Pope Makes Unprecedented Move of Defrocking Ex-Cardinal McCarrick Over Sex Abuse

By Molly Olmstead
February 16, 2019

E-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, speaks during a news conference with senators and national religious leaders at the U.S. Capitol on Dec. 8, 2015 in Washington, DC.
Photo by Chip Somodevilla

The Vatican announced on Saturday that ex-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, once the archbishop of Washington, has been expelled from the priesthood after being found guilty of sexually abusing minors for decades. McCarrick was for decades one of the most powerful figures in the American Catholic church.

According to the New York Times, the ruling appears to be the first time an American cardinal or bishop has ever been laicized, a process that strips a former priest of all clerical titles, rights, and resources, including housing and any other financial benefits. It also seems to be the first time any cardinal has been laicized over sexual abuse.

The 88-year-old McCarrick has been accused of abusing three minors over decades. Last summer, an investigation by the Archdiocese of New York found an assault accusation from the 1970s to be credible, and McCarrick was removed from office—making him the highest-ranking American Catholic leader to be held to account for abuse allegations. Further reporting by the New York Times and Washington Post found that McCarrick’s rumored behavior had long been an open secret and that church leaders had paid settlements to men who complained of abuse when McCarrick was a bishop. Pope Francis ordered McCarrick to a life of “penance and prayer” during the recent investigation, and he has been living in a Kansas religious residence since.

The church told McCarrick, who has also been accused of harassing adult seminarians, of the decision earlier this week, and he appealed. The Vatican rejected the appeal and announced the official decision, which cannot be appealed, on Saturday. According to the church statement, he 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 announcement comes just before a meeting between Francis and bishops from around the world to discuss the crisis in the church. The American church’s sex abuse crisis, sparked by McCarrick’s scandal, has led to a slew of investigations across the U.S. Those investigations were led by a damning Pennsylvania grand jury report last summer that found more than 1,000 credible cases of sex abuse by 300 priests, many of which were accompanied by subsequent cover-ups by the church. Since then, hundreds of additional priests across the country have been named as alleged abusers. Globally, the scandal has also led to the laicization of two retired Chilean bishops and the removal of two cardinals from powerful positions in the church.

Francis himself has been implicated in the McCarrick cover-up scandal, as Carlo Maria Viganò, the former Vatican ambassador to the U.S. (and a conservative critic of the pope who has blamed homosexuality for the sex abuse crisis), alleged that Francis lifted sanctions on McCarrick that were placed by his predecessor, Benedict. The Vatican has rejected that allegation as false.


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