Thomas Reese on the Answers We Need in the Vatican Report on Sex Abuser Cardinal McCarrick

Former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick listens during a news conference in Washington in this May 16, 2006, file photo. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

The Rev. Thomas J. Reese, a Jesuit priest, is a Senior Analyst at RNS. Previously he was a columnist at the National Catholic Reporter (2015-17) and an associate editor (1978-85) and editor in chief (1998-2005) at America magazine. He was also a senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University (1985-98 & 2006-15) where he wrote Archbishop, A Flock of Shepherds, and Inside the Vatican. Earlier he worked as a lobbyist for tax reform. He has a doctorate in political science from the University of California Berkeley. He entered the Jesuits in 1962 and was ordained a priest in 1974 after receiving a M.Div from the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily represent those of BCNN1.


The Vatican is getting ready to release a report on former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, who was found to have sexually abused minors and slept with seminarians. The report, mandated by Pope Francis, will need to be detailed and comprehensive if it is going to satisfy the public’s demand for more transparency in the church.

Few scandals have rocked the Catholic Church like the story of McCarrick’s sexual abuse of minors and seminarians.

His actions are shocking enough, but the fact that such a predator could rise to be a cardinal in the Catholic hierarchy is flabbergasting. Well-connected with the rich, McCarrick was a superb fundraiser. He was also respected by political and religious leaders around the world. He often played an unofficial diplomatic role for the Vatican. The scandal is especially devastating to progressive Catholics who saw McCarrick as a moderate on church issues and a strong supporter of Catholic social teaching.

The McCarrick report needs to respond to simple questions that may require complex answers: Who knew what, when and where about McCarrick’s activities?

What do we know already?

No one appears to have known about McCarrick’s abuse of minors until the first victim came forward in 2017 to request assistance from the New York Archdiocesan Independent Reconciliation and Compensation Program. The victim said the abuse had taken place in the early 1970s when McCarrick was a priest in New York. The archdiocese immediately reported it to Rome, and the pope told New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan to investigate. In the meantime, McCarrick was banned from public ministry. He was forced to resign from the College of Cardinals and was dismissed from the clerical state in February 2019.

On the other hand, rumors had circulated for years about McCarrick sleeping with seminarians from the Immaculate Conception Seminary at Seton Hall University in New Jersey while he was bishop in Metuchen (1981-86) and archbishop in Newark (1986-2000). Some New Jersey journalists had heard the rumors and tried to investigate but were stymied when no seminarians were willing to come forward at that time.

As early as 1994, while McCarrick was archbishop of Newark, a woman expressed concerns about McCarrick to the papal nuncio in Washington, Agostino Cacciavillan.

In 2000, before McCarrick became a cardinal, the Rev. Boniface Ramsey, a seminary professor from 1986-1996, wrote Archbishop Gabriel Montalvo Higuera, the papal nuncio, about the complaints he had heard from seminarians regarding McCarrick. The letter was forwarded to Leonardi Sandri, who was the Vatican substitute for general affairs and is now a cardinal.

Beginning in 2005, the Archdiocese of Newark and the dioceses of Metuchen and Trenton reached financial settlements with former seminarians who had accused McCarrick of abuse. McCarrick retired the following year after turning 75.

All of this is in the public record, but what is in the Vatican files?

The first place to check would be the nunciature’s in Washington, D.C. Are there any letters accusing McCarrick in the files? When did they arrive and what was done about them? Are there any staff memos concerning the McCarrick accusations?

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Source: Religion News Service