Former US Cardinal Theodore McCarrick Defrocked Over Sexual Abuse

February 17, 2019 Updated: February 17, 2019

The Vatican dismissed former U.S. Cardinal Theodore Edgar McCarrick from the Roman Catholic priesthood on Feb. 16 after he was found guilty in a canonical process of sexual abuse against both minors and adults.

The ruling against McCarrick—one of the most prominent figures in the U.S. Catholic Church—was made final by Pope Francis, following an appeal by McCarrick.

The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), the body investigating the accusations, 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,” according to a statement from the Holy Press Office.

The CDF imposed on 88-year-old McCarrick the “penalty of dismissal from the clerical state.”

Pope Francis attends the 42nd session of the Governing Council of the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), a Rome-based United Nations agency in Rome on Feb. 14, 2019. (Tizania Fabi/AFP/Getty Images)

McCarrick became the first Roman Catholic prelate in nearly 100 years to lose the title of cardinal and is now the most high-profile church figure in modern times to have faced such a dismissal. Previously, McCarrick served as the archbishop of Washington from 2001 to 2006.

The defrocking could be a signal that the Vatican is attempting to hold those who commit such crimes accountable—even those in high-ranking positions. The defrocking means McCarrick can no longer call himself a priest or celebrate the sacraments, although he would be allowed to minister to a person on the verge of death in an emergency, according to Reuters.

The church is struggling to deal with a sexual abuse crisis. In the United States, nearly two dozen local, state, or federal investigations, criminal and civil, have been launched into the Roman Catholic Church over child sexual abuse allegations. Over half of the 187 Roman Catholic dioceses across the country have also started investigating these claims or have announced plans to do so.

Pope Francis has called on church leaders around the world to attend a Feb. 21–24 summit at the Vatican to discuss the global sexual abuse crisis.

On Feb. 13, five Roman Catholic dioceses in New Jersey released the names of 188 clergy members accused of sexually abusing children over decades. McCarrick was among the clergy members on the Newark list.

The allegations against McCarrick went back decades, to when he was still rising the ranks of the church hierarchy. He has only responded to one allegation of sexual abuse against a 16-year-old boy more than 50 years ago. In that case, he said he had “absolutely no recollection.” Multiple priests and former priests also accused McCarrick of using his authority to pressure them into sleeping with him when they were adult seminarians.

BishopAccountability.org, a U.S.-based group that tracks the abuse crisis in the Roman Catholic Church, said the defrocking was a “meaningful punishment, and one which most abusive bishops have escaped.” But the group said it was long overdue.

“Once again, under the glare of negative publicity, Pope Francis is prodded to finally do the right thing,” a statement said.

Last July, Francis accepted McCarrick’s resignation as cardinal and ordered him to refrain from public ministry and live in seclusion, prayer, and penitence.

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