ROME – Over 30 years after he first raised concerns about the conduct of his then-Archbishop Theodore McCarrick, Father Boniface Ramsey says he believes he is finally seeing justice in a lengthy report detailing how his former boss was able to climb the ecclesial ladder despite rumors of sexual misconduct.
“In a mild sort of way, I feel vindicated,” Ramsey told Crux.
“McCarrick was in and out of my consciousness for more than 30 years. I was outraged by him. He wasn’t always at the top of my mind, I wasn’t always thinking about McCarrick, he wasn’t an obsession for me, but every now and then he would come up and do something that angered me,” the priest said.
A former Dominican, Ramsey oversees the parish of St. Joseph in Yorkville in upper Manhattan, and was the first person to blow the whistle on ex-cardinal and ex-priest Theodore McCarrick, a towering figure in the American Catholic Church who was defrocked last year over allegations of child sexual abuse and the sexual harassment of seminarians under his watch.
While serving on the faculty of the Immaculate Conception Seminary at Seton Hall University in New Jersey during McCarrick’s stint as archbishop of Newark from 1986-2000, Ramsey began hearing seminarians tell stories about getting invited for overnight weekend visits to McCarrick’s beach house on the Jersey shore in which the archbishop would share a bed with them.
At the time, around the late 1980s, Ramsey went to the seminary’s rector to voice his concerns, but nothing happened, despite repeated future attempts to sound the alarm with various Church officials.
It wasn’t until McCarrick was appointed archbishop of Washington in 2000 that Ramsey finally called the Vatican’s ambassador to the United States at the time, Archbishop Gabriel Montalvo, to state his concerns about McCarrick’s conduct. He later put his complaints into writing, and that letter made its way to the Vatican, yet still no action was taken.
When seeing McCarrick attend the funeral of the late archbishop of New York, Cardinal Edward Egan, Ramsey said he was angered, and had reached “the last straw.”
“I thought, what the hell is he doing at Cardinal Egan’s funeral? He was walking with all the cardinals and processing with all of the cardinals… I thought, what is he doing? Don’t these cardinals know what he did, and aren’t they ashamed of him? Aren’t they embarrassed to be with him?” Ramsey said.
It was only three years later, in the summer of 2018, that scandals involving McCarrick exploded into public view after allegations of child sexual abuse were made public, only to be followed by further reports of years of sexual harassment of seminarians.
At the time, Ramsey said that although he was aware of rumors about McCarrick’s misconduct with seminarians, the accusations of the sexual abuse of minors were a surprise.
“I never heard anything like that, but that was on a different level than taking advantage of adults,” he said, adding that he while he didn’t necessarily feel anger, he was shocked, and immediately picked up the phone to call the New York Times “to tell them that it wasn’t only children, it was also adults.”
After news broke of McCarrick’s abuse and the fact that his misconduct with seminarians had been an open secret in the Church for years, the Vatican pledged to conduct an in-depth investigation into how McCarrick continued to climb the ladder in the Catholic Church despite these rumors, and despite the fact that concerns had been raised by both Ramsey and other individuals along the way.
A report over 400 pages long on the results of that investigation was published Tuesday revealing that a clerical culture that gave clerics, and particularly higher-ups, the benefit of the doubt was largely to blame for the Vatican’s failure to follow-up on complaints they received.
It also found, according to documents and witness testimony, that Pope Francis, who had been accused of covering-up for McCarrick, had relied on favorable decisions made by St. John Paul II and Pope emeritus Benedict XVI in his dealings with McCarrick, trusting in their judgement.
Among other things, the report details the Vatican’s own mismanagement of the case, revealing which officials were in the know about complaints when they arose, who the decision-makers were, and documenting how the ball was continually dropped with McCarrick.
After an initial glance at the report, Ramsey said he thought it was “impressive,” and was surprised to see how comprehensive it was without sheltering the facts.
Asked whether he believes the “clerical culture” that allowed McCarrick to be believed over all the complaints and rumors against him would change as a result of the report, Ramsey said he thinks that culture, at least in part, is probably there to stay.
“I think clerical culture is just built into the fabric of the clergy … it’s very hard to get rid of something like your clerical culture,” he said, voicing his belief there will always be individuals who try to exploit the benefits of the system for their own interests, even if they aren’t necessary aware of what they’re doing.
The temptation, he said, will be to say, “what McCarrick did had nothing to do with me. I’m not doing that, so why should I take the blame for something I didn’t do at all or would never contemplate doing?”
This clerical caste mentality, he said, is “not going to change unless the Church is almost universally discredited, or persecuted, the clerical culture will subside.”
However, Ramsey did voice his belief that the way the Church handles complaints and even rumors will change.
“The hierarchy is on edge about this, so I think to that extent it’s going to change, because they feel that everybody is watching them, they don’t have the prestige they used to have, they’re more vulnerable to attacks on the media,” and ultimately, he said, those are the things “compelling them to change.”
In terms of what impact the McCarrick saga has had on U.S. Catholicism, Ramsey said this is another chapter in the lengthy story of sexual abuse in the US, which cumulatively has prompted people to lose faith in the Church.
“There’s just been a decline in trust in the Church and then the McCarrick case comes along to confirm it,” he said, adding that while he does not believe the McCarrick case has “radically changed” peoples’ opinion of the Church on the whole, he does know people who have left over the abuse scandals.
A primary reason for this, he said, is not necessarily the abuse, but the fact that authorities were aware of problematic behavior for years but did not intervene.
“To be very angry at McCarrick you would have had to know McCarrick a bit like I did…but I think it’s easy to see the cover-up,” he said.
“Hasn’t it been since at least Watergate that the cover-up is worse than the crime? That’s how people think, I think. What McCarrick did is shocking enough, but that other people knew and didn’t do anything about it makes it doubly shocking.”
Ramsey said he believes the big takeaway from the report, and from the McCarrick crisis generally, is the that “everybody is subject to the same rules. That’s the big lesson: They should be applied justly and fairly and even-handedly.”
Everybody, he said, “should be treated fairly and justly regardless of rank or status,” including the pope.
Ramsey refrained from criticizing Pope Francis’s handling of McCarrick, and pinned more of the blame on John Paul II’s personal secretary, Polish priest and now Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz, who the reports states received a letter from McCarrick denying accusations of misconduct shortly before he was named archbishop of Washington.
“What I know from the little I know is that John Paul II certainly didn’t sanction McCarrick, it’s quite the opposite, and Benedict took very soft steps,” he said, adding that Francis appeared to give his predecessors and their judgment “the benefit of the doubt.”
Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen