VATICAN CITY — A highly anticipated Vatican report found on Tuesday that Pope John Paul II had rejected explicit warnings about sexual abuse by Theodore E. McCarrick, now a disgraced former cardinal, choosing to believe the American prelate’s denials and misleading accounts by bishops as he elevated him to the highest ranks of the church hierarchy.

As Washington’s archbishop, Mr. McCarrick was one of the most powerful leaders of the Roman Catholic Church in the United States, a media darling and prodigious fund-raiser with deep connections in the Vatican. But he became the highest-ranking American official to be removed for sexual abuse when the pope kicked him out of the priesthood in 2019.

Given Mr. McCarrick’s long career — as a priest in New York, archbishop of Newark and a Washington cardinal with a national and international profile — the 449-page report had the potential to engulf three separate papacies in scandal. Since the abuse carried out by Mr. McCarrick became public in 2018, conservative critics have accused Francis of covering up the American’s misconduct.

But the investigation, commissioned by Francis, who had promised to “follow the path of truth wherever it may lead,” largely absolved the current pope. Instead, it put fault chiefly with Francis’ conservative predecessors, emeritus Pope Benedict XVI, and in particular Pope John Paul II — elevated to sainthood since his death — who believed Mr. McCarrick’s denials of the allegations of sexual misconduct and promoted him.

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“Pope John Paul II personally made the decision to appoint McCarrick,” the report says, despite receiving a letter in 1999 from Cardinal John O’Connor, then the archbishop of New York, that summed up allegations, some anonymous, that Mr. McCarrick had engaged in sexual conduct with another priest in 1987, that he had committed pedophilia and that he shared a bed with young adult men and seminarians.

John Paul II ordered an investigation to determine whether the allegations were true. Bishops found that Mr. McCarrick had shared a bed with young men but said they were not sure there had been sexual misconduct, according to the inquiry, which now considers the information provided by those bishops to have been misleading.

“What is now known,” the report says, “is that three of the four American bishops provided inaccurate and incomplete information to the Holy See regarding McCarrick’s sexual conduct with young adults.”

The inquiry also notes that Mr. McCarrick appealed directly to Pope John Paul II’s gatekeeper, Bishop Stanislaw Dziwisz, now a cardinal and retired archbishop of Krakow, to insist on his innocence.

“McCarrick’s denial was believed,” the report says, the allegations were dismissed as rumor, and the pope appointed Mr. McCarrick as Washington’s archbishop in November 2000.

Archbishop José H. Gómez, the president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, welcomed the report for its “transparency in addressing issues of abuse.”

But for abuse survivors and their advocates, the revelations were no salve.

“At no time has the Vatican ever had any remorse or empathy toward me,” said James Grein, who has accused Mr. McCarrick, then a priest and family friend, of abusing him starting at age 11. Mr. Grein noted that while the report described decades of cover-up, it offered no “plan to rectify the situation.”

Anne Barrett Doyle, a director of BishopAccountability.org, an advocacy group, said that while the report was the “Vatican’s first forthright account of its own cover-up of a sexual predator,” it let Francis hide behind plausible deniability. “Didn’t the pope wonder if those rumors had substance?”

Mr. McCarrick, who has never been criminally charged, has been living in an undisclosed location since leaving a Capuchin friary in Kansas in January.

The Vatican report said “no limit was placed on the examination of documents, the questioning of individuals or the expenditure of resources necessary to carry out the investigation.” It said that more than 90 witnesses had been interviewed, including cardinals, bishops, American seminarians and priests who overlapped with Mr. McCarrick throughout his career.

Credit…Mannie Gracia/Reuters

Some recounted “sexual abuse or assault, unwanted sexual activity, intimate physical contact and the sharing of beds without physical touching,” it said. Those accounts, which the Vatican warned could be “traumatizing” to Mr. McCarrick’s victims, were “made available to Pope Francis.”

But the finding could also be disconcerting to the faithful, especially as it appeared to cloud the reputation of Pope John Paul II, who the report sought to defend. The Vatican report took pains to defend the pope, arguing that “John Paul II’s past experience in Poland regarding the use of spurious allegations against bishops” to hurt the church “played a role in his willingness to believe” Mr. McCarrick.

In 2005, new details about allegations against Mr. McCarrick surfaced and John Paul II’s successor, Pope Benedict XVI, “urgently sought” to substitute Mr. McCarrick as the archbishop of Washington. In 2006, Mr. McCarrick was replaced in the post.

In 2006 and 2008, Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, an official in the Holy See’s Secretariat of State, wrote letters urging his superiors to start a church legal procedure to address the allegations and rumors against Mr. McCarrick.

The issue was brought directly to the attention of Pope Benedict, who decided against that path. “Instead, the decision was made to appeal to McCarrick’s conscience” and for him to “maintain a lower profile,” the inquiry found.

The Vatican report defended Pope Benedict by arguing that there were at the time no credible accusations of child abuse against Mr. McCarrick. It added that Benedict had not been “kept apprised of McCarrick’s activities” in the United States or overseas after that.

Credit…Pool photo by Stefano Carofei

But when Archbishop Viganò became Vatican ambassador to the United States in 2011, he received further information about allegations of sexual misconduct by Mr. McCarrick and in 2012 petitioned the Vatican again.

The report says that the Vatican instructed Archbishop Viganò to conduct an inquiry to determine whether the allegations were credible.

“Viganò did not take these steps,” the report says.

That line has a whiff of score settling to it. In August 2018, Archbishop Viganò stunned the church with a public letter claiming that the Vatican hierarchy, including Pope Francis, was complicit in covering up accusations that Mr. McCarrick had sexually abused seminarians.

The letter also accused Mr. McCarrick of advancing corrupt networks linked to homosexual relationships within church leadership, and it exposed deep ideological clashes at the church’s highest levels, with conservatives taking up arms against Francis’ inclusive vision of a church less focused on divisive issues like abortion and homosexuality.

The charges came during a delicate and damaging period for Francis, when a renewed explosion of the scandal over sexual abuse in the church, to which he sometimes seemed blind, threatened his papacy.

Archbishop Viganò claimed that he had personally warned Francis about Mr. McCarrick’s violations in 2013, but that Francis did nothing.

Francis told the Mexican broadcaster Televisa that he knew nothing about Mr. McCarrick’s past. He also said that he did not recall if Archbishop Viganò had ever brought the issue to his attention. The Vatican report adds that “no records support Viganò’s account” about his raising the issue with Francis in 2013.

The Vatican report does support Archbishop Viganò’s assertions that Pope Benedict XVI had already punished Mr. McCarrick for his abuse of seminarians and priests, however.

But while it says that Pope Francis did receive notification about the prior indications by Benedict from top church officials, he was not given documentation regarding the allegations against Mr. McCarrick. Believing that they had already been thoroughly reviewed, the Vatican report said Francis “did not see the need to alter the approach that had been adopted in prior years.”

When allegations of sexual abuse by Mr. McCarrick of a minor were found to be credible, and were made public in 2018, Francis stripped Mr. McCarrick of his rank of cardinal. The Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith subsequently found Mr. McCarrick guilty of solicitation during confession and of abuse, prompting Francis to remove him from the priesthood in February 2019.

Pope Francis, who ordered the report in 2018, has frequently attributed the crisis to clericalism, a systemic abuse of power and the unhealthy pursuit of authority within the church’s hierarchy.

The McCarrick scandal has already forced a reckoning inside the church about how clerics can use their authority to abuse not just minors but adults — relationships the Vatican had long played down as consensual rather than an abuse of power.

That abuse certainly seemed in evidence in the report, which includes multiple examples of Mr. McCarrick, a powerful bishop, abusing young seminarians, and other bishops looking the other way.

One victim is quoted as saying that the disgraced American prelate “tried to convince me that priests engaging in sexual activity with each other was normal and accepted in the United States.”

In light of the fact that Mr. McCarrick was his superior, the priest said he had been “afraid,” especially because he felt his immigration status at the time made him vulnerable.

The report did not provide an accounting of Mr. McCarrick’s fund-raising activities, and argued that “they were not determinative with respect to major decisions relating to McCarrick.” Over the decades, Mr. McCarrick directed millions of dollars to John Paul II, Benedict and Francis for papal charities through his Papal Foundation.

Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the church’s secretary of state and second-ranking official, said in a statement on Tuesday, “We publish the report with sorrow for the wounds that these events have caused.”

He said the inquiry showed how decisions, including the appointment of bishops, depended “on the commitment and honesty of the people concerned and that the report, would make “all those involved in such choices more aware of the weight of their decisions or omissions.”

Reporting was contributed by Sharon Otterman from New York, Elisabetta Povoledo from Rome, Elizabeth Dias from Washington and Ruth Graham from Warner, N.H.

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