Vatican report finds Pope John Paul II dismissed sex abuse by ex-Cardinal McCarrick – but goes easy on Pope Francis

By John Bacon
USA Today
November 11, 2020

Former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick is pictured speaking during a memorial service in South Bend, Indiana.
Photo by Robert Franklin

[with video]

A Vatican investigation into disgraced ex-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick lashed out at bishops, cardinals and a pope-turned-saint who downplayed ominous reports about the Catholic kingmaker's sexual abuse of children and seminarians.

But the 400-page internal investigation released Tuesday by the Vatican goes easy on Pope Francis, saying the pontiff accepted his predecessors' naive belief in McCarrick's impassioned denials.

Francis defrocked McCarrick, 90, last year after the investigation confirmed decades of allegations that he had sexually molested children and adults. The Vatican had reports from authoritative figures dating back more than two decades yet allowed the prelate's rise in the church to continue unchecked.

"Today’s report paints a picture of fraternal lenience and silence," Anne Barrett Doyle, co-director of, told USA TODAY. "The impact of this brotherly support has been horrifying. Dozens of children and vulnerable young people were sexually violated by McCarrick himself, and perhaps hundreds more were sexually assaulted by abusive priests who went unchecked under McCarrick."

Barrett Doyle described the report as the Vatican's "first forthright account" of its own cover-up of a sexual predator. But she says Francis is treated too gently.

"It lets Pope Francis take no responsibility for not stopping McCarrick sooner," she said. "Nobody gave him the files, he knew only that there had been rumors, etc. ... Wasn't the pope curious to see if those rumors had substance? Any concerned person with access to Google could have discovered they did."

Jim Bretzke, a priest, author and professor of theology at John Carroll University in Ohio, says the release of the long-awaited McCarrick report provides a glimpse of the deeply entrenched culture of clerical cover-up as well as a significant change in how the culture operates.

"'Never apologize, never explain, never admit' may have been the bureaucratic guidelines in the Church for decades, but clearly the release of this report shows that this clerical culture is beginning to change – slowly but surely," Bretzke told USA TODAY.

James Grein says he is glad the report was released. Grein says he was 11 when McCarrick, then a New York priest, began abusing him in the late 1960s. Grein says McCarrick was a family friend and that years later, when Grein told Pope John Paul II of the abuse, the pope simply said he would pray for him. Nothing was done.

"There are so many people suffering out there because of one man," Grein said. "And he thinks that he's more important than the rest of us. He's destroyed me and he's destroyed thousands of other lives. ... It's time that the Catholic Church comes clean with all of its destruction."

The report targets John Paul, who appointed McCarrick archbishop of Washington, D.C., in 2000, despite having commissioned an inquiry that confirmed he slept with seminarians. The pope died in 2005 and later gained sainthood.

The report says John Paul was fooled by McCarrick's denial.

“In the 70 years of my life, I have never had sexual relations with any person, male or female, young or old, cleric or lay, nor have I ever abused another person or treated them with disrespect," McCarrick wrote.

Bretzke emphasized that the report makes clear John Paul had been apprised of very serious allegations against McCarrick but nevertheless appointed him archbishop of Washington, D.C., and even elevated McCarrick to cardinal the next year.

Bretzke said that the Communist government in John Paul's native Poland often used trumped-up charges against priests who resisted the government. John Paul's defenders say that may have led him to question the veracity of all such charges.

"Regrettably, Pope John Paul II’s attitude toward reports of clerical sexual abuse has been confirmed in many other instances," Bretzke said. "True or not, this neglect does not reflect well on the deceased pope."

The current leader of the Washington Catholics, Cardinal-Designate Wilton Gregory, said his "heart hurts" for those who are shocked and saddened by the report's revelations. 

"Nonetheless, we know that if true redemptive healing is ever to commence – for those who have been harmed and for the Church Herself – this disclosure must be made," Gregory said in a statement.

Francis, who became pope in 2013, received no documentation about McCarrick's behavior until 2017, the report says. The findings accused bishops of providing the Vatican with incomplete information about McCarrick's behavior, and of turning a blind eye to his repeated flouting of informal restrictions ordered in 2006 after Pope Benedict XVI decided not to investigate or sanction him seriously. 

"Pope Francis had heard only that there had been allegations and rumors related to immoral conduct with adults occurring prior to McCarrick's appointment to Washington," the summary says. "Believing that the allegations had already been reviewed and rejected by Pope John Paul II, and well aware that McCarrick was active during the papacy of Benedict XVI, Pope Francis did not see the need to alter the approach that had been adopted." 

That changed after the claims from Grein and others came to light in 2017, triggering the canonical trial that resulted in McCarrick's defrocking.

Francis commissioned the report after the retired Vatican ambassador to the U.S., Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, issued a blistering expose of the two-decade-long McCarrick cover-up in 2018, naming around two dozen U.S. and Vatican officials who knew of his misconduct but failed to effectively sanction him.

Vigano cited former seminarians who had described the harassment and abuse they endured while "Uncle Ted," as McCarrick liked to call himself, was their bishop in New Jersey, forced to sleep in his bed during weekend trips to his beach house.

The report was released a few days before U.S. bishops gather for their annual fall meeting, which has been overshadowed by the McCarrick scandal for two years.

And it was published on the same day the Vatican faced another reckoning over an influential prelate brought down by allegations of homosexual misconduct: The former Vatican ambassador to France, Archbishop Luigi Ventura, went on trial Tuesday in Paris, accused of groping and inappropriately touching young men – charges he denies.


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