Vatican finds popes knew of allegations against disgraced ex-cardinal McCarrick years ago

ROME — Former Popes Benedict XVI and John Paul II were aware of allegations relating to defrocked American Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, who the Vatican later defrocked after investigating sex allegations, but did not halt the powerful cleric's rise through the church, according to a report released on Tuesday.

McCarrick, one of the most prominent figures in the U.S. Catholic Church before his stunning fall from power, was expelled from the priesthood in 2019 after a Vatican investigation.

The lengthy Vatican report outlines how the former popes, as well as senior U.S. Catholic officials, were aware of sexual misconduct allegations, including McCarrick sharing a bed with seminarians at his New Jersey beach house and an unsuccessful attempt to restrict his role in public life in the 1990s.

"At the time of McCarrick's appointment and in part because of the limited nature of the Holy See's own prior investigations, the Holy See never received a complaint directly from a victim, whether adult or minor, about McCarrick's misconduct," the report said. "For this reason, McCarrick's supporters could plausibly characterize the allegations against him as 'gossip' or 'rumors.'"

John Paul II served from 1978 until his death in 2005 and was succeeded by Pope Benedict XVI who retired in 2013.

The allegations against McCarrick, the highest profile Church figure to have been dismissed from the priesthood in modern times, date back decades.

The report, which was commissioned by Pope Francis in 2018 and includes interviews with over 90 witnesses and details incidents and allegations of abuse, took two years to compile.

According to the investigation, Pope Francis was given evidence of McCarrick's misconduct in 2017. Francis has consistently denied knowledge of McCarrick's sexual misconduct.

Tackling sexual abuses that have battered the Catholic Church's reputation has been a major challenge for Francis, with victims demanding a crackdown on bishops accused of concealing or mismanaging cases.

The report "did not examine the issue of McCarrick's culpability ... that question has already been adjudicated," it said, but looked at "institutional knowledge" surrounding his behavior.

A former Archbishop of Washington, D.C., McCarrick was familiar to U.S. political elites.

He presided over the 2009 funeral of senator Ted Kennedy and was present at the funeral mass of President-elect Joe Biden's son Beau in Delaware in 2015.

The four U.S. dioceses where McCarrick served — New York, Metuchen, Newark, and Washington, D.C. — also carried out separate investigations that fed into the Vatican report.

It outlined how McCarrick seemingly managed to rise through the ranks of the church, despite a history of sexual misconduct with adult male seminarians and minors.

McCarrick, 90, who has been living in seclusion in the U.S. has previously responded publicly only to the allegations of abuse of minors, saying he had "absolutely no recollection" of them.

He has not commented on sexual misconduct with adult males or on this report. NBC News has reached out to U.S. Archdiocese's for comment.

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"We publish the report with sorrow for the wounds that these events have caused to the victims, their families, the Church in the United States, and the Universal Church," said Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican Secretary of State, in a statement.

Parolin said he and Pope Francis had viewed the testimonies of victims and that in publishing the report "the truth has been pursued."

He also reiterated that the Vatican had already taken steps to improve the transparency mechanisms for future reports of sexual abuse and misconduct in the church.

Reuters contributed to this report.