WASHINGTON, D.C. — Former cardinal Theodore McCarrick’s rise through the Catholic Church hierarchy, during which he established a reputation as a globe-trotting human rights advocate before being brought down by sex abuse scandals, began as an altar boy in New York City.
McCarrick, who recently became the highest-ranking cleric to be defrocked by the Vatican, worked his way up over several decades to the highest circles of Church leadership, despite awareness among the hierarchy of his suspect behavior, including sleeping with adult seminarians.
McCarrick’s past finally caught up with him last summer, when Pope Francis removed him as a cardinal after a U.S. Church investigation determined that an allegation that he had fondled a teenage altar boy in the 1970s was credible. The Church also acknowledged that it had made previously undisclosed financial settlements with adults who accused McCarrick of sexual misconduct decades ago.
On Saturday, the Vatican announced that McCarrick, known within Church circles as “Uncle Ted,” had been defrocked after officials found him guilty of soliciting sex while hearing confession and of sexual crimes against minors and adults.
The move punctuated a stunning fall from grace for the 88-year-old, who was ordained as a priest in 1958, became a bishop in 1981 and was named Archbishop of Newark, New Jersey, in 1986. In November 2000, he was tapped by Pope John Paul II to lead the Archdiocese of Washington.
“I wish I were a holier man, more prayerful, more trusting in God, wiser and courageous,” The New York Times quoted McCarrick as saying upon his appointment. “But here I am, with all my faults and all my needs, and we will work together.”
That same month, a New York priest, Father Boniface Ramsay, informed the Vatican in a letter about McCarrick’s misconduct with seminarians from Seton Hall University’s Immaculate Conception Seminary. Ramsay, who was on the faculty at the seminary, has said he sent the letter at the request of the then-Vatican ambassador because he had heard so many complaints from students.
Nevertheless, just weeks after his formal installation as archbishop, McCarrick was elevated to the rank of cardinal, shortly after President Bill Clinton had presented him with the Eleanor Roosevelt Award for Human Rights.
The son of a ship captain who died when McCarrick was 3, the disgraced cleric attended Catholic elementary school and Fordham Preparatory School and was ordained after earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees at St. Joseph’s Seminary in Yonkers, New York. He later earned a Ph.D. in sociology from The Catholic University of America in Washington, where he was given his first assignment as assistant chaplain and went on to serve as dean of students and director of development.
McCarrick later served as president of the Catholic University of Puerto Rico, personal secretary to Cardinal Terence Cooke and auxiliary bishop of New York.
From 1986 through 2006, during his years as archbishop in Newark and Washington, McCarrick was one of the most influential church leaders in the U.S. McCarrick, who speaks five languages, twice headed the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Migration and traveled frequently overseas on trips devoted to human rights and foreign policy.
In 1988, he participated in an interfaith meeting with Cuban communist leader Fidel Castro aimed at encouraging religious freedom in Cuba. He also played a role in the Vatican-endorsed back-channel negotiations that led to the 2014 U.S.-Cuba detente.
McCarrick was also a major fundraiser for the Catholic Church, overseeing successful capitol campaigns for both of his archdioceses and helping to co-found the Papal Foundation, a major U.S. fundraising initiative that targeted wealthy American Catholics. The foundation has since awarded more than $120 million in grants for Vatican charity projects.
McCarrick participated in the 2005 conclave that elected Pope Benedict XVI, presided over the graveside service for U.S. Sen. Edward Kennedy at Arlington National Cemetery in 2009, and celebrated Mass with Pope Francis during his 2015 visit to Washington.