For almost two decades, McCarrick towered over Washington as a unique religious figure who had curried favor with this city’s famous and powerful. The former head of the Catholic Archdiocese of Washington found himself again and again at the intersection of the capital’s political and media elite.
He basked in the glow of being a crossover figure who presented himself as the righteous person whom politicians sought when they faced their own theological questions of right and wrong.
Now, those figures are recoiling at the portrait of a man they never knew, who used his position to publicly and privately offer counsel about moral decisions, while facing allegations of his own abusive behavior.
McCarrick, now 88, resigned from the College of Cardinals on Saturday, following accusations of sexual abuse that spanned decades.
“More than heartbreaking, more than heartbreaking,” Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) said Wednesday, recalling the many times he and his wife took McCarrick out to dinner and socialized with him. “Both Marcelle and I are heartbroken.”
Leahy said that he saw McCarrick around St. Patrick’s Day in March and that the cardinal gave no hint that anything was wrong. The longest-serving Catholic in Congress, Leahy said he is furious because the situation resembles other scandals involving priests in which “the hierarchy has known bad things” and did not resolve them.
“If something like that’s happened, you have to take steps, the church has to,” he said.
After serving on a task force of U.S. bishops looking into the crisis of abuse by priests that was exposed early last decade in Boston, McCarrick became the church’s de facto spokesman, preaching that everything had been investigated.
“The priest is supposed to be father and brother and friend and guide. And if that is destroyed, and if it’s destroyed with young people, with children, it becomes all the more horrible,” McCarrick said in 2004 during one of several appearances on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
No one in official Washington has expressed knowledge of what McCarrick was hiding. By the time he was fielding Tim Russert’s questions about a “special place in hell” for priests who abuse minors, McCarrick’s former Archdiocese of Newark had settled two cases of sexual misconduct with young adult men in the seminary.
Only recently did an allegation arise involving the abuse of an 11-year-old, which would allegedly continue for two decades.
That allegation resulted in McCarrick’s suspension from the ministry in June and then his forced resignation this past week.
McCarrick arrived in Washington in January 2001 as the new archbishop with a mission to court the powerful. And they fell for him. He soon added the title of cardinal, a prince of the church.
George W. Bush, early in his first presidential term, visited McCarrick soon after the archbishop’s arrival. In June 2004, McCarrick’s prominence grew as he gave a Gospel reading at the multifaith memorial service for former president Ronald Reagan at Washington National Cathedral.
“I want to thank His Eminence Cardinal Theodore McCarrick. What a fine man. What a beacon of hope,” Bush said a year later at the National Prayer Breakfast. “His Eminence shines brightly in the nation’s capital.”
In 2006, George and Laura Bush hosted McCarrick at the White House as he retired as archbishop of Washington, handing over the responsibility to Donald W. Wuerl. But he stayed in Washington after his retirement, keeping his close ties to those in power in the capital.
McCarrick had always played to both sides of the aisle, ensuring that he would be welcome no matter who was in charge.
As his friend Bush was running for reelection in 2004, John F. Kerry, the Democratic presidential nominee, came under fire from conservative Catholics who wanted to deny Communion to him and other Catholic politicians who supported abortion rights.
So the senator from Massachusetts sought out McCarrick, gaining a private 45-minute meeting with the cardinal to discuss the matter. The results were published in the Catholic Standard newspaper. “People who are with us on one issue” may be “against us on many other issues,” McCarrick wrote, adding: “All these things will have to be weighed very carefully.”
That prompted a derisive rejoinder from conservative columnist Robert Novak, who wrote that Washington’s high priest was “so respected and well-liked that not only priests but prominent laymen do not want to criticize him.”
Despite being in retirement the past dozen years, McCarrick remained the highest-profile Catholic in Washington — the go-to figure for funerals of the most influential figures.
“Pray that the beloved anchor of ‘Meet the Press’ is now sitting at the large table of the Lord to begin a conversation which will last forever,” McCarrick told the assembled at Georgetown’s Holy Trinity Catholic Church during Russert’s funeral in June 2008.
In August 2009, McCarrick oversaw the burial service of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) at Arlington National Cemetery, charming Biden and many members of the Senate on hand by mixing Catholic liturgy with political wit.
“They called him the Lion of the Senate, and indeed that is what he was,” McCarrick said at the grave. “His roar and his zeal for what he believed made a difference in our nation’s life.”
When Pope Francis took charge at the Vatican in 2013, he deployed McCarrick to lobby his old friend Boehner, who with Kennedy in 2003 had started an annual fundraiser for the District’s Catholic schools.
The pope was advocating for comprehensive immigration legislation, but Boehner faced a conservative revolt. Exiting a 2014 huddle with Boehner, McCarrick told The Washington Post that he was praying for the speaker on the issue. Aides to Boehner and Biden said this week that their bosses declined to comment on McCarrick.
In 2013, when John D. Dingell set the record for the longest-serving member of Congress, Boehner hosted a gala along with Biden and every congressional leader.
McCarrick gave the opening prayer for the Michigan Democrat, turning it into a personal remembrance of the lawmaker’s nearly six decades in Congress.
The powerful crowd laughed; the crowd prayed.
They had no idea what McCarrick was hiding from them.
In 2004, as Russert pressed the cardinal on whether every abusive priest would be named, McCarrick ducked the question and said that the church had “done an extraordinarily difficult, painful work” in compiling its reports at that point.
“And, please, God, children are going to be safe from now on,” he said.