ROME / NEW YORK — After a month of mounting allegations of sexual abuse against American Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, Pope Francis has accepted his resignation from the College of Cardinals.
The 88-year-old retired archbishop of Washington — who was one of the most prominent faces in the American Catholic hierarchy — has been ordered to remain in a house “to be indicated” until the accusations against him are examined.
“Yesterday evening the Holy Father received the letter in which Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, Archbishop Emeritus of Washington (U.S.A.), presented his resignation as a member of the College of Cardinals,” said a statement released on Saturday by the Vatican’s press office.
The statement continued to say that Francis accepted McCarrick’s resignation from the cardinalate and “has ordered his suspension from the exercise of any public ministry, together with the obligation to remain in a house yet to be indicated to him, for a life of prayer and penance until the accusations made against him are examined in a regular canonical trial.”
The pope’s decision comes over a month after the Archdiocese of New York announced that allegations of sexual abuse against McCarrick had been deemed “credible and substantiated,” following an investigation by an archdiocesan review board.
The victim was a 16-year-old altar boy who accused McCarrick of abusing him at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in 1971 and 1972, while he was still a priest for the archdiocese of New York.
Following those revelations, Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin ordered McCarrick to no longer exercise public ministry.
Cardinal Joseph Tobin of Newark then revealed that during his time as a bishop in New Jersey, there had been several accusations of sexual misconduct against McCarrick from three adults. While two of the cases ended in financial settlements that included non-disclosure agreements, Tobin said that the victims were then released from those terms and were free to speak out.
Since then, allegations of sexual harassment and abuse of several young men going back at least five decades have been revealed, including one who claims he was abused by McCarrick beginning at age eleven.
At the height of the U.S. Church’s clerical abuse scandal in 2002, McCarrick became one of the leading voices calling for reform. He would serve as the architect of the “Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People,” commonly known as the “Dallas Charter,” which established new safeguards for accountability and transparency in the Church’s protection of minors and was adopted by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops in 2002.
McCarrick, who was ordained to the priesthood in 1958, was named by Pope Paul VI as an auxiliary bishop of New York in 1977. In 1981, Pope John Paul II appointed him as bishop of the newly created diocese of Metuchen, New Jersey, and less than five years later, in 1986, he was tapped to lead the Archdiocese of Newark where he catapulted into national prominence.
For nearly three decades, he was a regular presence on Capitol Hill — testifying in front of congress for immigration reform, foreign aid, and international religious freedom, and leading the annual Youth Rallies for Life the morning of the National March for Life against abortion every January. He was also known throughout the nation as an avid recruiter to the priesthood. By the time he retired in 2006, he had ordained more new priests than any bishop in the country.
In retirement, McCarrick remained a popular figure traveling the world on behalf of the U.S. bishops, the U.S. government, and the Vatican.
Although he did not participate in the conclave that elected Francis in 2013, having already reached the age of 80 where cardinals are no longer able to do so, he was viewed by many as a confidant of the pope.
Francis’s decision comes after weeks of calls for the pope to strip McCarrick of his membership in the College of Cardinals and is the first decision of its kind in the United States.
The closest parallel to the McCarrick case is that of the late Scottish Cardinal Keith O’Brien. In February 2013, he stepped down as archbishop of Saint Andrews and Edinburgh and personally renounced his right to participate in the 2013 conclave that elected Francis, after the publication of allegations that he had engaged in inappropriate and predatory sexual misconduct with young priests dating back to the 1980s.
On March 20 2015, the Vatican announced that though he remained a member of the College of Cardinals, O’Brien would not exercise his rights or duties as a cardinal, in particular voting in papal conclaves.
The difference in the McCarrick case, however, is that according to a Vatican source, as of Saturday, he is no longer a cardinal.
Another comparison is that of Cardinal Hans Hermann Wilhelm Groër, who served as archbishop of Vienna from 1986 to 1995. Following allegations of child abuse, he resigned his post at the request of Pope John Paul II in 1995, and then three years later, in 1998, relinquished his privileges as a cardinal.
In 1927, Pope Pius XI accepted the resignation of French Cardinal Lois Billot from the College of Cardinals — however, it was over political disagreements, not criminal allegations.
Though removed from the College of Cardinals, McCarrick continues to be a priest. However, his dismissal from the clerical state remains an option.
Although a rare occurence, bishops have been dismissed from the clerical state. For instance, the late Polish Archbishop Józef Wesołowski, former papal representative to the Dominican Republic, was “laicized” in 2014.
Given that, there remains the possibility that a sanction against McCarrick could come after the canonical process announced in Saturday’s statement.
Following the Vatican’s announcement, Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, archbishop of Galveston-Houston and president of the USCCB, issued a statement thanking Francis for his actions.
“I thank the Holy Father for his leadership in taking this important step,” he wrote on Saturday. “It reflects the priority the Holy Father places on the need for protection and care for all our people and the way failures in this area affect the life of the Church in the United States.”