‘pray for Your Poor Uncle,’ a Predatory Priest Told His Victims
By Elizabeth Bruenig
The New York Times
July 15, 2020
Rain fell in New York City four days before Christmas of 2018. Francis M. had planned to be in the city that day for business, but he had dutifully put aside time when asked to answer questions at the Archdiocese of New York offices about his experiences with “Uncle Ted” — former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick.
A tall, broad-shouldered man nearing 60 at the time, with blue eyes and steely gray hair, Francis had been in enough depositions in his career as an attorney to know how these question-and-answer sessions went. He assumed he would relate the story of his interactions with Mr. McCarrick, which began when he was 11, and then he would return to his usual routine.
Mr. McCarrick’s downfall had been as dizzying as his rise. Once the archbishop of Washington D.C., and a cardinal who boasted of his close ties to Pope Francis, Mr. McCarrick had established himself as a gifted fund-raiser, helping to found the Papal Foundation, a charity with a $200 million endowment. But in 2018, his reputation collapsed in a rush of accusations that he had sexually abused adult seminarians and a teenage boy. More accusations followed, and in 2019 Mr. McCarrick was defrocked — the first time an American cardinal had been removed from the priesthood.
Francis — who asked me to refer to him and his family members only by their middle names and last initials, to protect their privacy — was not surprised, but neither did he feel that the news had much to do with him. He wasn’t a victim, he thought. He had never felt like one. He had explanations for all the times Mr. McCarrick had insisted that Francis share a bed with him as a boy and for the ways the man had touched him when he did. Mr. McCarrick was lonely, Francis had told himself; plenty of clergymen were. And Francis had turned out well: A father of four with a happy marriage and lucrative work, he had little reason to meditate on the former cardinal.
But as Mr. McCarrick’s case gained national attention, Francis began discussing it with his brothers and male cousins. He told me that in October 2018, one of his brothers reached out to the Archdiocese of New York, and by December, five members of Francis’ family, all men, had agreed to testify in the inquiry the Vatican had ordered it to undertake. An attorney representing Mr. McCarrick repeatedly declined to comment on the allegations made in this article. As of 2019, Mr. McCarrick still maintained his innocence.
“I had anticipated that reciting long-ago facts wouldn’t be upsetting,” Francis told me when we first met in January of last year, at his vacation home in the frozen Catskills.
“But the more I went over in my mind the experiences I had and what they really constituted — with the perspective of an older man — I really understood for the first time as an adult the premeditation and cunning that Ted brought to his predatory activities, right under the eyes of my parents and aunts and uncles.”
Francis said that he was one of five members of his family who testified against Mr. McCarrick in the church’s inquiry.
The experience left him shaken. There were all of the usual questions victims ask themselves: How had his parents missed what Mr. McCarrick was doing, and why had he allowed younger family members to wander into the cardinal’s grasp? How had it changed him, and could he recover? And then there were more fundamental questions: Could a religion whose earthly stewards sinned so cruelly really be true? Supposing it wasn’t, how could he leave the only church he had ever known? Supposing it was, how could he stay?
Established in 1927 in the Throgs Neck neighborhood of the Bronx, the church of St. Frances de Chantal came into its full glory in 1970, when its severe brick exterior was finally erected beneath a tall, spartan cross. In October of that year, Cardinal Terence Cooke visited the parish to celebrate a Mass of Dedication. Francis recalled that Cardinal Cooke brought with him a delegation of clergymen from the Archdiocese of New York, including an up-and-coming monsignor by the name of Theodore McCarrick.
A parish priest introduced the affable Mr. McCarrick to the nine members of the M. family, Francis, who was then 11, told me. Mr. McCarrick was 40, a slightly built man with an almost elfin look. He was just back from a four-year stint as the president of the Pontifical Catholic University of Puerto Rico and had recently been made assistant secretary for education in the archdiocese. In 1971, Cardinal Cooke would make him his personal priest secretary.
Mr. McCarrick soon became a regular visitor at the M. household, where his status in the church made him something of a celebrity. Francis recalled that “Ted” always wore his clerical garb, unlike the more casual clergymen around town. “When Ted came to dinner, he was like the candy man,” Francis told me. He would bring souvenirs: “Rosary beads from Fatima, a medal blessed by the pope, a necklace from the Philippines.”
Mr. McCarrick’s adventures were of special interest to the M. boys, Francis said, because the priest had a custom of taking boys along with him, from their extended family and from other families like theirs: working class, devoutly Catholic, Irish. Francis’ father had immigrated from Ireland and worked as a bus driver, while Francis’ mother stayed home with the children. “Our biggest treat was to go to Howard Johnson’s for Easter dinner,” Francis said, so Mr. McCarrick “was this window to a whole new world.”
Francis recalled that Mr. McCarrick told him that boys could begin traveling with him at age 13. But when Francis was 12, a rare family trip to Ireland happened to coincide with one of Mr. McCarrick’s visits to the old country. During that trip, Francis said, Mr. McCarrick took him and his brother to an estate owned by a wealthy Irish-American, where they spent the night together.
After that, Francis said, traveling with Mr. McCarrick became a fairly regular occurrence. According to Francis, the eagerly avuncular priest took him fishing in upstate New York, dined with him at the Tonga Room in San Francisco, treated him to a visit to the La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles and even took him to Walker’s Cay, a privately owned island in the Bahamas.
McCarrick introduced the boys as “nephews,” Francis recalled, and they called him Uncle Ted. “Ted told us that these wealthy people were generous to him,” he explained, but they wouldn’t “be generous to some random group of unrelated boys.” They had to “stick to the script or he wouldn’t be able to bring us along.”
Perhaps enlisting the boys in that ruse was a kind of overture for what would follow, habituating them to a climate of silence and fear. Mr. McCarrick routinely booked single hotel rooms, Francis said, and at night Mr. McCarrick “would peel out of his clothes to T-shirt and underwear, and energetically jump onto a bed, where he would arrange himself in a cross-legged position, usually next to one of the ‘nephews.’” The familiarity made Francis uncomfortable: “We came from these typical Irish Catholic, working-class households. You still shook hands with your dad.” After Mr. McCarrick’s “exuberant” displays in the evenings, Francis remembered, he would recruit one of his traveling companions to sleep in bed with him.
It was hard for Francis to describe what happened when it was his turn to sleep in Mr. McCarrick’s bed, which he estimated happened a dozen or more times, starting when he was 12 and trailing into his early adulthood. Francis looked down and spoke quietly when he said that Mr. McCarrick would usually offer to scratch his back and that he would sometimes press his body against Francis and slip his hands under the boy’s shirt or slide his fingers underneath the waistband of Francis’ underwear. While Mr. McCarrick was touching him, Francis said, he would murmur little entreaties: “You have to pray for your poor uncle,” Francis recalled his saying, as though it were Francis’ responsibility to reconcile the priest to God, even as he lay helpless and confused against him.
Brendan L., one of Francis’ cousins, shared a similar account. “Ted would say, when you’re old enough, you can come travel with me,” Brendan remembered, and that became a highly anticipated privilege. Brendan said he traveled with Mr. McCarrick up and down the East Coast and occasionally overseas. But when night came, he recalled, the anxiety set in. “It was an accepted norm, nobody talked about it, you just kind of did it. You would think, ‘Ah, [expletive], it’s my turn tonight.’ I was always very anxious.”
In bed, Brendan said, Mr. McCarrick would “be in his underwear, he would snuggle up to you, put his legs over your hips,” Brendan recalled uneasily. “A couple of times, he slipped his hand under the back of my underwear and I kind of slapped his hand away.” Sometimes, Brendan said, he would climb out of bed and sleep on the floor; on those occasions, he told me, Mr. McCarrick would become angry. He estimated he had slept in bed with Mr. McCarrick more than two dozen times, beginning when he was around 12.
Another relative of Francis’ who did not want to be named told me that Mr. McCarrick performed the same back rub routine on him, but went further, occasionally sliding his hands beneath the back of his underwear. He recalled that at least once, Mr. McCarrick placed his hands between his legs but did not touch his genitals. Francis’ cousin, who believes he was roughly 18 or 19 when he began traveling with Mr. McCarrick, said he was always deeply disturbed by what happened, thinking: “‘I can’t believe I have to do this’ and ‘Why do we have to do this?’” When it was over, he said, “it would be like such a relief. And I would say to myself: ‘All right. I’ve probably got another month before he calls me to come over and do something again.’”
He told me he didn’t want his name used because he has never told his elderly mother about what transpired between him and Mr. McCarrick. She is very devout, he told me, and in fact introduced him to Mr. McCarrick when her son was drifting from the faith as a teenager. “For my mother, it was, ‘Oh, he’s with the bishop and this is terrific, and oh,’” he said, and paused for a moment, lost in thought. “I mean, she was in her glory about it.”
By the mid 1980s, Francis had grown up and apart from Mr. McCarrick, but Mr. McCarrick “had interwoven himself so much into the family, that if you really wanted to completely cut him out, you’d have to cut yourself out of the family,” Francis said. “If you went to somebody’s christening or somebody’s wedding, he was there.”
Francis married a Catholic woman who had grown up three streets away from his house in the Bronx. Marie, an outgoing and independent nurse, never liked Mr. McCarrick: “I would call him Ted the pedophile, even before we were married,” she said. She and Francis agreed that Mr. McCarrick would not officiate their wedding, despite the objections of Francis’ family. Instead, the two of them chose a priest they respected.
Nevertheless, Mr. McCarrick sent a papal blessing to their priest to be read aloud during the ceremony, with Mr. McCarrick’s name included. Marie was incensed. “It was like, ‘You didn’t want me to be a part of this wedding, but I am still a part of it,’” she said. It arrived like an assertion of control, with a sinister message: You can’t get rid of me.
Francis remained a faithful Catholic, but disillusionment threatened his peace, especially as his children grew older. One Sunday in the early 2000s, when the sex abuse crisis was first coming to light, his pastor mentioned that some parishioners had threatened to withhold their donations. Francis said that the priest urged parishioners not to make their contributions a referendum on the church’s handling of the crisis, because those donations supported local charity work. Francis accepted that; it made sense.
But a year later, he said, the same pastor was “railing about how the media has sort of blown the whole thing out of proportion. And he said, ‘And we know that you didn’t fall for it. You know how we know? Because your donations never fell off.’” Francis seethed.
During the summer of 2018, news broke that the Archdiocese of New York had found credible the allegation that Mr. McCarrick had sexually abused a minor in the early 1970s. A month later, another man came forward to claim that he had been abused by Mr. McCarrick as a minor. In late July, Mr. McCarrick resigned from the College of Cardinals.
In August, an archbishop released an incendiary letter accusing Pope Francis of having failed to take action against Mr. McCarrick, despite the pope’s being warned that he was a “serial predator.” (The pope later denied this.).
I was a writer at The Washington Post at the time, and I began working on the Mr. McCarrick story. I knocked on the door of the archdiocesan house he had retreated to, and I requested interviews through his legal team but received no answer from him. I was frustrated by the church’s reticence regarding Mr. McCarrick’s career of abuse and disturbed by my increasing difficulty producing an answer when asked by friends why I was still Catholic.
|Cardinal McCarrick in 2013. He later became the first cardinal ever to resign because of accusations of sexual abuse.|
As Francis watched the story unfold in the news, he sank into similar spiritual unease. He began to realize that he had failed to appreciate how extensive Mr. McCarrick’s abuses really were. “He was expert in taking boys like me, who felt like they got lost in big families, and making them feel special,” Francis said. He mentioned reading about a blog post written by a former priest secretary of Mr. McCarrick’s, K. Bartholomew Smith, which labeled the disgraced cardinal “a devourer of souls.” It rang true to Francis.
Christmas of 2018, after his testimony, was hard for Francis. Dreams about Mr. McCarrick began to stir his subconscious. In one nightmare, he confronted the priest, only to find him glib and evasive, offering a tray of sweets. No one involved in the church’s investigation reached out to him with updates or offers of support. He stopped going to Mass. “The couple of times that I went, even in the context of funerals or weddings, it was hard for me to sit through it and look at the priests on the altar and not question — was he, this person, also an abuser?”
Those thoughts distracted Francis as he searched for the solace and meaning he had always found in sacred liturgy. He would go during off hours to the Church of Our Savior in Manhattan and sit alone in the golden glory of its vast sanctuary, listening to Gregorian chants through earbuds. “That was odd to do that,” Francis said. “But I felt like I needed to have some connection, until I could find my way back in.”
In the spring of 2019, Francis said that he, along with the four relatives who had testified in the Vatican’s inquiry, submitted claims to the Archdiocese of New York’s Independent Reconciliation and Compensation Program. Though their prior testimonies had been given at the archdiocesan offices, their statements had been strictly confidential, for use only in the Vatican’s proceedings. By submitting claims directly to the compensation program, Francis told me, he and his family meant to provide the archdiocese with testimony for use in its own review of Mr. McCarrick’s history.
In June 2019, according to Francis, the archdiocese offered him a six-figure settlement to relinquish his claim against the church regarding Mr. McCarrick. Francis was conflicted; he had agreed to share his story with the Vatican and the archdiocese in solidarity with the other victims in his family and in hopes of bringing the truth to light. He had never intended to litigate his case further or to reap any monetary award.
Ultimately, Francis chose to accept the settlement, parceling it out for his children and some home repairs. If he had been affected by Mr. McCarrick’s manipulation and abuse, then so too had his family been, he reasoned.
Francis’ younger daughter told me over lunch in February of this year that she hadn’t touched her portion of the proceeds yet and isn’t sure that she ever will.
None of Francis’ four adult children describe themselves as practicing Catholics, in large part because of their father’s experience with Mr. McCarrick and the sex abuse crisis. Francis had been open — though not necessarily explicit — with them about Mr. McCarrick’s behavior; he never wanted to foster the climate of oppressive secrecy that had shrouded his childhood.
“Christianity is supposed to be about loving your fellow people and doing good and believing there’s good,” Francis’ older daughter told me. “None of that rings true in any of this.”
“I believe it’s important to be spiritual and believe in something,” the younger daughter said, “but I don’t know if I can call myself Catholic anymore … and that’s really sad.”
A note of longing haunts all faith, especially faith that has been wounded. Francis wears that weary hope in his eyes now. In February, I met with him and his wife on a cool morning in New York in the vestibule of Our Savior, the church he had spent hours in searching a way back into the heart of the faith that sustains him.
Francis greeted me warmly and we sat together in the pew — two lost souls seeking answers from a God we can’t stop loving. The Corinthian columns of the apse rose before us, and between them, flanked by angels, was the image of Christ, wreathed in a golden halo. His face was wan and beautiful, with hollow cheeks and dark, pleading eyes. I was transfixed by him; I always am. We sang and offered our open palms, and I thought of the words of Saint Augustine. “Why do you mean so much to me,” he asked the Lord, “help me to find words to explain. Why do I mean so much to you, that you should command me to love you?”
Love drew Francis back to Mass on Christmas last year. He started attending, not necessarily every Sunday, he said, but something like every other Sunday, in a steady, if cautious, rhythm.
“Faith is really hard to do solo,” Francis explained as we sat together after Mass, in an empty reception hall with watery light streaming in through tall windows. “I missed the community feeling of being in church.” He needed some sign of eternity here in the broken present: The certainty of rituals shared with others, whose trust in the goodness of God and the presence of a transcendent love nurtures the faith of those around them. His parish 30 miles outside New York City has a new pastor, a fresh face sharing no history with the M. family. Francis is still involved in charitable work in the church, applying his skills as an attorney to help aging nuns and monks manage their communities’ properties.
Francis told me he thinks it’s possible to distinguish the church from the people who have for decades debased it. How dearly I wanted to hear that; how crucial it was for me to believe it. Francis went on in his gentle, searching tone. “All throughout the church, and the church’s history, you can see times where there were people who were really living testaments to their faith,” he said. “And you can see people who took advantage of the power that they had. And that God allows that is just kind of, part of the mystery we’re all going to have to figure out, when we go to ask him. Right?”