— and witnessed more at beach house
By Abbott Koloff & Deena Yellin
Geoffrey Downs said he was a teenage altar boy in the 1980s when former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick abruptly pinned him to a wall and sexually abused him as they prepared for services in Metuchen.
McCarrick, who would go on to become one of the most prominent clerics in the U.S. Catholic Church, allegedly said he could arrange for the two to go to a Jersey Shore beach house where they could have “alone time.”
Downs, who sued McCarrick and the Metuchen diocese last week, said he knew about that house because he’d been there a few years earlier on a retreat with a group of altar boys. He said he had been awakened by a sound just before dawn, and witnessed a priest sexually abusing a young boy.
“I was well aware of the beach house and what it could mean,” Downs, 53, said in an interview Monday.
His lawsuit is the second civil complaint alleging child sex abuse at a Jersey Shore home used by Catholic clergy and connected to McCarrick. In a suit filed last month, a man said he was abused by the former cardinal at a beach house where the prelate allegedly shared boys with other clerics. The abuse allegedly occurred in the early 1980s, when McCarrick was the Metuchen bishop, about the same time as the activity alleged in Downs’ lawsuit.
Downs’ complaint, filed Aug. 11 in Middlesex County, alleges he was abused by McCarrick in 1982 or 1983, when he was 15 or 16 years old, at St. Francis of Assisi parish in Metuchen. He said he didn’t know the bishop but had seen him celebrating Mass at the parochial high school he attended. Downs said he was abused just the one time, and that he recoiled from McCarrick and then quit going to church altogether.
The ex-cardinal was defrocked last year amid allegations that he sexually abused children and harassed adult seminarians, becoming the highest-ranking American Catholic official to be punished over accusations of sex abuse. Downs’ was the fourth suit filed in New Jersey over the past nine months alleging McCarrick sexually assaulted a child.
McCarrick’s attorney, Barry Coburn, declined to comment. McCarrick has denied allegations that he sexually abused minors.
Downs said he didn’t talk about the encounter until recently, when he began reading about others abused in the Catholic Church and “started realizing it wasn’t an isolated incident.” The lawsuit says he visited the shore house about a year before he was abused by McCarrick.
“A year prior to the abuse Plaintiff had attended an altar boy retreat at the Diocese Beach House and had observed another boy being sexually abused by an unknown priest,” the lawsuit alleges.
Downs, who now lives in North Carolina, said in the interview that the beach house visit may have been earlier, around 1980, which would have been a year before McCarrick took over as bishop of Metuchen. Downs said McCarrick wasn’t there during the visit. His group of altar boys was getting ready to leave the house after a retreat while another group had just arrived. He said he woke up just before dawn when he heard sounds coming from another room.
“The door was cracked,” Downs said.
He said he “peeked in” and saw a priest and an altar boy who was about his age, 12 or 13 years old. The priest was standing, he said, and holding the boy from behind while touching him in a sexual way. Downs said he ran when the priest turned toward the door. He said he didn’t recognize the priest or the boy, and that they didn’t show up for breakfast that morning.
Downs said he does not know the location of the house. The lawsuit filed last month alleged that McCarrick ran a sex ring out of a Sea Girt home — but the attorney who filed it has since said he may have been mistaken about the location.
The Metuchen Diocese didn’t purchase the Sea Girt home until 1985, several years after the alleged abuse outlined in the suits would have occurred. But the Sea Girt property has also been mentioned in accusations that McCarrick sexually harassed adult seminary students on overnight trips there, pressuring them into sharing a bed with him and changing into bathing suits while he watched.
The diocese has said it does not know of another shore home it owned in the early 1980s. Property records show the Metuchen Diocese sold the Sea Girt home to the Newark Archdiocese in 1988 and later owned another house in Brick Township, which it sold to Newark in 1997.
McCarrick led the Metuchen Diocese from 1981 to 1986 before moving to Newark, where he was the archbishop until 2000.
Downs said he visited the Jersey Shore house just once but remembers other groups had gone there for retreats. He said that when he was abused years later, he froze and didn’t hear everything the prelate said. But he remembers McCarrick saying “he could help me with my grades, and could arrange for alone time at the beach house at the shore.”
“When he said that, it touched a nerve and freaked me out because I remembered what happened at the beach house,” Downs said.
Downs’ attorney, Derek Braslow, said in court papers that at least seven people have told the Vatican they were abused by the former cardinal as minors. Church officials have been conducting an investigation of McCarrick but have not yet issued a report revealing the findings.
The recent lawsuits are among more than 100 filed against the Catholic Church in New Jersey under a law that took effect Dec. 1, 2019, suspending the statute of limitations for civil sex abuse cases for two years.
Church officials have said they knew of no allegations against McCarrick involving minors until two years ago, when they removed him from active ministry. They have acknowledged settling two claims brought by adult seminary students in 2005 and 2007.
In the late 1980s, at least two seminary professors sought to intercede on behalf of students who had complained about McCarrick and trips to the shore. One of the professors wrote a letter to the Vatican when McCarrick was named archbishop of Washington, D.C., in 2000. Months later, McCarrick was promoted to cardinal.
Evidence has surfaced showing that the Vatican placed restrictions on McCarrick’s ministry in 2008, shortly after settling the two seminarians’ claims. But McCarrick ignored the restrictions and traveled as he pleased as an emissary of the church, according to letters released by one of his former secretaries.
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