Ex-cardinal McCarrick’s Sex Assault Case in Wisconsin Appears to Be Dead

Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post
Theodore McCarrick, the now-defrocked cardinal and former archbishop of Washington, at the National Press Club in 2010.

A Wisconsin prosecutor has declined to challenge a doctor’s assessment that disgraced ex-cardinal Theodore McCarrick is incompetent to stand trial, making it more likely the only remaining criminal charge against McCarrick will be dismissed.

McCarrick, 93, was charged with sexual assault in the fourth degree, a misdemeanor, for allegedly fondling an 18-year-old family friend at a Wisconsin lake in the 1970s. If convicted, he would have faced up to nine months in prison and a $10,000 fine.

A Massachusetts judge dismissed a criminal child sexual abuse charge against McCarrick, the former archbishop of Washington, in August, citing the same reasons.

Prosecutors in Massachusetts had hired an expert to assess McCarrick, and she found significant deficits in his memory and said he has dementia. The Wisconsin court brought in that same expert to assess him again.

At a hearing Nov. 22 in Elkhorn, Walworth County District Attorney Zeke Wiedenfeld told Judge David Reddy that the county would not challenge the incompetency assessment, according to the court file. Reddy scheduled a January hearing to discuss whether McCarrick needs to appear in court – via phone or Zoom – to present the assessment to him.

Wiedenfeld did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Anne Barrett Doyle, co-director of Bishop Accountability, a group that compiles and analyzes cases of clergy abuse, on Thursday called the “imminent dismissal of the Wisconsin charges against McCarrick” a “reminder of the Catholic hierarchy’s pervasive coverup of sex crimes.”

“Many of McCarrick’s fellow cardinals and bishops protected him despite knowing he was a sexual predator. They didn’t report him to law enforcement, they didn’t go public with the information, and they ignored or discredited his victims,” Doyle wrote in an email. “If even one of his brother bishops had called the police, McCarrick might have been prosecuted years ago.”

McCarrick, once a popular and powerful leader in the U.S. church, still faces multiple lawsuits from men who say he sexually abused them as youth or harassed them as seminarians or young priests. He was the subject of a massive Vatican investigation and was expelled from the priesthood by Pope Francis for sexual “sins” and abusing his power.

But McCarrick never has been criminally convicted, and some of his alleged victims say that’s a meaningful missing piece. The apparently dead Wisconsin case was the last of two criminal cases he faced.

Mitchell Garabedian, a Boston victims’ lawyer, said Nov. 22 that criminal cases can send a “louder and stronger message to abusers and to the Catholic Church” than civil cases. Garabedian represents James Grein, a Virginia man who was one of the first to come forward in 2018 and was the alleged victim in the two criminal cases. McCarrick was close friends of the Grein family. Grein, now in his 60s, said he was the first baby McCarrick baptized as a new priest.

“Survivors show enormous courage by proceeding with criminal cases against sexual abusers and should be proud of their strength,” Garabedian said last month.

John Bellocchio, who alleged in a 2019 suit that then-Newark archbishop McCarrick raped him when Bellocchio was 14, said a path to criminal conviction is still there – in New Jersey, which eliminated criminal statutes of limitations for most sexual offenses in the 1990s.

McCarrick, who rose quickly after being ordained as a New York City priest in 1958, spent 20 years in dioceses in Metuchen and Newark. Bellocchio is pressing for state and county law enforcement officials in New Jersey now to file criminal charges against McCarrick, pointing to the presence of other accusers who came forward in six different civil suits in the state.

“Wisconsin is not the last criminal option against McCarrick. It’s just being framed that way,” said Bellocchio, 41. A former Catholic schoolteacher and principal, he stopped working in the Catholic education system some years ago because of severe panic attacks.

Michael Symons, a spokesman for New Jersey Attorney General Matthew Platkin, declined to comment on whether his office is investigating McCarrick. Symons said Platkin’s office is “committed to uncovering the truth about clergy abuse in New Jersey and bringing justice to survivors” and noted that, in 2018, it created a statewide Clergy Abuse Task Force that has a hotline and a reporting portal.

Doyle said she hopes Platkin will “redouble his efforts” to investigate McCarrick in New Jersey, the state where the former cleric has the longest history.

“The prospect of the powerful ex-cardinal again being spared a trial is disheartening,” she wrote.

The Vatican announced in 2019 that Pope Francis had expelled McCarrick from the priesthood, after the church found him guilty of sexually abusing minors and adult seminarians over decades.

McCarrick’s fall rocked the U.S. church in part because he was so prominent. He socialized with presidents, professional athletes and famous actors, and was a globe-trotting church diplomat for hotspots like Iran and China. He was also a fundraising juggernaut for church causes across the ideological spectrum.

But equally shocking, and perhaps the most powerful legacy of the McCarrick scandal, was how many high-ranking church leaders knew of some level of McCarrick’s sexual misbehavior and did nothing.

By the 1990s, there was growing evidence pointing to his misconduct. A handful of seminarians confided in a New Jersey bishop, describing how McCarrick would devise ways to share a bed with them; sometimes, the encounters involved explicit sexual activity, according to the testimony of one victim described in the 449-page report the Vatican published in 2020. Anonymous letters also were sent to various prelates, including Cardinal John O’Connor of New York, saying McCarrick had a “proclivity for young boys.”

Pope John Paul II himself was told in 1999, according to the report, that McCarrick shared a bed with young seminarians over whom he had authority. But McCarrick denied to the then-pope that anything had happened.