NorthJersey.com [Woodland Park NJ]
March 16, 2023
By Deena Yellin
As he watches the prosecution of former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick unfold, James Grein is grappling with some painful spiritual questions.
The questions come rapid-fire: “How is it that a 92-year-old ex-prelate has had a wonderful life while all of his victims suffer?” Grein asks. “Why are the abuse victims continuously victimized? And why is it taking so long to bring my abuser to justice?”
For years, the North Jersey native says, he has suffered, haunted by memories of abuse that engulfed him in a darkness of alcohol, drugs and suicidal thoughts.
Today, the 64-year-old has emerged as a hero for many survivors of the Catholic Church’s sexual assault scandals, after pulling himself from the depths to come out publicly against the man many consider the church’s most notorious living clergy abuser.
Grein, who grew up in Tenafly, also helped lobby for the 2019 New Jersey Child Sex Abuse Law, which temporarily lifted the statute of limitations to file lawsuits against alleged abusers and the institutions accused of harboring them. More than 800 complaints have been filed as a result.
Grein was among the first to publicly accuse McCarrick, the former Archbishop of Newark, asserting that one of America’s most prominent cardinals had abused him for nearly 20 years. Grein says the assault began in the 1960s, when he was an 11-year-old and McCarrick was a beloved family friend.
He is at the center of allegations that pose the most danger to the ex-cardinal, a Massachusetts case in which McCarrick is accused of sexually assaulting Grein almost a half-century ago at Wellesley College outside Boston. McCarrick has pleaded not guilty but could face 15 years in prison if convicted.
“I’ve been here with chains around my arms and legs and mind all these years,” Grein said in a recent interview.
“If he’s found guilty, I’m free.”
Pope Francis removed McCarrick from the priesthood in 2019, after allegations that he sexually abused minors were deemed credible. McCarrick, who retired in 2006, was the first American cardinal to be defrocked for such transgressions and is believed to be the only one to face criminal charges for child sex abuse, according to BishopAccountability.org, a watchdog group that has tracked abuse cases in the Church for the past 20 years.
A 2020 Vatican investigation determined that McCarrick abused adults as well as minors. It said church leaders had known for years about allegations that he was harassing seminarians but did nothing about it.
Fourteen people have accused the former cardinal of sexually abusing them as children. At least half have sued him in New York and New Jersey, according to BishopAccountability.org.
But to many, Grein’s tale of two decades of abuse by McCarrick, even during confession, was the most damning.
Grein, who now lives in Virginia, has also sued McCarrick and the archdioceses of New York and New Jersey in civil court. McCarrick served as the Bishop of Metuchen from 1981 to 1986 and as Archbishop of Newark from 1986 to 2000, before he was named Archbishop of Washington, D.C.
The Massachusetts case charges McCarrick with abusing an unnamed teenager at a June 8, 1974 wedding at Wellesley College. Grein recently revealed to NorthJersey.com and the USA Today Network New Jersey that he was the alleged victim − the first time that he has publicly acknowledged his role in the case.
At the time, Grein said, he was 16 years-old and attending his older brother’s wedding reception along with his entire family and his parents’ friends. McCarrick, a longtime friend of the Greins was there as well. At the time, he was secretary to the archbishop of New York, Cardinal Terence Cooke.
According to court documents in the case, McCarrick approached Grein after the ceremony and told him, “your dad wants you to come out with me and have a talk. You are being mischievous at home and not attending church.”
Grein said McCarrick took him on a walk along a wooded path on the campus, where he groped him. He allegedly brought Grein back to a coat room, closed the doors and window shades and told the teenager to confess his sins. McCarrick assaulted him there again, Grein said, before ordering the boy to recite the Hail Mary and Our Father prayers.
It was a traumatic experience, but only one of many, according to Grein. He said McCarrick first exposed himself to the boy when he was 11, in 1969, and continued to molest him for two decades. He said McCarrick often groped him during confession, combining the holy sacrament with the ultimate violation.
‘I don’t want to speak of these things’
McCarrick’s attorneys asked a judge to dismiss the case last month, saying the ex-prelate suffers from dementia and is no longer competent to stand trial. McCarrick himself has stayed out of the public eye in recent years, his last known residence a treatment center for troubled priests in Missouri.
In September, television cameras captured him entering a courthouse for a hearing in the case as demonstrators heckled him. The elderly McCarrick looked frail, a stooped figure shuffling along behind a walker.
In a rare telephone conversation earlier this month, he told a reporter from NorthJersey.com that he remembered Grein. But he denied the accusations against him.
“The things he said about me are not true,” McCarrick said.
“I don’t want to speak of these things,” he added. “You can speak to my lawyer.”
Prosecutors say they will ask their own medical experts to evaluate McCarrick’s competency. The next hearing is scheduled for April 20.
Mark Crawford, an activist who runs the New Jersey chapter of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, said the community looks up to Grein for his bravery.
“It takes someone with extraordinary courage to speak out against one of the highest-ranking members of the church,” he said. “He is the quintessential case of a child who is groomed. The priest had ingratiated himself into his family’s life. To admit the struggles he’s had takes incredible courage and strength.
“McCarrick’s lawyers are trying to make excuses for him now that he’s old. But that would send a terrible message if they said he shouldn’t face the consequences of his past actions. He did a lot of damage to a lot of people in the Church.”
Vatican decree expels McCarrick
Grein isn’t mentioned in the 449 pages of the Vatican’s 2020 report. But in Francis’ 2019 decree expelling McCarrick from the clergy, the church said it found McCarrick guilty of “solicitation in the Sacrament of Confession, and sins against the Sixth commandment with minors and with adults, with the aggravating factor of the abuse of power.”
Grein said McCarrick grew close to his devout family after attending Fordham Prep, the all-boys Catholic school in the Bronx, with Grein’s uncle. McCarrick’s father had died when the future priest was young, and McCarrick became like another son to Grein’s grandfather, who gave him financial assistance.
McCarrick became a fixture in the Grein home in New Jersey and often came along on family vacations. Grein and his six siblings knew him as “Uncle Ted.” McCarrick, then a newly ordained priest, baptized Grein at Our Lady of Mount Carmel in Tenafly.
“I was his first baptism,” Grein said.
He was also, over and over, his victim, according to Grein.
As McCarrick rose to prominence, becoming a high-profile voice for the American church, Grein remembers taking trips with him to San Francisco, Chicago, Boston and Rome. McCarrick introduced him to heads of state and to the rich and famous as his nephew, the Bergen man recalled.
“He sexually and spiritually abused me by getting me drunk and he paraded me around at his birthday party,” Grein said.
“My wedding day, in 1989, was the last day he abused me,” Grein continued. McCarrick, he said, abused him after performing the ceremony. The marriage broke up 17 months later.
Grein said he’s been alone since. The years of violation have destroyed the possibility of him having a normal relationship.
He said he didn’t tell his family about the behavior when he was growing up because of their enormous respect and love for their “uncle.” Grein feared hurting them. He feared they wouldn’t believe him.
“I was trapped,” he said.
For years, he coped with the pain by sinking into rage, and addiction to drugs and alcohol.
Grein finally went public about his own abuse after the New York Archdiocese announced in 2018 that it had found merit in accusations that McCarrick molested an altar boy in the 1970s. His attorney, Mitch Garabedian of Boston, passed his allegations onto authorities in Massachusetts. A quirk in the state’s criminal statutes of limitations has allowed the case to go forward a half-century after the alleged assault.
Finding solace on the court
One of the few places Grein found solace was on the tennis court. When he was about 8 years old, his father stuck an old wooden racket into his hand and told him to hit the ball as hard as he could. Grein said the game would come to be a safe haven during his years of abuse. He amassed a pile of trophies from local and camp championships.
Today, he works as a tennis coach with children. While teaching grips and slices, he keeps his eye out for a pain he knows too well.
“I know the signs,” he said. When a young girl showed up several sessions in a row with bruises on her arms and legs, he had a conversation with her about what was going on at home. Eventually, he got police involved.
“I find a lot of meaning in connecting with kids over tennis,” he said.
Surprisingly perhaps, he also finds peace in religion. “I read the Bible a lot and go to a Presbyterian church,” he said. He takes comfort in Philippians, which recounts letters from Saint Paul as he sat in a Roman jail cell miles from his people. Paul instructs the Philippians to be “ever present” to the word of God.
He meditates and prays regularly to keep calm. At home, crucifixes hang in every room.
How does he have faith after all that he’s been through?
“Man abuses. God loves,” Grein said. “When I feel troubled and have a hard time sleeping, I say my Hail Marys. That’s where I find peace.”
Deena Yellin covers religion for NorthJersey.com. For unlimited access to her work covering how the spiritual intersects with our daily lives, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.