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

Originally published on August 6, 2021 5:18 pm

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.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

At one point in his career, former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick led one of the most influential Catholic archdioceses in the U.S. Last week, he became the first U.S. cardinal to be criminally charged with a sexual crime against a minor. The fact that McCarrick sexually molested adults and children was already known. He'd been defrocked after a Vatican investigation confirmed the abuse in 2019.

Our next guest is a lawyer representing the victim in a current civil case against McCarrick. Over the years, Mitchell Garabedian has represented hundreds of victims of clergy sexual abuse. You might have seen actor Stanley Tucci's portrayal of Garabedian in the movie "Spotlight," which chronicled the efforts of Boston Globe reporters to uncover decades of abuse and cover-ups.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SPOTLIGHT")

STANLEY TUCCI: (As Mitchell Garabedian) So I pull out the 14 most damning docs, and I attach them to my motion. And they prove everything, everything - about the church, about the bishops, about law.

MARK RUFFALO: (As Mike Rezendes) And it's all public because your motion to oppose Rogers' motion is public.

TUCCI: (As Mitchell Garabedian) Is public - yeah, exactly. Now you're paying attention.

KELLY: The real-life Mitchell Garabedian joins me now. Welcome. Thank you for taking the time.

MITCHELL GARABEDIAN: Thank you for having me, Mary Louise.

KELLY: Do you think that police and prosecutors are more willing now to go after top church officials than back when you first began representing victims?

GARABEDIAN: 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 is an anomaly. I believe that 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.

KELLY: And I understand you don't want to weigh in on the criminal case, but just in terms of your legal proceedings, does it complicate anything that so much time has passed, witnesses may no longer be around?

GARABEDIAN: Victims of sexual abuse - clergy sexual abuse, do not come forward usually until 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.

KELLY: How does it change your case? How does it complicate your job that Theodore McCarrick wasn't just any old priest? He was a cardinal. He was in direct contact with three popes.

GARABEDIAN: Right now Cardinal McCarrick is Theodore McCarrick, who is charged criminally with three counts of sexual assault of a child 14 years or older. So if you look at the Vatican report, you'll see in amazement, you will read in amazement. And this is the Vatican report issued by the Vatican recently.

KELLY: Right, in 2019 - the one we referenced.

GARABEDIAN: 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. And Cardinal McCarrick right now is a defendant in a criminal case, thanks to the courage of a brave clergy sexual abuse victim.

KELLY: I realize I'm asking this question to someone who's made a career of going after the church, but do you see progress within the Catholic Church itself - that they did, as you just noted, spend years investigating McCarrick and then publishing this report last year, which is painful reading.

GARABEDIAN: No, not at all. 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. And 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.

KELLY: I mean, you see no progress in the issuing of a report in which they detailed - interviewed witnesses, detailed allegations and came out with a finding that Theodore McCarrick, the former cardinal, has sexually molested adults and children. And that's not something the Vatican - a conclusion the Vatican would come to lightly.

GARABEDIAN: Well, let me put it this way. It took them more than 40 years to produce the report. Whatever happened to call the police? Send it to the police. They could have sent it to the police in 1980s, 1990s. I believe in the Vatican report, there are at least 17 reports, 17 individuals sexually abused by Cardinal McCarrick. And Bishop Hughes, Bishop Smith saw him sexually abusing children. And now here we are 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.

KELLY: I want to ask about you and what draws you to these cases. You mentioned the church and money. And as you know, and as a lot of people would note, you've made a lot of money bringing these lawsuits against the church. This is lucrative work.

GARABEDIAN: Sure.

KELLY: What has driven you to take on so many of these cases over the years?

GARABEDIAN: It has to be done. It had to be done. This was a no-brainer. In 1994 when the first woman came to me and reported the abuse of her three children, I said, this has to be done. It just has to be. You know, sometimes people will approach me and they'll say - and I never thought I was going to make money, but I've made money. Sure. But sometimes people will approach me and they'll say, well, you made money doing this, and that's why you're doing it. My response is, well, even if you believe that, if that was my motivation, which it isn't, then what's wrong with that? I'm stopping child abuse, aren't I? I'm exposing predator priests, aren't I? And they kind of look at me and say, you know, I never thought of it like that.

KELLY: Do you ever get discouraged? You've told me you think this abuse continues. I read a profile where you talked about how this problem is going to outlive you.

GARABEDIAN: Oh, no, I'm not discouraged. I'm doing my work. We're making advances. But 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 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.

KELLY: That is Mitchell Garabedian, a lawyer who has represented more than a thousand victims of sexual abuse. Mr. Garabedian, thank you.

GARABEDIAN: Thank you, Mary Louise. I appreciate it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KELLY: We reached out to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, and they tell NPR, the church has taken multiple measures to address the issue of sexual abuse and bishop accountability, including supports for survivors, investigations and whistleblower protections. We have made much progress, the statement reads, but we also know the painful experience of survivors calls us to continual improvement. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.