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Letters suggest lax enforcement of restrictions on disgraced D.C. ex-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick

Did church ignore restrictions on ex-cardinal?

Rome -- The former secretary to defrocked American Cardinal Theodore McCarrick has released excerpts from private and confidential correspondence among top Vatican leaders which reveal details of restrictions placed on McCarrick by the Holy See following allegations of sexual misconduct. The communications reveal the extent to which the restrictions were known among senior church leaders – and particularly by his successor Cardinal Donald Wuerl  – but not enforced.

That lack of enforcement meant McCarrick, the former Archbishop of Washington D.C., was allowed to continue traveling on behalf of the Holy See despite limitations implemented as part of the church punishment. 

The personal letters and emails include correspondence between McCarrick and other senior church figures, including cardinals, the Vatican's Secretary of State and Pope Francis.

"I would be part of the cover-up if I simply kept that correspondence to myself," Monsignor Anthony Figueiredo told CBS News regarding his decision to release the excerpts of letters in his report on Tuesday. 

Figueiredo, a long-time consultant to CBS News, chose to go public with the private correspondence on the 25th anniversary of the date he was ordained to the priesthood by McCarrick. Figueiredo served as McCarrick's personal secretary in Newark from September 1994 to June 1995, and assisted McCarrick during his frequent visits to Rome, where Figueiredo served as a spiritual advisor to the North American College, an American seminary. 

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In the 11-page document, available online, the Monsignor writes that, "after long consideration, I have made the decision to place in the public domain some of the correspondence and other information related to McCarrick that I possess in my many years of service to him."

Figueiredo says in his report that as a "priest ordained by… McCarrick and one who served him closely, I reflect often upon how much damage to the physical, psychological and spiritual lives of so many might have been avoided had the restrictions been made public and enforced as soon as they were imposed."

"Trying for months"

Figueiredo writes that his decision "to release letters to the public follow attempts since September 2018 to share, discuss and make these public through the Holy See and other Church leaders."

"I've been trying for months to share this correspondence with church leaders," Figueiredo said in an on-camera interview with CBS News. He said he was urged by Pope Francis' call for transparency, adding "he's saying: make it public, report it."

Figueiredo shared nearly two dozen of the letters and emails, which date from 2008 to 2017, with CBS News and the Catholic website Crux for review.  

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When asked about what change could result from releasing the documents, he said, "we're talking about future cases… perhaps there are other bishops out there who have had restrictions imposed on them. This is why this needs to come out."

The restrictions

The existence of Vatican restrictions on McCarrick was first made public in the August 2018 testimony by Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò. In his own 11-page dossier, the former papal ambassador to the United States charged that Pope Benedict XVI sanctioned McCarrick, and that Pope Francis lifted the sanctions in 2013 despite Viganò having personally informed Francis about the allegations against McCarrick and the restrictions on him imposed by Benedict. 

Viganò also said that Cardinal Wuerl – McCarrick's successor in Washington D.C. who has also since resigned – knew about the penalties but chose to ignore them.

The Vatican has acknowledged the existence of restrictions on McCarrick, but has provided few details.

Pope Francis refused to respond to Vigano's allegations until Tuesday, when he denied having knowledge of McCarrick's misdeeds in an interview he gave to Mexican television.  

"I knew nothing about McCarrick, naturally, nothing" he said. But he also said he didn't remember whether Vigano had spoken to him about McCarrick.  

"I don't remember if he spoke to me about this, whether it's true or not. I have no idea," the pope said. 

One of the excerpts released by Figueiredo is from an August 25, 2008 letter that McCarrick sent to Archbishop Pietro Sambi, then the Vatican Ambassador or "Nuncio" to the United States. In it, McCarrick refers to receiving a letter from Cardinal Re (then head of the Congregation for Bishops) detailing the restrictions imposed upon him by the Vatican.  

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Then-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick speaks during a news conference with senators and national religious leaders at the U.S. Capitol, on Dec 8, 2015 in Washington, D.C. McCarrick was defrocked by the Church in 2019 over alleged sexual abuse. Getty

McCarrick says the two major points of Re's letter are "the cancelling of all public appearances and the changes of residence." He also vows to quickly resign from the many positions he holds inside the Vatican and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, among others, suggesting that this was another of Re's requirements. 

In the full letter, McCarrick tells the nuncio that to cancel all appearances, as well to move suddenly to a monastery, would "probably raise a red flag in the media." McCarrick hints that the Vatican hierarchy had an interest in keeping the accusations against him quiet. The move, he tells Sambi, "would give rise to the news that I was being 'sidelined' by Rome for cause, and the resulting publicity would be precisely what Cardinal Re is hoping to avoid."

The letter does not prove that Pope Benedict was aware of the restrictions, though it suggests that he was. McCarrick says in the letter that even though he doesn't understand the restrictions, "I am ready to accept the Holy Father's will in my regard."

Cardinal Donald Wuerl

The letter to Sambi suggests knowledge and participation on the part of Cardinal Wuerl, who was Archbishop of Washington D.C. from 2006 to 2018, when he resigned amid accusations that he mishandled sex abuse cases. 

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McCarrick notes that he shared Cardinal Re's letter outlining the restrictions with "my Archbishop" (who was Wuerl). He offers possibilities for his relocation arrived at, "after consultation with Archbishop Wuerl, whose help and understanding is, as always, a great help and fraternal support to me."

Wuerl has denied having any knowledge of restrictions placed upon McCarrick, and said he was unaware of any accusations or rumors against him. However, in a January 2019 letter, he said he had indeed been informed of an accusation against McCarrick in 2004, but had suffered a "lapse of memory."

"Lack of judgement"

McCarrick acknowledges his own "unfortunate lack of judgement" in the draft of a September 2008 letter to Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, then the Vatican Secretary of State. In that confidential letter, which Figueiredo translated into Italian, McCarrick writes how he had "shared a bed…" with priests and seminarians "on occasion when the Diocesan Summer House was overcrowded," but says nothing improper took place.  

McCarrick adds: "In no case were there minors involved, but men in their twenties and thirties." In the letter, McCarrick makes the claim that he "never had sexual relations with anyone, man, woman or child, nor have I ever sought such acts." 

In the same letter, McCarrick says the accusations against him are untrue, made up by enemies in the church offended by some of his positions.

Continued travel

The restrictions placed on McCarrick appear not to have been strictly enforced under the papacies of either Pope Benedict or Pope Francis. 

Despite an express ban on travelling to Rome, McCarrick writes to Figueiredo in June of 2009, a mere 10 months after that ban was put in place: "I'm coming to Rome" for a meeting. Then in April of 2010, he apparently met Pope Benedict. In an email to Figueiredo, he says: "You know how special yesterday was for me… seeing the Holy Father after more than two years."  

McCarrick's travels appear to have taken him across the world. In a 2012 email to Figueiredo, McCarrick says he has "started the journeying again. I was in Doha last week and go to Ireland… and following that… I begin one of my longest trips – Beirut, Jordan, Egypt, Thailand, Myanmar, Cambodia and Hong Kong… before I start again in the Holy Land and Belarus." 

A 2013 letter from then-U.S. President Barack Obama to then-Pope Benedict mentions McCarrick's offer, "to carry a message to you on my behalf."

The excerpts released by Figueiredo suggest McCarrick's travels increased following the 2013 election of Pope Francis, on official church business, with the express knowledge and approval of Vatican officials.   

One example: in November 2014, he writes to Figueiredo: "I will see you in Rome next month… I leave for China on Thursday the 27th… I am sure that (Secretary of State) Cardinal Parolin would see me since he is involved with my China trip."   

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In letters written between 2013 and 2017, McCarrick also kept Pope Francis apprised of his travels.   

"I have been traveling a good deal, perhaps more than I should during these last few weeks… Cyprus… the Balkans… the Middle East, both in Lebanon and in the Holy Land," he writes to Francis in November of 2013. Following Pope Francis' visit to the United States in 2015, McCarrick writes to the pope, "you greeted me so cheerfully in Washington as an adjunct member of the foreign service."

Why publish it now?

"I think (the correspondence) shows very clearly that in fact McCarrick was not only not stopped – but in a real sense continued his activity to an ever-greater degree," Figueiredo told CBS News. 

anthony-figueiredo.jpg
Monsignor Anthony Figueiredo is interviewed by CBS News in Rome, Italy, May 27, 2019. CBS

Figueiredo portrays himself as a victim of the church hierarchy's "abuse of authority and cover up."

Late last year, he was temporarily suspended by CBS News following a DWI accident in Great Britain. He is currently in treatment for alcohol addiction. He said last summer's revelations about McCarrick – his mentor and "spiritual father" – drove him back to alcoholism, but that he takes full responsibility for his actions. 

"Pope Francis himself says that those who have suffered abuse of any kind turn to addiction," he told CBS News. "It indicates quite clearly that I was not helped by the cover up." 

Figueiredo acknowledged that he could draw fire for releasing the letters, but said, "Pope Francis himself has asked all of the church to be transparent. That's the reason I feel a moral obligation to put out this correspondence."

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