Vatican admits mistakes, denies cover-up of US ex-cardinal abuse

Vatican City (AFP) –

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The Vatican on Tuesday denied covering up sexual abuse committed by a US ex-cardinal, admitting papal mistakes but saying Theodore McCarrick's crimes had for years been nothing but rumours.

A 450-page report on who knew what -- and whether three consecutive popes overlooked McCarrick's abuse of at least one teenage boy and a number of male seminarians -- said Polish pope John Paul II had ignored warnings the cleric was toxic.

But it also accused senior US clergy of providing "inaccurate and incomplete information to the Holy See" about McCarrick's behaviour.

The influential former archbishop of Washington DC, now 90, was stripped of his cardinal's title in 2018 and his priest's status in 2019.

He was found guilty by the Vatican of the abuse of the teenager in the 1970s as well as years of misconduct -- such as inviting seminarians to his beach house where he made them share his bed.

Once a highly influential figure who played a key role in raising funds for the Holy See from wealthy US donors, he became the highest-ranking Church figure to be expelled in modern times.

"Few involved, including the current pope and his two predecessors, emerge from the story with their reputations enhanced," Vatican expert Christopher Lamb wrote on The Tablet religious news website.

But "what makes the document unprecedented is its willingness to confront the mistake that was made by a pope and now saint, John Paul II".

- Emotional testimony -

The Catholic Church has been rocked by a global paedophilia scandal in recent decades, with victims coming forward from countries including Australia, Chile and Germany as well as the United States.

Based on documents as well as over 90 witness interviews, the report insists the first official allegation of paedophilia against McCarrick was not made until 2017 -- at which point the Vatican reacted.

Survivors' groups have demanded to know how McCarrick -- who went by the nickname "Uncle Ted" -- was appointed to the prestigious Washington post in late 2000 and created cardinal in 2001, despite anonymous letters from the early 1990s accusing him of abuse of his "nephews".

The report cited "often emotional" testimony from survivors of "sexual abuse or assault, unwanted sexual activity, intimate physical contact and the sharing of beds without physical touching".

The report said former Pope John Paul II had been advised it would be "imprudent" to promote McCarrick because of the potential for scandal given rumours of his activities at the beach house.

But the then pontiff was swayed by a letter written by the American in 2000 insisting he had "never had sexual relations with any person, male or female, young or old, cleric or lay, nor have I ever abused another person".

The only individual claiming misconduct at the time was viewed as "unreliable" in part "because he himself had previously abused two teenage boys", the report said.

Four US bishops asked about McCarrick's behaviour also "did not indicate with certainty" that he had been abusive.

Investigators found no evidence that hundreds of thousands of dollars donated by McCarrick to the church impacted Vatican decisions on his future.

But it said his personal friendship with John Paul II "likely had an impact on the pope's decision-making".

- 'Swore innocence' -

The next pope, Benedict XVI, appears also to have been swayed by McCarrick swearing on his "oath as a bishop" that the allegations were false. The Vatican asked the cleric however to "maintain a low profile" -- a request he ignored.

Current Pope Francis "did not see the need to alter the approach" until a concrete allegation of abuse against a minor was made.

The US Conference of Catholic Bishops said Tuesday it was "studying" the findings and offered its "profound sorrow and deepest apologies" to all McCarrick's victims.

Francis's supporters say his axing of McCarrick once the truth emerged is an example of his "zero tolerance" policy even for high-ranking church members.

Last year the Argentine passed a landmark measure to oblige those who know about sex abuse to report it to their superiors.

The Vatican's number two man, Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin, said Tuesday that Francis had made a concerted effort to protect minors from predator priests.

But he said "all procedures... depend on the commitment and honesty of the people concerned".