(Written by Elizabeth Dias and Jason Horowitz)
Pope Francis has expelled Theodore E. McCarrick, a former cardinal and archbishop of Washington, from the priesthood, after an expedited canonical process that found him guilty of sexually abusing minors and adult seminarians over decades, the Vatican said on Saturday.
“The Holy Father has recognized the definitive nature of this decision made in accord with law” — making it final — the Vatican said of the sentence handed down by its doctrinal watchdog.
It appears to be the first time that a cardinal or bishop in the United States has been defrocked, or laicized, from the Roman Catholic Church, and the first time any cardinal has been laicized for sexual abuse. Laicization, which strips a person of all priestly identity, also revokes church-sponsored resources like housing and financial benefits.
While the Vatican has laicized hundreds of priests for sexual abuse of minors, few of the church’s leaders have faced severe discipline. The move to defrock McCarrick is “almost revolutionary,” said Kurt Martens, a professor of canon law at the Catholic University of America.
“Now you will see that bishops are also treated like their priests,” Martens said in a phone interview. “Bishops and former cardinals are no longer immune to punishment. The reverence that was shown in the past to bishops no longer applies.”
The announcement’s timing shows that church leaders hope they can move forward from the scandal before the coming week, when the pope and the presidents of bishops’ conferences from around the world are meeting at the Vatican to discuss the sexual abuse crisis.
The move is also the most serious sign to date that Pope Francis is addressing the clerical sex abuse crisis in the United States. In October, the pope laicized two retired Chilean bishops accused of sexually abusing minors. In December, he removed two top cardinals from his powerful advisory council after they were implicated in sexual abuse cases.
McCarrick, now 88, was accused of sexually abusing three minors and harassing adult seminarians and priests. A New York Times investigation last summer detailed settlements paid to men who had complained of abuse when McCarrick was a bishop in New Jersey in the 1980s, and revealed that some church leaders had long known of the accusations.
Francis accepted McCarrick’s resignation from the College of Cardinals in July and suspended him from all priestly duties. He was first removed from ministry in June, after a church panel substantiated a claim that he had abused an altar boy almost 50 years ago.
McCarrick was long a prominent Catholic voice on international and public policy issues, and a champion for progressive Catholics active in social justice causes.
In a statement on Saturday, the Vatican said that the prelate had been dismissed from a clerical state after he was tried and found guilty of several crimes: “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 Archdiocese of Washington said in its own statement, “Our hope and prayer is that this decision serves to help the healing process for survivors of abuse, as well as those who have experienced disappointment or disillusionment because of what former Archbishop McCarrick has done.”
James Grein, who told The New York Times that he was 11 when McCarrick first began a sexually abusive relationship with him, said in a statement on Saturday: “For years I have suffered, as many others have, at the hands of Theodore McCarrick. It is with profound sadness that I have had to participate in the canonical trial of my abuser. Nothing can give me back my childhood.”
He added, “With that said, today I am happy that the Pope believed me. I am hopeful now I can pass through my anger for the last time. I hope that Cardinal McCarrick will no longer be able to use the power of Jesus’ Church to manipulate families and sexually abuse children.”
Cardinal Daniel N. DiNardo, president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, said, “The Holy See’s announcement regarding Theodore McCarrick is a clear signal that abuse will not be tolerated. No bishop, no matter how influential, is above the law of the church.
McCarrick was notified Friday of the Jan. 11 ruling and had appealed. On Wednesday, the Vatican’s doctrinal watchdog, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, rejected his appeal.
On Saturday, the Vatican spokesman, Alessandro Gisotti, told reporters that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith had extended McCarrick a penal process in which “all his rights were respected” and that his “lawyers played an active role in the course of some of the interrogations.”
The Vatican’s news media outlet, the Vatican News, splashed the news of McCarrick’s dismissal from the clerical state across its website and detailed the history of allegations against him, noting that after the Archdiocese of New York had reported accusations to the Holy See in September 2017, “Pope Francis ordered an in-depth investigation.”
It added that ahead of the coming meeting, it was worth recalling the pope’s recent call for a unified response to “this evil that has darkened so many lives.” Gisotti also reiterated an October statement from the Vatican that “both abuse and its cover-up can no longer be tolerated and a different treatment for bishops who have committed or covered up abuse, in fact represents a form of clericalism that is no longer acceptable.”
McCarrick’s behavior has figured prominently in extraordinary attacks against Pope Francis, which have accused the pontiff of turning a blind eye to abuse in his midst.
In August, Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, the former papal ambassador in Washington, wrote a scathing letter arguing that rampant homosexuality in the priesthood had caused the child abuse crisis and that the Vatican hierarchy had covered up accusations that McCarrick had sexually abused seminarians. The letter claimed that Francis had empowered the American prelate despite knowing about the abuses years before they became public.
Those allegations, which the Vatican disputes, remain unproven, and the timing of McCarrick’s ascent through the hierarchy coincided with the pontificates of Francis’ predecessors, Benedict XVI and Pope John Paul II.
Six weeks later, the Vatican’s prefect for the Congregation for Bishops, Cardinal Marc Ouellet, called the accusations by “dear Viganò” “false,” “far-fetched,” “blasphemous” and politically motivated to hurt Francis.
In his own letter, he told Viganò, “I find it absolutely abhorrent that you have exploited the clamorous scandal of sexual abuse in the United States to inflict an outrageous and undeserved blow against the moral authority of your superior.”
The dismissal of the once-powerful cardinal comes as state and federal officials in the United States have ramped up investigations into sexual abuse by clergy members nationwide. At least 16 state attorneys general have opened abuse investigations since the summer, and the Justice Department has told all Catholic dioceses not to destroy documents related to sexual abuse, a sign of the potential scope of a federal investigation.
The investigations spread after the release of an explosive Pennsylvania grand jury report last summer that found that Catholic priests were accused of sexually abusing more than 300 minors over decades, and that church leaders had covered up the cases.
The Vatican seemed eager on Saturday to wipe its hands of at least one of those leaders. “On the subject of what McCarrick will do now,” Gisotti said. “I have no information to give.”