Father Boniface Ramsey, the man who nearly 20 years ago first raised flags about the sexual misdeeds of ex-cardinal Theodore McCarrick, has said the Church, though finally taking action, has not gone far enough.
If the pope and bishops are to have any credibility on the issue of sexual abuse and misconduct among the clergy, McCarrick, he said, ought to be laicized and undergo a full ecclesial trial.
In a phone interview with Crux, Ramsey said “a good thing would be to laicize McCarrick. That seems to me like such an important way to show that the pope and everyone else is serious. That would be such a formidable symbol of the seriousness with which they’re taking this.”
While rumors of McCarrick’s sexual misconduct with seminarians had been widely known for years, news of allegations that he abused minors was only made public in June following an internal investigation into accusations by the Archdiocese of New York, and subsequent reports by the New York Times.
Pope Francis in July took McCarrick’s red hat away, removing him from the College of Cardinals. However, Ramsey said taking the red biretta “is nothing,” and more needs to be done.
“They’ve laicized priests for this, why can’t they laicize McCarrick?”
In the nearly two and a half months since the allegations of abuse of minors were made public, McCarrick has been ordered to a life of prayer and penance while awaiting a full canonical trial and the U.S. bishops have called for a Vatican-led investigation into McCarrick’s abuse and possible cover-up.
However, to date, no information about the trial or the investigation has been released. “We need to hear more about that,” Ramsey said.
Since June, and especially after the Aug. 26 publication of a statement from former Vatican ambassador to the U.S., Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, arguing that Pope Francis knew about McCarrick’s misconduct and did nothing, “everybody looks like they’re flailing about,” Ramsey said.
Speaking over the phone from the office of his parish rectory, Ramsey said “some kind of visible, understandable action needs to be taken.” And removing McCarrick from the clerical state, while not the only step, “would be an important part of it.”
Ramsey, who oversees the parish of St. Joseph in Yorkville in upper Manhattan, was the first person to formally raise concerns about McCarrick’s harassment of seminarians when the former cardinal was serving as archbishop of Newark.
A former Dominican, Ramsey was part of the faculty of the Immaculate Conception seminary at Seton Hall University in New Jersey during McCarrick’s time as archbishop of Newark from 1986-2000. He said he first raised concerns to the seminary’s rector in the late 1980s after hearing seminarians recount how McCarrick would share a bed with them during overnight visits to his beach house.
“This is something everyone in the seminary knew,” Ramsey said, explaining that at the time, he didn’t know the misconduct fell under the category of harassment, “I just knew it was wrong.”
Ramsey said the rector agreed that McCarrick’s behavior was concerning and believed that something would be done, but nothing happened.
“Some kind of sexual shenanigans kept going on,” he said, explaining that a few years later, around May of 1992 or 1993, he was kicked off the “voting faculty” for the seminary, which authorizes seminarians to advance to another year, after criticizing a seminarian who had engaged in abusive sexual behavior with other seminarians.
After Ramsey’s complaints, this seminarian, who was close to McCarrick, was expelled from the seminary. When Ramsey returned to campus after the summer vacation, he was informed by the rector that he had been removed from the voting faculty because “McCarrick knows that you disagree with him on certain things.” The rector, he said, specifically mentioned the seminarian who had been expelled.
When Ramsey confided his concerns to Archbishop Thomas Kelly of Louisville, who died in 2011, Kelly, he said, told him nothing could be done, because McCarrick “was the boss,” and “he would kick you downstairs if you approach him” about being removed from the voting faculty.
Kelly, Ramsey said, alluded to McCarrick’s behavior with men, and said, “we all know” about a time McCarrick had picked up a young man up from the airport, and this man was the seminarian who had been expelled. Ramsey said he took the comment “we all know” to mean that all bishops were to at least some extent aware of McCarrick’s behavior.
After the conversation, Ramsey said he mostly kept his concerns to himself and never spoke to any of the seminary faculty about the situation, “but they all had to have known.”
“They all knew,” he said. “If you work for Trump, you come to accept the crazy behavior after a while, [and] if you were working in Newark, this is what the archbishop does.”
Ramsey said he finally decided to write a letter detailing McCarrick’s misconduct to the Vatican’s ambassador in the U.S., Archbishop Gabriel Montalvo, in 2000 when McCarrick was appointed archbishop of Washington. He said that he had been in contact with Montalvo, who urged him to send the letter despite having doubts. However, even though his letter was received, Ramsey said he was never contacted about it.
He raised concerns again to Cardinal Edward Egan, then-archbishop of New York, in 2004 after leaving the Dominican order to become a diocesan priest in New York. The two met for a casual conversation, he said, and at some point McCarrick came up.
When he confided his concerns about McCarrick, “Cardinal Egan clearly did not want to hear about this,” Ramsey said. “He knew exactly what I was talking about. Seeing how he reacted, he knew exactly what I was saying, and he didn’t want to pursue the subject.”
Ramsey then wrote to journalist Joe Feuerherd in 2005 after reading a report Feuerherd had published about McCarrick. The journalist, Ramsey said, had heard the same rumors about McCarrick’s behavior with seminarians, but had not been able to verify them, so “this is something that everybody knew, and it took one person, the guy who was abused as a child, to open the pandora’s box.”
In 2015, Ramsey decided to pen yet another letter detailing his concerns to Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston, who heads the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, after becoming upset when he saw McCarrick participating in Egan’s funeral Mass in New York.
“I thought to myself, what is this guy still doing around? Doesn’t everybody know? He’s a creep,” Ramsey said, explaining that the response he got from the commission, since allegations of the abuse of minors had not yet been made public, was that McCarrick’s misconduct didn’t fall within the commission’s competence, and he was asked to take up the matter elsewhere.
“My career is filled with people not answering letters, or not answering them in the right way,” he said.
After news of Ramsey’s 2015 letter broke, O’Malley earlier this month released a public statement apologizing for failing to act on the concerns raised, however, Ramsey said he was never contacted about it directly.
O’Malley “should have been in touch before sending public statement,” Ramsey said, explaining that he received a formal letter from the cardinal only after writing to say that making a statement without contacting him first was a public relations disaster.
Ramsey’s own role as the longtime whistle-blower in the McCarrick case wasn’t made public until this summer, when reports of McCarrick’s alleged abuse of minors was reported by the New York Times.
Since then, Ramsey said only two of the former seminarians he oversaw in Newark have contacted him, and that no one from the Church hierarchy, including his own archbishop, Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, has contacted him about his complaints or the role he played in trying to stop McCarrick for nearly 30 years.
Regarding the bombshell 11-page statement from Vigano alleging that private sanctions had been put in place against McCarrick by Benedict XVI in 2008, and that Pope Francis either waived or ignored them, turning to McCarrick as a confidant and advisor for the U.S. Church, Ramsey said he was “stunned” by the letter.
While he believes the core allegations raised by Vigano deserve to be taken seriously, Ramsey said he takes issue with the picture Vigano paints of a vast “gay network” operating inside the Church, calling the assertion “ridiculous.”
“I fear that this is the beginning of a crazy tangent that the Church will get on,” he said, referring to how many people have pinned the sexual abuse crisis on homosexuality in general, rather than certain priests who choose to act on their inclinations.
“There are a significant portion of clergy that are gay, and of those, there is a significant proportion that is celibate and trying to be celibate,” he said, adding that “I don’t have a problem with people falling every now and then.”
Anyone, especially young seminarians grappling with a life choice of celibacy, can fall, he said, adding that in his view, sexual sins are not the worst a person can commit. “I’d rather have a guy who falls every now and then than a congenital liar,” he said, adding that according to ancient writings from the Church’s Desert Fathers, sexual sins can be dealt with “more easily than the misuse of money or pride.”
The difference, Ramsey said, is when a sexual sin goes beyond a mere fall and involves abuse and manipulation. In the case of the seminarian he asked be expelled from the Newark seminary, “abuse was involved,” he said, and in the case of McCarrick, “this was a serial harasser, a serial predator. This was a bad guy.”
Ramsey said the reason he believes people stayed silent about McCarrick, even though everyone was aware of the rumors, is because his conduct involved “odd and inappropriate behavior,” but that at the time, “it wasn’t an outrageous sexual misdeed.”
Going forward, Ramsey said bishops “have to be subject to the same laws that priests are,” and must fall under the same public scrutiny as priests accused of wrongdoing.
Noting how some bishops have published the names of priests accused of abuse regardless of whether the accusations have been proven, Ramsey said “the same has to be done for the bishops,” who must be held to the same standard of transparency and accountability.