quite well known to the clergy of the Newark archdiocese, and also to many others.” A former seminarian is quoted as saying that it was “common knowledge that McCarrick engaged in this activity.” An anonymous letter sent in 1992 to Cardinal John O’Connor asserted that McCarrick’s “misconduct has been common knowledge in clerical and religious circles for years.” Another letter sent to O’Connor in 1993 claimed that “authorities here and in Rome have known for decades of McCarrick’s proclivity for young boys.”
People hesitated to say what they had seen, or to believe what they had heard. For example, the mother of several boys whom “Uncle Ted” had enthusiastically befriended in the 1970s witnessed him massaging the inner thighs of two of her sons. She also learned that McCarrick had given two of them alcohol on a trip. As she says in the report, “And I knew what this meant: that he was attempting to lower their inhibitions.” Her husband, however, “revered priests,” and McCarrick was extraordinarily charming. She hesitated to report what she had observed and heard partly because she feared retaliation against her children and partly because, in her words, she “lacked the language and understanding to be sure” that McCarrick’s conduct was of a sexual nature, “even though, at the same time, [she] knew he was doing something very wrong.” One of her sons says he did not perceive McCarrick’s conduct as sexual in nature but instead only as “creepy” and “uncomfortable.” In the mid-1980s, this woman finally decided to send an anonymous letter to all the cardinals in the United States and to the papal nuncio. She then watched for signs that something would be done about McCarrick, who was by then bishop of Metuchen. But nothing happened. As she later reflected, “I began to feel, as time passed, that [the Church] was just a club of men who all knew about it and had ignored it.”
Please email comments to [email protected] and join the conversation on our Facebook page.