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Former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick Is Charged With Sexually Assaulting A Teen

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

A former archbishop of Washington, D.C., is facing criminal charges for alleged sexual abuse of a minor. Theodore McCarrick is the highest-ranking Catholic official in America to face sex abuse charges. He was expelled from the priesthood in 2019. The criminal complaint says the alleged abuse happened in the 1970s.

Joshua McElwee is a news editor with the National Catholic Reporter who has covered McCarrick extensively. And he's joining us from Rome. Good morning. Thank you.

JOSHUA MCELWEE: Yeah. Happy to be with you.

MCCAMMON: What are the specific accusations in this case?

MCELWEE: Well, McCarrick, who, as you say, was for decades one of the most prominent figures in the U.S. Catholic Church and retired in 2006 as the cardinal archbishop of Washington, is being charged in Massachusetts with indecent assault and battery on a teenager. The assault allegedly took place in 1974, when McCarrick was still a rising figure in the church, serving as a secretary to then New York Cardinal Terence Cooke. According to the Boston Globe and other outlets, the victim says he was abused by McCarrick during trips McCarrick took with the teenager's family. The victim says McCarrick molested him at his brother's wedding and at later meetings at Massachusetts hotels.

MCCAMMON: And this - as you say, it's an alleged crime that happened almost 50 years ago. How is this prosecution happening now?

MCELWEE: Yeah. McCarrick has faced a number of civil suits in other states, but the statutes of limitations on alleged actions in the 1970s and '80s and even the '90s had often prevented prosecutors from bringing criminal cases forward. The Globe is reporting that prosecutors in Massachusetts are able to bring this case forward because McCarrick had not been a resident in the state beyond short-term visits. So essentially, the clock on the statute of limitations had not been running for years.

MCCAMMON: Now, McCarrick at one time was a beloved and well-connected figure in the church. He was actually seen as a voice against priestly abuse. He even officiated during funeral rites for Senator Ted Kennedy and the president's son, Beau Biden. What were the long-standing allegations against this prominent man?

MCELWEE: Well, I think it's fair to say that several news outlets had been investigating rumors of misconduct by McCarrick for years but had never been able to prove them. Something - at the National Catholic Reporter, we've been reporting on clergy sexual abuse since 1985, and often it was hard for victims to come forward. They thought they might not be believed or that the police wouldn't take matters seriously. That atmosphere has certainly changed in recent years.

In 2018, there was an allegation brought forward against McCarrick that was reported to church officials, who then suspended him from Catholic ministry. In 2019, he was removed from the Catholic priesthood. And in 2020, Pope Francis ordered the publication of a really unprecedented 440-some-page report looking at McCarrick's career and basically trying to answer the question, how a man who has now been accused of various incidents of misconduct or abuse of both minors and young adults in the 1970s, '80s and '90s was able to rise to become the cardinal archbishop of Washington, probably the most prominent Catholic figure in the U.S., and an aide and adviser to presidents and popes.

MCCAMMON: You talk about how long these rumors were circulating - these stories were circulating - but never confirmed. Could this happen again today with other powerful people inside or outside the church?

MCELWEE: Well, Pope Francis and Pope Benedict before him have put in place a number of reforms to try and make clear that the church is taking these allegations seriously. And when they come forward, they will be investigated. Priests or clergy who are accused will be removed from ministry. And the church will take them very seriously. Of course, abuse victims and their advocates tell us and tell other publications that it's not quite enough. They would like to see things such as an immediate removal from ministry with an allegation brought forward or, you know, that a priest would be removed from the priesthood automatically should an allegation be proved.

But I think what we're seeing now is a totally different atmosphere in terms of police and prosecutors willing to bring charges and cases against church officials and kind of force the church's hand to recognize how serious this problem is and how seriously it needs to be treated going forward.

MCCAMMON: Joshua McElwee with The National Catholic Reporter in Rome. Thank you so much for your time.

MCELWEE: Yeah, thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.