WASHINGTON — In the years before his removal from ministry, Cardinal Theodore McCarrick secretly gave nearly $1 million to a controversial group of Catholic missionaries and supported leniency for its founder after the Vatican punished him for sexual wrongdoing, internal church documents show.
From 2004 to 2017, McCarrick sent the Institute of the Incarnate Word dozens of checks — some as large as $50,000 — from a charitable account he controlled at the Archdiocese of Washington, according to ledgers obtained by the Washington Post.
During those years, Carlos Buela, who founded the group decades ago in Argentina, repeatedly defied Vatican sanctions for alleged sexual misconduct with seminarians, according to a confidential Vatican order. The group ‘‘systematically obstructed’’ Vatican efforts to oversee its activities, the document shows.
A Post examination found that the financial and personal ties between McCarrick and Buela’s group were far more extensive than previously known. At a time when the Catholic Church is facing questions about the motives behind financial gifts from clerics accused of sexual misconduct, the examination reveals a highly unusual flow of money from one accused church leader to a group led by another. The church declined to explain the purpose of the gifts.
McCarrick, who was once one of the most recognizable figures in the US Catholic Church, last year became the first cardinal known to be defrocked for sexual abuse, over incidents that occurred decades earlier. The Vatican is completing a long-promised report examining how he rose to the highest levels of the Catholic Church and remained there despite complaints of misconduct that reached the Vatican as early as 2000.
In December, the Post reported that over nearly two decades McCarrick sent more than $600,000 from the ‘‘Archbishop’s Special Fund’’ to senior clerics in Rome and elsewhere, including Vatican bureaucrats, papal advisers, and two popes. Some of the recipients were responsible for assessing sexual abuse claims against him.
The Archdiocese of Washington declined to provide details about the nearly $1 million in contributions to the institute, the largest single recipient of money from McCarrick’s fund. A spokeswoman, Paula Gwynn Grant, said McCarrick himself raised the money for the fund — more than $6 million in tax-deductible contributions, the ledgers show — and he spent it as he chose.
Grant said the archdiocese knows of no complaints or allegations from Incarnate Word members about McCarrick.
McCarrick recently moved from a Kansas friary, where he had been living since 2018, to an undisclosed location. Through his attorney, he declined to comment.
In response to questions, the Vatican said in a statement that it has issued multiple orders to Buela because of his ‘‘laxity in carrying out the provisions’’ imposed on him in 2010 for inappropriate conduct with seminarians. Buela was ultimately ordered to a monastery in Spain in 2016, the statement said. Buela has denied wrongdoing.
The Vatican also disclosed for the first time that it recently named a cardinal to examine ‘‘the Institute’s issues and reorganization.’’
More than three dozen Incarnate Word officials did not respond to requests for comment in recent weeks. Efforts to reach Buela, who remains a priest, were not successful.
Buela formed the institute in Argentina in 1984 to spread conservative Catholic ideas in line with an earlier era. The institute grew quickly, in part as a result of campaigns to recruit young people and its willingness to assume responsibility for parishes in economically distressed areas.
On its website, Incarnate Word claims to have priests, monks, and seminarians in 88 dioceses in 38 countries.
As his group grew, Buela instilled the notion that it was oppressed by mainline factions in the church, routinely claiming that dark forces in the Vatican were aimed at thwarting its mission, according to interviews with current and former members.
Six current and former members of Incarnate Word said that McCarrick was celebrated internally for using his influence to protect the group.