1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

Vatican report casts dark shadow on Pope John Paul II

November 11, 2020

Pope John Paul II promoted disgraced former US cardinal Theodore McCarrick for years despite reports of sexual abuse. A new report details who knew what before Pope Francis defrocked him in 2018.

Pope John Paul II
Image: AFP/M. Sambucetti

A two-year, 449-page, internal Vatican investigation into sexual abuse allegations against ex-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick found that a number of bishops, cardinals and popes downplayed or dismissed reports that the US priest slept with seminarians.

The report said the Catholic Church's current leader, Pope Francis, had maintained that stance until receiving compelling allegations of sexual abuse from a former altar boy.

The McCarrick report is an attempt by the church to restore credibility gravely damaged by sexual abuse scandals and lack of transparency in general but also that of McCarrick and his career specifically. 

Read more: Sex abuse scandals in the Catholic Church

The most explosive aspects of the report relate to McCarrick's rise within the Catholic Church. Pope John Paul II, who was canonized a saint in 2014, was a supporter of the US bishop, appointing him Archbishop of Washington DC in 2000 and naming him a cardinal in 2001, despite having received numerous confirmed reports that McCarrick had slept with seminarians. 

John Paul, says the report, believed McCarrick's denials rather than the findings of a Vatican investigation: "The evidence shows that Pope John Paul II personally made the decision to appoint McCarrick and did so after receiving the counsel of several trusted advisers on both sides of the Atlantic."

"The unfathomable abuse scandal involves some of the church's highest conservative circles, and casts a dark shadow over the expeditiously sainted Pope John Paul II," says DW's religious affairs expert Christoph Strack.

Theodore McCarrick
Theodore McCarrick was defrocked by Pope Francis in 2018Image: Reuters/M. Rossi

The long slow fall

McCarrick, now 90, was a powerful and influential figure in the US and abroad and a prodigious fundraiser for the Holy See. Benedict XVI, who was also aware of McCarrick's proclivities, forced his retirement in 2016 but failed to order a full canonical inquiry after receiving still further allegations. "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," the report said.

Read more: Why has the Catholic Church taken so long to address child sexual abuse?

He was ultimately defrocked by Pope Francis in 2018 after a Vatican investigation confirmed decades of allegations that he had sexually molested adults as well as children. McCarrick's removal from active service and the stripping of his cardinal's title was the first such punishment of a cardinal in more than 90 years.

The report claims Pope Francis had thought the case had been dealt with by his predecessors but felt compelled to act after hearing: "In June 2017, the Archdiocese of New York learned of the first known allegation of sexual abuse by McCarrick of a victim under 18 years of age, which occurred in the early 1970s."

An 'unprecedented' step but what comes next?

Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), a US-based advocacy group, said the report was a "step in the right direction" but called on the Vatican to follow-through with "the punishment and expulsion of those who knew about McCarrick's crimes but did nothing to stop them."

Read more: Vatican issues new manual on reporting sex abuse of minors

Jeff Anderson, a US lawyer who represents abuse victims and sued the Vatican for documentation of clergy abuse, called the report "unprecedented." He says, "For the first time in the history of the Catholic Church, the Vatican has engaged a third-party, non-clergy lawyer to conduct the investigation, collect the evidence, connect the dots, and expose not only a perpetrator, but a system that put children in peril for decades."

Anderson says Pope Francis' actions going forward "will determine if he will lead a Church thoroughly committed to the healing and justice it espouses by walking the hard road of accountability, or one willing to expose only its most notorious offender to keep our eyes off those hiding in the shadows."

Scathing UN report on the Vatican

js/shs (AP, dpa)