By Douglas Moser and Michelle Boorstein
Five years after allegations of child sex abuse against then-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick first surfaced and rocked the U.S. Catholic Church, attorneys for McCarrick, 92, said Monday that he’s no longer mentally competent to stand trial and that the charges should be dismissed.
McCarrick was for decades one of the country’s most connected and powerful Catholic leaders. Now, many Catholics view him as an emblem of a rotten old-boy network in which the people at the top never face justice for their role in crimes involving sexual abuse by clergy.
The three counts of indecent assault and battery, based on allegations that McCarrick molested a 16-year-old family friend at a Wellesley College wedding reception in 1974, are the only criminal charges he faces. Fourteen minors and at least five adults — clergy and seminarians — have accused the former D.C. archbishop of sexual misconduct, according to the abuse-tallying site BishopAccountability.org. The first one came in 2018, shocking the church. But because of statutes of limitation for alleged incidents, it was long assumed that McCarrick would never be criminally charged. The Wellesley case was able to be prosecuted because, in accordance with Massachusetts law, the statute of limitations was put on hold after McCarrick left the state decades ago.
On Monday, attorneys for McCarrick, who was defrocked in 2019 and lives in Missouri, filed a motion to dismiss, saying he has had a mental slide and no longer can sufficiently participate in his own defense. In the motion filed Monday, the lawyers said that he has “significant, worsening and irreversible dementia” and that, thus, his constitutional rights would be violated if a trial went ahead.
“Although a jury trial would afford Mr. McCarrick the opportunity to confront his accuser, prove his innocence and vindicate his reputation,” he is unable to understand the nature and object of the proceedings, and to meaningfully help his attorneys, reads the motion from two members of his legal team, Daniel Marx and Barry Coburn.
Assistant District Attorney Lisa Beatty on Monday told Dedham District Court Judge Michael J. Pomarole that the state wants to do its own assessment of McCarrick. Pomarole set another hearing date for April 20. The defense’s competency report was sealed to the public.
“It’s not unusual for defendants to prolong a case so that memories fade, victims disappear, and witnesses become worn out,” said Mitchell Garabedian, the accuser’s attorney for civil matters. “This will not happen in this matter.”
“McCarrick is a sexual predator who charmed and duped his way out of accountability for decades,” Anne Barrett Doyle, a Massachusetts-based advocate and co-director of the archive BishopAccountability.org, said before the hearing. “The Vatican’s own report on McCarrick confirms this. As a result, we’re concerned that this could be just another ruse for evading responsibility. As the court assesses McCarrick’s claim of mental incompetency, we hope it factors in his long history of duplicity.”
McCarrick’s criminal lawyers had no comment.
McCarrick is believed to be the first cardinal ever laicized — removed from the priesthood — over sexual misconduct. In 2020, the Vatican released a report about his rise that experts say is the most extensive public investigation the church has done into a cleric of McCarrick’s stature. The former golden-boy fundraiser also faces multiple civil suits for alleged misconduct brought by men and boys over whom he had power as a high-ranking cleric. But the 1974 case is the only chance survivors have to see their alleged abuser potentially criminally convicted and incarcerated.
Doyle said that 49 American bishops have been accused publicly of abusing children and that only two have been criminally charged. One is McCarrick, and the other is Bishop Thomas Dupre, of the Springfield, Mass., diocese. Dupre retired in 2004, citing health reasons. Months later, he was charged with raping two boys, but the case was dropped because prosecutors determined the statute of limitations had expired. He died in 2016.
McCarrick’s removal from the priesthood set off a debate in Catholicism about how to best mete out justice. He is one of seven bishops who has been accused of similar crimes and dismissed from the priesthood, according to BishopAccountability.org. But in an era of rampant clergy scandals, experts predicted that many Catholics wouldn’t see McCarrick’s defrocking as sufficient punishment for his alleged victims. And in Catholic teaching, the “mark” of the priesthood is permanent.
Neither McCarrick nor his accuser were in court Monday.
McCarrick’s fall began in 2018, when a New York archdiocesan investigation found credible an allegation that McCarrick had groped an altar boy 45 years earlier. The Vatican suspended him. A drumbeat of allegations continued for two years, including that he had molested boys as young as 12, all the way up to priests and seminarians who said he pressured them to share beds on trips and to cuddle.
But what made McCarrick’s case even more explosive were conclusions found in reporting and in the 2020 Vatican report, including that Popes John Paul II, Benedict and Francis were aware of allegations that McCarrick may have acted inappropriately with young men. News emerged that New Jersey dioceses had, years earlier, quietly reached legal settlements with adult victims. McCarrick became a symbol of high-level corruption and of a 20-year-old sex abuse crisis in which people at the top were never held responsible. Because McCarrick was on the more progressive side of bishops, his scandal also became a rallying cry for conservatives who focus disproportionately on crimes by gay clerics.
Outside the Dedham court on Monday, Doyle said McCarrick’s trial — and the narrow legal pathway that made criminal charges possible — “shines a light on how inadequate the statute of limitations is. Prosecution shouldn’t depend on his travel plans.”
Also at the court was Robert Hoatson, a former priest, abuse survivor and victims’ rights advocate from New Jersey whom McCarrick ordained while he was Newark archbishop. Hoatson said McCarrick’s high-profile and prolific fundraising acted as a shield that protected McCarrick for decades. Accountability, he said, “was held up so long because he charmed the entire world.”
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