ROME – In a widely expected yet still dramatic move, the Vatican announced Saturday that Pope Francis has approved the removal of ex-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick from the clerical state, colloquially known as “laicization” or “defrocking.”
It’s the most severe penalty in Church law for a clergyman, and the 88-year-old McCarrick becomes the most senior cleric to suffer it for crimes related to the clerical sexual abuse scandals.
A Vatican statement Saturday said 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 statement also said McCarrick was notified of the verdict on Friday. According to the statement, Pope Francis has recognized the decision as “definitive” with no possibility of appeal.
The timing of the announcement is not accidental, coming just ahead of a Feb. 21-24 summit convened by Pope Francis on the abuse scandals for the presidents of all bishops’ conferences in the world, the heads of Eastern churches in communion with Rome, and other senior Church officials.
The verdict is the result of a trial conducted under the terms of Church law within the Vatican’s powerful doctrinal watchdog, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which has had primary responsibility for overseeing disciplinary measures resulting from the abuse scandals since 2001.
In context, the McCarrick verdict is considered an important statement that the Church’s “zero tolerance” policy of permanently removing clergy from ministry who are guilty of sexual abuse of a minor applies across the broad, regardless of rank. The closest thing to a precedent is Francis decision last October to remove two Chilean bishops from the clerical state, both over allegations of sexual abuse of minors.
In McCarrick’s case, the removal from clerical state is largely of symbolic importance given his age and the fact that he had already been withdrawn from ministry, living in seclusion in a Capuchin friary in rural western Kansas.
Maltese Archbishop Charles Scicluna, a former Vatican prosecutor for sex abuser crimes, told Crux Feb. 14 it’s possible that there are other McCarricks.
“If we haven’t found them yet, it means that we don’t know where they are,” Scicluna said. “I think that cases where, instead of stewardship we bishops offer a poison chalice, should be disclosed and addressed immediately as a matter of urgency.”
Scicluna also acknowledged there are persistent questions about who knew what, and when, regarding McCarrick’s behavior.
“I would admit that it’s a legitimate question,” he said.
“But… Can a person manipulate the system to such a state that he can actually survive a minefield of rumors? This is a fundamental question, which fortunately enough, does not belong to the competence of the CDF,” Scicluna said.
Originally from the Archdiocese of New York, McCarrick served as both the archbishop of Newark and Washington, D.C. in the United States. From those posts, he was widely considered one of the most powerful figures in the American hierarchy for the better part of two decades, and he continued to play an active role as an informal troubleshooter and adviser to Pope Francis even in retirement.
What remains to be seen, for many observers, is whether the Vatican will also take action against those who covered-up for McCarrick or ignored the allegations. Though several members of the hierarchy in the U.S. church have denied knowledge of his activities, evidence has surfaced suggesting that at least some were informed.
In June, the Archdiocese of New York announced that new allegations against McCarrick dating back to the 1970s had been deemed credible by a lay review board and that the Vatican had removed him from public ministry. Such news prompted other victims to come forward, leading to allegations that McCarrick serially abused seminarians over a span of 50 years.
While he denied the charges, McCarrick accepted the Vatican’s decision.
Though the total number of people who’ve alleged abuse by McCarrick is unknown, as Crux reported early January, at least three cases against minors have been investigated by the CDF. In addition, the dioceses of Metuchen and Newark, both in New Jersey, disclosed in June that they had made settlements with some of his victims, all of whom were adults.
As Crux reported in September, the four dioceses in which McCarrick served – New York; Metuchen, New Jersey; Newark; and Washington, D.C. – are launching diocesan investigations into McCarrick’s history of abuse after Francis declined a request from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) for a Vatican-led investigation probe.
In addition, the Holy See announced on October 6, 2018 that Francis has ordered a “thorough study of the entire documentation present in the archives of the dicasteries and offices of the Holy See” in order to ascertain “all the relevant facts, to place them in their historical context and to evaluate them objectively.”
The statement also said that the information would be revealed “in due course.”
Sources have told Crux that the report is being prepared, but it’s unclear when or if it will be released, as it could be damaging to St. John Paul II’s legacy, as well as those of his closest collaborators: Polish Cardinal Stanisław Dziwisz, his personal secretary; Italian Cardinal Angelo Sodano, Secretary of State; and Argentine Cardinal Leonardo Sandri, who was also in the Secretariat of State.
On July 27, Pope Francis accepted McCarrick’s resignation from the College of Cardinals, the first time in a century that a Prince of the Church had renounced his status and the first time ever that the step was related to an abuse scandal.
In August, Italian Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, a former papal envoy to the U.S., charged that he had informed Pope Francis about the concerns surrounding McCarrick in 2013 but the pontiff ignored the information.
While vigorous debate ensued about the reliability of Viganò’s accusation and his motives for making it, the pontiff himself has never directly commented.