After a judge declared him incompetent to stand trial on charges that he sexually assaulted a 16-year-old boy in Wellesley in the 1970s, the Zoom image of Theodore McCarrick showed an old man with a blank face, hunched over a table in a room at the assisted living facility in Missouri that is now his home. Yet when the remote session ended, one could still imagine the defrocked and disgraced cardinal smiling in triumph — just like any other aging gangster who beat the system.
The charges against McCarrick, 93, were dismissed last week after two medical experts found he suffered from dementia. That makes him a living symbol of the cost of the decades-long coverup of clergy sexual abuse by the Roman Catholic Church. What was first revealed by the Boston Globe Spotlight team in 2002 was followed up by two more decades of institutional foot-dragging when it comes to accountability for prominent predators like him. And with that foot-dragging comes the chance to evade justice.
Last month, for example, Howard J. Hubbard, the longtime bishop of the Albany, N.Y., diocese, who acknowledged covering up sexual abuse, died of a stroke at age 84. Hubbard was also personally accused of sexual abuse, which he denied. In reporting on his death, The New York Times noted that lawyers for plaintiffs in sexual abuse cases involving the Albany diocese have accused church lawyers of using delay tactics “in hopes that aging victims and witnesses will die before the cases are resolved.”
Pope Francis has tried to put the clergy sexual abuse scandal behind him. He has met with victims, set up committees to address sexual abuse, and established new rules to evaluate allegations and coverups. Yet, as a recent article in the National Catholic Reporter points out, a perceived lack of transparency about who is being disciplined and why continues to dog the church.
For victims seeking accountability, McCarrick was seen as a breakthrough case. In 2019, he became the first cardinal to be defrocked and expelled from the priesthood for alleged sexual abuse. In 2021, he was charged with sexually assaulting a then-16-year-old boy during a wedding reception at Wellesley College in the 1970s.
The case was big because McCarrick was big. He presided over the funeral mass for Beau Biden and hung out with the rich and famous. “He was the most powerful cardinal in the world,” said Mitchell Garabedian, the lawyer who has represented many sexual abuse victims, including McCarrick’s accuser. “He was meeting with presidents and ambassadors, while all along he was sexually abusing children.”
Warnings about McCarrick went unheeded for years, including a letter sent in 2015 by a priest in New York to Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston, who headed the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors. O’Malley said he never saw it because it was handled by a staff assistant and ultimately apologized for that. He also called the Vatican’s 2020 report on the decision-making process relating to McCarrick a “painful and shameful account of how someone in McCarrick’s position rose to the role of bishop and cardinal and caused so much harm to so many.”
Anne Barrett Doyle, codirector of BishopAccountability.org, said that McCarrick’s “sexual assaults of children were an open secret. His fellow cardinals and bishops knew it, yet they did nothing. They didn’t call the police, they didn’t go public, they didn’t reach out to his victims.” The unwillingness of church leaders to confront sexual predators in their midst is a familiar scenario. Barrett Doyle said her organization has a database of more than 130 accused bishops from around the world who “have consistently evaded accountability.” Most of the bishops in that database are elderly, and some are deceased, she said.
But it would be wrong to think of this strictly as a story of frail, old men from a bygone era. “Abuse is still happening in the church,” said Jamie Manson, president of Catholics for Choice, an organization that advocates for progressive values. “The international reality of this is that we haven’t even scratched the surface of what’s happening in Central America, in Africa, and in countries in Europe. There is so much more to be revealed.”
In fact, Garabedian said he receives calls from alleged victims from “around the world,” of all ages, every day. “Society’s attitude is changing,” Garabedian said. “The Catholic Church is not changing. It’s a powerful, rich institution that is totally focused on obtaining more power and money. History has taught us it puts power and money before the safety of children.”
Garabedian, meanwhile, is still pursuing two civil cases that are pending in New York and New Jersey against the former cardinal. He deposed McCarrick for seven hours in November 2020 — before McCarrick’s mental competence was reviewed by medical experts.
He has not given up on the idea of legal accountability for McCarrick. Maybe justice will be served, not evaded.