Pope Francis has defrocked former U.S. cardinal Theodore McCarrick for soliciting sex during confession as well as other sex crimes against minors and adults, marking the most serious punishment meted out against a Catholic cardinal in modern times.
McCarrick, 88, a former archbishop of Washington, D.C., and highly influential figure in U.S. and international Catholic Church circles, can no longer call himself a priest, wear clerical attire or celebrate the sacraments.
The decision, announced on Saturday, came five days before a Vatican summit on sex abuse and follows allegations that Francis has done little to halt the plague of priestly predators who have seriously damaged the church’s reputation.
“No bishop, no matter how influential, is above the law of the church,” said Cardinal Daniel Di Nardo, the head of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, after the ruling, adding that dismissing McCarrick from the church gave “a clear signal that abuse will not be tolerated.”
In its announcement, the Vatican said that McCarrick had been found guilty of “solicitation in the sacrament of confession and sins against the sixth commandment with minors and with adults, with the aggravating factor of the abuse of power.”
“The sixth commandment is against adultery, but is used here by the Vatican to mean sex outside marriage, as well as, in McCarrick’s case, the breaking of his vow of celibacy,” said Father Tom Reese, a senior analyst at the National Catholic Reporter.
The Vatican’s doctrinal watchdog, the Congregation for Doctrine of the Faith, condemned McCarrick on Jan. 11 and rejected his appeal on Feb. 13, with Pope Francis personally ruling out any chance of further appeals, the Vatican said.
The decision was welcomed by James Grein, the son of a family friend of McCarrick, who has told church investigators that McCarrick abused him for decades, beginning when he was 11.
“Today I am happy that the pope believed me,” Grein said in a statement, adding he hoped McCarrick ”will no longer be able to use the power of Jesus’ church to manipulate families and sexually abuse children.”
He added it was time “to cleanse the church,” and urged that the statute of limitations on old abuse cases be changed to allow prosecutions. “Hundreds of priests, bishops and cardinals are hiding behind man-made law,” he said.
Ordained as a priest in 1958 in New York, McCarrick rose through the ranks of the U.S. church, becoming an auxiliary bishop in New York in 1977, then archbishop of Newark, archbishop of Washington in 2000 — a post he retired from in 2006 — and a cardinal in 2001. He was first suspended last year after a former altar boy accused him of abuse in New York in 1971.
Despite denying the allegation, McCarrick resigned from the college of cardinals in July, the first cardinal to step down in almost a century. Since last September, he has been living at a Capuchin friary in Kansas.
Further allegations followed, including Grein’s account and claims by a number of former seminarians that he lured trainee priests to his New Jersey beach house for sex.
“The imposition on former Archbishop Theodore E. McCarrick of the penalty of his dismissal from the clerical state, thus prohibiting him any type of priestly ministry, underscores the gravity of his actions,” the archdiocese of Washington said Saturday. “Our hope and prayer is that this decision serves to help the healing process for survivors of abuse.”
The Vatican’s decision follows renewed alarm about sex abuse in the U.S. church, which first emerged nearly 20 years ago.
Last year, prosecutors in Pennsylvania made public the names of 300 priests involved in abusing minors in previous decades, as well as evidence of cover-ups by bishops who shifted abusive priests between dioceses rather than sanction them. And in Texas last month, church leaders identified 286 priests and others accused of sexually abusing children.
Church officials have said settlements were paid out decades ago following early allegations about McCarrick’s abusive behavior. Last August, a former papal nuncio, Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, demanded Pope Francis resign, alleging that he knowingly turned a blind eye to the reports about McCarrick.
Defenders of the pope have argued that McCarrick was promoted during the papacies of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, even as reports of his abuse of seminarians surfaced.
The accusations against Francis came as the pope last year performed an embarrassing U-turn over his dismissal of reports of widespread abuse in Chile. After accusing victims of slandering the church, he said he believed their stories and accepted the resignations of several Chilean bishops.
In a bid to end abuse and subsequent cover-ups, Francis will oversee a summit in Rome on Feb. 21-24 that brings together 115 heads of bishops’ conferences from around the world, as well as victims of abuse.
Father Reese said the defrocking of McCarrick sends a well-timed message to bishops arriving from countries where, unlike in the U.S., abuse has not yet taken been seriously.
“This tells them that when an 88-year-old former cardinal is out, zero tolerance is real,” he said. “It hits them over the head with a two-by-four and tells them the pope takes it seriously so they should too.”
Kington is a special correspondent.