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More Clergy Abuse Is Finally Being Prosecuted, No Thanks To The Church, A Lawyer Says

Theodore McCarrick is just the latest Catholic official to face criminal charges for sexual abuse in the U.S. Lawyer Mitchell Garabedian has represented survivors for decades and offers the long view on law enforcement investigations into the Church.
Chris Kleponis
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Theodore McCarrick is just the latest Catholic official to face criminal charges for sexual abuse in the U.S. Lawyer Mitchell Garabedian has represented survivors for decades and offers the long view on law enforcement investigations into the Church.

At the height of his career, former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick was one of the most influential leaders of the Catholic Church in the U.S., heading the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C. Last week, he became the first U.S. Cardinal to be criminally charged with a sexual crime against a minor, making the 91-year-old the highest-ranking Catholic Church official in the country to face criminal charges for clergy sexual abuse.

The fact that McCarrick sexually molested adults and children was already known: A Vatican investigation confirmed the abuse. He'd been defrocked in 2019.

Mitchell Garabedian has settled more than 2,000 clergy sex abuse cases over the past 20-plus years and is the lawyer representing an abuse survivor in a current civil case against McCarrick.

"Cardinal McCarrick was one of the most powerful and influential cardinals in the world. He hobnobbed with presidents: George W. Bush, President Ford, President Carter, President Clinton," Garabedian says. "He was very influential, very powerful, and Cardinal McCarrick right now is a defendant in a criminal case, thanks to the courage of a brave clergy sexual abuse victim."

Late last year, the Vatican released a report detailing both abuses committed by McCarrick and how various internal church investigations into those abuses had begun and then stalled over the years.

"The Catholic Church recognizes that prevention of sexual abuse is an ongoing effort that includes pastoral care and outreach to survivors, reporting allegations to civil authorities, background checks, education and training on keeping children and youth safe, and the implementation of child protection policies at the local level," a spokesperson for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops said in a statement to NPR.

They went on to say: "We have made much progress, but we also know that the painful experience of survivors calls us to continual improvement."

Mitchell Garabedian spoke to All Things Considered's Mary Louise Kelly about whether he's seen progress in the way the U.S. justice system has prosecuted these cases, if there's difficulty in building a defense against allegations that may be decades old and if the Church itself has begun to take meaningful action to end systemic abuse.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Interview Highlights

On whether he thinks law enforcement is now more willing to go after top church officials

Oh, without a doubt. I think that some of the laws have changed, allowing the prosecution. There's been a seismic change in the attitude that this is no longer a priest who can't be touched, who must be taken care of, who couldn't possibly have done this, or it's an anomaly. I think the attitude is this is a priest and he's using the veil of morality to act immoral. I believe that the prosecutors and police are now looking into these cases — because of the momentum created by clergy sexual abuse victims coming forward — more closely. There's no doubt in my mind.

On whether survivors coming forward after decades have passed complicates building a legal case

Victims of sexual abuse — in the clergy, sexual abuse — do not come forward, usually, till they're at least 45 years or older. It's not unusual at all for someone to call me and say, "I was sexually abused by a priest. I'm 75 years old, or I'm 82 years old, and I want to proceed with a claim." So I'm used to old cases coming forward. But if you dig hard enough, if you look hard enough, you'll see that there is evidence, there is corroboration, and you pursue that evidence and corroboration and you support your client's claim with that evidence and corroboration. So you don't let the age of a case or age of a claim deter you in any way. You just keep moving forward.

On how the Catholic Church's 2020 report on its internal McCarrick investigation is a PR move more than meaningful action

This report was a forced report. The Church is a master at spin control. They tried not to incriminate anyone else, or as few people as possible. Where have they been in decades — for decades and decades since the 1980s? In the 1980s, a woman wrote to cardinals in the papal nuncio stating that McCarrick had been sexually abusing children. So why didn't they bring that to light in the 1980s and 1990s and thereafter so that children could be protected? The Catholic Church is all about the Catholic Church. It's all about the size of its bank accounts, it's not about the safety and welfare of children. And now victims are coming to me saying they were abused in the 1990s by priests, by the janitor, by the deacon. So the evidence, to me, is that the Catholic Church has not changed.

On how the delay to investigate proves the Church's commitment to itself over people

It took them more than 40 years to produce a report. Whatever happened to "Call the police," send it to the police? They could have sent it to the police in [the] 1980s, 1990s. I believe, in a Vatican report, there are at least 17 reports, 17 individuals, sexually abused by Cardinal McCarrick. And Bishop [Edward] Hughes, Bishop [John M.] Smith, saw him sexually abusing children, and now here we are far more than 40 years later and they're first talking about it? This shows you how the Catholic Church is concerned about itself and not about the safety and welfare of children. It speaks volumes.

On whether he's discouraged about the work so many years later

Oh, no, I'm not discouraged. I'm doing my work. We're making advances. I get calls of gratitude from clients I've represented 20 years ago saying, "You know, you really helped me out in my life, and you were right. This wasn't my fault." And it's not any sexual abuse victims fault that they were sexually abused, but these are the damages victims feel often. And I'd like to add that many victims call me and they take the weight off their shoulders and they become survivors as opposed to victims.

Ayen Bior and Courtney Dorning produced and edited this story for broadcast. Cyrena Touros adapted it for the web with help from Jason DeRose. contributed to this story

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.
Courtney Dorning has been a Senior Editor for NPR's All Things Considered since November 2018. In that role, she's the lead editor for the daily show. Dorning is responsible for newsmaker interviews, lead news segments and the small, quirky features that are a hallmark of the network's flagship afternoon magazine program.
Ayen Deng Bior is a producer at NPR's flagship evening news program, All Things Considered. She helps shape the sound of the daily shows by contributing story ideas, writing scripts and cutting tape. Her work at NPR has taken her to Warsaw, Poland, where she heard from refugees displaced by the war in Ukraine. She has spoken to people in Saint-Louis, Senegal, who are grappling with rising seas. Before NPR, Bior wore many hats at the Voice of America's English to Africa service where she worked in radio, television and digital. Bior began her career reporting on the revolution in Sudan, the developing state of affairs in South Sudan and the experiences of women behind the headlines in both countries. In her spare time, Bior loves to kayak, read and bird watch.