How did Theodore McCarrick make it to the helm, becoming a leading bishop and a prince of the Church? His journey and thirst for positions, power, and ambition is quite remarkable: from his 1977 appointment by Pope Paul VI as auxiliary bishop of New York; to his 1981 appointment by Pope John Paul II to bishop of Metuchen N.J.; to his 1986 appointment as Archbishop of Newark; to his 2000 appointment as Archbishop of Washington, to his 2001 elevation to cardinal – a formidable 24-year career representing a perfect double life, following the handbook of how to build trust among the people while deceiving them, with a focus on climbing the ladder.
But McCarrick was not a professional politician; he was a pastor and bishop/archbishop/cardinal of the Church, one on whose care the Catholics of four different sees depended. How did he manage to deceive the flock under his care? How did he manage to deceive his brother bishops who had heard rumors about McCarrick’s misconduct? How did he manage to deceive Pope John Paul II?
A 2011 book by Fr. Louis Cameli, The Devil You Don’t Know, comes to mind to explain the tricky way McCarrick got to the helm: deceit, division, diversion and discouragement. In the case of McCarrick, bury the tracks and divert investigation. It is tragic that McCarrick’s masterful deceit fell through the cracks of the Church’s bureaucracy and slow communication between America and Rome. The fact is that McCarrick’s Irish wit, approachableness, and charisma fooled his brother priests and bishops, convincing them not to investigate the rumors and get to the bottom of his double life.
No doubt, McCarrick is a man of many talents, and those talents helped him in his thirst for power and in climbing the ecclesiastical ladder. His savoir-faire, shrewdness, and nuanced responses on any political-ecclesiastical matter made him one of the most sought-after Catholic leaders by the media, although it was hard to identify where McCarrick stood on many issues, or to corner him in a progressive or traditional box. He waltzed very carefully to avoid being pigeonholed. He never questioned official Church doctrine, he defended celibacy and an all-male priesthood, was against abortion, and praised the pontiffs, thus checking off all the hot-button boxes masterfully to be in line with Rome, or as he himself said, with both sides of Pennsylvania Avenue.
When scandal broke, McCarrick became the public—dare I say, the attractive public face of the Catholic Church, to represent an institution tainted by scandal while keeping himself at a safe distance from scandal. Ironically, the image of a wounded and embattled Church was restored by the most corrupt pedophile and a sex abuser of seminarians.
Drafting his own exemption
McCarrick raised his profile by becoming the unofficial spokesperson of the American Catholic bishops to the secular media. He really knew how to handle the media. At the time when Pope John Paul II summoned all eleven American cardinals to Rome to address the sex abuse scandal in the United States, McCarrick was quoted by the Washington Post on April 17, 2002, saying: “We have to make sure that we are all on the same page … that every credible allegation gets both to the diocese and the civil authorities.”
McCarrick, who himself had been accused, proposed ways of tackling the scandal of abuse in a more comprehensive way so that it would not be handled by each diocese individually. McCarrick was so convinced of his innocence that he was not shy when speaking publicly about what he considered to be an unfounded accusation from ten years prior when he was Archbishop of Newark. He publicly confessed that he had been accused of pedophilia, abusing members of his own family, his nieces and nephews. Susan Gibbs, McCarrick’s spokesperson, explained, according to the Washington Post article, that the unsigned letter implied that he had sexually abused his nieces and nephews, but it had “no specific allegations, no names, no nothing … just rumor.”
Was McCarrick confessing the truth? Why was he diverting attention to his “own family,” his nieces and nephews, when in fact he did not have immediate family? McCarrick was an only child. As the Report explains, people close to McCarrick in the Archdiocese of Newark were “confused when he would talk about his brothers and sisters, nieces and nephews.” Diverting attention from the uncle-nephew paradigm of abuse is a trick of the trade, as McCarrick knew all too well: he had abused, and the accusations were referring to, seminarians from Immaculate Conception Seminary School of Theology. These were college-age boys he was grooming. Deception, diverting attention, confusion, and wordsmithing were all used masterfully and convincingly.
What McCarrick was referring to (according to the Report) in the Washington Post interview were the six anonymous letters and one pseudonymous letter received between 1992-1993 alleging sexual misconduct. The letters were mailed to different Catholic prelates, including Archbishop Agostino Cacciavillan, the Nuncio to the United States; Cardinals John O’Connor and Joseph Bernardin; and attorney William Cambria, general counsel for the Archdiocese of Newark. Cardinal O’Connor had sent McCarrick copies of the letters. However, none of the letters provides the names of victims. After McCarrick’s vigorous defense of himself and discussion of the pain he was undergoing “to be accused of these crimes and not to be able to defend himself [oneself] or his [one’s] reputation,” these letters were treated as slanderous and did not lead to any investigations or fact-checking. He escaped scrutiny and judgment. One wonders if his brother priests, Cardinals John O’Connor and Joseph Bernardin, approached him and told him his fault between them and him alone, following the directives of Christ (Mt 18:15). It does not seem to have been the case.
But there was more deception: playing the vulnerability card, which in the end benefited the person who opened up publicly, McCarrick, and built more trust among the Catholics and his brother priests, keeping his name and reputation untainted by the accusations. He was modeling what to do if accused: divert attention, divert investigation, and play the victim card. McCarrick wanted to go on record confidently and publicly stating: “If there is any interest with anyone here, I can say I am 71 years old and I have never had sexual relations with anyone – man, woman or child. And that can go on record.”
But there were more diversions and cover-ups. McCarrick was supportive of different standards being applied to priests who had committed assaults in the past. In an interview with NPR’s All Things Considered, on June 11, 2002, he responded about the Church reaction to future sex abuse cases: “… anyone who would do this [sex abuse] we would look for automatic laicization – in other words, being removed from the clerical state, being removed from the priestly ministry” – a firm statement followed by exception for past offenses (probably his) “if it [the abuse] happened in the past, let’s take him out of public ministry and maybe the possibility of a monastery or a facility where that person could live and no one would be threatened by his being around.”
So, zero tolerance for McCarrick was meant for future offenses; it does not apply to past offenses. McCarrick was one of the draftsmen of the Dallas Charter of June 2002, procedures which left much to be desired and were devoid of theological understanding, leaving the bishops like McCarrick exempt from the strictest censure.
How McCarrick deceived Pope John Paul II
McCarrick did not spare his deception and flattery with Pope John Paul II. In a 2006 interview with the Washingtonian, when asked who were the most impressive people he had met among the world’s great leaders, he put Pope John Paul II in third place. McCarrick first met Pope John Paul II in 1976, when he was Cardinal Wojtyla, Archbishop of Krakow. The future pope was attending the Eucharistic Congress in Philadelphia in September 1976, when he visited NYC and McCarrick was serving as a secretary of Cardinal Terence Cooke. McCarrick “jokingly complained that he had given up his vacation to be at the conference.” When Wojtyla became pope, he would remember this first encounter with McCarrick and would ask him during a general audience “Did you ever get that vacation?” Obviously, McCarrick had captured Wojtyla’s attention with his wit and flattery.
John Paul II visited Newark in 1995 after Cardinal O’Connor had informed the Nuncio Cacciavillan that there were no impediments to the pope visiting Newark, after he has conducted and completed an inquiry related to the allegations made by Priest 1 according to the McCarrick Report (p. 112). The road was cleared for John Paul II to visit McCarrick in Newark, which in turn scored more points of credibility for McCarrick and cemented his position among his fellow bishops.
In conclusion, not everything hidden and secret is revealed by the Report, but the Report is clear that there was deep deception which the Church as a human institution failed to correct. While McCarrick has facetiously touted the importance of bringing false accusations against him to light so they could be exposed for their untruthfulness, the Report has truly brought to light enough truth to show the flaws of a man who had tricked the Church. The Report has also helped to expose the flaws of the system that allowed such a man to rise through the ranks. If Church leaders take the Report to heart, the grace that can come from an awareness of this sordid situation can help the Church return with renewed sincerity to its commitment to protecting and promoting the dignity of all and to an emphasis on humility.
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