Ex-cardinal McCarrick declared incompetent in criminal assault case in Wisconsin

Washington Post

January 10, 2024

By Michelle Boorstein

The effort to try Theodore McCarrick on charges of criminal sex assault ended Wednesday in a Wisconsin courtroom when the former archbishop of Washington was deemed incompetent because of dementia.

McCarrick, 93, had been charged with sexual assault in the fourth degree, a misdemeanor, in connection with accusations of fondling an 18-year-old family friend at a Wisconsin lake in the 1970s. It was the second criminal charge since sexual misconduct accusations surfaced in 2018, and he was removed from public ministry. In August, a Massachusetts court dismissed the first criminal sex abuse case, which involved the same alleged victim, also ruling that the former Catholic cleric was unfit for trial.

In 2019, McCarrick became the first cardinal to be laicized — or defrocked — after the Vatican found that he had sexually abused minors. In 2020, the Vatican released an unprecedented 450-page report about McCarrick that detailed how he continued to rise in the ranks even as his superiors knew there were problems. The report concluded that Pope John Paul II knew about and overlooked sexual misconduct claims against McCarrick, who amassed power and prestige in the face of rumors and sometimes written evidence of his sexual misconduct.

He now lives at a Missouri facility for troubled priests and did not attend the hearing in Walworth County, Wis.

Judge David M. Reddy of Walworth County declared McCarrick incompetent, but the case was technically left open. Walworth County District Attorney Zeke Wiedenfeld did not respond to a request for comment.

“To my way of thinking, it’s ridiculous [that the case was] not just dismissed rather than suspended,” said Jerome Buting, McCarrick’s attorney. “No other individual in my 43-year career has been charged with a 46-year-old misdemeanor. I’m confident this was only brought because of who he used to be.”

It’s possible, although unlikely, that a prosecutor in another state could file new criminal charges. McCarrick still faces seven civil cases in New Jersey involving charges of sexual abuse.

But the ruling of incompetence Wednesday means the public chapter appears to be ending for the man who became the highest-ranking cleric in the United States to be charged in the Catholic Church’s sexual abuse crisis.

For abuse survivors and church-watchers who want full transparency — not only regarding what McCarrick allegedly did over the decades, but who in the hierarchy allegedly knew about it and when — the decision made their cause more urgent.

“There is no case that has ever emerged in the 40-plus years I’ve been in the trenches that is a better illustration or more powerful example of the Vatican choosing to protect one of the most powerful predators,” said Jeff Anderson, a lawyer who represents multiple McCarrick accusers in New Jersey. For survivors, he said, the decision Wednesday shows “that McCarrick has been given a free pass by the Vatican and legal systems; it sends the message that they and he are getting away with it again. Everyone is led to believe the coverup continues. Because it does.”

Anderson said that even if no additional criminal cases are filed against McCarrick, the civil cases will continue. He added that he has two days’ worth of deposition testimony from McCarrick that he took a few years ago that remains sealed but could be used in civil cases, despite the incompetency ruling.

Anderson noted that the Diocese of Metuchen and the Archdiocese of Newark — the two dioceses in New Jersey where McCarrick worked for two decades before coming to Washington in 2001 to become the region’s fifth archbishop — are parties in the civil cases and that they could be held financially responsible for any damages.

“They were able to delay so they could make such a case he’s not competent, but the backdrop of all this is them just wanting the story about how bad they are to not be told,” he said, referring to church leaders that a Vatican report and news reports showed knew of McCarrick’s misconduct. “This is not about McCarrick. It’s just another effort to keep quiet sordid and incriminating facts that implicate cardinals, bishops and their colleagues.”

Mark Crawford, who leads the New Jersey branch of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests (SNAP), said Wednesday that the McCarrick case has greatly damaged the Catholic Church’s credibility. Like some other survivors, Crawford questioned whether McCarrick truly is incompetent.

“They knew for decades what he did. They certainly did all possible to keep his secrets. Only when forced did they act, and dragged their feet. Now after all is said and done, they said he’s not competent?” he said, suggesting that McCarrick is faking it.

Crawford said the McCarrick scandal forced some to open their eyes.

“Before, I couldn’t find an older adult Catholic who wanted to believe it or talk about abuse and coverup. Now that’s not the case. People will say, ‘It’s terrible what they did. They knew.’ The reality is sinking in,” Crawford said.

The fall of McCarrick, who was one of the American church’s most prolific fundraisers for causes across the ideological spectrum, revealed in a new way the role of money in the church and fueled angry laypeople who saw corrupt, clubby higher-ups. Some created independent media and watchdog groups — especially on the conservative side.

Stephen White, who helped start a project in 2019 at Catholic University about raising church transparency and accountability after the McCarrick scandal broke, said Wednesday that the incompetency decision is anti-climactic and embodies the limits of finding justice for a crime as horrific as alleged child sexual abuse.

“McCarrick became the poster boy of the Catholic clergy abuser, knowing how to play the system, how to flourish in a system that protected him,” he said. “He became the target for our desire for justice.”

The McCarrick scandal had many effects, he said, including connecting the dots between the American prelates and leaders in Rome and elsewhere. It “internationalized” the problem, he said.

American Catholics, as a result, are less likely to take at face value the word of bishops, or even the Vatican, that problems are being addressed, he said, adding, “No one is willing to be patted on the head; those days are long gone.”

The failings of Vatican leaders in the McCarrick case — detailed in the report — amplified negative feelings some U.S. Catholics already had about Pope Francis, White said.

McCarrick’s life — and fall — mirrored core trends in the U.S. church. He embodied the immigrant striver of past centuries, having grown up in the Irish ghetto of the Bronx in the 1930s. Like American Catholics, McCarrick’s standing grew. He became a globe-trotting papal diplomat who raised hundreds of millions of dollars and was a friend to celebrities, popes and presidents.

“In a sense, Ted McCarrick was the last of a certain kind of American bishop,” White said. “He was significant in the church, in U.S. politics, in cultural circles. That kind of player in American civic life — he was probably the last.”

Today, institutional religion has fallen far in stature, in part because of sexual abuse scandals in the Catholic Church and other religious institutions. U.S. Catholics have become much more ethnically and politically diverse, and the idea of someone representing them seems harder to imagine.

“McCarrick is a relic of this kind of tragic last moment of a certain brand of American Catholicism,” White said. “It’s hard to imagine another Ted McCarrick.”