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Ex-Cardinal McCarrick Has Been Charged With Sexually Assaulting A Teen In The '70s

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Over the past two decades, many Roman Catholic priests have been criminally charged and even served prison time for sexually abusing children. And today, a former cardinal was charged with molesting a teenager. That makes 91-year-old Theodore McCarrick the highest-ranking Catholic Church official in the country to face criminal charges for clergy sexual abuse. Joining us now to talk more about this is NPR's Sacha Pfeiffer. She covered this issue for years when she was a reporter at the Boston Globe. Hi, Sacha.

SACHA PFEIFFER, BYLINE: Hi, Ailsa.

CHANG: So tell us more details about this case.

PFEIFFER: So I want to note first that Cardinal McCarrick was defrocked about two years ago. Vatican officials found him guilty of soliciting sex when he was hearing confessions and of sexual crimes against minors and adults. And McCarrick has acknowledged he used to sleep with adult seminarians. So he was kicked out of the church. But these new charges deal with allegations he sexually assaulted a 16-year-old boy during a wedding reception at Wellesley College in Massachusetts in the 1970s. The alleged victim's name is redacted from court filings, but the person says McCarrick molested him numerous times in numerous states over an extended period, not just at this wedding.

CHANG: Wow. And why are these charges being brought so many decades later? I mean, isn't there a statute of limitations?

PFEIFFER: Yes, and this is interesting. Often there is a statute of limitations that prevents criminal charges from being brought so long after the alleged abuse, but in this case, McCarrick was living in New York at the time, not Massachusetts, so when he left Massachusetts, the statute of limitations clock basically got paused. It got put on hold. And when this victim came forward years later, that enabled prosecutors to bring charges because the alleged abuse was technically still within the statute of limitations.

I also want to play for you what this alleged victim's Boston lawyer, Mitchell Garabedian, said to me today when I asked him why has it taken so long for members of the church hierarchy, not just parish priests, to face charges for their role in the sex abuse scandal.

MITCHELL GARABEDIAN: No. 1 - the church has an enormous amount of power and influence, at least in the past, to dissuade, to discourage authorities from prosecuting. And No. 2 - so many criminal laws are outdated with regard to statute of limitations that prosecutions could not be brought.

PFEIFFER: And, Ailsa, in fact, Cardinal McCarrick had had several civil lawsuits filed against him by men who say he abused them decades ago when they were children, but in those cases, the statute of limitations had expired, and criminal charges could not be brought.

CHANG: So interesting. And McCarrick, again, was a cardinal. Can you just talk about the significance of someone like him facing charges now?

PFEIFFER: Yes, so the Catholic Church sex abuse scandal is a sad but familiar story by this point, but keep in mind - this isn't just a story about priests who abuse children; it's also about church officials who covered up for priests who abuse children. Many members of the Catholic hierarchy knew this abuse was happening, yet they moved priests to different parishes rather than remove them from the priesthood, and church officials paid secret settlements to victims to keep them quiet. Yet very few top church officials have ever been held accountable for their role in this tragedy. Also, Mitch Garabedian, the lawyer we just heard from, has settled more than 2,000 clergy sex abuse cases over the past 20-plus years and told me he's seeing more church enablers who were also molesters.

GARABEDIAN: That's what we're finding in my work, that not only are the supervisors turning their backs on innocent children and allowing them to be sexual abused, but the supervisors themselves are sexual abusers.

CHANG: So what happens next in McCarrick's case?

PFEIFFER: McCarrick is scheduled to be arraigned September 3. I reached one of his lawyers by telephone today, Barry Coburn in Washington, D.C. His only comment was, quote, "We look forward to addressing the case in the courtroom."

CHANG: That is NPR's Sacha Pfeiffer. Thank you, Sacha.

PFEIFFER: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.