By Cindy Wooden
Catholic News Service
VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis has confirmed the removal from the priesthood of Theodore E. McCarrick, the 88-year-old former cardinal and archbishop of Washington.
The Vatican announced the decision February 16, saying he was 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.”
A panel of the Congregation for Doctrine of the Faith found him guilty January 11, the Vatican said. McCarrick appealed the decision, but the appeal was rejected February 13 by the congregation itself. McCarrick was informed of the decision February. 15 and Pope Francis “recognized the definitive nature of this decision made in accord with law,” making a further appeal impossible.
By ordering McCarrick’s “dismissal from the clerical state,” the decision means that McCarrick loses all rights and duties associated with being a priest, cannot present himself as a priest and is forbidden to celebrate the sacraments, except to grant absolution for sins to a person in imminent danger of death.
The only church penalty that is more severe is excommunication, which would have banned him from receiving the sacraments. The other possible punishment was to sentence him to a “life of prayer and penance,” a penalty often imposed on elderly clerics; the penalty is similar to house arrest and usually includes banning the person from public ministry, limiting his interactions with others and restricting his ability to leave the place he is assigned to live.
McCarrick’s punishment is the toughest meted out to a cardinal by the Vatican in modern times.
McCarrick’s initial suspension from ministry and removal from the College of Cardinals in 2018 came after a man alleged that McCarrick began sexually abusing him in 1971 when he was a 16-year-old altar server in New York; the Archdiocese of New York found the allegation “credible and substantiated” and turned the case over to the Vatican.
At that point, in June, then-Cardinal McCarrick said he would no longer exercise any public ministry “in obedience” to the Vatican, although he maintained he was innocent.
In late July, the pope accepted McCarrick’s resignation from the College of Cardinals and ordered him to maintain “a life of prayer and penance” until the accusation that he had sexually abused a minor could be examined by a Vatican court.
In the weeks that followed the initial announcement, another man came forward claiming he was abused as a child by McCarrick, and several former seminarians spoke out about being sexually harassed by the cardinal at a beach house he had in New Jersey.
Since September, McCarrick has been living in a Capuchin friary in rural Kansas.
The allegations against McCarrick, including what appeared to be years of sexual harassment of seminarians, also led to serious questions about who may have known about his activities and how he was able to rise to the level of cardinal.
At least two former seminarians reported the sexual misconduct of McCarrick to their local bishops as far back as the 1990s. The Archdiocese of Newark and the dioceses of Metuchen and Trenton made a settlement with one man in 2005, and the Diocese of Metuchen settled with the other man in 2007.
A spokeswoman for the Diocese of Metuchen told Catholic News Service in August that both settlements were reported to the Vatican nuncio in Washington. The two archbishops who held the position of nuncio in 2004 and 2006 have since died.
Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, who served as nuncio in Washington from 2011-2016, made headlines in mid-August when he called for Pope Francis to resign, claiming the pope had known of allegations against McCarrick and had lifted sanctions imposed on McCarrick by now-retired Pope Benedict XVI.
The former nuncio later clarified that Pope Benedict issued the sanctions “privately” perhaps “due to the fact that he (McCarrick) was already retired, maybe due to the fact that he (Pope Benedict) was thinking he was ready to obey.”
In an open letter to Archbishop Vigano released in October, Cardinal Marc Ouellet, prefect of the Congregation for Bishops since 2010, said that in 2011, “I told you verbally of the situation of the bishop emeritus (McCarrick) who was to observe certain conditions and restrictions because of rumors about his behavior in the past.”
Then-Cardinal McCarrick “was strongly exhorted not to travel and not to appear in public so as not to provoke further rumors,” Cardinal Ouellet said, but “it is false to present these measures taken in his regard as ‘sanctions’ decreed by Pope Benedict XVI and annulled by Pope Francis. After re-examining the archives, I certify that there are no such documents signed by either pope.”
Cardinal Ouellet’s letter was published a few days after the Vatican issued a statement saying that it would, “in due course, make known the conclusions of the matter regarding Archbishop McCarrick.”