In the years before his removal from ministry, Cardinal Theodore McCarrick secretly gave nearly $1 million to a controversial group of Catholic missionaries and supported leniency for its founder after the Vatican punished him for sexual wrongdoing, internal church documents show.

From 2004 to 2017, McCarrick sent the Institute of the Incarnate Word dozens of checks – some as large as $50,000 – from a charitable account he controlled at the Archdiocese of Washington, according to ledgers obtained by The Washington Post.

During those years, Carlos Buela, who founded the group decades ago in Argentina, repeatedly defied Vatican sanctions for alleged sexual misconduct with seminarians, according to a confidential Vatican order. The group “systematically obstructed” Vatican efforts to oversee its activities, the document shows.

A Post examination found that the financial and personal ties between McCarrick and Buela’s group were far more extensive than previously known. At a time when the Catholic Church is facing questions about the motives behind financial gifts from clerics accused of sexual misconduct, the examination reveals a highly unusual flow of money from one accused church leader to a group led by another. The church declined to explain the purpose of the gifts.

In the early 2000s, McCarrick aided Incarnate Word as it expanded into the United States, and in 2005 he gave the group control of church-owned property to open a small seminary just outside Washington. A letter expressing gratitude for the gift illustrates the high regard Incarnate Word members had for the Washington archbishop.

“You have been a true father to our religious family, looking out for us and guiding us,” an Incarnate Word leader wrote to McCarrick and copied to Buela. “Once more Your Eminence, I sincerely wish to thank you.”

McCarrick, who was once one of the most recognizable figures in the U.S. Catholic Church, last year became the first cardinal known to be defrocked for sexual abuse, over incidents that occurred decades earlier. The Vatican is completing a long-promised report examining how he rose to the highest levels of the U.S. Catholic Church and remained there despite complaints of misconduct that reached the Vatican as early as 2000.

In December, The Post reported that over nearly two decades McCarrick sent more than $600,000 from the “Archbishop’s Special Fund” to senior clerics in Rome and elsewhere, including Vatican bureaucrats, papal advisers and two popes. Some of the recipients were responsible for assessing sexual abuse claims against him.

The Archdiocese of Washington declined to provide details about the nearly $1 million in contributions to the institute, the largest single recipient of money from McCarrick’s fund. A spokeswoman, Paula Gwynn Grant, said McCarrick himself raised the money for the fund – more than $6 million in tax-deductible contributions, the ledgers show – and he spent it as he chose. “Therefore, any information needed about these donations, including the specific amount, must be asked of Mr. McCarrick,” Grant said.

Grant said the archdiocese knows of no complaints or allegations from Incarnate Word members about McCarrick.

McCarrick recently moved from a Kansas friary, where he had been living since 2018, to an undisclosed location. Through his attorney, he declined to comment.

In response to questions, the Vatican said in a statement that it has issued multiple orders to Buela because of his “laxity in carrying out the provisions” imposed on him in 2010 for inappropriate conduct with seminarians. Buela was ultimately ordered to a monastery in Spain in 2016, the statement said. Buela has denied wrongdoing.

The Vatican also disclosed for the first time that it recently named a cardinal to examine “the Institute’s issues and reorganization.”

More than three dozen Incarnate Word officials did not respond to requests for comment in recent weeks. Efforts to reach Buela, who remains a priest, were not successful.

Buela formed the institute in Argentina in 1984 to spread conservative Catholic ideas in line with an earlier era. The group said it was committed to the “evangelization of culture,” and its teachings often decried the evils of modern society.

The institute grew quickly, in part as a result of campaigns to recruit young people and its willingness to assume responsibility for parishes in economically distressed areas. It formed a related group for women, called the Servants of the Lord and the Virgin of Matará, and an organization for lay people called Third Order.

On its website, Incarnate Word claims to have priests, monks and seminarians in 88 dioceses in 38 countries.

From the start, Incarnate Word was controversial in Argentina. The country’s Catholic leaders worried that Buela placed too much emphasis on “ultraconservative Catholic” tenets, according to Verónica Giménez Béliveau, an Argentine sociologist who has studied the group.

The organization also was sympathetic to Argentina’s military junta of the late 1970s and early 1980s, and it believed the church was “being invaded by Marxists,” said Giménez Béliveau, who interviewed Buela as part of her research.

As his group grew, Buela instilled the notion that it was oppressed by mainline factions in the church, routinely claiming that dark forces in the Vatican were aimed at thwarting its mission, according to interviews with current and former members.

Six current and former members of Incarnate Word said that McCarrick was celebrated internally for using his influence to protect the group.

They said that multiple members had warned church officials about alleged sexual encounters between Buela and seminarians. They also complained to church officials that institute leaders stifled internal criticism and punished dissenters.

“You cannot dissent or disagree. Everything is black and white. You’re with us or against us,” said Raul Monfort, who left Incarnate Word and the priesthood in 2001. “They act like a cult.”

Other senior clerics in Argentina in the late 1990s asked Pope John Paul II to shut down the group’s seminaries, according to Página 12, a newspaper in Buenos Aires. Among the most prominent critics was Archbishop Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina, who in 2013 became Pope Francis. He and other senior clerics refused to ordain Incarnate Word seminarians for at least three years starting in the late 1990s.

At the time, the group was expanding to parishes in the United States with large Spanish-speaking congregations, including in San Jose and New York City. Giménez Béliveau said Incarnate Word leaders told her McCarrick was instrumental in that expansion. “They couldn’t have been there without McCarrick’s help,” she said.

In Massachusetts, they were welcomed to Fall River by then-Bishop Sean O’Malley, now a cardinal and archbishop of Boston. Not long after the group sent priests to Fall River, O’Malley began hearing reports that Buela had sexually abused seminarians in Argentina, O’Malley spokesman Terrence Donilon said in a statement.

O’Malley notified the Vatican’s ambassador in Washington and church officials in Rome and Argentina at some point in the 1990s, Donilon said. At the time, O’Malley became convinced that Buela “should be expelled” from the priesthood, Donilon said.

It is not clear how McCarrick and Buela first met. In a letter to an Incarnate Word seminarian, McCarrick said he traveled to Argentina every few years in the 2000s. The Post obtained the letter.

In 2004, three years after he became cardinal in Washington, McCarrick invited Incarnate Word to place priests at a parish in suburban Mount Rainier, Maryland, according to church records. That same year, McCarrick gave Incarnate Word a donation of $10,000, the first of more than 80 checks.

In 2005, he gave Incarnate Word the property in nearby Chillum, Maryland, to launch a small seminary.

McCarrick retired the following year, but he continued to raise and spend money through the fund at the archdiocese.

He gave lavish contributions to Incarnate Word, donating more than $200,000 from 2006 through 2009, a time when Buela was facing growing pressure inside the Vatican for alleged sexual wrongdoing.

In 2009, McCarrick led a celebration of Incarnate Word’s 25th anniversary at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, according to an Incarnate Word newsletter. He spoke of “the abundant growth that our religious family has experienced,” according to the newsletter.

At the time, the Vatican was investigating sexual misconduct claims against Buela. Church officials in 2010 privately approved sanctions against him, citing the “quantity of witnesses and the logic and coherence of their statements,” according to a translation of a Vatican decree. The decree, handed down in January 2010 but never released publicly, contains no details of Buela’s alleged misconduct but describes it as “morally inappropriate behaviors with the Institute’s young people.”

Buela forcefully asserted his innocence, arguing the allegations were fabricated as part of a plan coordinated by bishops in Argentina to destabilize the institute, according to the decree.

His claim was found to lack merit, the Vatican decree states. The decree also alleges that the work of three Vatican commissioners sent to examine Incarnate Word was “systematically obstructed.”

He was ordered to step aside and live under close supervision in a monastery in France “until further notice,” the decree states.

Incarnate Word publicly described Buela’s departure that month as a retirement, without mentioning the allegations against him.

Later in 2010, McCarrick traveled to Rome and met with a top Vatican official about Incarnate Word and Buela. McCarrick cited the meeting in a follow-up letter to the official days later.

“On behalf of so many of our American Bishops – those who are so grateful to God for the presence of the Institute of the Incarnate Word in their dioceses – I thank you for your care of this important and most apostolic community,” McCarrick wrote on April 20, 2010, to Cardinal Franc Rode, the official in charge of religious orders and institutes.

McCarrick wrote that he was pleased to hear that Incarnate Word’s governance structure would not be altered as a result of the turmoil and that punishment for Buela, who he referred to as “Father General,” might be eased.

“I was also very happy to learn that the decisions concerning Father General may allow both the shortening of the period of time for his residing in a monastic setting” as well as a change in location, McCarrick wrote on Archdiocese of Washington letterhead.

Behind the scenes, McCarrick himself was facing allegations of sexual misconduct with seminarians. By 2007, church officials in New Jersey had privately paid legal settlements totaling $180,000 to two former seminarians in the Diocese of Metuchen. The seminarians claimed that McCarrick touched them inappropriately in the 1980s, when he was bishop there.

In 2010, McCarrick moved to the Incarnate Word seminary in suburban Washington. He lived in one of five houses Incarnate Word purchased in Chillum. He generally lived with two seminarians and a priest secretary, who were assigned to him by the group, according to interviews with current and former Incarnate Word members.

In its statement, the archdiocese acknowledged that McCarrick lived in the Incarnate Word house and that the archdiocese paid the group to provide McCarrick with a priest as a personal assistant. The archdiocese declined to specify the dates he lived at the house or the address of the home, citing security reasons.

Buela, meanwhile, remained active as a leader and inspiration despite the sanctions, according to correspondence among church officials.

Buela was to have “no interference in the government and management of the Institute,” a Vatican cardinal wrote in a May 15, 2013, letter to a bishop in Argentina who had raised concerns about Buela’s ongoing involvement.

The Vatican intervened again in 2016, after Francis received reports that Buela was still directly involved with Incarnate Word. Among other things, Buela had created his own website on which he was promoting himself as the founder of the group and posting videos about his teachings.

The Vatican ordered him to another monastery, this time in Spain, and prohibited him from making public statements or appearing in public.

“Fr. Carlos Buela is absolutely forbidden from having relations with IVE members,” states an April 2016 decree by Francis, using the acronym for the Spanish-language name of the group.

With that decree, the Vatican’s previous findings about Buela’s conduct were announced publicly for the first time, and officials said it involved only adults. The Vatican had substantiated allegations against Buela that involved “actions in sexual matters which harmed religious and seminarians of the Institute,” church officials announced.

McCarrick continued to give money to the group – more than $73,000 from January 2016 to October 2017, the internal ledgers show. McCarrick was removed from public ministry in 2018 amid allegations of misconduct decades earlier with a 16-year-old altar boy, and he was defrocked last February.

Incarnate Word continues to extol Buela on multiple websites as its founder, with no mention of the sanctions for alleged sexual misconduct.

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The Washington Post’s Stefano Pitrelli in Rome and Dalton Bennett in Washington contributed to this report.