Representatives of the American bishops have now met with Pope Francis to discuss the much-needed investigation of the McCarrick Affair. This is understandable since any process involving the ex-cardinal and other prelates requires papal permission. It’s one thing to ask the pope’s support for an investigation, however, and quite another to trust Vatican officials to run it, given what we now know.
Because we now know – from former Metuchen Bishop P.G. Bootkoski and from Cardinal Leonardo Sandri – that the Vatican Secretariat of State received credible allegations against McCarrick over a decade ago. Yet the Vatican did not deprive him of access to seminarians and priests. Therefore, an investigation focused on McCarrick and the American bishops risks ignoring the pivotal role of higher-ranking officials in Rome.
Bootkoski recently acknowledged that in December 2005 he informed then U.S. nuncio, Archbishop Gabriel Montalvo, of three complaints against McCarrick. The accusations involved inappropriate physical contact with a priest as well as sexually touching seminarians. Two of these allegations resulted in financial settlements.
An October 2006 letter has come to light in which Sandri, who worked directly under the Cardinal Secretary of State, referred to “serious matters” involving seminarians at Seton Hall, which had been reported to Montalvo by Fr. Boniface Ramsey in 2000. Ramsey has repeatedly claimed he informed the nuncio of allegations that McCarrick harassed seminarians and shared a bed with them at his beach house.
The Secretariat of State, therefore, received credible allegations in 2000 and 2005 that McCarrick harassed and “groomed” priests and seminarians, sexually exploiting the latter. If Rome investigated, they should now share the results and save us the trouble of repeating their work. If they didn’t investigate, they need to account for their failure to protect seminarians and priests.
Even if Rome did investigate, another crucial question arises: were dioceses notified of the allegations and the possibility their seminarians and priests had been exploited? That would include any diocese that used seminaries frequented by McCarrick, especially the seminaries where he resided after 2005. Minors might have been at risk since incoming college seminarians can be under 18.
Cardinal Wuerl insists that neither he nor the Archdiocese of Washington knew of the allegations. This would mean Rome said nothing. To confirm Rome’s silence, Catholics and journalists should ask Cardinal Dolan whether he or the Archdiocese of New York were notified.
Note that Bootkoski’s statement and Sandri’s letter were not written to support the recent testimony of Archbishop Viganò. In fact, he accused both of cover-ups. Unlike Viganò, their testimonies to Rome’s knowledge of the allegations were not meant to suggest Vatican complicity in the McCarrick Affair.
Whatever the original intention, however, Sandri’s letter now constitutes documentary evidence that Ramsey spoke to Montalvo in 2000. The letter also implies that the Secretariat of State deemed those concerns credible no later than 2006.
Furthermore, Bootkoski’s statement proves that allegations were judged credible since payments were made based on them. Unfortunately, his statement provides only a summary of the memo he sent to the nuncio in 2005, which was presumably forwarded to the Secretariat of State.
The reason offered for presenting a summary is that “the claimants have not given the diocese permission” to publish the detailed allegations. Perhaps the diocese or journalists could ask the claimants to allow the memo to be published, redacting any portions the claimants wished to keep confidential. That way, the public could see documentary evidence of Bootkoski’s report to the Vatican.
Unless Sandri had been protecting McCarrick, he would have promptly notified the Secretary of State, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, of the allegations forwarded by the nuncio from Ramsey and Bootkoski. By the time Sandri wrote the 2006 letter, he would have informed the new Secretary of State, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone.
We don’t have evidence that the allegations in 2000 or 2005 reached St. John Paul II, Benedict XVI, or – prior to recent revelations – Francis. Yet if the popes were not informed, Vatican officials obviously cannot be now relied on to oversee the upcoming investigation.
The Secretariat’s failure to investigate the matter or to report the allegations to affected dioceses as part of an investigation would demonstrate a reckless disregard for the safety and well-being of priests and seminarians, including minors.
A bishop exploiting seminarians and priests for his own gratification is an outrage that cries to heaven. How could the Secretariat of State have turned away? And did no other Vatican offices receive reports? Were there legitimate reasons an investigation was not initiated or proved inconclusive? After decades of abuse scandals, how could officials not have recognized the gravity of the accusations? Or were some officials willing to tolerate these monstrous evils?
Answers and accountability are vital for Catholics everywhere, not only in America. In Chile, cries of Catholics were repeatedly ignored or denounced by Rome. Eventually, Chile’s bishops offered to resign, but no Vatican officials followed their example. That scenario must not be repeated.
These circumstances make it impossible for the Vatican to act as a credible guarantor of the forthcoming review of the McCarrick Affair. The pope’s approval and cooperation are necessary, but since American bishops and Vatican officials are under scrutiny now, the investigative process must be independent of both. For the investigation to be effective the pope will need to cooperate by freeing Church officials from the Pontifical Secret  and directing them to answer legitimate questions from investigators.
The review should be transparent and overseen by a board comprised of laity, religious, deacons, priests, and bishops. That way the entire Church would be represented in assessing and remedying the problems. That should involve exonerating the innocent, punishing the guilty, repairing the harm, and changing administrative structures and policies. A board like this could become a model for dealing with other failures by bishops and the Vatican.
*Image: The Penitent Saint Jerome by Lorenzo Lotto, c. 1514 [National Museum of Art, Bucharest]