In November 2000, a Manhattan priest got fed up with the secrets he knew about a star archbishop named Theodore McCarrick and decided to tell the Vatican.
For years, the Rev. Boniface Ramsey had heard from seminarians that McCarrick was pressuring them to sleep in his bed. The students told him they weren’t being touched, but still, he felt, it was totally inappropriate and irresponsible behavior — especially for the newly named archbishop of Washington.
Ramsey called the Vatican’s then-U.S. ambassador, Archbishop Gabriel Montalvo, who implored the priest to write the allegation so it could be sent up the chain in Rome. “Send the letter!” Montalvo demanded, Ramsey recalls.
He never heard back from Montalvo, and Ramsey has since destroyed his copy of the 2000 letter, he said.
“I thought of it as secret and somehow even sacred — something not to be divulged,” Ramsey told The Washington Post. It wasn’t the concept of a cleric occasionally “slipping up” with their celibacy vow that shocked Ramsey, who believes that’s common. It was the repeated and nonconsensual nature of the McCarrick allegations.
Since Pope Francis suspended McCarrick this summer for allegedly groping an altar boy and multiple clerics have been accused of covering for McCarrick, a spotlight has been trained on the only place with the authority to oversee a cardinal: the Vatican.
There are still many more questions than answers about Rome’s role. Who was told about the problem, and what was said? Were those discussions ever conveyed to popes Francis and Benedict? And, finally, if the pontiffs knew what was occurring, what did they do about it, if anything?
Ramsey’s 2000 letter to Montalvo, who has since died, is the first known report to the Vatican about McCarrick, who just a couple months later rose to Catholicism’s highest echelons as a cardinal.
But reports about his behavior continued, and the allegations grew more serious. In addition to Ramsey, at least three other people sent letters to Vatican ambassadors — called nuncios. They include well-known priest-turned-psychologist Richard Sipe and two New Jersey bishops, Paul Bootkoski and John Myers.
The most extensive report about what may have happened to communications about McCarrick once they got inside the Vatican came from Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, a former ambassador to the United States, who dropped a bombshell tell-all in late August. Viganò wrote that a number of top Vatican officials — including popes Benedict and Francis — had been told about McCarrick’s alleged misbehavior.
Since Viganò published his largely unverified account on several conservative sites, most people named in it have declined to comment. At least one, Monsignor Jean-François Lantheaume, who worked at the U.S. Embassy in D.C., responded to the letter, saying without elaboration that it is true.
On Sunday, a highly placed cardinal, in the Vatican’s first direct response to accusations that Pope Francis knew about and covered up the alleged sexual misconduct, described those claims as a “political plot that lacks any real basis.”
The letter, written by Canadian Cardinal Marc Ouellet, the head of the Vatican’s bishops office, said it was “unbelievable and without any foundation” to accuse Francis of “having covered-up knowingly the case of an alleged sexual predator.” Ouellet — who, like Lantheaume, was named in the letter as knowing about McCarrick’s actions — portrayed Viganò as bitter and disillusioned with his career within the Holy See and said he was in “open and scandalous rebellion.” Ouellet also accused him of exploiting the broader clergy sex-abuse scandal in the United States as a way to land “an unmerited and unheard of blow” on the pope.
Through dozens of interviews, documents and published blog posts from the time, The Post has pieced together an account detailing the origin and nature of complaints to the Vatican about McCarrick. The story behind the complaints, at least three of which occurred in 2000 or later, also illustrates the great value placed on deference to hierarchy within the Catholic Church, the silence and secrecy around the topic of priest sexual activity and the extreme opaqueness of the Vatican bureaucracy — factors that contributed to the allegations against McCarrick remaining hidden for so long.
“The curia takes dysfunction to a whole new level,” said Tom Doyle, who worked at the Vatican’s U.S. Embassy in the 1980s as a priest and canon lawyer and now works as an advocate for clergy abuse survivors.
“Decisions could be made by one [Vatican official] who says: ‘Screw this, I’ll reroute it through the basement.’ ”
Doyle said he believes ambassadors in the 1990s and early 2000s sometimes ignored communications about sex abuse because the topic was newly volatile, and the less of a paper trail the better. The Vatican’s embassy in D.C. is the first stop for complaints within the American Church.
Montalvo, in particular, “simply ignored any communications he received about sexual abuse of children,” Doyle said.
Documents sent to nuncios are most likely — although not always — forwarded to the secretary of state’s office, at the Vatican in Rome, but it is up to that office to determine whether that information is forwarded to the pontiff, according to experts on the workings of the Vatican. The church does not routinely share information about internal communications with lay Catholics or journalists.
The complaints about McCarrick sent by Ramsey, Bootkoski, Myers and Sipe entered this murky system, and their travels within the Vatican remain mostly a mystery.
‘Send me the letter’
Ramsey took a major risk for a priest in November 2000, the day after Pope John Paul II named McCarrick to be D.C.’s archbishop. The role, one of American Catholicism’s most prominent positions, virtually guarantees a cardinal’s red hat and the unquestioned power that goes with it.
Ramsey told The Post he called Montalvo to share what he knew. Ramsey had been a seminary professor in New Jersey when McCarrick was archbishop. He was sharing what his seminarians had told him.
He said he described the situation on the phone and asked if Montalvo would receive a letter on the topic; the ambassador said yes. The next day Ramsey said he got cold feet, and called Montalvo to say he was having second thoughts. What if they let on to McCarrick that he had shared the allegations?
“Send me the letter, send me the letter,” Montalvo emphatically urged him, Ramsey says. “What do you think, we are fools?”
Ramsey said he sent the letter to Montalvo registered mail but never received any acknowledgment. Although Ramsey destroyed his copy of the letter, he says his language was similar to that in a follow-up he sent, in 2015, to Boston’s archbishop, Cardinal Sean O’Malley, head of Francis’s commission on clerical sex abuse. In that letter, which Ramsey shared with The Post, he expressed concern about “a form of sexual abuse-harassment-intimidation or maybe simply high-jinx.”
A few weeks ago, Ramsey said he discovered in his records a 2006 letter from Cardinal Leonardo Sandri, now head of the Vatican’s liaison to the branches of Catholicism in North Africa and the Middle East. That letter, first reported by the Catholic News Service, seems to confirm that higher-ups in Rome had received Ramsey’s note about the shared bed.
In that letter, Sandri inquires about a job candidate who attended Ramsey’s seminary. Sandri appears to have been asking if the candidate was involved in the allegations about McCarrick.
“I ask with particular reference to the serious matters involving some of the students of the Immaculate Conception Seminary, which in November 2000 you were good enough to bring confidentially to the attention” of Montalvo, Sandri wrote.
In Viganò’s letter, he says Montalvo and his replacement in D.C., Pietro Sambi — who died in 2011 — “did not fail to inform the Holy See immediately” about Ramsey’s letter, yet he offers no details or evidence.
Some Catholics have questioned the credibility of Viganò, an anti-Francis conservative whose own record on handling clergy abuse cases has come under scrutiny.
In Rome, Sandri and a nun accompanying him told The Post last month that he would not speak about any knowledge he has of complaints about McCarrick.
“Never, never,” the nun walking with Sandri told The Post.
“Oh, well, God only knows about the future,” Sandri said with a laugh. But “no one will talk. It’s a matter of prudence, of wisdom.”
Much more damning allegations were to come.
In the 1990s, according to documents obtained by The Post, a priest in his early 30s from the Diocese of Metuchen (N.J) reported to his superiors and mental health professionals that he had in the past been sexually harassed and victimized, in the seminary and by “his bishop.” While the documents don’t name McCarrick, a source who is very familiar with the man’s case confirms that it was McCarrick.
Those stories came out through counseling after the priest self-reported to his superiors that he had been sexually involved with two male minors. Counselors through the 1990s determined the priest had been victimized himself several times in his life, was not a pedophile and could be returned to ministry.
But after the abuse scandals exploded in the early 2000s, the source said, the priest’s case resurfaced because the priest’s new bishop — in a more aware environment, post-scandal — reviewed all his priests’ files, saw the priest’s situations with the minors and sought to have him removed from ministry.
This badly upset the priest, who sued.
In the mid-2000s, the priest reached a negotiated settlement with the dioceses in Trenton, Metuchen and Newark, and details of it leaked. Viganò alleged in his letter that the priest himself sent around the details “to about 20 people, including civil and ecclesiastical judicial authorities, police and lawyers.” Some parts of it — without the priest’s name — were also on the well-read blog of Sipe and on other Catholic blogs from the mid-2000s that still circulate today.
The scenes alleged in the settlement excerpt are disturbing. The then-seminarian described a fishing trip with McCarrick and two priests that ended in a motel room with two double beds. He described watching in distress as McCarrick and another priest caressed one another “from head to toe,” laughing in the next bed. At one moment, the seminarian said he made eye contact with McCarrick, and, he alleges “[McCarrick] smiled at me, saying ‘you’re next.’ . . . I felt sick to my stomach and went under the covers.”
In another excerpt from the settlement published on Sipe’s blog, the seminarian said McCarrick summoned him to drive him from Newark to New York City and detoured them to an apartment in the city for the night. McCarrick, the settlement excerpt on the blog alleges, climbed into the seminarian’s bed and wrapped himself tightly around the younger man, who describes feeling “paralyzed” and sick to his stomach to the point that he hid in the bathroom and vomited and cried.
The man has not responded to interview requests from The Post. Diocesan officials in Newark and Metuchen, who in 2006 paid him $100,000, declined to comment for this article, as did Barry Coburn, McCarrick’s attorney.
After the man became a priest, he was ultimately removed from ministry because of the allegations involving the two minors.
Dioceses in New Jersey reached the settlement with that man, and a second former priest, Robert Ciolek, who says McCarrick subjected him to unwanted shoulder rubs. Those settlements were made public just this summer, when McCarrick was first accused of harming a teenage altar boy.
But the dioceses now say they reported it all to the Vatican.
Bootkoski, who led the Metuchen diocese at the time of the two settlements, issued a statement Aug. 28 saying he had called Montalvo and then wrote to him about those two complaints against McCarrick, in December 2005.
Bootkoski and the Metuchen and Newark dioceses declined to share the specific wording he sent Montalvo with The Post, but did share the cover letter.
“Enclosed please find the information about which we spoke yesterday,” he writes Montalvo. “If I can be of further assistance to you in this matter, please do not hesitate to call on me. With sentiments of personal esteem, and my prayerful good wishes for a blessed Advent and Christmas.”
A spokesman for the Newark archdiocese, James Goodness, recently told The Post that Myers, who left the position of archbishop in 2016, also told the Vatican ambassador about the two settlements but declined to say when or provide the communication.
Sexual behavior among priests
The language of the letters, which reveal little urgency, points to a paradox at the heart of the church: Why was everyone so calm about sexual behavior of any kind among clerics sworn to celibacy?
The McCarrick case reveals, among other things, the unspoken contradictions between the image of priests as completely celibate and the reality of men struggling at times with their sexuality. Some experts and clerics compared priests’ celibacy vows to those of married couples who become unfaithful. In other words, physical or sexual contact between priests happens. But it’s unclear how frequently it occurs and how often it is nonconsensual.
In McCarrick’s case, there are allegations of ongoing, abusive behavior. But in past decades, harassment or sexual behavior between adults did not prompt nearly as much alarm compared with priest abuse of minors.
Even so, the sexuality of priests has been largely a third rail in the church, with little open acknowledgment of the issue.
Some cite the work of Sipe, who passed away this summer but spent his life studying celibacy in the Catholic Church. In his 1990 book, “A Secret World,” based on a 1960-1985 study of priests, Sipe argued that at any one time only about half of priests were celibate.
Monsignor Stephen Rossetti, a psychologist who studies and writes on priest wellness, says the church in the past 15 or so years has gradually become much more strict about celibacy and willing to discuss the topic.
“Thirty years ago the message was muddled,” he said, arguing that McCarrick is evidence that the lines were blurry. “We’ve seen the disaster that came from that.”
Doyle said the McCarrick scandal is part of a years-long process of the “the myth of priests having no sex lives being shattered.” He said that many priests he knows try to be celibate but often fail. “And they are good priests.”
Even as he warned the Vatican about McCarrick’s alleged misconduct, Sipe seemed at times deferential to the system he devoted his life to challenging.
His website contains a May 2008 letter he says he sent to Pope Benedict.
“Your Holiness, I, Richard Sipe, approach you reluctantly to speak about the problem of sexual abuse of priests and bishops in the United States,” he wrote on the widely shared post.
One case, he alleged, was about McCarrick.
Sipe wrote that when he taught at St. Mary’s Seminary & University in Baltimore, in the late 1970s and early 1980s “a number of priests” came to him with reports that McCarrick took them to various homes in the New York/New Jersey area “and slept with some of them.”
Sipe cited reports from another blogger of three unnamed clergy (one a former priest) who had “no sexual contact” but did share a bed and later received cards and letters from McCarrick.
Sipe also appeared to cite, without names or details, the motel room scene that ended with the seminarian-turned-priest’s settlement.
Sipe’s posts often didn’t include citation, but he told The Post this summer before he died that he spoke to multiple people who had been involved sexually with McCarrick, including the seminarian who later received a settlement. Sipe declined to identify people by name or connect The Post with them.
“Your holiness, you must seek out and listen to their stories, as I have from many priests about their seduction by highly placed clerics, and the dire consequences in their lives,” Sipe wrote to Benedict.
A 2010 post by Sipe says the seminarian’s case was sent to the Vatican’s doctrine-enforcing arm, which oversees clergy abuse cases, “but it has not yet responded,” Sipe wrote.
Sipe’s wife, Marianne Sipe, and Doyle, who also worked closely with Sipe, say there is no evidence Benedict ever received his complaints. There is, however, a brief letter dated May 5, 2008, from then-nuncio Sambi, acknowledging Sipe’s explosive allegations about McCarrick.
“I acknowledge your kind letter, with enclosure,” Sambi writes, in a letter on Sipe’s site. “Rest assured that your correspondence addressed to the Holy [See] has been transmitted through the diplomatic pouch. With cordial regards and prayerful best wishes, I am, Sincerely yours in Christ.”
Stefano Pitrelli and Chico Harlan contributed from Rome.