An overview of the cardinals who have been accused of sexual abuse or mishandling of abuse in recent history and how the Church has dealt with it.
On November 7, 2022, French Cardinal Jean-Pierre Ricard admitted to abusing a 14-year-old girl when he was a parish priest in the Diocese of Marseille, 35 years ago. His statement was read out by the current president of the French Bishops’ Conference, Éric de Moulins-Beaufort, at the bishops’ plenary assembly.
In recent history, four other cardinals have been implicated in sexual misconduct: Groër (Austria), O’Brien (Scotland), Pell (Australia) and McCarrick (United States).
I.MEDIA looks back at these cases, which have shown an evolution in the attitude of the Holy See, which has become stricter and made greater use of secular justice.
A case that delayed the financial reforms desired by Pope Francis involved Australian Cardinal George Pell. The former archbishop of Melbourne and then Sydney, who was called to the Vatican as prefect of the Secretariat for the Economy when this office was created in February 2014, faced a trial in his home country over accusations of abuse of two altar boys.
Sentenced to six years in prison in December 2018, he was incarcerated shortly after, in February 2019. He was then acquitted and released by the High Court of Australia in March 2020. In December 2018, he was relieved of his position as a member of the Council of Cardinals, officially for reasons concerning his age (then 77), but certainly also due to his conviction. However, his prerogatives as a cardinal were maintained, and he was a Synodal father in the Synod on Young People in October 2018, even though he was not able to physically participate.
In the early summer of 2017, in order to return to Australia to face his trial, Cardinal Pell was put on leave by Pope Francis from his job as prefect of the Secretariat for the Economy, However, he retained the title, thus remaining head of the Dicastery until the end of his five-year term in February 2019. Returning to Rome after his acquittal, and personally supported by Pope Francis, Cardinal Pell did not lose his mandate as cardinal elector until his 80th birthday on June 8, 2021.
O’Brien and McCarrick, two fallen cardinals
Cardinal Keith Michael Patrick O’Brien (1938-2018), who was Archbishop of Edinburgh from 1985 to 2013, announced on March 20, 2015, that he was renouncing the “rights and prerogatives” of the cardinalate, in other words, his mandate as cardinal elector. He was already de facto no longer a cardinal, as he had not participated in the 2013 conclave after being accused by three priests and a former seminarian of “indecent behavior.” However, he remained a cardinal and bishop until his death in March 2018, the day after his 80th birthday.
Stronger measures were taken against Theodore McCarrick (born in 1930). He was created a cardinal by John Paul II in 2001 and was archbishop of Washington, DC, from 2000 to 2006. Still highly visible in the media and active publicly, despite his advanced age, he was suspended by the Vatican in June 2018, after being accused of abusing an altar boy. He then resigned from the cardinalate in July 2018.
He was finally dismissed from the clerical state in February 2019 after the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith found him guilty of soliciting sexual acts in confession and sexually abusing former seminarians, with the aggravating circumstance of abuse of power. He now lives in seclusion in a community in the United States.
In an unprecedented move, the Secretariat of State of the Holy See released a very detailed report on November 10, 2020, on the relationship between the Vatican and the former American cardinal, highlighting flaws in his episcopal promotion. John Paul II had chosen to appoint him archbishop of Washington in 2000 despite negative warnings about him.
The Groër affair: John Paul II’s silence
Although the substance of the cases mentioned differ in nature, the possibility of openly questioning a cardinal marked a major evolution. In the 1990s, the allegations against Cardinal Hans Hermann Groër (1919-2003), archbishop of Vienna from 1986 to 1995, accused of abusing hundreds of young men, did not provoke any public reaction from John Paul II.
Faced with the deep crisis experienced by the Church in Austria as a result of this scandal, Archbishop Christoph Schönborn, who was Groër’s auxiliary bishop and then his coadjutor before succeeding him, acknowledged in 1998 that the accusations against his predecessor were “essentially founded.” However, no official sanction was taken against him, and his funeral was celebrated in 2003 in the Cathedral of Vienna.
Several years later, in 2010, Cardinal Schönborn blamed Cardinal Angelo Sodano, former Secretary of State, for preventing Cardinal Ratzinger, then Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, from investigating Cardinal Groër’s actions.
Even if the frustration of the victims remains real in the face of the slowness of the Church and the Vatican, a clear shift has been felt in recent years.
Cardinal Ricard, an unprecedented case
Cardinal Ricard’s confession makes his an unprecedented case, since he himself was the one who brought the facts to the attention of the public, assuring that he was “at the disposal of justice.” On the canonical level, Pope Francis can take the initiative to lift the statute of limitations.
The Pontiff could also relieve Cardinal Ricard of his prerogatives as cardinal elector and member of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, and even of his rights as a priest, if the secular and canonical procedures recently initiated result in a conviction.
In addition to these cases of accusations aimed directly at the cardinals, there are also other proceedings related to cardinals’ mismanagement of abuse cases in their diocese.
An example, is French Cardinal Philippe Barbarin, then archbishop of Lyon, who faced a lawsuit in the French courts for failing to denounce the criminal activities of then-priest Bernard Preynat. Condemned in the first instance in March 2019, he was then acquitted by the Lyon Court of Appeal on January 30, 2020, and this verdict was confirmed by the Court of Cassation on April 14, 2021.
After his conviction in the first instance, Pope Francis had initially refused to accept Cardinal Barbarin’s resignation, but ultimately did accept it on March 6, 2020. Although he is no longer in charge of a diocese, he remains a cardinal, and will remain elector until his 80th birthday, on October 17, 2030.
If the non-acceptance of Cardinal Barbarin’s resignation initially caused some misunderstanding in the public opinion, Pope Francis’ willingness to let secular justice run its course until the end, considering cardinals triable like any other person, showed a significant evolution in the relationship between the Vatican and the secular world.
Nearly 20 years earlier, the 2002 indictment of Cardinal Bernard Francis Law, Archbishop of Boston, for his mismanagement of massive abuse scandals in his diocese did not lead to a canonical or secular trial. The affair simply led to his resignation and move to Rome, where he became Archpriest of the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore from 2004 to 2011. He died in Rome in 2017, not long after the release of the film Spotlight had put the case of the Diocese of Boston back in the spotlight.
If his successor, Cardinal O’Malley, has been known for his firmness by becoming Archbishop of Boston and president of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, the protection granted by John Paul II to Cardinal Law remains today a contentious issue between the Vatican and victims’ associations in the United States.
The slow evolution of canonical justice
While John Paul II and his entourage, marked by the experience of Nazism and Communism, were wary of external accusations, which they perceived as attempts to destabilize the Church, Pope Francis has followed a different attitude. He aims to bring the Vatican closer to the standards of international law in the fight against pedophilia as well as in the fight against financial delinquency.
This approach, which is a continuation of the efforts begun by his predecessor, Benedict XVI, opens the way to painful procedures. At its own pace, the Church is seeking to find a model of justice that is more transparent.
Within its own purview, canon law still operates with discretion. However, the French bishops for example have assured that they will ask the Holy See to make public the canonical sanctions imposed on the bishops, in order to “respect the maturity of the people of God.”