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    Priest who alerted church officials to abuse allegations against Washington, D.C., prelate wants investigation into how they responded

    FILE - In this Wednesday, March 4, 2015, file photo, Cardinal Theodore Edgar McCarrick speaks during a memorial service in South Bend, Ind. McCarrick has been removed from public ministry since June 20, 2018, pending an investigation into allegations of sexual abuse. (Robert Franklin/South Bend Tribune via AP, Pool, File)
    Robert Franklin/South Bend Tribune via Associated Press/Pool/File
    Cardinal Theodore Edgar McCarrick speaks during a memorial service in South Bend, Ind. in June.

    A priest who wrote to Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley in 2015 about sexual abuse allegations involving Cardinal Theodore McCarrick said Wednesday there should be an investigation into who in the church hierarchy knew of the Washington prelate’s alleged abuse and why no one in power spoke out about it earlier.

    “The vast majority of the bishops knew this — they gossip, too, you know, just like everybody else,” the Rev. Boniface Ramsey, pastor of St. Joseph’s Church Yorkville in New York City, said in an interview. “But there was no mechanism for handling something like this.”

    Ramsey wrote to O’Malley after he saw McCarrick at the funeral of Cardinal Edward Egan of New York. Ramsey said he was angry because, decades earlier, he had tried to warn church officials that McCarrick was abusing seminarians when McCarrick was archbishop of Newark, but he felt that his complaints were brushed aside.

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    In his letter to O’Malley — who leads a Vatican advisory panel on clergy abuse — Ramsey raised the issue again, only to receive a reply from O’Malley’s priest secretary, the Rev. Robert Kickham, advising him that the panel handles policy, not individual cases.

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    Some close observers of the Roman Catholic Church’s clergy abuse crisis say that response, while it may not have violated civil or canon law, was inadequate, given the damage the scandal has inflicted upon the church’s moral authority.

    “Father Kickham should have written a different letter saying, ‘Here’s who does have authority,’ and refer his letter to them,” said Nicholas P. Cafardi, dean emeritus of the Duquesne University School of Law and an authority on the clergy sexual abuse crisis. “That seems to me the moral response. That’s the response in charity.”

    O’Malley said in a statement Tuesday that he never personally received the letter, which he said was handled “at the staff level.”

    The archbishop said his staff “determined that the matters presented did not fall under the purview of the commission or the Archdiocese of Boston, which was shared with Fr. Ramsey in reply.”

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    McCarrick, formerly the archbishop of Washington and one of the most prominent Roman Catholic leaders in the United States, was removed from ministry last month after the Vatican found he had been credibly accused of sexually abusing a teenager decades ago. Since then, at least four more complaints have surfaced, including allegations that McCarrick abused seminarians at a New Jersey beach house.

    O’Malley said in his statement that he was “deeply troubled” by the allegations against McCarrick and warned that the church could lose its “already weakened moral authority” if it doesn’t make changes.

    Specifically, he called for a “fair and rapid adjudication” of the allegations against McCarrick; an assessment of the church’s standards and policies involving abuse; and better communication regarding the process for reporting allegations against bishops and cardinals.

    O’Malley is among Pope Francis’ closest advisers in the American church and a key figure in helping the pope confront the clergy abuse crisis, which erupted in Boston in 2002. Francis recently reappointed O’Malley to lead the Vatican’s advisory panel on clergy abuse, which has been criticized by some as ineffectual.

    The McCarrick scandal has thrown into sharp relief doubts about the church’s commitment to rooting out predators and holding leaders accountable.

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    In his 2015 letter to O’Malley, Ramsey alerted the Boston Archdiocese to “a form of sexual abuse/harassment/intimidation or maybe simply high-jinks as practiced by Theodore Cardinal McCarrick with his seminarians and perhaps other young men,” The Washington Post reported.

    ‘It didn’t satisfy my emotions, but it was a perfectly good, legal reply.’

    The letter referred to alleged abuse of adult subordinates. In recent weeks, reports have come to light that others had accused McCarrick of abusing children, including an altar boy.

    In his response to Ramsey days later, Kickham wrote that, as the head of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, O’Malley “has the responsibility for evaluating child protection policies and procedures.”

    But the commission, Kickham wrote, does “not review individual complaints and cases, historical or current, which fall under the oversight of the local church authorities.”

    “Please know of our appreciation for your care and concern for the good of the Church and the people of God,” Kickham wrote.

    Ramsey on Wednesday struck a diplomatic tone when asked about the archdiocese’s handling of his complaint.

    “I wish it could have been more, but it was a formal, adequate reply,” he said in an interview with the Globe.

    “It didn’t satisfy my emotions, but it was a perfectly good, legal reply.”

    Cafardi said Kickham was correct that the pontifical commission does not examine individual cases. And, he said, O’Malley had no obligation to investigate Ramsey’s allegations himself because the abuse prevention policy that American bishops adopted in 2002 only requires bishops to investigate allegations within their own dioceses. It also does not cover allegations involving adults — only those under 18.

    But church officials are not merely responsible for enforcing canon law, Cafardi said.

    “Our highest obligations are moral,” Cafardi said. “They vastly supersede our canonical obligations. Jesus didn’t say treat people legally; he said treat people with charity, and it seems to me that should come first.”

    Terence McKiernan, codirector of BishopAccountability.org, which tracks abuse allegations against church leaders, said the Boston Archdiocese should have forwarded the letter to Francis, and not referred the matter back to Ramsey.

    “The way this letter was handled is excellent evidence that the process is bad,” McKiernan said. “It’s part of a general unwillingness on the part of the Vatican to really face this problem.”

    Terrence Donilon, an O’Malley spokesman, said Wednesday that the cardinal would not comment beyond the statement he released Tuesday.

    The Rev. Thomas J. Reese, senior analyst at Religion News Service, said the McCarrick scandal shows how the church must expand its 2002 antiabuse policy to include adult seminarians, because they are subordinate to powerful prelates such as McCarrick.

    “If the #metoo movement has taught us anything, it’s that this is not two adults of equal power and status, and this is not just sex,” Reese said. “It’s also an abuse of power and position and everything else.”

    Michael Levenson can be reached at mlevenson@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @mlevenson.