By the summer of 1986, 26-year-old Michael Reading had heard the stories about Newark Archbishop Theodore McCarrick and his beach house in Sea Girt, N.J. So when he was invited for a barbecue and overnight stay at the beach house with McCarrick and a handful of fellow students from Seton Hall’s Immaculate Conception Seminary, he began to strategize. He would accept the invitation — he couldn’t afford not to — but he would be smart about it.
Reading recounted his experience to me last week, after we were connected by another former seminarian from Immaculate Conception, the Rev. Desmond Rossi, who says McCarrick inappropriately touched him as well. McCarrick stands accused of sexual abuse and harassment by several former seminarians, two of whom have received settlements from the church, and others, including Reading, who are telling their stories publicly for the first time. Rossi, like Reading, recalled a culture of fear and avoidance surrounding McCarrick that forced the seminarians and young priests to choose between their vocations and their safety. McCarrick has not commented on the allegations by the seminarians; representatives for McCarrick declined to comment on this article.
It’s a calculation nobody should have to make. Already, the outcry stirred by recent allegations that Pope Francis ignored long- standing complaints about former cardinal McCarrick seems to be fading, perhaps because the majority of claims about McCarrick’s alleged sexual misconduct involve adults, not children. But the seminarians’ allegations against McCarrick demand clear and sustained attention: Any Christian familiar with the tortured body of Christ on the cross should know that adults can suffer, too.
Around the same time Reading was formulating an evasion plan for a day at the beach with the archbishop, the Rev. Boniface Ramsey was settling into his first year as a faculty member at Immaculate Conception. Ramsey, then 41, said he was instantly wary of the avuncular, warmly familiar McCarrick. McCarrick “visited the seminary often,” Ramsey told me, “which was normal. There were a lot of seminarians, and he was proud of it.” But McCarrick’s demeanor made Ramsey ill at ease. “He used nicknames,” Ramsey said, “even if he didn’t know you so well. He called me Bonny. It was an almost unconscious exercise of power. . . . It felt condescending.”
But knowing McCarrick — or at least, being known to him — was critical at Immaculate Conception, where the archbishop could choose who was ordained and who was not, and how their careers would unfold.
Those circumstances didn’t favor Reading, who was naturally shy. In his first three years at Seton Hall’s college seminary, Reading lived at home in nearby Elizabeth, N.J., with his mother. During the fall of 1981, however, the junior seminary rector all but demanded he move into St. Andrew’s College Seminary for his fourth and final year. “ ‘We don’t really know who you are,’ ” Reading recalls him saying. The experience made Reading especially self-conscious about seeming distant or withdrawn as he moved on to Immaculate Conception, Seton Hall’s senior seminary. So when McCarrick first addressed his small class of would-be priests in May 1986, warning, according to Reading, “I’m not going to ordain anyone I don’t know well” — he took it to heart.
The archbishop’s invitation that summer came in the form of a phone call from the archbishop’s office. Reading agreed but resolved not to spend the night. He came up with an excuse for leaving early — some obligation back home — and arrived with only his swimsuit, towel and a few personal items for a post-beach shower.
Reading was taking something of a risk by walking out on McCarrick’s get-together early. “There was a mixture of repulsion and pride” at being approached by McCarrick, Ramsey quickly deduced through conversations with students. Nobody wanted, as far as Ramsey could determine, to risk being maneuvered into close physical proximity with McCarrick. “But there were career reasons,” he explained, “and seminarians were very much under the gun, always being evaluated. They all knew the score: If the archbishop asks you, you just do it.”
After the barbecue, Reading said, McCarrick and his guests decided to head to the beach. The archbishop began steering guests on where to change into their swimsuits, ushering them into bathrooms and bedrooms. Reading says McCarrick directed him to what he thought must be the house’s master bedroom and followed him in, closing the door behind them.
“I knew he was in the room,” Reading told me, “but he wasn’t saying anything. He just stood there.” Reading remembers placing his bag down on a sofa under a window and slowly retrieving his swimsuit and towel, laying them out with deliberate hesitation. “I assumed he would leave,” Reading said. “I kept thinking he would leave.”
Reading realized McCarrick wasn’t going to leave. “I didn’t know what to do,” Reading admitted. “I just thought — there’s nothing I can do.” Wordlessly, Reading changed into his bathing suit, with his back to the archbishop. McCarrick then returned downstairs with him, he said. He recalls that McCarrick told the seminarians to go ahead to the shore, saying he would catch up with them later.
Reading was quietly stunned on the walk to the beach. It was cool and overcast, not ideal for swimming. Reading lay facedown on his beach towel, hoping to catch a little sun. Eventually, Reading says, McCarrick appeared, dressed in shorts and a polo shirt. He sat near Reading as the young men began to joke about going for a swim, teasing the archbishop that he ought to take a dip.
McCarrick laughed along with them, Reading recalls. “Then he slid his hand down the back of my swimsuit, and said, ‘You’re dry.’ ” McCarrick’s hand rested there, on the bare skin of his buttocks, under the fabric of his swimsuit, Reading told me. “I was dumbfounded. I was frozen. I didn’t know what to do or say,” Reading told me. And then, sounding defeated: “I let it go.” He didn’t report the incident at the time; nor did he mention it to close family members until recently, when details of McCarrick’s alleged sexual misconduct began to make headlines.
McCarrick ordained Reading on Nov. 22, 1986. By October 1993, at age 33, Reading was no longer a practicing priest. He earned a master’s degree in counseling from the University of Memphis and began working in mental-health care. It wasn’t that he wanted to quit, he said. It was just that his experience with McCarrick weighed on him and accentuated the sting of every instance in which he felt neglected, abandoned or devalued by his superiors in the church. “I feel like the priesthood was taken away from me,” Reading insists, melancholy now, when former parishioners find him on Facebook and praise him for his positive role in their lives. “And I loved what I did.”
For his part, Ramsey says he tried, over the years, to tip off church authorities about McCarrick’s behavior. He says he spoke to the late Archbishop Thomas Kelly of Louisville about McCarrick in 1993 and wrote a similar letter to the apostolic nuncio in Washington in 2000, and then another, to Cardinal Sean O’Malley, in 2015 . Though he sent his letter to the nuncio in 2000, he received only an oblique acknowledgment that Vatican officials had received and read it in 2006, the year McCarrick retired. O’Malley, who is president of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, has said he did not see Ramsey’s letter at the time; instead, O’Malley’s priest secretary replied to Ramsey saying that, since the incidents cited did not involve minors, they fell outside the commission’s purview. (O’Malley announced earlier this month that he will now begin reviewing all letters sent to his office related to the commission or containing any abuse allegations.)
The Vatican did not remove McCarrick from public ministry until this June, when a review board in the archdiocese of New York found allegations he had touched a minor’s genitals during a cassock fitting to be “credible and substantiated.” McCarrick issued a statement at that time maintaining his innocence. He has since been accused of sexual abuse by another person who was a minor at the time.
But what of the alleged abuse of adults?
Adult men make less instantly sympathetic victims than children, and the alleged incidents involving McCarrick are less headline-grabbingly horrifying than the episodes revealed by Pennsylvania’s recent grand jury report. But the church has more than a duty to ensure that minors aren’t victimized and should be sensitive to the fact that, where religious authority is exploited, the effects of sexual abuse can be especially devastating, as in Reading’s case.
No person ought to be molested in the Catholic Church, and no such crime should go unprosecuted by religious or civil authorities. The only hope for victims and the lay faithful is a self-sacrificial act of repentant transparency: Vatican officials and American prelates close to McCarrick ought to open the archbishop’s file to the public, defrock any clergy found to have aided or abetted incidents of abuse and do so before the 88-year-old simply passes away in seclusion. After all that corrupt clergy have taken, the truth is so little to ask.