Theodore McCarrick, who for years was one of the most powerful prelates in the United States’ Church, has been removed from the priesthood after a Church trial found him guilty of sexually abusing minors.
The Vatican announced on Saturday 16 February that the 88-year-old former Cardinal Archbishop of Washington would be laicised after a Church trial, a decision that means he is the highest ranking ecclesiastical figure to be stripped of the priesthood during the clerical sex abuse scandals of recent decades.
The trial was conducted by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican body responsible for assessing cases of priests accused of abuse.
A statement from the congregation said McCarrick had also been found guilty of sexual sins against both minors and adults along with an “abuse of power.” It added that Pope Francis ruled there is no possibility of appealing the decision.
“On 11 January 2019, the Congresso of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, at the conclusion of a penal process, issued a decree finding Theodore Edgar McCarrick, archbishop emeritus of Washington, D.C., guilty of the following delicts while a cleric: 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 Congresso imposed on him the penalty of dismissal from the clerical state,” the statement form the congregation explained.
The ex-cardinal then appealed this decision but was told on the 15 February that the decision to laicise him was definitive.
“The Holy Father has recognised the definitive nature of this decision made in accord with law, rendering it a res iudicata (i.e., admitting of no further recourse).”
McCarrick had been removed from public ministry and resigned his cardinal’s position last summer after the Archdiocese of New York judged as credible an allegation that he abused an altar boy in the 1970s. Pope Francis authorised those sanctions along with a canonical trial, which along with the initial allegation is also reported to have examined evidence from a second complainant.
The laicisation of the former Washington cardinal is an extraordinary fall from grace for a bishop who frequently rubbed shoulders with presidents and popes, and reached the highest echelons of clerical power.
An extraordinary fundraiser who raised millions for the Church and a constant traveller whose diplomatic skills were utilised by both the Holy See and the US state department. He was also the priest who helped bury Senator Ted Kennedy in 2009, reading out excerpts of a letter from Kennedy to Benedict XVI at the graveside.
Today he is based at a secluded friary in Victoria, Kansas, in the United States, where has been ordered to live a life of prayer and penance. Following today’s ruling, he will not be able to celebrate the sacraments in private nor die with the dignity of his priesthood in tact.
Along with claims he abused minors, the former priest and cardinal has also been the subject to allegations of sexual misconduct against seminarians including asking them to share his bed.
Despite these claims, which resulted in settlements being paid by the Church in 2005 and 2007 to two men who accused McCarrick of sexually abusive behaviour, McCarrick was able to rise up the ranks of the Church.
He was appointed Archbishop of Washington in 2000 and a cardinal a year later, despite rumours about his behaviour with seminarians with Vatican informed about claims of “homosexual harassment” in 1999.
The Pope has ordered an internal Vatican inquiry into McCarrick.
It was the ignoring of allegations of sexual misconduct by McCarrick that formed the basis of Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò’s testimony against Pope Francis on 26 August 2018. The archbishop claimed he told the Pope that McCarrick had “corrupted” seminarians during a 23 June 2013 conversation. He also claims to have informed Francis that Benedict XVI had placed formal sanctions on McCarrick in retirement, although these later turned out to be informal restrictions which were never enforced or simply ignored by the ex-cardinal.
But the Pope took action against McCarrick following a credible allegation that the former Washington prelate abused minors and the laicisation of McCarrick comes five days before a crucial 21-24 February summit on abuse in the Vatican which will be attended by the presidents of bishops’ conferences across the world.
It also underlines Francis’ attempts to follow a zero tolerance on abuse, regardless of rank or position.
The removal of McCarrick from the priesthood contrasts with the treatment of the late Austrian Cardinal Hans Herman Groer, the former Archbishop of Vienna, who in 1995 was accused of sexually abusing young boys. While he resigned as archbishop and renounced the privileges associated with being a cardinal he faced no canonical sanctions and kept his red hat.
Fr Hans Zollner, a leading church child protection expert who is helping to organise the February summit, gave his reaction to the McCarrick ruling.
“We see that in this case the allegations have been dealt with," he told The Tablet. "A very strong decision has been taken. It shows procedures are in place, even when it concerns a cardinal.”