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Defrocked former cardinal Theodore McCarrick was charged Wednesday with sexually assaulting a 16-year-old boy during a wedding reception at Wellesley College in the 1970s, making him the highest-ranking Roman Catholic official in the United States to face criminal charges in the clergy sexual abuse scandal.

McCarrick, 91, a former archbishop of Washington, D.C., who fraternized with popes and presidents before he was expelled from the priesthood over sexual abuse allegations, is charged with three counts of indecent assault and battery on a person over 14 in a criminal complaint filed by Wellesley police in Dedham District Court.

A summons had been issued ordering McCarrick, now living in Missouri, to appear at the court for arraignment Sept. 3. McCarrick’s attorney, Barry Coburn of Washington, D.C., said Thursday that “we will look forward to addressing this issue in the courtroom.”

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Until now, McCarrick appeared beyond the reach of the criminal courts. Several men have filed civil lawsuits in New York and New Jersey, alleging that McCarrick sexually abused them in those states when they were children between the 1970s and the 1990s. But the statute of limitations has expired in those cases, preventing authorities from pursuing criminal charges.

Yet McCarrick can be charged with the alleged assaults in Wellesley because he was not a Massachusetts resident and the statute of limitations stopped running when he left the state. At the time of the alleged assault, McCarrick was a monsignor and secretary to Cardinal Terence Cooke and lived in the rectory attached to St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City.

The victim’s name is redacted from court filings, which say the investigation was launched in January by prosecutors in Norfolk and Middlesex counties, as well as police in Newton, Arlington, and Wellesley after the man’s attorney, Mitchell Garabedian, wrote a letter to the Norfolk and Middlesex district attorneys alleging sexual abuse by McCarrick.

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“My client is showing an enormous amount of courage by being a complainant in the criminal process,” said Garabedian, a longtime advocate for sexual abuse victims. “This is the first cardinal in the United States ever charged criminally for a sexual offense against a minor.”

Garabedian said his client did not want to be named. The Globe does not identify alleged victims of sexual assault without their consent.

The man told investigators that McCarrick was a family friend who began molesting him when he was a boy. He said McCarrick often went on trips with his family and had sexually abused him in New Jersey, New York, California, and Massachusetts, according to a report by Wellesley police Detective Christopher Connelly that was filed in court with the complaint.

On June 8, 1974, the alleged victim, then 16, said, he was at his brother’s wedding reception at Wellesley College when McCarrick told him his father wanted the two of them to “have a talk” because the teenager was being mischievous at home and not attending church, according to the report. He said McCarrick, who the alleged victim said had repeatedly molested him in the past, groped his genitals when they were walking around the campus.

When they returned to the reception, McCarrick led him into a small room, closed the blinds, and told him “that he needed to go to confession.” He then fondled his genitals while “saying prayers to make me feel holy,” according to the report.

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Before leaving the room, McCarrick told him to “say three Our Fathers and a Hail Mary or it was one Our Father and three Hail Marys, so God can redeem you of your sins,” the report states.

The man told police that when he returned to the reception, his father asked him how his talk with McCarrick went. He told him to listen to the priest and “do what he tells you, he’s really going to help you.”

McCarrick’s accuser told police that he knew what was going to happen when McCarrick told him he needed to go to confession but “didn’t want to make a scene at his brother’s wedding and disturb everything because he had more respect for his mother, father and brother than himself at the time,” according to the police report.

During interviews with police, the man recounted later incidents where McCarrick sexually abused him in Arlington and at hotels in Newton, according to the report. He also provided four photographs of postcards he had received from McCarrick when he was younger, and a photo of McCarrick that predated the wedding reception in Wellesley.

In 2018, the Vatican removed McCarrick from public ministry, citing credible allegations that he sexually abused an altar boy in the 1970s in New York. At the time, McCarrick issued a statement saying, “While I have absolutely no recollection of this reported abuse, and believe in my innocence, I am sorry for the pain the person who brought the charges has gone through, as well as for the scandal such charges cause our people.”

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The following year, Pope Francis defrocked McCarrick after a Vatican investigation found him guilty of sex crimes against minors and adults.

Last November, the Vatican released a 449-page report acknowledging that it had received reports of sexual misconduct by McCarrick decades earlier, but they were not publicly disclosed and had been dismissed or disregarded by popes, cardinals, and bishops as he rose to become an influential cardinal.

Pope John Paul II appointed McCarrick archbishop of Washington, D.C., in 2000, even after it was confirmed that McCarrick slept with seminarians, according to the report. The pope was friendly with McCarrick and believed him when he admitted that sharing his bed with seminarians at a beach house was “imprudent,” but insisted he never engaged in sexual conduct with any adults or minors, the report said.

“For McCarrick, today’s reckoning is long overdue,” said Ann Barrett Doyle, codirector of BishopAccountability.org, an online archive of the clergy sexual abuse scandal. Doyle called the criminal charges “a milestone in the prosecution of abusive bishops” and said they should serve as a “wake-up call” to legislators nationwide about the need to reform statutes of limitations for child sex crimes.

More than 40 US bishops have been publicly accused of child sexual abuse, but McCarrick is only the second one to face criminal charges, according to BishopAccountability. The other one was Thomas L. Dupre, the late former bishop of the Springfield archdiocese in Massachusetts. In 2004, he was indicted on two counts of child rape for accusations involving two boys in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Prosecutors dropped the charges days later after they concluded the statute of limitations had run out.

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“What if McCarrick hadn’t decided to attend the wedding in Wellesley?” Doyle said. “Whether a sexual assault of a child is prosecutable shouldn’t depend on the predator’s travel plans.”

The address listed for McCarrick in the court filings is the Vianney Renewal Center in Dittmer, Mo. David Clohessy, the Missouri leader for Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said the center is one of several church-run centers in the state used to house clerics accused of molesting children. He said McCarrick’s arrest, should encourage other victims to report clergy sexual abuse to law enforcement.

“Oftentimes as they age predators get more dangerous, not less, because they are slow-moving, stoop-shouldered with thick glasses and seem just like your favorite grandpa or uncle,” Clohessy said. “In fact, they are more shrewd and cunning and manipulative than ever having wrapped up decades of experience in picking out the kid who is the least apt to tell or be believed from a family that is the most unable to trust law enforcement.”



Shelley Murphy can be reached at shelley.murphy@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @shelleymurph.