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Then-Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick attends a reception for new cardinals in Paul VI hall at the Vatican Nov. 20, 2010. Among the new cardinals was Cardinal Donald W. Wuerl of Washington, successor to Cardinal McCarrick as archbishop of Washington. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)
February 16, 2019
Pope Francis has recognized the dismissal from the clerical state, also known as laicization, of Theodore McCarrick, 88, the former cardinal and emeritus archbishop of Washington. This was imposed on him by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith at its plenary meeting on Feb. 13.
The sentence is definitive and cannot be appealed. The Vatican announced this today, in a statement from the C.D.F. that explained that a judgment was first given on Jan. 11 by the “congresso” or executive body of the C.D.F. It issued a decree finding McCarrick “guilty of the following delicts while a cleric: 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” and “imposed on him the penalty of dismissal from the clerical state.” The Vatican said this decree was then communicated to the former cardinal and he appealed against that verdict and his recourse was then heard by the C.D.F. congregation in plenary session on Feb. 13. The congregation is composed of more than 20 cardinals, archbishops and bishops, and its verdict is final.
Pope Francis recognized “the definitive nature of this decision,” which was communicated to McCarrick on Feb. 15.
The C.D.F. is the supreme tribunal in matters relating to the abuse of minors by clerics. It reached its verdict after carrying out its own investigation following a first investigation conducted by the archdiocese of New York early last year, which concluded that the allegation that McCarrick had abused a minor while serving as a priest in the archdiocese in the 1970s “was credible.” The subsequent investigation conducted by the C.D.F. obtained evidence of other cases of abuse. A source told America that because the evidence was so overwhelmingly great against McCarrick, the C.D.F. opted for the speedier, administrative process. This led to a judgment at the executive level of the C.D.F. in mid-January, after which McCarrick was given the possibility for appeal. The definitive verdict came at the plenary session of the congregation on Feb. 13, and there is no possibility of an appeal against this judgment, not even by the pope.
While this sentence was widely expected given that he was accused of the abuse of at least one minor, another possibility McCarrick could have been sentenced to was a life of prayer and penance as happened in the case of Marcial Maciel, the Mexican-born founder of the Legionaries of Christ. The dismissal of McCarrick from the clerical state will stand as a landmark decision that demonstrates the determination of Pope Francis that any priest or prelate, of whatever rank or status in the church, who abuses minors will be dismissed from the clerical state.
McCarrick is the first former cardinal to have been laicized for the sexual abuse of minors. Indeed, it seems that one would have to go back centuries in church history, perhaps to the time of the Council of Trent, to find a similar case whereby a man who was once a cardinal was dismissed from the clerical state.
The decision brings to an end the pastoral ministry and career of a man who was once the most influential and respected Catholic prelate in the United States. His fall from grace, which dealt a terrible blow to the U.S. church and came after decades of rumors about his misconduct with seminarians, began with the formal allegation of abusing a minor that led to an investigation, approved by Pope Francis. The investigation was conducted by the review board of the Archdiocese of New York and it determined that the allegation that he had sexually abused a 16-year-old altar boy at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in the early 1970s while serving as a priest in New York “was credible and substantiated.”
Pope Francis first suspended him from the ministry on June 20, and that same day Cardinal Joseph Tobin of Newark disclosed that there had been accusations against McCarrick while he served in New Jersey, of sexual misconduct with three adults. Two of these had resulted in confidential financial settlements with the victims who were subjected to the abuse when they were adult seminarians. New allegations of abuse have emerged since then, including one by a New Jersey man whose father was the cardinal’s best friend since high school, who charged that McCarrick abused him for years from the age of 13.
Then on July 28, 2018, the Vatican announced that Pope Francis had suspended McCarrick “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.” At the same time, the Vatican announced that Pope Francis accepted his resignation from the College of Cardinals.
There appears to be no precedent, and certainly none in modern times, for the renunciation of his title by a cardinal because of his involvement in sexual abuse. Informed sources believe the former archbishop of Washington was previously asked to hand in his resignation as a cardinal when allegations were first revealed publicly. McCarrick protested his innocence then, claiming that he had “absolutely no recollection of this reported abuse,” but said that “in obedience I accept the decision of The Holy See, that I no longer exercise any public ministry.” Subsequently, he left Washington D.C. and took up residence at a friary in Kansas, where he received notice today of his dismissal from the clerical state.