WASHINGTON — When Theodore McCarrick resigned his title as a cardinal of the Catholic Church in July, the church made one promise as shock waves rippled through the pews: McCarrick would face a canonical trial, the Vatican’s version of a criminal inquiry, for the sexual misconduct he allegedly committed.
Four months later, McCarrick has moved from Washington, where he was once the archbishop and then a prominent diplomat, to a remote friary in Kansas. Vatican leaders have said no to American bishops' request that the Vatican conduct an investigation here into the disgraced ex-cardinal’s behavior. When the U.S. bishops tried to vote last week on new rules regarding bishops, designed to prevent another McCarrick-type scandal, the Vatican issued a last-minute directive telling them to not even take a vote.
The question lingering on many Catholics' minds remains: What's going to happen to McCarrick?
The Vatican remains silent on the answer.
“What I hear from the people of God who I’ve been listening to ... the Archbishop McCarrick case has particularly upset them,” Bishop Robert Deeley of Maine told his fellow bishops in an emotional remark last week at the U.S. bishops' meeting in Baltimore, where numerous bishops raised demands for more investigation into McCarrick. "What the people don’t understand is, this behavior must have been known, because people are saying that it was known. And how did these promotions happen? I think that’s where the problem, a lack of trust, is. [Parishioners are asking] ‘Can we trust you?’ "
McCarrick’s long rise through the ranks of the church, even as rumors swirled in certain circles that the cleric acted inappropriately toward seminarians and young priests, has indeed touched a nerve. Combined with a major grand jury report in Pennsylvania less than a month after McCarrick’s resignation — which recounted decades of abuse by hundreds of priests in the state — the scandal has set off a new wave of protests, not seen since the Boston Globe’s revelatory reporting in 2002, condemning the church’s handling of abuse at the highest levels.
Last month, McCarrick’s successor as archbishop of Washington, Cardinal Donald Wuerl, retired early, faced with parishioners' distrust that he truly didn’t know about McCarrick’s misconduct, as he claims, and that he mishandled abusive priests when he was bishop of Pittsburgh, as covered in the Pennsylvania report. The McCarrick scandal has even touched Pope Francis, after Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò wrote in a furious letter that Francis knew about the allegations facing McCarrick and should resign. Francis has not specifically responded to Viganò's claims, which are unproven but widely read.
When McCarrick was removed from ministry in June, the church said he had been credibly accused of molesting a minor when he was a priest in New York, nearly 50 years ago. By the time he resigned a month later, another man had come forward to say that McCarrick abused him as a youth too, starting when he was about 11 years old. And two New Jersey dioceses where McCarrick previously worked admitted that they had settled two cases out of court involving McCarrick preying on young adult seminarians and priests, paying out $80,000 in one case and $100,000 in another.
The Archdiocese of New York investigated the first case and found the alleged victim's accusation credible, leading to McCarrick's removal. Ed Mechmann, the director of the Safe Environment Program for the archdiocese there, said the Vatican had assigned the same New York review board to investigate the second accusation. That investigation is ongoing and will eventually be turned over to the Vatican as well, Mechmann said.
Pat Noaker, a civil lawyer who represents both the accuser whose case led to McCarrick's suspension and James Grein, the Northern Virginia man who says the ex-cardinal abused him starting around age 11, said he has heard inconsistent updates from various church officials about the status of the first case in Rome. "I have absolutely no confidence these men will receive justice from the Vatican. They protect their bishops and cardinals like princes, like the Saudis protect theirs," Noaker said.
The Vatican has declined to answer questions, including those from The Washington Post this week, about the state of an eventual trial in Rome for McCarrick. But some church watchers believe the Vatican is waiting until Grein's case makes its way to Rome.
It's an easier case — because the victim was younger when the abuse started. According to Noaker, the other victim was 16 years old when McCarrick first put his hand in the teen's pants while preparing for a Christmas service.
Until the 1980s, Catholic commentator Ed Condon said, the church's definition of sexual abuse of a minor only covered people under 16 years old. The age was raised to 18.
"Under the operative law at the time of the accusation, it wasn't a minor. If you pass a law, you change the provisions of a penal law; you can't impose them retroactively," said Condon, who trained as a canon lawyer — meaning he can practice in the Vatican's own legal system.
Avoiding any sexual liaisons — with adults or children, consensual or not — is an obligation of priests under canon law, but simply having a sexual encounter with a person age 16 or older was not necessarily considered a crime under canon law at the time, Condon said: "Which isn't to say there isn't sexual behavior that could result in a criminal process, but it's not spelled out." If McCarrick were charged with a crime for molesting the teenager before the Christmas service or for harassing adults in New Jersey, Condon said, it might fall under categories such as "damage to the good of souls" and "public scandal."
"The difficulty they're working with at the moment is trying to find a way of applying the law as it's been applied for the last 20, 30 years, while representing the gravity of the McCarrick situation," Condon said.
That might mean the Vatican will simply wait to put McCarrick on trial until they can try him on the case of the younger victim, a more straightforward process. And that case might be slow in reaching Rome. McCarrick's canon lawyer — who, like his civil lawyer, has declined requests for comment from The Post — could slow down the process, Condon said, by requesting time to produce evidence such as travel records that might show McCarrick was not in the same location as the victim at the alleged times of the assaults.
If found guilty of sexual abuse of a minor, Condon said, McCarrick could face being laicized — meaning he would lose all status as a member of the Catholic clergy and would lose his church housing in Kansas.
At the moment, he remains in the friary. Francis has ordered him to a life of prayer and penance from the very day he resigned from the College of Cardinals.
Prayer and penance is typically a punishment imposed on a person convicted in a canonical trial, not a pretrial condition. So while McCarrick has not been convicted, in some sense, the Vatican is treating him as if he has already been sentenced.