Explainer: the Theodore McCarrick inquiry

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Image credit: Christoph Schmid, Unsplash

The Vatican has released a long-awaited report into the career of the unfrocked American cardinal Theodore McCarrick, a high-ranking former prelate of the Catholic church found to have sexually abused minors and adults.

It is the first time the Holy See has carried out a detailed internal inquiry into a high-profile clerical sexual abuse case and then released its findings.

The document is unprecedented because of its willingness to face up to the mistake made by John Paul II, the Pope from 1978 to 2005, and now saint, to promote McCarrick. Both Pope Francis and his predecessor, Benedict XVI, subjected themselves to questioning by investigators — which is also a first.

The Report on the Holy See’s Institutional Knowledge and Decision-making Related to Former Cardinal Theodore Edgar McCarrick is 449 pages long, has 1,412 footnotes, includes interviews with 90 witnesses and documents found in the Vatican relating to McCarrick. It paints a damning picture of how McCarrick was able to rise up the ranks of clerical power despite facing allegations of sexual misconduct with adults.

Pope Francis commissioned the inquiry into McCarrick in September 2018 after a credible allegation emerged that McCarrick had abused a minor. At that time, Francis removed McCarrick from the College of Cardinals and a year later, after a church trial, McCarrick was dismissed from the priesthood. At the time the Pope opened a “thorough study” of what the Vatican knew about McCarrick, he pledged it would “follow the path of truth wherever it may lead.”

The McCarrick report also came after a retired papal diplomat, Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, issued an explosive dossier in August 2018 calling on Pope Francis to resign over the McCarrick case.


Theodore McCarrick served as Archbishop of Washington DC,  2000-06, and was created a cardinal in 2001. He was the Bishop of Metuchen, New Jersey, 1981-86, and then Archbishop of Newark, New Jersey.

McCarrick had a reputation as a prodigious networker, globetrotter, brilliant fundraiser and was close to the centres of power in both the Vatican and Washington. According to the Holy See’s report, McCarrick’s talents saw him approached by both the KGB and FBI, with the latter wanting him to serve as a counter-intelligence asset inside the KGB.


The first concerns about McCarrick were raised in the mid-1980s, by a woman called “Mother 1” whose family was friendly with him when was stationed in New York. “Mother 1” was concerned about McCarrick’s behaviour around her sons and on one occasion witnessed him “massaging the inner thighs” of two of her boys.

She wrote anonymous letters to the cardinals in the United States and the papal ambassador to Washington. But the report was unable to locate the letters. Other anonymous letters about McCarrick’s alleged paedophilia were circulated in 1992 and 1993.

By 2000, the Vatican was aware that McCarrick had been accused of sexual misconduct with a priest and was known for sharing his bed with young adult men and trainee priests.


Pope John Paul II appointed McCarrick Archbishop of Washington and a cardinal despite being made aware of the allegations of misconduct with adults. The report says a letter from a cardinal detailing the allegations against McCarrick was shared with John Paul II in 1999.

The Pope had commissioned a secret inquiry into the allegations but received inadequate information supplied three US bishops. McCarrick in turn vehemently denied all the allegations made against him.

John Paul II, the report adds, had known McCarrick for years, and had suspicions about the truth of the allegations. At this time, no victim had come forward to the Holy See with a complaint. All of these factors conspired to help McCarrick’s appointment to Washington DC.


When new information emerged against McCarrick, Pope Benedict XVI ordered him to resign in 2006. Benedict was also advised to start a church trial against McCarrick but decided not to. Instead, he privately urged him to adopt a low profile and minimise travel. McCarrick ignored these directives and they were never properly enforced.


Archbishop Viganò claimed he warned the Pope about McCarrick in 2013, but Francis lifted the “sanctions” against McCarrick and rehabilitated him as an adviser. According to the report, however, “no records support Viganò’s account and evidence as to what he said is sharply disputed”.

The McCarrick report states that “no one . . . provided Pope Francis with any documentation regarding allegations against McCarrick”, although the Pope recalled “a brief conversation” about McCarrick with one senior aide.

Given that the allegations and rumours concerned immoral conduct with adults from several years before, which McCarrick had always strenuously denied, Francis “did not see the need to alter the approach that had been adopted in prior years”, the report says.

Viganò’s 2018 allegations have been embraced by groups inside the church deeply hostile to the Francis papacy, leading to fears that the McCarrick case was being used as a weapon to destabilise his reform agenda.

Meanwhile, Viganò is himself implicated in the McCarrick case. In 2012 he was papal ambassador to the United States when he ignored Vatican instructions to investigate a McCarrick sexual misconduct allegation.

Furthermore, the report cites a 2012 letter from Viganò saying the restrictions on McCarrick that Benedict XVI had sought to impose were a “dead letter”. But in his dossier calling for Francis to resign, Viganò says that “from the time of Pope Francis [who was elected in 2013] . . . McCarrick was free from all constraints”.


Francis has issued a raft of anti-abuse laws to prevent a repeat of the McCarrick case including the investigating of anonymous allegations, holding bishops accountable and a widening of the definition of abuse to include “#MeToo” style complaints. Victims must be listened to, and the denials of bishops cannot simply be taken at face value.

The McCarrick report is already sparking calls to reform church governance structures, tackle clericalism and include more lay people in appointing bishops. Some are questioning the wisdom of canonising John Paul II so quickly after his death, although others point out that even future saints can make mistakes.

Either way, the Catholic church’s abuse crisis is likely to have profound long-term theological implications.


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