Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, the retired Roman Catholic archbishop of Washington, D.C., has been removed from public ministry and faces further punishment over credible allegations that he sexually abused a teenager while a priest in New York more than 40 years ago, the church announced Wednesday.
Pope Francis ordered the 87-year-old cardinal's removal pending further action that could end in his expulsion from the priesthood. A church panel determined that a former altar boy's allegations that McCarrick fondled him during preparations for Christmas Mass at St. Patrick's Cathedral in 1971 and 1972 were "credible and substantiated."
McCarrick, the Washington archbishop from 2000 to 2006, is one of the highest-ranking U.S. church officials accused in a sexual abuse scandal that has seen thousands of priests implicated. The church also acknowledged that it had made previously undisclosed legal settlements with adults who accused McCarrick of sexual misconduct decades ago.
McCarrick said he was shocked by the former altar boy's allegation and denied it in a statement distributed through the church. He said he cooperated in the investigation and accepted the pope's decision out of obedience to the church.
"While I have absolutely no recollection of this reported abuse, and believe in my innocence, I am sorry for the pain the person who brought the charges has gone through, as well as for the scandal such charges cause our people," McCarrick said.
The former altar boy, a New York-area businessman in his early 60s, went to a church compensation program in January with allegations that McCarrick fondled him when he was 16 and 17, his lawyer said, and met in April with the church panel verifying his claims. Lawyer Patrick Noaker said it was his only option because criminal and civil statutes of limitations had long kicked in.
According to the lawyer, the former altar boy said McCarrick unzipped his pants, reached inside and fondled him while taking measurements for a cassock he was to wear during the Mass. He remembers McCarrick saying to him, "Let's not tell anybody about this."
A year later, Noaker said, McCarrick cornered the boy in a bathroom, grabbed him and shoved his hand into his pants. The boy pushed McCarrick away and ran out, Noaker said.
The encounters shook the teenager, who had aspired to become a priest, "to his foundation," Noaker said.
Also Wednesday, the Newark, N.J., Archdiocese, where McCarrick was a bishop and archbishop, said it was aware of three decades-old allegations against him involving sexual misconduct with adults — no cases there involving minors — and that two of them resulted in legal settlements.
The archdiocese declined to provide additional details, citing confidentiality concerns.
Richard Sipe, a former priest turned clergy abuse expert, said that seminarians and young priests complained to him about McCarrick in the 1970s and early 1980s and that he has since interviewed 12 men who alleged that McCarrick propositioned, harassed or had sex with them.
Sipe said he also reviewed settlement documents that detailed some alleged encounters, including one in which a man said he "felt paralyzed" as McCarrick wrapped his legs around him and started to kiss and rub him.
McCarrick's statement did not address the allegations involving adults. The Washington Archdiocese did not immediately return a message seeking additional comment from him.
The church said it notified the authorities and hired outside investigators after learning of the former altar boy’s allegation. The Manhattan district attorney's office said Wednesday that it investigated and determined a prosecution was barred by New York's statute of limitations.
The results of the church's investigation were forwarded to a review board of church figures and lay professionals that deemed the allegation credible and substantiated, the church said.
Cardinal Timothy Dolan said the New York Archdiocese knew of no other such allegations against McCarrick, who was a priest in the city from 1958, when he was ordained, until 1981, when he became bishop of Metuchen, N.J.
McCarrick, known to be fluent in seven languages, was archbishop of Newark from 1986 until 2000 and was elevated to cardinal in 2001.
He participated in the 2005 conclave that elected Pope Benedict XVI, presided over the graveside service for U.S. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy at Arlington National Cemetery in 2009, and celebrated Mass with Pope Francis during his 2015 visit to Washington.
Advocates for abuse victims said McCarrick also undermined efforts to expose abuse and hold perpetrators accountable by opposing an extended statute of limitations for such crimes and vowing not to comply if a law were passed requiring priests to report suspected child abuse.
McCarrick remains in Washington and is in frail health, the church said.