Pope defrocks former U.S. cardinal over sex abuse

Pope Francis has defrocked former U.S. cardinal Theodore McCarrick after Vatican officials found him guilty of soliciting for sex while hearing confession and of sexual crimes against minors and adults, the Holy See said Saturday.

Theodore McCarrick becomes highest ranking church leader to be expelled from priesthood

Theodore McCarrick prays during the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops' annual fall assembly in 2011. Pope Francis has defrocked McCarrick after Vatican officials found the former cardinal guilty of soliciting for sex while hearing confession. (Patrick Semansky/Associated Press)

Pope Francis has defrocked former U.S. cardinal Theodore McCarrick after Vatican officials found him guilty of soliciting for sex while hearing confession and of sexual crimes against minors and adults, the Holy See said Saturday.

McCarrick, 88, is the highest-ranking Catholic churchman to be laicized, as the process is called. It means he can no longer celebrate Mass or other sacraments, wear clerical vestments or be addressed by any religious title. He is the first churchman who reached the rank of cardinal to be defrocked in the church's sex abuse scandals.

The punishment for the once-powerful prelate, who had served as the archbishop of Washington, spent years in New Jersey dioceses and had been an influential fundraiser for the church, was announced five days before Francis leads an extraordinary gathering of bishops from around the world to help the church grapple with the crisis of sex abuse by clergy and the systematic coverups by church hierarchy.

The decades-long scandals have shaken the faith of many Catholics and threaten Francis's papacy.

The Vatican's press office said that on Jan. 11, the Holy See's doctrinal watchdog office, the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, had found McCarrick guilty of "solicitation in the sacrament of confession, and sins against the Sixth Commandment with minors and adults, with the aggravating factor of the abuse of power."

Decision 'definitive'

The officials "imposed on him the penalty of dismissal from the clerical state."

The commandment cited is "You shall not commit adultery."

McCarrick, when he was ordained a priest his native New York City in 1958, took a vow of celibacy, in accordance with church rules on priests.

The Pope "has recognized the definitive nature of this decision made in accordance with [church] law, rendering it as res iudicata,"' the Vatican said, using the Latin phrase for admitting no further recourse.

'Time for us to cleanse the church'

"Today I am happy that the Pope believed me," said one of McCarrick's chief accusers, James Grein.

In a statement issued through his lawyer, Grein also expressed hope that McCarrick "will no longer be able to use the power of Jesus's church to manipulate families and sexually abuse children."

James Grein says he was sexually abused for years by McCarrick. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post via AP)

Grein had testified to church officials that, among other abuses, McCarrick had repeatedly groped him during confession.

Saying it's "time for us to cleanse the church," Grein said pressure needs to be put on state attorneys general and senators to change the statute of limitations.

"Hundreds of priests, bishops and cardinals are hiding behind man-made law," he said.

No bishop 'above the law'

Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, a U.S. church leader whose own credibility in handling clergy abuse cases has recently been questioned, issued a statement on Saturday calling the punishment of a once-powerful American prelate "a clear signal that abuse will not be tolerated."

DiNardo says "no bishop, no matter how influential, is above the law of the church."

McCarrick had appealed his penalty, but the doctrinal officials earlier this week rejected that, and he was notified of the decision on Friday, the Vatican announcement said.

The archdiocese of Washington, D.C., where McCarrick was posted at the pinnacle of his clerical career, from 2001-2006, said in a statement it hoped that the Vatican 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."

McCarrick, a one-time "prince of the church," as cardinals are known, becomes the highest-ranking churchman to be laicized, or dismissed from the clerical state. It marks a remarkable downfall for the globe-trotting powerbroker and influential church fundraiser who mingled with presidents and popes, but preferred to be called "Uncle Ted" by the young men he courted.

The scandal swirling around McCarrick was even more damning to the church's reputation in the eyes of the faithful because it apparently was an open secret that he slept with adult seminarians.

Vatican summit

The Vatican summit, running Feb. 21-24, draws church leaders from around the world to talk about preventing abuse. It was called in part to respond to the McCarrick scandal as well as to the explosion of the abuse crisis in Chile and its escalation in the United States last year.

Despite the apparent common knowledge in church circles of his sexual behaviour, McCarrick rose to the heights of church power. He even acted as the spokesperson for U.S. bishops when they enacted a "zero tolerance" policy against sexually abusive priests in 2002.

Pope Francis, pictured late last year, removed McCarrick as a cardinal in July after a U.S. church investigation determined that an allegation he fondled a teenage altar boy in the 1970s was credible. (Max Rossi/Reuters)

That perceived hypocrisy, coupled with allegations in the Pennsylvania grand jury report detailing decades of abuse and coverup in six dioceses, outraged many among the rank-and-file faithful who had trusted church leaders to reform how they handled sex abuse after 2002.

Francis removed McCarrick as a cardinal in July after a U.S. church investigation determined that an allegation he fondled a teenage altar boy in the 1970s was credible. It was the first known allegation against McCarrick involving a minor — a far more serious offence than sleeping with adult seminarians.

Francis implicated

But Francis himself became implicated in the decade-long McCarrick coverup after a former Vatican ambassador to the U.S. accused the Pope of lifting sanctions on the cardinal imposed by Pope Benedict, despite being told of his penchant for young men.

Francis hasn't responded to the claims. But he has ordered a limited Vatican investigation. The Vatican has acknowledged the outcome may produce evidence that mistakes were made, but said Francis would "follow the path of truth, wherever it may lead."

Anne Barrett Doyle of BishopAccountability.org says, while his defrocking is significant, "most abusive bishops have escaped" defrocking.

She says Francis should use the power of his office to laicize those bishops immediately and say "what he knew and when."

Doyle, who is in Rome for the summit, says, of the 101 accused bishops her group has tracked, McCarrick is only the seventh to be laicized, and the first who reached the rank of cardinal.

McCarrick moved from his Washington retirement home to a Kansas religious residence after Francis ordered him to live in penance and prayer while the investigation continued.

It wasn't immediately clear if he would continue to live in a religious residence.

Vatican watchers have compared the McCarrick coverup scandal to that of the Rev. Marcial Maciel, perhaps the 20th-century Catholic Church's most notorious pedophile. Maciel's sex crimes against children were ignored for decades by a Vatican impressed by his ability to bring in donations and vocations. Among Maciel's staunchest admirers was Pope John Paul II, who later became a saint.

Like Maciel, McCarrick was a powerful and popular prelate who funnelled millions in donations to the Vatican. He apparently got a calculated pass for what many in the church hierarchy would have either discounted as ideologically fuelled rumour or brushed off as a mere "moral lapse" in sleeping with adult men.