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

Originally published on August 6, 2021 6:18 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.

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Texas Governor Greg Abbott has launched a border security crackdown for the state, and it is strikingly similar to former President Trump's. While critics have called the measures blatantly unconstitutional, Abbott has touted them, including disaster declarations, jailing asylum-seekers, building a wall and patrolling the highways for migrants. The Texas initiative, though, lacks the immense power of the federal government. NPR's John Burnett spent time along the border and found the crackdown falling short of the hype.

JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: The Texas-Mexico border is again the backdrop for a set of hard-line policies designed to discourage migrants from crossing the Rio Grande. This time, the instigator is Greg Abbott. The 63-year-old Republican is running for his third term as governor and hoping to capture Trump's fanatical followers in Texas. Here's Abbott on Fox.


GREG ABBOTT: We're not playing games anymore. And we have a new program in place because the Biden administration plan is to catch and release. The Texas plan is to catch and to jail.

BURNETT: Abbott has created a sort of Lone Star border force made up of state troopers, National Guard and reinforcements from other red states. Their mission is to curtail the migrants surging across the Rio Grande, a goal the Biden administration has so far failed to accomplish. Ground zero for the governor is Del Rio, a friendly border city of 35,000 in the West Texas scrub desert. It's become the second-busiest region for illegal crossings on the southern divide. Agents apprehended a thousand people a day in June, a 500% jump over last year.

The strategy is post no trespassing signs on private property along the river. Then, when an immigrant steps on to land, nab him for trespassing, a class A misdemeanor. To find out if it was making a difference, I hopped in a truck with Valverde County Commissioner Gustavo Flores, who has 90 miles of river border in his precinct. He wears a bushy mustache and a white cowboy hat.

GUSTAVO FLORES: We're going down the river area where it's a hot spot, a lot of immigrants crossing through there, here and there and everywhere.

BURNETT: But as we drove along the rutted county roads, we didn't see any immigrants. All we saw were black and white SUVs of state troopers and National Guard Humvees. What's happening is human smugglers and migrants have changed tactics. As soon as word got back that the cops were arresting migrants on private property, Flores says the vast majority now cross downstream on federal property.

FLORES: Coyotes are getting informed good spots to move people through. They have learned if they stay in federal land, which is where that - they build that high fence, the state really can't touch them.

BURNETT: The governor was so sure of his plan that, with great fanfare, he opened a special booking center and cleared out a prison in South Texas and converted it into a jail. But since the dragnet began, the troopers have only averaged eight arrests a day. Meanwhile, every day, hundreds of migrants continue to wade hip-deep across the river and surrender to Border Patrol agents on federal property where they know they'll be booked and released.


UNIDENTIFIED OFFICER: Do you have permission to be here?

BURNETT: Sure enough, as soon as the commissioner parked his truck near the International Bridge, we spotted two large groups of Haitian nationals who had splashed across the river to turn themselves in to the green-suited agents. I stepped through an open gate in the border wall to take a picture.

UNIDENTIFIED OFFICER: This is federal property.


UNIDENTIFIED OFFICER: So please step back.

BURNETT: Thanks, Officer.

Abbott's border offensive, dubbed Operation Lone Star, is popular among some landowners who are getting a free chain link security fence paid for by the state. But it has not made a dent in the flow of asylum-seekers, says county attorney David Martinez. As the official responsible for prosecuting the trespassers, he was told to expect as many as 200 migrant arrests a day.

DAVID MARTINEZ: Well, obviously at 200 a day, that's a thousand arrests a week. We certainly have not approached anywhere near those numbers.

BURNETT: Still, local officials appreciate that the state is trying something to help them out. Martinez, a Democrat, says the situation is unsustainable. The feds cannot keep releasing immigrants onto the streets of Del Rio.

MARTINEZ: We're not set up for this. So without a doubt, it's an issue that needs to be addressed or a lot of us over here are going to be in trouble fast.

BURNETT: In fact, they're already in trouble. The Border Patrol apprehended 210,000 people last month, surpassing a 20-year high. In Del Rio, agents are holding migrants in open-air corrals under the international bridge. They're also pinning them up under a bridge in the Rio Grande Valley, where agents encountered 3,000 immigrants in one 24-hour period. U.S. Customs and Border Protection declined to comment.

Locals are upset, too. Last week, I was interviewing a Venezuelan man in front of the Whispering Palms Motel in Del Rio. He was waiting for the first of a series of buses to take his family to Florida and telling me about how the Venezuelan government was persecuting him because he belonged to an opposition party.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).

BURNETT: The innkeeper burst out of the lobby to have her say.

MARIA CANNON: You don't just drop them on the streets. Have a plan for them. Have something for them.

BURNETT: Her name is Maria Cannon. While she's distressed at all the immigrants congregating around her hotel, she's dubious of the heavy law enforcement presence in town.

CANNON: Because it's not going to help anything. They're still going to come across. And you know what? I don't blame them. I don't blame them for coming. The thing is this - they're suffering. They're suffering.

BURNETT: Governor Abbott keeps adding new executive orders to his border operation. He's vowed to complete Trump's unfinished border wall. Bulldozers have cleared brush alongside a state highway in neighboring Eagle Pass for construction. Abbott diverted $250 million in state funds and raised 900,000 more in donations for the project, which is only enough for several miles of barriers. And last week, Abbott ordered state troopers to interdict any vans or buses carrying migrants released by the Border Patrol, saying the passengers may have COVID. The Justice Department promptly sued, and on Tuesday, a federal judge issued a temporary restraining order that Abbott was likely overstepping his powers. Yesterday, the ACLU sued the state on the same grounds. Kate Huddleston is a lawyer with the ACLU of Texas.

KATE HUDDLESTON: Governor Abbott cannot seek to enforce his own version of immigration policy. That's because the federal government, not states, not local governments, sets immigration policy and enforces immigration law.

BURNETT: While the efficacy of Governor Greg Abbott's border crackdown remains elusive, it has resulted in one concrete result. Earlier this summer, Donald Trump endorsed Abbott's bid for reelection. John Burnett, NPR News, Del Rio. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.