Theodore McCarrick Still Won’t Confess
By Ruth Graham
September 3, 2019
|Then–Archbishop of Washington Theodore McCarrick looks on as President George W. Bush shakes hands with Bono at the Inter-American Development Bank in 2002. |
Photo by Rich Lipski
|James Grein, who has accused Theodore McCarrick of abusing him over the course of many years, speaking at a Silence Stops Now rally in Baltimore in November. |
Photo by Katherine Frey
Banished in the dead of night to a mistrustful Kansas town after sexual abuse allegations, the defrocked archbishop of D.C. speaks publicly for the first time since his fall from grace.
On a cloudy Sunday morning in August, Father John Schmeidler delivered a brisk homily at St. Fidelis Catholic Church on the virtue of trusting that God always has a plan. There were at least 200 people listening in the pews, almost 20 percent of this rural prairie town’s population: large families, young couples, elderly people, men in jeans and cowboy boots. There’s not a single other church in town. Even if we just do our simple daily duties, Father John told them that Sunday, “our God brings great things.”
Last fall, God brought to Victoria an unexpected visitor: Theodore McCarrick, once the most powerful Catholic priest in America. From 2001–06, at the height of his career, McCarrick served as the archbishop of Washington, D.C. He stepped down at the standard bishop retirement age of 75 but remained a prolific fundraiser and jet-setting Vatican macher. And McCarrick wasn’t just influential—he was famous. He was the priest whom Meet the Press called to discuss the abuse crisis, and he participated in the funerals of William Rehnquist, Beau Biden, Ted Kennedy, and Tim Russert.
In the summer of 2018, McCarrick also suddenly became the country’s most well-known accused perpetrator of clerical sexual abuse. In June of that year, the Vatican abruptly removed him from public ministry, citing a credible accusation of sexual misconduct against a teenage altar boy in the 1970s. (The statute of limitations for the crime he is accused of had expired.) McCarrick resigned as a cardinal, the first in history to do so over allegations of sexual abuse.* Meanwhile, it emerged that some in the church hierarchy had known for decades about some of the accusations, that at least two accusations had resulted in settlements, and that rumors about him were widespread in Catholic circles. When McCarrick was ousted from public ministry in June of 2018, he issued a statement saying he was innocent of the first accusation.
The accounts of McCarrick’s abuse span decades. In addition to that first unnamed accuser—whose lawyer told the New York Times that McCarrick, measuring the victim for a special cassock for his duties as an altar boy, unzipped his pants and assaulted him—his accusers eventually included three men who said they were abused as minors, including James Grein, the first child McCarrick baptized in his career as a priest. Grein has said McCarrick’s abuse began in the 1960s, when Grein was 11. Other men said McCarrick harassed and abused them when they were young adult seminary students and he was a powerful church leader. Then-Bishop McCarrick owned a small beach house in Sea Girt, New Jersey, purchased in 1984 by the Metuchen Diocese at his request; accusers say he would invite small groups of seminarians there and instruct his favorite to share his bed.
McCarrick’s disgrace was swift, but it left the Catholic Church with an uncomfortable problem: He needed somewhere to live. Keeping him in the Washington area seemed untenable. If he lived there or in any other area he had served, local Catholics and activists would protest. And big-city journalists would be unlikely to leave him alone; when Elizabeth Bruenig of the Washington Post knocked on McCarrick’s door that August, the archdiocese called her editor to complain. A few weeks later, with no advance public notice, the archdiocese announced that McCarrick had been moved from Washington to a small friary in Victoria, Kansas.
Suddenly, a tiny town of devout believers was home to an international symbol of institutional and individual monstrosity. Many of its residents, it turns out, aren’t happy about it. The story of McCarrick’s presence in Victoria is the story of a small community asked to live next door to a villain, and a huge institution figuring out where to hide its villains away. And at the center of it all is an 89-year-old man who once hobnobbed with popes and presidents and who now lives alone in silence on the plains, more than 1,000 miles away from the sites of his alleged crimes. He has not spoken publicly in more than a year.
Victoria’s name came from wealthy English settlers who gave up on the land after just a few years, leaving the town by 1880 in the hands of the area’s poor Volga Germans—ethnic Germans who relocated to Russia in the 1700s and then to the Great Plains a century later. That’s a history people here are proud of: They’re the ones who stuck it out. The quiet, well-kept town remains distinctly Volga German and overwhelmingly Catholic. The week I visited, volunteers were cleaning up after an annual outdoor festival called Herzogfest. This year’s festival featured a car show and a cornhole tournament, and Father John presided over an outdoor “polka Mass.”
Victoria is dominated by the huge basilica of St. Fidelis, whose twin 141-foot limestone towers are visible from miles away as you approach town on Interstate 70. William Jennings Bryan called it “the cathedral of the plains” on a 1912 visit, and the name stuck. (Technically the building is not a cathedral—a term reserved for the formal seat of a diocese’s bishop—but the Vatican did declare it a “minor basilica” in 2014.) St. Fidelis Catholic Church has been overseen since the late 19th century by the Capuchin Order, a subset of Franciscans known for their simple lifestyle and social work. (The current archbishops of Boston and Philadelphia are Capuchins.) An unassuming three-story building next door, with the same limestone exterior as the church, was once a seminary for high school students; these days it provides housing primarily for aging Capuchin priests—and now to Theodore McCarrick.
McCarrick, who grew up in New York City, had no ties to Victoria, and it is inarguably remote, nearly four hours from the nearest big city, Kansas City. To many observers, that seemed like the point. “If you put him anywhere there’s a major media presence, there would be media scrums outside where he is every day,” said John Allen Jr., a prominent Catholic journalist who grew up in nearby Hays. “This was the best they could come up with under short notice.”
Victoria was also chosen in part because St. Fidelis was the only place that would accept him, according to Father Christopher Popravak, who at the time of McCarrick’s arrival served as provincial minister for the Capuchins’ Denver Archdiocese, which operates the friary. The then–archbishop of Washington, Cardinal Donald Wuerl, tried several other options before approaching Popravak and the bishop of Salina, Gerald Vincke, who both granted permission in mid-September of 2018. Father John was given a week to prepare for McCarrick’s arrival. (Vincke’s office and the Washington Archdiocese declined interview requests. Wuerl resigned in October after accusations that he had mishandled abuse claims, including McCarrick’s. He has denied that he was aware of any Vatican sanctions related to McCarrick’s alleged abuse.)
Within two weeks, McCarrick and an escort from the archdiocese, Monsignor Charles Antonicelli, flew on an otherwise empty plane from Washington to the two-runway airport at Hays. Popravak drove his 2013 Chevy Impala onto the tarmac to meet them, and the three men traveled eight miles down Highway 40 to the friary together. McCarrick had packed lightly.
Popravak has encountered clerical abuse victims in his role as provincial minister, and he prays for victims daily, he said. He accepted McCarrick at the friary not because he is sympathetic to abusers but because showing mercy is part of his mandate as a Christian and a Capuchin. “Our mission is very much tied up with helping people to amend their life, to change their life, to repent,” he said. “Christians, even when it’s difficult, are called to show mercy.” Pope Francis had sentenced McCarrick to a “life of prayer and penance,” and a bare-bones friary in rural Kansas seemed to Popravak an appropriate place to do that. Capuchins are Franciscans, and Saint Francis, he observed, was known for embracing lepers.
McCarrick’s move to Kansas was executed in secrecy. But Vincke released a statement the next day announcing his arrival and explaining why Vincke had consented to it. The Hays Daily News reported on it the same day, and word spread quickly in Victoria. “It shook the town for sure,” said Ashley Kanzenbach, who is the president of Herzogfest and is married to a City Council member. People talked about McCarrick online: “Couldn’t they have found another place in the country that isn’t 15 feet from an elementary school?” asked one commenter on a story in the Hays Post. “Like the cemetery????” another replied. Some even visited the St. Fidelis offices and the school to demand answers. “It was really shocking,” said Kent Michel, the principal of Victoria Elementary. “The feeling was, they just stuck him in a small town and they were just going to forget about it.” At Mass the weekend after the news broke, Father John reassured the congregation at St. Fidelis: “He said, ‘I love you, you’re my people, and I’m here to keep everyone safe,’ ” recalled Anne Dinkel, a kindergarten teacher at Victoria Elementary and a St. Fidelis parishioner. Vincke also promised publicly that the diocese would incur no cost in housing McCarrick.
The friary’s proximity to the public elementary school was what bothered most people in town. Residents speculated that McCarrick’s room might overlook the playground. Kanzenbach wondered if he could watch the children playing from a common room. A conservative Catholic website based in Arizona published a photo of the town from Google Maps, mislabeling the basilica as the friary and making it look like McCarrick’s new home directly abutted the school. “I know he had to go somewhere,” Kanzenbach said, “but in my opinion they could have found something that wasn’t on the same block as a grade school.”
Down in Wichita, a woman named Janet Patterson followed McCarrick’s arrival in Kansas with wary interest. Patterson’s son Eric was molested by the family’s parish priest in the 1980s, and he killed himself 20 years ago this year. She’s now the Kansas spokesperson for the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, or SNAP. “Probably people think, ‘Well, nothing ever goes on in Kansas, so this would be a good place to put him,’ ” she speculated to me. “But the reality is, we’ve got a lot of people here who are doing their best to do whatever they can to stop all this.” She is cautiously encouraged by the progress she has seen since her son died. In March, the Salina Diocese released the results of an independent investigation of substantiated historical cases of clergy abuse. The Kansas Bureau of Investigation opened its own statewide investigation in February.
McCarrick was defrocked by the Vatican in February, a process that unspooled while he remained in Victoria. That meant the church was no longer formally responsible for him, and the Archdiocese of Washington immediately stopped paying his room and board (a little over $500 a month). The former priest, now simply “Mr. McCarrick,” offered to begin paying the Capuchins out of his own savings, Popravak said. Father John declined. “I know that itself could be construed as problematic, like the church is continuing to cover for him or harbor him,” Popravak said. “But we’re not attempting to profit from this. This is simply an attempt for us to show mercy.”
Almost a year after McCarrick’s arrival, the initial hubbub has mostly died down. Many members of the St. Fidelis congregation told me they took Father John’s reassurances seriously. He met with Michel, the elementary school’s principal, and attended the next board of education meeting to apologize for the lack of forewarning. Popravak takes responsibility for not communicating with the school district in advance: “I should have reached out and said something to people,” he said. “It was so surprising and unexpected, and I was just dealing with the immediate thing.” Popravak also told me that McCarrick’s room at the friary faces only an interior courtyard, not the playground.
Initially, at least, the move was considered temporary. McCarrick hoped to move back east someday, but no one knew when or where. It’s not impossible that he might someday depart Victoria, but he has now lived at the friary for almost a year, and Popravak said it’s likely he will remain at St. Fidelis: “It’s become impossible for him to move because no one will have him.” Father John, who lives at the friary, said he tries to remind McCarrick: “You’re here now. This is home.” People in Victoria are not given to rhetorical exuberance and rumination; their concerns about McCarrick were practical, not abstract, and they are largely satisfied with the church’s responses. They don’t feel the need to sit around talking about McCarrick as a symbol. But acceptance is not the same thing as absolution. Many told me they remain unsettled by the notorious predator in their midst—perhaps even more so because he remains invisible to them. One of the conditions of McCarrick’s residence in Victoria is that he remain on the friary grounds, which means hardly anyone in town has even seen him. Michel heard McCarrick was in a wheelchair; others said he was frail, or dying. Ivan Werner, a longtime church member, told me his wife was working inside the friary as a kitchen volunteer during an annual Capuchin meeting when he approached her impatiently to ask when his meal would be ready. “She told him in no uncertain terms that he’d get his meal when it was ready to be served,” Werner told me with a small smile. Connie Windholz, who works at the church, told me she also served food to McCarrick at a meeting inside the friary. He was sitting alone, she said, adding, “That’s what it should be, for what he did.” In an interview in the church sacristy, Werner, a Victoria native, pointed out that altar boys and girls prepare for Mass in the very room where we sat. He gestured to a large, heavy-looking door to his side: the door to the friary. In fact, we were probably sitting just 150 feet from McCarrick himself. “It caused quite a stir in the community,” Werner said of McCarrick’s arrival. “There were very many people who were very upset with it and wanted to find another home for him.” He had mixed feelings himself. He hated to think of children worrying. But he also appreciated the bishop’s forthrightness. “I think they’re hoping the good Lord calls him home,” he said, “and they won’t have to worry about the situation anymore.”
Father John, who met with me twice in Victoria, told me kindly but firmly that McCarrick was not available for an interview and that visitors were not welcome inside the building; he declined my request for even a limited tour. But on my last morning in Victoria, I rang the doorbell at the friary.
A small plastic sign in the entryway asks visitors to ring once and wait three or four minutes for a response. It took about that long before an elderly man in a wheelchair opened the door; I told him I was a reporter and that I would like to speak with Ted McCarrick. He wheeled over to a phone on a small end table, and after a few false starts, his voice echoed through the building on the internal intercom: “Ted, there’s somebody here to see you.”
A few minutes later, a small man with a deeply hunched back walked slowly down the wooden staircase. He was wearing a pale blue T-shirt with a “KC” logo, knit pants, and loafers. He looked smaller and more stooped than he did in his last public appearance, but perhaps that was because this was the only time I had seen him without the elaborate vestments of clerical power. I introduced myself again as a reporter, and asked if he would be willing to talk. “I really haven’t up until now,” he said. I know, I replied, but I’ve come all this way.
It was almost time for lunch, McCarrick told me, but we could talk for a bit. He showed me to a small meeting room, and we began to talk about his life in Victoria, his defrocking, and the accusations against him.
All his answers to my questions were short and steady. McCarrick said he never leaves the friary, not even to enter the basilica next door. He is grateful for the company of the other men who live at the friary, and he participates in the daily routine: Mass at 7 a.m., a communal breakfast, evening prayers. He spends much of his time in the chapel, he said, and in the library. “They’ve really treated me as a brother,” he said.
I asked him if he had done it. He has been accused of sexually assaulting minors and making unwanted advances on seminary students he invited to his beach house in New Jersey over the course of many decades. Were those stories true? “I’m not as bad as they paint me,” he said. “I do not believe that I did the things that they accused me of.” I told him it sounded like he thought it was possible—that saying he didn’t “believe” he had done those things, or that he doesn’t remember them, makes it sound as if he’s leaving it an open question. No, he said.
There was only one accusation he wanted to discuss specifically: James Grein’s allegation that McCarrick had groped him while hearing Grein’s confession. McCarrick raised this incident before I’d had a chance to ask about it. “The thing about the confession, it’s a horrible thing,” he said, sounding suddenly more urgent. “I was a priest for 60 years, and I would never have done anything like that. … That was horrible, to take the holy sacrament and to make it a sinful thing.” The same day I spoke to McCarrick, Grein announced at a news conference that he is suing the Archdiocese of New York, thanks to a state law passed in January that expanded the ability of child sex abuse victims to file lawsuits. Mitchell Garabedian, Grein’s lawyer, said he also plans to sue McCarrick personally when a broader window for abuse claims reopens in New Jersey in December. Told about McCarrick’s denial to me, Garabedian responded, “Father McCarrick’s claim that he did not sexually abuse James Grein in the confessional rings hollow given that McCarrick has shown himself to be a child molester without a conscience.”
But why would so many people lie? I asked McCarrick. In the case of the seminarians at the beach house, how did they come up with such similar stories? “I think that they were encouraged to do that,” McCarrick said. “There were many who were in that situation who never had any problems like that.” This was a point he made several times: that plenty of young men had come to the beach house and had no problems there. He couldn’t have done it, in other words, because look at all the people he didn’t harass. As for who would have orchestrated such a campaign, he declined to name names, but referred vaguely to “enemies.”McCarrick is not wrong to suggest he had enemies, and still does. He was often seen as a moderate or even a liberal figure within the church, and some conservative Catholics were openly gleeful about his downfall. They saw his disgrace as a potential tool to cleanse the church. The McCarrick story became a Catholic litmus test for attitudes about homosexuality, church politics, and Pope Francis himself, seen as a McCarrick ally. (McCarrick told me that even though Francis approved his punishment, he still has “great affection and respect for the Holy Father.”) The most aggressive blow came from conservative Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, a former Vatican diplomat to the United States, who released an explosive statement last August claiming that Pope Francis had lifted secret sanctions on McCarrick imposed by Pope Benedict XVI. “He was talking as a representative of the far right, I think,” McCarrick said of Viganò. “I don’t want to say he’s a liar, but I think some of the bishops have said that he was not telling the truth.”
A priest comes to the friary to hear confession once a week, and McCarrick participates. Confessionals—and the Catholic Church—are places where both honesty and secrecy are holy. It is impossible for me not to wonder what he says there, when he has the sacred freedom to tell the truth about his life, now winding to a close in lonesome notoriety. He reminded me several times in our conversation that he was a priest for 60 years, but no matter what he sees when he looks backward, he must know that he will not be remembered as a shepherd. In this small town in western Kansas, he’s a living icon of both the crime of clerical sexual abuse and the church’s toxic willingness to cover it up. He’s not optimistic about having the chance to move back east. “I don’t know how many years are in my calendar,” he said. “One tries one’s best to accept where one is.”
It was time for lunch at the friary, so we stood up and McCarrick shuffled out into the dark hallway. He was still holding the envelope that he had picked up in the mailroom: a fundraising appeal from a Catholic charity. He hardly gets any mail, he remarked wistfully. “The vast majority of the mail I get is looking for some help,” he said. “I don’t have a lot of money, but I try to be helpful. It’s what you’re supposed to do.” Outside, it was a sunny summer day in Victoria. Almost a year after McCarrick’s tumultuous arrival, life in town looked almost exactly like it did before. The only restaurant was open for lunch, and the basilica’s front doors were unlocked for tourists and worshippers. School would start in exactly two weeks, but for now the playground was silent. The blinds on the friary’s windows were all closed, and it was impossible to see in or out.