The Vatican’s sexual abuse case against ex-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick has expanded significantly after a man testified that the retired American archbishop sexually abused him for years starting when he was 11, including during confession.
James Grein testified Thursday in New York before the judicial vicar for the New York City archdiocese, who was asked by the Holy See to take his statement for the Vatican’s canonical case, said Grein’s attorney Patrick Noaker.
The testimony, which lasted about an hour, was difficult and stressful but Grein was proud to have done it, Noaker said.
“He wants his church back. He felt that in order to accomplish that end, he had to go in and testify here and tell them what happened, and give the church itself the chance to do the right thing,” Noaker said in a telephone interview Friday.
Grein initially came forward in July after the New York archdiocese announced that a church investigation determined an allegation that McCarrick had groped another teenage altar boy in the 1970s was credible.
Grein’s claims, first reported by The New York Times, are more serious. He has alleged that McCarrick first exposed himself to Grein when he was 11 and then sexually molested him for years thereafter.
Noaker said in the testimony Thursday, Grein also gave “chilling” details about alleged repeated incidents of groping during confession – a serious canonical crime on top of the original offense of sexually abusing a minor.
Grein had previously not made public those claims, but Noaker confirmed his testimony to The Associated Press. Grein also allowed McCarrick’s defense lawyers to listen to his testimony by telephone.
Grein testified that McCarrick — a close family friend who baptized Grein — would take him upstairs to hear his confession before celebrating Mass for the family at home.
“He touched James’ genitals as part of the confessional. That became the course, it happened almost every time,” Noaker said. McCarrick would absolve Grein and “touch him on the forehead, shoulder, chest and genitals.”
Noaker said combining sexual abuse with a sacrament like confession haunts Grein to this day.
“People are vulnerable in the confessional. Very vulnerable,” he said. “If you manipulate that, and try to sexualize that, it’s extremely emotionally damaging.”
McCarrick denied the initial groping allegation of the altar boy and has said through his lawyer that he looks forward to his right to due process. It wasn’t clear when he would testify in the Vatican case.
The McCarrick scandal has sparked a credibility crisis for the U.S. and Vatican church hierarchies, since it was apparently an open secret for some that “Uncle Ted” slept with adult seminarians. Yet McCarrick still rose to the heights of church power, and even acted as the spokesman for U.S. bishops when they enacted a “zero tolerance” policy against sexually abusive priests in 2002.
Pope Francis initially ordered McCarrick removed from public ministry in June after he was accused of groping the teenage altar boy – the first known allegation against him involving a teen. A month later, after former seminarians and Grein came forward, Francis removed McCarrick as a cardinal and ordered him to live a lifetime of penance and prayer while the canonical process ran its course.
Now 88, the former archbishop of Washington is living at a Kansas religious residence.
The Vatican is under pressure to finalize its case against McCarrick before Francis hosts church leaders at a February sex abuse prevention summit, since Francis himself has been implicated in the yearslong cover-up of McCarrick’s misconduct with adults.
If convicted by the Vatican, Francis could defrock McCarrick or give him a lesser penalty.
While victims have long complained about the way they have been treated during canonical proceedings, Noaker praised the judicial vicar, the Rev. Richard Welch, saying he was compassionate, respectful and patient during Grein’s testimony.
Noaker said Welch gave Grein time to compose himself when he testified about an incident in which McCarrick allegedly masturbated Grein in a car. When McCarrick dropped Grein back at home, he allegedly told Grein’s parents that the mess was caused by a spilled soda, so Grein’s mother went to clean up the car seat.
“That was a really psychologically damaging moment,” Noaker said, adding that Grein had to relive it during his testimony. “He closed his eyes. He was sitting in that car with McCarrick, and you could see it. It was moving and terrifying.”
Grein has told AP in the past that he struggled for decades with immense shame and guilt over the abuse. He said he struggled with alcoholism, which broke up his marriage, and attempted suicide multiple times.
The AP does not identify people who say they have been victims of sexual assault unless they grant permission. Grein has gone public with his full name.
In addition to the canonical case against McCarrick, Noaker filed a police report against McCarrick in July in Virginia.