ROME — The previous two popes were aware of sexual misconduct allegations against American Cardinal Theodore McCarrick but they did not halt the powerful cleric's rise through the church, according to a Vatican report released Tuesday.
The 446-page document said that Popes Benedict XVI and John Paul II had known for years about claims against McCarrick, a former archbishop of Washington, D.C., who was one of the most prominent figures in the U.S. Roman Catholic Church.
The report said the previous two popes, as well as senior U.S. Catholic officials, knew about the allegations. These included that McCarrick had shared a bed with seminarians at his New Jersey beach house and that there was "credible evidence" he abused minors when he was a priest in the 1970s, although the report found this didn't surface until years later.
McCarrick was expelled from the priesthood in 2019 after a Vatican investigation found a "credible and substantiated" allegation of sexual abuse involving a teenager nearly 50 years previously.
Now aged 90 and living in seclusion in the U.S., he has previously responded publicly only to the allegations that he abused minors, saying he had "absolutely no recollection" of them.
The report said Pope Francis, who has has consistently denied knowledge of the incidents, was only given evidence of McCarrick's misconduct in 2017.
Pope John Paul II, who served from 1978 until his death in 2005, was told about some of the claims against McCarrick in 1999 when deciding whether to appoint him archbishop of Washington, D.C., the report said.
The then-pope, who was declared a saint in 2014, called for an internal investigation, according to the report. But three of the four American bishops who were interviewed "provided inaccurate and incomplete information" that ultimately influenced the decision to give McCarrick the prominent post, it said.
John Paul II's willingness to believe McCarrick's denials was also likely based on the men knowing each other for decades, and appeared to have been motivated by experiences in the pope's native Poland, where he witnessed "spurious allegations against bishops to degrade the standing of the church," the report said.
The "limited investigations" that were conducted meant that McCarrick's supporters "could plausibly characterize the allegations against him as 'gossip' or 'rumors'" and his denials were accepted, the report said. It also claimed that the Holy See had never received a complaint direct from a victim when McCarrick was appointed to Washington.
But James Grein, one of the men whose accusations of sexual abuse resulted in McCarrick's defrocking, has said he personally told John Paul II about the abuse during a 1988 Vatican audience. "He blessed me, he put his hands on me, then he dismissed me," Grein said during a news conference in August 2019 in Manhattan.
He was among hundreds of child sex abuse victims who filed lawsuits in New York under the Child Victims Act, which allows individuals to sue regardless of when the alleged acts happened. The legislation was bitterly opposed by the Catholic Church and other religious groups and blocked for years by Republicans in the state Legislature.
Grein was not immediately available for comment on Tuesday.
After replacing John Paul II in 2005, Pope Benedict XVI's knowledge of "McCarrick's misconduct was generally similar to the information" available to his predecessor, the report said.
Despite the concerns being brought to the pope's attention, "instead, the decision was made to appeal to McCarrick's conscience and ecclesial spirit by indicating to him that he should maintain a lower profile and minimize travel for the good of the church," according to the report.
Tackling sexual abuses that have battered the Catholic Church's reputation has been a major challenge for Francis, with victims demanding a crackdown on bishops accused of concealing or mismanaging cases. This has only increased against the background of the #MeToo era.
The report "did not examine the issue of McCarrick's culpability" because "that question has already been adjudicated," but Vatican investigators did look at "institutional knowledge" surrounding his behavior. McCarrick has not commented on alleged sexual misconduct with adult men or on this report.
A former archbishop of Washington, D.C., McCarrick was familiar to U.S. political elites.
The four U.S. dioceses where McCarrick served — New York, Metuchen and Newark in New Jersey, and Washington, D.C. — also carried out separate investigations that fed into the Vatican report.
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Cardinal-Designate Wilton Gregory of the Archdiocese of Washington called the Vatican's report "an important, difficult and necessary document" that was necessary if "true redemptive healing is ever to commence."
Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican secretary of state, said in a statement, "We publish the report with sorrow for the wounds that these events have caused to the victims, their families, the Church in the United States, and the Universal Church."
Reuters contributed to this report.