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Cardinal McCarrick, former archbishop of Washington, accused of sexual abuse and removed from ministry

Julie Zauzmer, Michelle Boorstein and Dana Hedgpeth

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Pope Francis reaches out to Cardinal Archbishop emeritus Theodore McCarrick at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle in Washington on Sept. 23, 2015. (Jonathan Newton / The Washington Post)

A former archbishop of Washington, Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, has been removed from the ministry because of allegations that he sexually abused a teenager almost 50 years ago while he was a priest in New York.

McCarrick, 87, was a well-known church leader in global affairs. He said in a statement on Wednesday that he learned months ago about the allegation of sexual abuse, and he has “absolutely no recollection of this reported abuse.” While he maintains his innocence, he wrote, “In obedience I accept the decision of The Holy See, that I no longer exercise any public ministry.”

The cardinal, who served as archbishop of Washington from 2001 to 2006, is the highest U.S. Catholic official accused of sexual abuse since Chicago’s Cardinal Joseph Bernardin was accused in 1993, according to several sources. Bernardin’s accuser withdrew his allegations the next year, saying the memories that occurred under hypnosis were “unreliable.”

Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York investigated the allegation against McCarrick, engaging the review board of the Archdiocese of New York, according to a statement from the Archdiocese of Washington.

In his statement, McCarrick said he was “shocked” by the allegations and had cooperated fully with investigators. “My sadness was deepened when I was informed that the allegations had been determined credible and substantiated,” he said. “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.”

Susan Gibbs, who served as McCarrick’s spokeswoman in Washington, noted that McCarrick “helped create the child protection policy in the United States and he’s followed them. I am praying for everyone who is impacted by this news and by the situation.”

Joseph Zwilling, a spokesman for the Archdiocese of New York, said Wednesday that the allegation against McCarrick came to light in 2017 through the Independent Reconciliation and Compensation Program, which was set up by the archdiocese to offer healing and compensation for victims of abuse in the church.

McCarrick was ordained a priest in 1958 and worked at Catholic University and then in Puerto Rico, before serving as a priest in New York from 1969 to 1981, when he became the first bishop of Metuchen, N.J. He rose to Archbishop of Newark before his appointment in Washington.

In a statement, the Archdiocese of New York said that when it heard of the allegation, it was the “first such report” that was “ever made against [McCarrick] of which the archdiocese was aware.” The archdiocese said it turned information over to law enforcement officials while also conducting the church investigation that led to McCarrick’s removal from ministry.

McCarrick is unlikely to face charges because New York state law does not allow victims of child sexual abuse to press charges after they turn 23, a brief window that advocates say should be expanded.

“Maybe a case as prominent as this will help lawmakers realize: We really do need to change this. Because shouldn’t someone who abuses, no matter how long ago, be held accountable?” said Becky Ianni, the treasurer of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests (SNAP). “When a victim is abused, they’re given a life sentence of pain and suffering. This person, who knows what they’ve gone through? They’ve been silent for 50 years. That doesn’t mean they haven’t been suffering for 50 years.”

Ianni said that the prominence of the cardinal’s case might encourage other victims of clergy abuse to report their stories. “I was abused at the age of 8. I didn’t tell anyone until 48. It’s incredibly hard for victims to come forward,” she said. She said sometimes events when victims are in their 40s, 50s or older prompt them to reveal their abuse: perhaps their child reaches the age they were when they were victimized; or their parents die; or the priest who abused them dies.

The teenager’s allegation was not the first claim of sexual misconduct by McCarrick. On Wednesday, the leaders of the church in Metuchen and Newark said they had never received any allegations of abuse of a minor by McCarrick, who previously led both of those dioceses. But Newark’s archbishop, Cardinal Joseph Tobin, and Metuchen Bishop James Checchio said their two dioceses had received three allegations of sexual misconduct with adults, decades ago, and that two of those allegations resulted in settlements.

During McCarrick’s tenure as archbishop of Washington, Monsignor Stephen Rossetti was the president of St. Luke’s, a psychological treatment facility for priests and nuns in Silver Spring. About 10 percent of his clergy patients had been accused of sexually abusing minors, Rossetti said. On Wednesday, Rossetti said he was “stunned” to hear that the cardinal who supported him in treating abusers, and who presided over the archdiocese in the years in which the sexual abuse crisis in the U.S. church was coming to light, had been accused of abuse himself.

The two major developments in those years were a one-strike-you’re-out policy for priests found to be abusers, and new mandatory reporting requirements for contacting police instead of handling cases internally. Rossetti said he saw McCarrick’s respect for both of those policies in his statement Wednesday about his own case.

“His statement, I thought, was important. He said it’s important that these allegations be reported to civil authorities and investigated by independent agencies. He’s on board with the new approach. He’s on board with doing these things right,” Rossetti said. “I think it’s a witness that no one is above the law… if a cardinal is obedient to the new process.”

He said the church should emphasize that now. “While this man is indeed a cardinal of the church, it’s still a victim-first policy. The concerns of the victim are our first concern, whether you’re a cardinal, whether you’re a priest.”

McCarrick was known for traveling the world as a negotiator on human rights, including serving on an advisory committee for the U.S. secretary of state during the Clinton administration, and serving on the U.S. Commission for International Religious Freedom from 1999 to 2001. He retired as archbishop of Washington at the mandatory age of 75 but continued a high-profile travel schedule as a major global figure in the church.

In the Washington Catholic community, several expressed shock over the removal of the beloved former leader. “It’s especially painful for social-justice Catholics. He became this public figure,” said John Gehring, a Catholic author who worked for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops while McCarrick was archbishop of Washington. “He’d be at a social justice rally. You’d see him on the Metro. I was always struck by that simplicity. He was a Pope Francis bishop before there was a Pope Francis. … He was this global prince of the church, but he understood the local church.”

Gehring concluded: “This underscores the cancer of clergy abuse.”