ROME — Popes Benedict XVI and John Paul II were aware of sexual misconduct allegations against American Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, whom the Vatican later defrocked after investigating the claims, but they did not halt the powerful cleric’s rise through the church, according to a report released Tuesday.
McCarrick, one of the most prominent figures in the U.S. Roman Catholic Church before his fall from power, was expelled from the priesthood in 2019 after a Vatican investigation.
The 460-page Vatican report released Tuesday outlines how the two popes, as well as senior U.S. Catholic officials, were aware of the sexual misconduct allegations, including that McCarrick shared a bed with seminarians at his New Jersey beach house and an unsuccessful attempt to restrict his role in public life in the 1990s.
The report said there was “credible evidence” that McCarrick had abused minors when he was a priest in the 1970s but that the evidence did not surface until 2017. Before then, the church was only aware of consistent rumors, the report found, with McCarrick’s denials accepted for decades.
“At the time of McCarrick’s appointment and in part because of the limited nature of the Holy See’s own prior investigations, the Holy See never received a complaint directly from a victim, whether adult or minor, about McCarrick’s misconduct,” the report said.
“For this reason, McCarrick’s supporters could plausibly characterize the allegations against him as ‘gossip’ or ‘rumors.'”
John Paul II served from 1978 until his death in 2005 and was succeeded by Benedict, who retired in 2013 and is now pope emeritus. (John Paul was declared a saint in 2014.)
The allegations against McCarrick, the highest profile church figure to have been dismissed from the priesthood in modern times, date back decades.
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.
George Weigel, a John Paul II biographer and senior Vatican analyst for NBC News, said that what came through to him in the Vatican report was that “McCarrick was a consummate and pathological liar as well as a predator.”
The report, which was commissioned by Pope Francis in 2018 and includes interviews with over 90 witnesses and details incidents and allegations of abuse, took two years to compile.
According to the investigation, Francis was given evidence of McCarrick’s misconduct only in 2017. Francis has consistently denied knowledge of McCarrick’s sexual misconduct.
Against the background of the #MeToo era, 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.
The report “did not examine the issue of McCarrick’s culpability. … That question has already been adjudicated,” but the report said Vatican investigators did look at “institutional knowledge” surrounding his behavior.
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.
It outlined how McCarrick seemingly managed to rise through the ranks of the church, despite accusations of alleged sexual misconduct with adult male seminarians and minors.
McCarrick, 90, who has been living in seclusion in the U.S., has previously responded publicly only to the allegations of abuse of minors, saying he had “absolutely no recollection” of them.
He has not commented on alleged sexual misconduct with adult men or on this report. NBC News has reached out to U.S. Archdioceses for comment.
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“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,” Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican secretary of state, said in a statement.
Parolin said that he and Pope Francis had viewed the testimonies of victims and that in publishing the report “the truth has been pursued.”
Reuters contributed to this report.