IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Theodore McCarrick, once a high-ranking American cardinal, charged with sexually assaulting teen

"We will look forward to addressing the case in the courtroom,” an attorney for the 91-year-old said.
Cardinal Theodore McCarrick speaks during a memorial service in South Bend, Ind., on March 4, 2015.
Then-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick speaks during a memorial service in South Bend, Ind., on March 4, 2015.Robert Franklin / South Bend Tribune via AP file

Former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick was charged Wednesday with sexual assault in Massachusetts, making him the highest U.S. clergyman criminally accused in the sex abuse scandal that has rocked the Catholic Church.

McCarrick, 91, who was defrocked in 2019, is charged with three counts of indecent assault and battery on a person over 14, stemming from an incident that happened at Wellesley College in 1974, according to a criminal complaint filed in Dedham District Court.

He's set to be arraigned Aug. 26.

"We will look forward to addressing the case in the courtroom," Barry Coburn, McCarrick's Washington, D.C.-based attorney, told NBC News.

The accuser met McCarrick through his uncle, the cardinal's former classmate, according to the complaint written by Wellesley Police Detective Christopher Connelly.

Police and prosecutors investigated the case after the teen's attorney, Mitchell Garabedian, brought the allegations to their attention in January, the complaint said.

The accuser "outlined various incidents of abuse by McCarrick, most of which took place outside of Massachusetts ... starting when he was a young boy and occurring in New Jersey, New York, California as well as Massachusetts," the complaint said.

The incident that led to charges happened June 8, 1974, at a wedding reception of the victim's brother at Wellesley College, police said.

The accuser, then 16, said McCarrick asked him to walk away from the reception. When the boy had to use the bathroom, McCarrick told him to relieve himself in the bushes and that's when the clergyman allegedly touched his penis, according to the complaint.

Later at the reception, they went into a coatroom where McCarrick was to going to hear the boy's confession, the complaint said.

Instead, McCarrick told him to take his pants off as he "leaned in and kissed his penis, holding it with both hands, cupping it," according to the complaint.

At the time, McCarrick was considered a trusted family friend and the teen said he had no reason to question him.

The accuser thought "so maybe this was what it was supposed to be, maybe this was supposed to happen, I don't know, I was still a naive young man," he told investigators.

"Based on (the victim's) statements of sexual abuse by McCarrick during the wedding reception at Wellesley College, I believe it is more likely than not, McCarrick violated the following offenses when he used his hands to grab (the victim's) penis during their walk, touched (his) penis and testicles in the coat room and used his mouth/lips to kiss (his) penis in the coat room," Connelly wrote.

Garabedian, a longtime advocate for sexual abuse victims, said the prosecution of McCarrick marks a key point in efforts to hold alleged church offenders accountable.

“Historically, this is the first time ever in the United States that a cardinal has been criminally charged with a sexual crime against a minor,” Garabedian said in a statement. “It takes an enormous amount of courage for a sexual abuse victim to report having been sexually abused to investigators and proceed through the criminal process."

Pope Francis defrocked McCarrick in 2019 after a Vatican investigation found evidence that he sexually abused children and adults.

The once-influential cardinal held a number of lofty positions within the U.S. Catholic Church, serving as archbishop of Newark, New Jersey, before being appointed to that post in Washington, D.C.