At first glance, the handwritten postcards and letters look innocuous, even warm, sometimes signed "Uncle T." or "Your uncle, Father Ted." But taken in context, the correspondence penned by disgraced ex-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick to the young men he is accused of sexually abusing or harassing is a window into the way a predator grooms his prey, according to two abuse prevention experts who reviewed it for the AP. Full of flattery, familiarity, and boasts about his own power, the letters provide visceral evidence of how a globe-trotting bishop made the young, vulnerable men feel special. The Vatican has promised its own report into who knew what and when about his efforts to have sex with would-be priests. Access to an archbishop for young men seeking to become priests "is a key piece of the grooming process here," says one of the experts, Monica Applewhite.
Pope Francis defrocked McCarrick, 89, in February after a church investigation determined he sexually abused minors as well as adult seminarians. McCarrick has declined to comment on his case, except to say last year that he was innocent. The testimony of James Grein, 61, was key to the Vatican case. The son of close family friends, Grein told investigators that McCarrick began sexually abusing him when he was 11, including during confession and at family events. Grein tells the AP McCarrick's exalted place in the family created pressure on him to spend time with McCarrick. That family dynamic is present in the postcards McCarrick sent Grein—notes without postmarks that were included in letters McCarrick sent to Grein's father. A postcard visible to the family, Applewhite says, was likely meant to show Grein that what McCarrick was doing wasn't wrong. "To send it in a postcard says 'I have nothing to hide,'" Applewhite says. Letters can be read here, here and here. (Or see more analysis of the letters here.)