It happened in fewer than five minutes. Theodore McCarrick, who since 2018 has been the face of the clerical sexual abuse crisis of the Catholic Church, saw the inside of a courtroom Friday, for a hearing that began his first, and thus far only, criminal trial on charges of sexual assault.
In an arraignment hearing in the Dedham District Court of Massachusetts, McCarrick was formally charged with three counts of indecent assault and battery.
McCarrick had no speaking role. He offered no testimony, no alibi, no vigorous self-defense. An arraignment doesn’t work that way. The charges were read. In the ordinary manner of things, a not guilty plea was entered by the clerk without a word spoked by the defendant. Lawyers discussed particulars, and then it was over.
Seen in public for the first time since he was laicized, McCarrick was not in clerical garb, but entered the courthouse in a brown knit shirt and gray jacket, and with the aid of a walker.
Bail was set at $5,000. McCarrick was ordered not to leave the United States, ordered to surrender his passport, ordered to have no contact with his alleged victim or with anyone under 18, and warned that if he is charged with a crime while awaiting the next stage of his trial, he could find himself incarcerated.
The judge set the next hearing of his trial for October 28, nearly two months from now. The accused was ordered to see the court’s probation department, where he’ll arrange the particulars of his bail. And with that, the former cardinal, who set off a global crisis of credibility for the Church, shuffled away from the defendant's table, and the next case was called. The court had a full docket of cases to discharge.
If the first hearing was an underwhelming beginning to a long-awaited trial, it was no less significant. McCarrick is the first former cardinal in the United States to face criminal charges for sexual abuse.
The charges come after he was removed from the college of cardinals, found guilty of canonical crimes, laicized, and practically banished from the life and memory of the Church in which he has spent his entire adult life. Allegation after allegation suggested that he used that Church, and the positions he occupied within it, to sexually abuse, coerce, and harass minors, seminarians, and young priests, acting with impunity for decades until, in 2018, by an investigation in the Archdiocese of New York, his sins began to catch up with him.
It was perhaps inevitable in hindsight, but it has been no less difficult for a Church which in the wake of the initial revelations about McCarrick, has asked questions about how it was that a man who was accused of inappropriate behavior for years became the cardinal Archbishop of Washington, an elector of the successors of St. Peter.
The answers to those questions have been a mixed bag: A 2020 Vatican report details the ways in which McCarrick was promoted even while developing a reputation for unseemly behavior, but does not answer all questions that have been raised — questions remain unanswered about his alleged financial misconduct, and the ways in which that might have enabled his abuse. So too do questions about whether clerics who failed to act against his abuse remain in leadership positions.
But the trial in Massachusetts aims to answer only one question. Did he, in 1974, sexually molest a 16-year-old-boy during a wedding reception at Wellesley College in Wellesley, Massachusetts?
That alleged molestation was not reported as a singular occurrence. Rather, the alleged victim, who has not been named, says McCarrick was a family friend, and that McCarrick had molested him frequently, on family trips to several states. The alleged abuse in Massachusetts reportedly took place at the victim’s brother’s wedding reception.
The alleged victim claims that McCarrick molested him subsequently at hotels in Massachusetts.
At the same time as the trial, McCarrick faces lawsuits alleging he sexually abused, coerced, or manipulated numerous victims, including a lawsuit filed this week, by a priest alleging McCarrick sexually assaulted him in 1991.
McCarrick was laicized after a Vatican administrative penal process in 2019, which found him guilty canonically of sexual crimes with minors and adults, with the aggravating factor of “abuse of power.”
McCarrick was also found by the Vatican to have solicited sexual contact within the sacrament of confession. According to the court filings in Massachusetts, McCarrick’s alleged abuse at the wedding reception in 1974 included a kind of prayer similar to sacramental absolution.
Teresa Pitt Green, a survivor of clerical sexual abuse and the founder of the victim-survivors organization Spirit Fire, told The Pillar this week that McCarrick’s trial will be hard for victim-survivors, but a necessary step for justice.
“I am absolutely sure the trial will trigger fellow survivors — and me,” Pitt Green said. “You know it'll be in the press. You grit your teeth and read, or you turn away and wonder. That is no easy choice. It’s emotionally impossible.”
“My recovery process has shown me that the more we can acknowledge the evil of abuse in our past, the more fully we heal. This is true for individual victims, for victims' families, and for the family of God, the Church,” she said, concluding that while renewed attention to the Church’s scandals is difficult for abuse survivors to endure, it was important that the lessons of McCarrick’s case be learned.
“If the trial helps Catholics who are still in denial that is good.”