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The Catholic Church has ‘a major gap’ when the accused sex abuser is a high-ranking cleric, says top U.S. cardinal

Cardinal Theodore McCarrick waves to fellow bishops at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle on Sept. 23, 2015, in Washington. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)
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The Catholic archbishop of Boston, one of the country’s most prominent Catholic clerics and Pope Francis’s chief adviser on child sex abuse, said Tuesday that while the church now has a strong policy and procedures regarding abuse by priests, “a major gap” exists when the accused is a bishop or cardinal — the highest positions in the church — and that it must be corrected.

“Failure to take these actions will threaten and endanger the already weakened moral authority of the Church and can destroy the trust required for the Church to minister to Catholics and have a meaningful role in the wider civil society. In this moment there is no greater imperative for the Church than to hold itself accountable to address these matters,” Cardinal Sean O’Malley wrote.

O’Malley released the statement as the church reels from the suspension a month ago of Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, a popular former D.C. archbishop who served as a global diplomat for the Vatican. The Vatican says McCarrick has been credibly accused of groping an altar boy decades ago in St. Patrick’s Cathedral, and allegations have surfaced that McCarrick sexually harassed and groped several seminarians and a young priest, and abused a family friend starting when the boy was 11.

The Washington Post reported Sunday that O’Malley’s office in 2015 received a letter from a New York City priest who was concerned about “a form of sexual abuse/harassment/intimidation or maybe simply high-jinks as practiced by Theodore Cardinal McCarrick with his seminarians and perhaps other young men” when ­McCarrick was a bishop in New Jersey and before he came to Washington in the early 2000s.

The Rev. Boniface Ramsey quickly received a note back from the ­Rev. Robert Kickham, O’Malley’s secretary, The Post reported. O’Malley, Kickham clarified, as president of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of ­Minors, is responsible for “evaluating child protection policies and procedures . . . and to offer recommendations to improve” those policies. Commission members do not review individual cases that fall under local authorities, Kickham wrote. “Please know of our appreciation for your care and concern for the good of the Church and the people of God.”

In his statement Tuesday, O’Malley seemed to support Kickham, saying the priest’s response was “in keeping with the practice for matters concerning” the commission. However, O’Malley said he “did not personally receive” the letter. Asked whether  O’Malley was saying he never heard the rumors over the years to which Ramsey referred, his spokesman, Terry Donilon, told The Post that there would be no comment beyond the statement.

O’Malley is seen as something of the face of the church’s efforts to fight sexual abuse. He leads the archdiocese where the abuse crisis first surfaced and chairs the pope’s commission, which some survivors have criticized as ineffective. It began 3-1/2 years ago and in December was seen as having lapsed for a few months, even as the Vatican was coping with a major sexual abuse scandal unfolding in Chile. Since then, the McCarrick case has become public — involving the highest-ranking U.S. Catholic cleric ever removed in relation to child sexual abuse.

O’Malley’s statement said that “transparent and consistent protocols are needed to provide justice for the victims and to adequately respond to the legitimate indignation of the community. The Church needs a strong and comprehensive policy to address bishops’ violations of the vows of celibacy in cases of the criminal abuse of minors and in cases involving adults,” he wrote. “The Church needs to swiftly and decisively take action regarding these matters of critical importance. In every instance of claims made by victims of sexual abuse, whether criminal violations or the abuse of power, the primary concern must be for the victim, their family and their loved ones.”

Catholic institutions are struggling with how to respond to the McCarrick allegations. Most clerics have remained quiet or very muted about the allegations, as have leaders of most Catholic institutions, many of which were affected by McCarrick, a prolific fundraiser and advocate.

This month, the Catholic news site Crux reported, Fordham University announced that it would rescind an honorary doctorate awarded to McCarrick.

In other reaction to reports of abuse, Catholic Relief Services issued a statement about McCarrick, who was a CRS board member after his retirement as Washington’s archbishop. CRS, a major aid agency, did a review with its staff after  the McCarrick suspension last month, Catholic News Service reported.

“CRS recently completed a thorough global review, asking our staff to report any knowledge of previously unreported or unresolved allegations of misconduct. There were a few issues that needed attention and have been addressed, but none of them were related to program visits,” a CRS statement said, according to the Catholic News Service.

A request to Catholic Relief Service for clarity on its review was not immediately returned Tuesday.

“The reports are devastating for the victims, their families and for the Church itself,” O’Malley’s statement said. “Each new report of clerical abuse at any level creates doubt in the minds of many that we are effectively addressing this catastrophe in the Church.”