DEDHAM — Defrocked cardinal Theodore McCarrick pleaded not guilty Friday to charges that he sexually assaulted a teenager 47 years ago, making him the highest-ranking Roman Catholic official in the United States to face criminal charges in the clergy sexual abuse scandal.
McCarrick, 91 and living in an assisted living facility, used a walker to move from a bench at the front of the Dedham courtroom to the defendant’s bar. He appeared somber as the charges were read against him.
The man who alleges that McCarrick abused him repeatedly when he was a child sat in the front row with his family, tears filling his eyes as McCarrick faced a judge for the first time. More than a dozen survivors of clergy sexual abuse, who said they had come to witness history, sat in the courtroom.
“With offenses dating June 8 of 1974, in the town of Wellesley, you are charged with three counts of indecent assault and battery on a person over the age of 14,” the court clerk said, reading aloud from court papers.
McCarrick, whose lawyers said in court papers he was “extremely frightened” to appear in court, did not speak. Not guilty pleas were entered on his behalf, and he was released on $5,000 bail. Judge Michael J. Pomarole ordered McCarrick to stay away from the victim, not have contact with anyone under the age of 18, and surrender his passport.
The alleged victim left the courthouse without speaking with reporters. His lawyer, Mitchell Garabedian, said outside the courthouse that he considered the criminal proceeding a historic moment in the fight against clergy sexual abuse.
“Today’s arraignment provides hope for clergy abuse victims and shows that the truth will be told,” he said. “My client is riding an emotional roller coaster today and is ready to participate in the trial to the end. Justice will prevail and children will be kept safe.”
McCarrick’s accuser is not identified in court filings and Garabedian said he did not want to be named. The Globe does not identify alleged sexual abuse victims without their consent.
McCarrick ignored questions shouted at him as he left the courthouse and made his way past a dozen victims of clergy abuse and their supporters. His lawyer, Daniel N. Marx, also did not comment before McCarrick was driven from the courthouse.
Skip Shea, 61, a clergy abuse survivor who lives in Uxbridge, said he felt the need to witness something he thought he might never see — a high-ranking priest being prosecuted for crimes against children.
“Today for me represents a little bit of hope,’’ Shea said. “I came to witness this because this is a monumental moment for us in the United States.”
Anne Barrett Doyle, co-director of Bishop Accountability, a watchdog group that tracks clergy abuse cases worldwide, said the prosecution of McCarrick has international implications.
“Today marks a new phase in the global struggle to hold bishops accountable. The world is witnessing what was unimaginable 20 years ago, a powerful cardinal forced to answer child sexual abuse charges in a suburban courtroom,” she said. “His appearance today marks the victory of accountability over impunity and the rule of civil law over the Vatican’s failed strategy of cover up.”
But more needs to be done, she said, because there are 46 US bishops who have been accused of child sexual abuse.
McCarrick was defrocked by the Vatican in 2019. The address listed for McCarrick in court filings is the Vianney Renewal Center in Dittmer, Mo., one of several church-run facilities in the state used to house clerics accused of molesting children, according to the Missouri leader for Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.
In court, Norfolk Assistant District Attorney Sarah Lelle said McCarrick had “immersed himself into the fabric of the victim’s family.”
“He used his status as a priest to access and prey upon this victim,” she said.
The alleged victim 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.
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 police report. He said McCarrick groped his genitals when they were walking around the campus. McCarrick had repeatedly molested him in the past, he said.
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.
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 stated.
During interviews with police, the man recounted later incidents when 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.
Several men have filed civil lawsuits in New York and New Jersey against McCarrick, alleging that he sexually abused them in those states when they were children between the 1970s and the 1990s. The statute of limitations has expired in those cases, preventing authorities from pursuing criminal charges.
But McCarrick can be charged with the alleged assaults in Wellesley because he was not a Massachusetts resident and the statute of limitations paused 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.
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.”
The following year, Pope Francis defrocked McCarrick after a Vatican investigation found him guilty of sex crimes against minors and adults.
Brian Devlin, a former Catholic priest and author of “Cardinal Sin,” a newly published book about the church’s handling of sexual assault allegations against another cardinal, said the criminal case against McCarrick “has a global message to it that no one can escape justice.”
Devlin was one of four whistleblowers who in 2013 went public with allegations that Cardinal Keith O’Brien, the leader of the Catholic church in Scotland, had sexually abused seminarians and priests for years. O’Brien apologized and resigned as archbishop, but was not defrocked and died three years ago at age 80.
“The O’Brien case and the McCarrick case are historical because they are forcing accountability on the church,” Devlin said. “I think it has to be recognized as a victory for justice, the fact that [McCarrick] has even been criminally accused and brought to court is a massive story.”
McCarrick’s next court date is Oct. 28.