Theodore McCarrick, seen visiting the Vatican as a cardinal in 2013, was defrocked and removed from the priesthood in February 2018 after the church found him guilty of sexual abuse. (Max Rossi/Reuters)

As the reeling Catholic Church reckons with its culture of secrecy, one priest on Tuesday appeared to take matters into his own hands.

Saying he wanted “to contribute to a new culture in the Church,” an aide to former cardinal Theodore McCarrick released excerpts from emails and letters laying out how the Vatican tried to quietly sanction McCarrick years before he was defrocked for sexual abuse.

The letters portray McCarrick as ignoring the Vatican’s restrictions almost as quickly as they were put in place — while senior church leaders did nothing to stop him. One figure who was reportedly informed of the restrictions was Cardinal Donald Wuerl, McCarrick’s successor as archbishop of Washington, who resigned last fall amid criticism of how he handled abuse claims.

The Vatican has regularly been criticized for its lack of transparency on abuse, and it has promised to improve. Last October, it pledged a “thorough study” of its internal archives to determine who knew what in the McCarrick case, but it has so far shared no information.

On Tuesday, in an interview with a Mexican journalist, Pope Francis said, “about McCarrick, I knew nothing, obviously, nothing, nothing.”

And yet at the same time someone was working outside the church system and directly making public what he knew.

The former aide, the Rev. Anthony Figueiredo, published portions of McCarrick’s correspondence on a personal website on Tuesday and shared them with CBS News and the Catholic outlet Crux. CBS described Figueiredo as a “longtime consultant” to the network. Crux reported that a cybersecurity expert determined the emails originated from McCarrick’s account.

The authenticity of the documents could not be independently confirmed. Both the Vatican and McCarrick’s lawyer declined to comment.

Along with selected passages from McCarrick’s letters, Figueiredo included a few paragraphs of his own commentary.

“I reflect often upon how much damage to the physical, psychological and spiritual lives of so many might have been avoided had the restrictions [against McCarrick] been made public and enforced as soon as they were imposed,” he wrote.

Figueiredo could not be reached by phone for comment. Someone responding from an email address listed at the bottom of the personal website said “interviews are not being given for now.”

Some church analysts sounded a note of caution, because the documents were not originals and were not published in full. Still, Figueiredo took pains to present himself as a neutral messenger — loyal to Pope Francis, with no interest in the “highly politicized” inner-church battles over the McCarrick case. Figueiredo wrote that he had “moral” reasons for coming forward, and he quoted Pope Francis’s own vow to “follow the path of truth.”

“I do think that it would be a sobering thought for church authorities that ordained persons might begin to act on the church’s rhetoric of transparency,” said Terry McKiernan, co-director of Bishop-Accountability.org, a website that tracks clergy abuse.

The letters offer a window not only into the historic downfall of a cardinal, but also into an abuse case that has led to fierce accusations of wrongdoing inside the Vatican. Last year, a former Vatican ambassador, Carlo Maria Viganò, accused Pope Francis and Pope Benedict XVI of knowing about the allegations of misconduct against McCarrick. One of Viganò’s main claims was that Benedict had sanctioned McCarrick, barring him from lecturing, traveling or celebrating Mass in public.

Some church watchers dismissed Viganò’s testimony as a right-wing attack on Francis. But the newly public correspondence appears to confirm that aspect of Viganò’s account.

Several letters and emails McCarrick wrote in 2008, when he was a globe-trotting diplomat, imply he was notified in writing by Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re of Vatican restrictions against him.

“I am ready to accept the Holy Father’s will in my regard,” McCarrick wrote to a Vatican official in Washington.

McCarrick wrote in another email, to Figueiredo, that he had “agreed to make no public appearances” without Re’s permission. McCarrick also wrote that Re had forbidden him from coming to Rome.

McCarrick indicates in one letter that he had shared Re’s notification of restrictions with Wuerl.

Re’s letter, though, is not among those released by Figueiredo. Its contents are apparent only indirectly — through what McCarrick subsequently writes about them.

The Archdiocese of Washington maintained in a statement on Tuesday that “Cardinal Wuerl has previously stated — and he reiterates again — that he was not aware of any imposition of sanctions or restrictions related to any claim of abuse or inappropriate activity by Theodore McCarrick.”

When it became public last year that McCarrick had been accused of abusing minors and adult seminarians, Wuerl portrayed himself as being unaware of any complaints. The Washington Post reported earlier this year that Wuerl knew of allegations against McCarrick as early as 2004 and reported them to the Vatican.

No matter the restrictions, McCarrick carried on with little change. The documents released Tuesday portray the life of a church royal, as McCarrick — a well-known fundraiser with a gift for diplomacy — traveled to Rome, met with Benedict and served as a church emissary everywhere from China to the Middle East. McCarrick continued to represent the church publicly under both Benedict and Francis, who became pope in 2013.

Notably, the correspondence released by Figueiredo does not clarify why McCarrick was sanctioned. Nor does it indicate whether the restrictions on him were intended as punishment or reflected an effort by the church to avoid scandal.

McCarrick, in one letter, admits no wrongdoing but describes an “unfortunate lack of judgment.”

“I have always considered my priests and seminarians as part of my family, and just as I have shared a bed with my cousins and uncles and other relatives without thinking of it being wrong, I had done this on occasion when the Diocesan Summer House was overcrowded,” McCarrick writes. “In no case were there minors involved, but men in their twenties and thirties.”

Figueiredo, who was ordained by McCarrick 25 years ago, served briefly as McCarrick’s personal secretary in Newark and then over nearly two decades whenever the cardinal traveled to Rome. According to news accounts, Figueiredo last year was arrested in Britain on drunken driving charges after hitting a pregnant woman’s car. (The woman was uninjured.) Figueiredo wrote Tuesday that he is receiving treatment, has embraced a “life of sobriety,” and regrets “unreservedly” the harm he caused.

Figueiredo said he was now hoping to create a new church environment in which “no secret sins can fester.”