In a move described as unprecedented, Pope Francis has effectively stripped U.S. prelate Theodore McCarrick of his cardinal's title following allegations of sexual abuse, including one involving an 11-year-old boy. The Vatican announced Saturday that Francis ordered McCarrick to conduct a "life of prayer and penance" even before a church trial is held.
Breaking with past practice, Francis decided to act swiftly on the resignation offered by the emeritus archbishop of Washington, D.C., even before the accusations are investigated by church officials. McCarrick was previously one of the highest, most visible Roman Catholic church officials in the United States and was heavily involved in the church's response to allegations of priestly abuse.
The pope has ordered McCarrick's "suspension from the exercise of any public ministry, together with the obligation to remain in a house yet to be indicated to him, for a life of prayer and penance until the accusations made against him are examined in a regular canonical trial," the Vatican said.
Among his alleged victims is a man who has told reporters that he was 11 when McCarrick first exposed himself to him. Identified as “James” in news reports, the alleged victim expressed hope that McCarrick's resignation would help other victims "become free" and foster healing.
"Basically, truth always prevails," James, who lives in Virginia, told the Associated Press on Saturday. "Thankfully, everybody in today's world is more understanding of the harm done by individual priests, and now we can start to heal."
Francis received McCarrick's letter offering to resign from the College of Cardinals on Friday evening, after a spate of allegations that the 88-year-old prelate had for years sexually abused boys and engaged in sexual misconduct with adult seminarians.
The McCarrick case posed a test of the pontiff's recently declared resolve to battle what he called a "culture of cover-up" of similar abuses in the Catholic church's hierarchy.
The alleged sexual misconduct with adults were reportedly brought to the Vatican's attention years ago, including before McCarrick was appointed to the prestigious archbishop’s post in the U.S. capital in 2000 by the then-pontiff John Paul II.
Two dioceses in New Jersey — Newark and Metuchen — say they have settled two of three complaints of misconduct by McCarrick toward adults.
The Vatican didn't say where McCarrick would be confined nor when a church trial might begin, and its brief statement did not even allude to the grave accusations against the prelate.
A Catholic University canon law expert, Kurt Martens, noted this was the first time an order of penance and prayer had been issued before a church trial.
U.S. Catholics who have followed sexual abuse scandals hailed the stripping McCarrick of his cardinal's rank as an unprecedented shift in how the Vatican has dealt with allegations against top churchmen.
"The Vatican almost never moves at this speed," said Terence McKiernan of BishopAccountability.org.Inc., a Massachusetts-based group that tracks clergy sexual abuse cases.
The pope appears to "understand the gravity of the situation and further harm to the Catholic church's status," he told the Associated Press.
He also wondered if the church investigation has revealed who among its hierarchy knew about the sex allegations against McCarrick and whether the Vatican would move to punish those clerics as well.
In the case of Scottish Cardinal Keith O'Brien, accused by former seminarians in 2013 of sexual misconduct, Francis only accepted his resignation after the Vatican's top abuse prosecutor conducted a full investigation, two years after the first revelations, and after the prelate relinquished the rights and privileges that come with a cardinal's rank.
However, O'Brien, who died earlier this year, remained a cardinal. He had recused himself from voting in the 2013 conclave that elected Francis.
McCarrick had already been removed from public ministry since June 20, pending a full investigation into allegations that he fondled a teenager over 40 years ago in New York City.
McCarrick denied the initial allegation.
McCarrick rose steadily and swiftly up the U.S. church's ranks, from auxiliary bishop in New York City, to bishop in Metuchen, to archbishop of Newark, and then to Archbishop of Washington.
Critics of the Vatican's handling of abuse cases point out that, despite recommendations from its advisory panel, the Holy See still hasn't set up a tribunal or other system to deal with accused bishops or cardinals.
It was thus unclear just what church tribunal would decide McCarrick's case.