Ex-cardinal McCarrick defrocked by Vatican for sexual abuse
By Chico Harlan
The Washington Post
ROME — The Vatican on Saturday said it had stripped ex-cardinal Theodore McCarrick of the rights of the priesthood, leveling a historic penalty against a onetime church power broker and former archbishop of Washington after the church found him guilty of sexual abuse.
The decision marks the first time that a cardinal has been defrocked for sexual abuse.
In a short statement, the Vatican said a canonical process had found McCarrick guilty of several charges, including “sins” with minors and adults, “with the aggravating factor of the abuse of power.”
The defrocking of McCarrick marks the conclusion of a closed-door Vatican trial and comes just days before Pope Francis plans to gather bishops from around the world for an unpredecented summit on abuse.
McCarrick, accused of sexually abusing three minors and harassing adult seminarians, is the most senior church official in modern times to lose his priestly rights. The sentence is considered by the Roman Catholic Church to be the most severe form of canonical punishment for a cleric — worse than excommunication, which according to religious dogma is temporary and lasts only as long as a person persists in sin.
McCarrick, 88, likely won’t face criminal prosecution, because the allegations that have been made public relate to crimes that would be beyond statutes of limitations in the U.S. jurisdictions where they are said to have occurred.
And so the Vatican decision all but finalizes the downfall of a figure who entered the priesthood six decades ago, climbed the ranks of the faith and became a public face for efforts to end clergy sexual abuse — before becoming a symbol of the church’s struggle to root out abuse in its highest ranks.
In its statement Saturday, the Vatican said that its Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith had found McCarrick guilty of the charges on Jan. 11. Then, on Feb. 13, the Vatican “considered the recourse” McCarrick presented but confirmed the original decision — a determination McCarrick was informed of on Friday. Pope Francis has affirmed the ruling, meaning McCarrick has no further recourse.
The accusations against McCarrick, and the notion that they languished for years, have been a central component of a renewed and painful global crisis for the church. To critics of the Vatican and of Pope Francis, McCarrick’s case exemplified a persistent culture of secrecy and coverup and a reluctance to hold church leaders accountable.
McCarrick was a globe-trotting diplomat, representing the Vatican abroad, advocating for human rights and religious freedom. He was the de facto lead spokesman among U.S. cardinals when the abuse crisis first exploded in the early 2000s, and he helped draw up new rules in the United States for how the church would handle abuse — rules that provided zero tolerance for predator priests but did little to improve oversight of bishops or cardinals. McCarrick served as archbishop of Washington from 2001 to 2006 and even afterwards regularly testified before Congress and attended White House meetings.
But abuse allegations against McCarrick exploded into public view last summer, along with reports that some in the church hierarchy had known about his misconduct for years.
McCarrick was suspended from ministry in June after the church determined he had been credibly accused of molesting a minor when he was a priest in New York nearly 50 years ago.
McCarrick maintained he had “absolutely no recollection of this reported abuse and believe in my innocence.”
He has not responded publicly to subsequent allegations, including that two New Jersey dioceses settled cases brought by men who said he harassed them when they were seminarians or young priests, or that a Virginia man, James Grein, said McCarrick abused him for years, starting when he was 11.
In July, under intense pressure, McCarrick became the first cardinal in nearly a century to fully resign his position. Pope Francis ordered him to a life of “prayer and penance,” and he moved to a friary in Kansas.
Meantime, the outrage over McCarrick — coupled with additional scandals in the United States, Europe, Latin America and Australia — has damaged the reputation of Francis, who said after becoming pope in 2013 that he wanted the church to act “decisively” on abuse. Advocates and abuse survivors say the pope has succeeded in acknowledging the severity and seriousness of the issue, but he hasn’t backed up his words with action, either by making changes in church law or adding new ways to hold bishops accountable.
Even as the canonical trial explored the facts directly surrounding McCarrick, the Vatican has remained silent about who might have helped protect McCarrick during his long career. Last summer, a former Holy See ambassador, Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, accused Francis and a litany of Vatican higher-ups of knowing about — and failing to act on — McCarrick’s alleged misconduct. Francis has not responded to the accusations, and the Vatican has not released the findings of a promised investigation into its own archives on McCarrick.
Francis last year defrocked several priests in Chile at the center of a nationwide scandal. Also last year, Archbishop Anthony Apuron of Guam — tried on charges that included sexually abusing minors — was found guilty on some charges, though the Vatican did not specify which ones. He is appealing his case.
Experts in church law say the punishment technically does not mean McCarrick is no longer a priest, because ordination cannot be undone. But McCarrick can no longer perform priestly duties.
In an open letter released last month, Viganò called on McCarrick to repent publicly as a way to “bring a significant measure of healing to a gravely wounded and suffering Church.”