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U.S. Catholic Church’s former public face on sex abuse crisis faces decades of misconduct allegations

One of the most recognized faces of the American Catholic Church was removed from the public ministry last month, making Cardinal Theodore McCarrick the highest ranking Catholic official in the nation to be removed for sexual abuse of a minor. Now the New York Times reports that McCarrick touched young adult seminarians. John Yang learns more Rev. James Martin of America magazine.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Now, new alleged details about sexual — or, rather, details about alleged sexual misconduct by a Catholic cardinal who was a power broker within the church.

    Theodore McCarrick was removed from public ministry last month, making him the highest ranking Catholic official in the U.S. to be removed for sexual abuse of a minor.

    As John Yang tells us, a new investigation finds other offenses, and church officials allegedly covered them up for decades.

  • John Yang:

    Cardinal Theodore McCarrick was long one of the most recognized faces of the U.S. Catholic Church. He led the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., and participated in funeral mass for Senator Edward Kennedy.

    McCarrick became an influential voice at the Vatican and was among the cardinals who elected Pope Benedict XVI. In the early 2000s, Pope John Paul II asked him to help manage the devastating sexual abuse crisis. He was one of the drafters of the charter for protecting children that was adopted by American bishops in 2002.

  • Theodore McCarrick:

    I think, when you look at zero tolerance, now, I’m saying this — the other bishops aren’t — I’m saying zero tolerance prospectively. Everybody is on the same page. If this ever happens again, that’s it.

  • John Yang:

    McCarrick was the public face when the U.S. Council of Bishops issued its report about decades of abuse by priests.

    Here he is on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

  • Tim Russert:

    Do you believe there’s a special place in hell for men who represent Christ on earth and abuse their flock?

  • Theodore McCarrick:

    There’s certainly a special, terrible judgment on someone who would abuse the trust that a priest must have, that a priest does have.

  • John Yang:

    But McCarrick’s own behavior became the focus last month when he was removed from the ministry. The Archdiocese of New York said an accusation that he had molested a 16-year-old altar boy nearly 50 years ago was credible. McCarrick denied it.

    Now there are more allegations. The New York Times reports that, beginning in the 1980s, when McCarrick was a New Jersey bishop, he inappropriately touched young adult seminarians. The newspaper said church officials knew of the allegations as he rose in the hierarchy. McCarrick declined to comment to The Times.

    The Reverend James Martin is a Jesuit priest and editor at large of the Jesuit magazine “America.” He joins us now from New York.

    Father Martin, thanks for being with us.

    The New York Times reported that the first documentation they see of a complaint that the Catholic Church was aware of, church officials were aware of, was in 1994.

    How could these allegations have been around for so long, and yet Cardinal McCarrick rise in the church hierarchy?

  • Rev. James Martin:

    That’s a very good question.

    I think you’re talking about the allegations about him toward seminaries and priests. I think, essentially, priests were probably embarrassed to come forward and former seminarians embarrassed to come forward. And it is shocking to me these allegations have been around for so long. It’s really pretty mystifying.

  • John Yang:

    And let me also ask you about the difference between the — sort of the swift action once the Archdiocese of New York deemed credible the allegations about abusing an altar boy many years ago, and yet the slow or the inaction on the allegations about adult seminarians.

  • Rev. James Martin:

    Well, another good question.

    I’m not a lawyer, but I think one is technically illegal, it’s a crime, and I think that sort of puts into place the reforms of the Dallas Charter, where the person is immediately removed.

    And I suppose these other things, these other accusations took a while to be unearthed. But what happens in terms of the Dallas Charter is that, once there is any credible accusation of child abuse, you are immediately taken from ministry. It’s — there’s no questions asked.

  • John Yang:

    What’s the church’s attitude, or how do they view allegations about adults?

  • Rev. James Martin:

    Well, it’s a very serious matter. It’s not only a grave crime against somebody’s person, right? It’s an abuse, an emotional abuse, sometimes a physical abuse.

    It’s also sinful, and it’s also breaking the promise of celibacy that you have as a priest. So, in multiple ways, it’s wrong.

  • John Yang:

    Father, one of the targets of Cardinal McCarrick told The Times that, in the corporate world, there’s a human resources contact. He says, does the Catholic Church have that? How is a priest supposed to report abuse or wrong activity by his bishop? What is their stated vehicle for anyone to do that?

    Should there be a vehicle within the Catholic Church for that?

  • Rev. James Martin:

    Well, and that was part of the problem, that the bishop is the highest person. Certainly, an archbishop or later a cardinal is on the top of the food chain. And it’s very hard to level an accusation against that person.

    The nuncio, who is the Vatican’s representative in the United States, is the person that you would go to.

    But, as read from The New York Times yesterday, there was one Dominican priest, Father Boniface Ramsey, who did go to the nuncio, and was apparently either ignored or the nuncio didn’t believe him. So, that process also failed.

  • John Yang:

    Father, I think one of the reasons why so many people are surprised by these allegations is that he was so out front on the abuse scandal against children, and yet this was going on, or at least the allegations were there against him.

    What do you make of that?

  • Rev. James Martin:

    Well, that people are very complex, and I guess he was able to compartmentalize his own misbehavior and abuse, and somehow, I’m assuming, think that the child sexual abuses warranted different punishment.

    But the idea that someone who was himself behaving improperly with people would be in the forefront is, frankly, mystifying to me. So it just, again, shows the complexity of the human person and the complexity of sin, too.

    I think that the most difficult thing for me to fathom was how these situations had gone on for so long, even before he was archbishop of Newark and Washington. That was really stunning to me.

  • John Yang:

    Do you think there is more to this in the church with adult seminarians?

  • Rev. James Martin:

    No, I don’t.

    I think that Cardinal McCarrick’s case is really extraordinary. The idea that he would have a house on the Jersey Shore and sort of bring people there, I think that’s very unusual.

    I think, as in any organization, I think there are abuses of power and even improper sexual advances. But I don’t think this is rampant. And I think his case is really kind of an outlier. At least, I would hope so.

  • John Yang:

    But is there anything the church can learn from this?

  • Rev. James Martin:

    I think that, you know, we need safeguards for adult abuse as well.

    I think it’s very much similar to the MeToo movement and sort of encouraging people who might feel unjustly ashamed or embarrassed to come out and talk about these things, even when it’s someone in power.

    And the other thing we can learn is that, no matter how good or how, you know, productive a person is, there’s always that chance of sin in a person’s life.

  • John Yang:

    Reverend James Martin, editor at large of “America,” thank you very much.

  • Rev. James Martin:

    Of course.

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