Theodore McCarrick case in Wisconsin hangs in the balance after new competency exam

Former cardinal Theodore McCarrick outside the Dedham District Court on Friday, Sept. 3. Former cardinal Theodore McCarrick outside the Dedham District Court in Massachusetts on Sept. 3, 2021. | Credit: Joe Bukuras/CNA

Just months after former cardinal Theodore McCarrick was ruled not competent to stand trial on criminal sexual abuse charges in Massachusetts, similar charges against him in Wisconsin now hang in the balance after a competency exam ordered by the court was filed in November.

McCarrick is facing misdemeanor sexual assault charges in Wisconsin related to an incident that allegedly occurred in April 1977 near a house by Geneva Lake. The complaint alleges that McCarrick and “another adult male” sexually assaulted then-18-year-old James Grein, the same man who brought a complaint against the former cardinal in Massachusetts.

Grein, 65, told CNA Monday that the other adult male who he alleges assaulted him was Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, the late archbishop of Chicago who died in 1996.

Grein first brought allegations against McCarrick in 2018 in an interview with the New York Times, which referred to him only by his first name. He told the newspaper that McCarrick had serially sexually abused him beginning when he was 11.

If the Wisconsin case is dismissed, McCarrick still faces civil suits against him, but it could mean avoiding criminal penalties once and for all. McCarrick held offices at the highest levels of the Catholic Church and was removed from the clerical state in 2019 following several accusations of sexual abuse of minors and seminarians.

Grein told CNA Monday that he’s “tired” of McCarrick’s “hiding” and wants to hear him speak in court because he wants to try to determine for himself if McCarrick is being duplicitous per his mental health.

“I need to hear him speak because I need to hear his voice different from the voice that I know that he has.”

James Grein speaks at the Silence Stops Now rally in Baltimore on Nov. 13, 2018. Credit: Christine Rousselle/CNA
James Grein speaks at the Silence Stops Now rally in Baltimore on Nov. 13, 2018. Credit: Christine Rousselle/CNA

The results of the competency exam are not yet available to the public and lawyers in the case could not comment on its contents.

The next hearing is on Jan. 10, 2024, at the Walworth County Judicial Center. McCarrick’s attorney, Jerome Buting, told CNA he believes the court will “make a finding” and reveal the exam’s results.

Notably, Kerry Nelligan, the psychologist who conducted the competency exam for the Wisconsin court, is the same expert who conducted a mental health exam on him earlier this year in the Massachusetts case.

In the first report, she found that McCarrick “is suffering from an organic process of cognitive decline” that will not improve.

The Massachusetts case was dismissed on Aug. 30 based on two separate psychological evaluations, one done in December 2022 for McCarrick’s defense team and the other in June, conducted by Nelligan, the psychologist hired by the prosecution. 

Both assessments concluded that the disgraced former archbishop of Washington, D.C., is too cognitively impaired to actively participate in his defense.

Online court records from the Wisconsin case reveal that the prosecution is “not contesting the report but believes [McCarrick] needs to be present for court to have colloquy regarding results.”

Colloquy refers to the discussion at a hearing between the judge and the defendant to make sure the defendant understands the proceedings.

Buting said that McCarrick can’t travel “due to physical and mental issues” and will try to set up a video or phone call to allow McCarrick to appear in court. The attorney said, however, that he “is not confident defendant will be able to do that,” the court record says.

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McCarrick’s defense in the Wisconsin case raised the issue of competency in earlier court proceedings citing the psychological evaluations from the Massachusetts case, Walworth County District Attorney Zeke Wiedenfeld told CNA in September.

The state of Wisconsin originally objected to Nelligan’s appointment. But McCarrick’s defense asked the court to appoint her as the examiner because they said it would be “more efficient,” Wiedenfeld said at the time.

The court can choose its own examiner and that sometimes happens in cases where a psychologist “has a history in evaluating a person,” he said.

The Wisconsin allegations 

The Wisconsin complaint alleges the assault took place in April 1977 in the water at a Geneva Lake residence, located in Walworth County in southern Wisconsin. 

McCarrick was still a priest with the honorary title of monsignor at the time. He was ordained auxiliary bishop of New York just a couple of months later.

Bernardin, who was serving as the archbishop of Cincinnati in 1977, was raised to the status of cardinal about six years later. 

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According to the complaint, “[Grein] stated that [he] was in the water off of the dock at the residence when the defendant and another adult male entered the water. [Grein] stated that the defendant and the other adult male fondled [Grein’s] penis without his consent and the defendant and the other adult male discussed [Grein’s] penis while they were in the water.”

Bernardin was an influential figure in the Catholic Church in the United States, becoming a bishop in his 30s and serving as the general secretary of the NCCB/USCC (today known as the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops).

According to the Illinois attorney general’s clergy sexual abuse report on the Archdiocese of Chicago, released in 2023, Bernadin created a majority laity diocesan review board that was a “significant step forward in addressing child sex abuse by clerics.”

The report said that Bernardin followed the recommendations of a clergy sexual abuse commission that he created in 1992. “As a result, the archdiocese found itself a leader in a new era of handling abuse claims,” the report said.

The U.S. bishops’ conference also honored Bernardin by naming “The Cardinal Bernardin New Leadership Award,” after him. The award is an initiative under the Catholic Campaign for Human Development, which recognizes the leadership of young people in working with the poor.

The criminal complaint also states that McCarrick had sexually assaulted Grein prior to the incident “numerous times” and that McCarrick was “the holy man” for Grein’s family.

In addition to the sexual abuse that began when Grein was 11, the complaint said Grein listed “several incidents” that occurred in other states when he was a minor, which included Grein being sexually abused at “a special event or lavish party.”

“[Grein] also described a time where the defendant took [him] to an event where several adult males had sexual intercourse with [Grein],” the complaint says.

The complaint also says that Grein alleged McCarrick had nonconsensual sexual intercourse with him in Chicago the day before the Geneva Lake incident. 

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