Ex-cardinal McCarrick’s sex abuse case is dismissed, without a ‘reckoning’

Washington Post

August 30, 2023

By Michelle Boorstein and Fredrick Kunkle

A Massachusetts judge on Wednesday dismissed a criminal charge against former high-ranking Catholic cleric Theodore McCarrick, ruling that the 93-year-old former archbishop of Washington is incompetent to stand trial for alleged child sexual abuse.

The decision underscores the fast-closing window for potential accountability for McCarrick, who once was one of the U.S. Catholic Church’s most visible and connected leaders and now is one of its most notorious figures.

McCarrick had been charged with assaulting a 16-year-old boy at a wedding in 1974, the first criminal charge since a slew of sexual misconduct accusations surfaced in 2018 and he was removed from public ministry. He still faces a second criminal sexual abuse case, involving the same alleged victim, in Wisconsin.

Judge Paul McCallum, of the Dedham District Court in Massachusetts, dismissed the case in a morning hearing, after experts for the defense and the prosecution agreed that McCarrick was unable to help with his own defense, said David Traub, a spokesman for the district attorney.

“Under Massachusetts law, the case can’t go forward,” Traub said.

McCarrick was the first U.S. cardinal and only the second U.S. bishop to be charged with abuse. His accuser in the case, James Grein, a tennis coach from Northern Virginia, submitted a statement to the court for Wednesday’s hearing that said the case was “to have provided a modest level of payback.”

“I have trouble reconciling the concept that someone who is intelligent and articulate is also not competent to stand trial and answer for his actions,” Grein wrote. “I brought the charges in this matter, in the hope of finding justice in this court. Instead, McCarrick walks a free man and I am left with nothing.”

The steep fall of McCarrick has wounded the world’s largest Christian group and produced several unprecedented — if incremental — steps toward accountability.

But, as an individual, McCarrick has not faced justice in the ways his alleged victims and his own American society typically demand it — through a guilty verdict, victim impact statements or financial penalties. Some clergy abuse experts and McCarrick accusers said Wednesday that the judge’s decision was harmful, while others said they were looking to a more eternal verdict.

“From my perspective, the God he claimed to serve will now be his judge,” said John Bellocchio, who has accused McCarrick of abusing him in the 1990s, when Bellocchio was 14. “And I doubt — in his profound arrogance — I doubt he will fare well.”

Theodore McCarrick heads to his arraignment on child sex abuse charges in Massachusetts in 2021. (Kurt Shillinger for The Washington Post)

Bellocchio, a former Catholic schoolteacher and principal in New Jersey, said survivors of clergy sexual abuse serve “a life sentence.”

“It will never end,” he said. “Every day we will wake up with the trauma of it.”

Brian Clites, a religious historian who is writing a book about how Catholic clergy abuse spans generations, said losses of accountability keep survivors from healing.

“American courtrooms must find a way to provide Catholics with a public reckoning of the horrific abuses that so many of them had suffered as children,” he wrote to The Washington Post. “Today’s ruling affects other Americans, too, because the Roman Catholic Church continues to succeed in shielding itself from criminal liability in the United States, even in cases like this one.”

“The question remains why warnings about McCarrick went unheeded for so long,” said Mathew Schmalz, a professor of religious studies at the College of the Holy Cross and editor of the Journal of Global Catholicism. “The investigation into McCarrick shouldn’t end with the prosecutors’ decision in this specific aspect of his case.”

Grein, McCarrick’s accuser, texted The Post after the ruling that he was crying with “high emotions.” An email to McCarrick’s attorneys on Wednesday requesting comment was not immediately responded to.

Explosive reporting showed that high-ranking leaders from the United States to Rome long knew of allegations about McCarrick’s misconduct with adults. Priests and laypeople wrote to Vatican ambassadors, and several harassment lawsuits against McCarrick had been quietly settled.

The Vatican made a few unprecedented moves following that reporting and McCarrick’s 2018 suspension. In 2020, it produced a trailblazing 450-page report about who knew what and when about McCarrick. Pope Francis also created a means by which bishops — not just priests — could be investigated and removed for sexual misconduct.

Some victim advocates, however, say that new system has barely been used and that McCarrick’s removal may be more of an aberration than a precedent.

“McCarrick’s predations were an open secret. Many of his fellow cardinals and bishops knew, and they did nothing,” Anne Barrett Doyle, of the prominent abuse-tracking group Bishop Accountability, said after Wednesday’s ruling. “McCarrick might have been prosecuted years ago if even one of his brother bishops had called the police. Instead, yet again, the hierarchy has outrun the clock. While the institution may have been spared the embarrassment of an ex-cardinal on trial, the disgrace of its complicity with McCarrick remains.”

Clites said prosecutors in Europe and Australia have been more successful in holding bishops accountable in court for their crimes.

“The collective failure, since 2002, to prosecute American bishops and cardinals is a stain on the American justice system,” he said.

The next hearing in McCarrick’s Wisconsin case is scheduled for Sept. 18. The former cardinal could be a party in a number of civil cases as well, though, including in Maryland, where a look-back window opens in October for all alleged victims of child sexual abuse to sue.

Some victims’ attorneys say Catholic dioceses in Maryland, including the Archdiocese of Washington, could face major financial costs, some related to alleged abusers who worked under the leadership of McCarrick, who led the archdiocese from 2001 to 2006.

Despite the outcome in Massachusetts, Barrett Doyle said the mere presence of an accused former cardinal in criminal court was historic.

“The world witnessed what was unimaginable 20 years ago,” she said, “a former U.S. cardinal in a courtroom answering to criminal charges of child sexual abuse.”

By Michelle Boorstein

Michelle Boorstein has been a religion reporter since 2006. She has covered the shifting blend of religion and politics under four U.S. presidents, chronicled the rise of secularism in the United States, and broken financial and sexual scandals from the synagogue down the street to the Mormon Church in Utah to the Vatican. Twitter

By Fredrick Kunkle

Fredrick Kunkle is a reporter on the Metro desk. He has written about transportation, politics, courts, police, and local government in Maryland and Virginia. Twitter