The former archbishop of Washington, accused of sexually abusing adults and minors for decades, resigned from the College of Cardinals on Saturday, becoming the first cardinal in history to step down due to sexual abuse allegations and magnifying the abuse crisis that Pope Francis is grappling with around the globe.
News of the resignation of Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, a longtime globe-trotting diplomat for the Catholic Church and a public face for efforts to end clergy sexual abuse, has roiled the local Catholic community and the wider church.
Pope Francis ordered McCarrick to remain in seclusion, and in prayer, until a church trial considers further sanctions.
McCarrick’s fall is “gut-wrenching” for local Catholics, said John Gehring, a Catholic author who worked for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops while McCarrick led the Washington archdiocese. “Most Catholics, including myself, are just sickened by the fact that it seems like so much was known about his behavior, and he still climbed the ranks of the church. He never should have been made a cardinal. … It can never happen again.”
McCarrick, 88, was found by the church in June to be credibly accused of sexually abusing a teenager nearly 50 years ago. Since then, additional reports of sexual abuse and harassment by the cardinal, over a span of decades, have been reported. The additional victims include one then-minor and three adults, who were young priests or seminarians when McCarrick allegedly abused them.
McCarrick is the highest ranked U.S. Catholic clergy member to ever be removed from ministry due to sexual abuse allegations, and the first cardinal to fully resign his position since 1927.
Cardinal Keith O’Brien, from Scotland, renounced the rights and privileges of his position after a string of accusations in 2013 about sexual misconduct. But he did not officially depart the College of Cardinals, and Pope Francis only accepted O’Brien’s resignation two years after the allegations came out.
The Vatican said McCarrick will face a canonical trial, though it did not provide details about when the trial would be conducted. Kurt Martens, a professor of canon law at Catholic University, noted that the Catholic church has typically punished people by ordering them to conduct a life of “prayer and penance.” In McCarrick’s case, the Vatican has imposed that penalty before the trial has even started — raising pressure on the church to find a stronger form of punishment.
“Because you’re running out of options if you want to impose a further penalty,” Martens said. “I would not be surprised if he gets dismissed from the clerical state.” That would mean that after spending most of his life as a church leader, McCarrick would be defrocked entirely — becoming a lay person, not a Catholic priest.
The now-60-year-old Virginia man who alleged that McCarrick abused him beginning when he was around 11, said he was very emotional upon learning Saturday that Pope Francis had accepted McCarrick’s resignation, signaling the church believes the accusers.
“The Vatican now knows everything, realizes the depth of his destruction in the church and that it’s time to clean house,” said James, who spoke on the condition that his last name not be used to protect his family. As for McCarrick: “He’s been guilty since the beginning of his life. And he’s now realized he’s cornered and can’t come out.”
Francis’s swift and decisive action regarding McCarrick comes as the pope also contends with a massive case of abuse and coverup in Chile — a country where the Argentine pontiff dispatched Vatican investigators. The country’s 34 bishops offered to step down en masse after meeting with Francis in May; so far, the pope has accepted five of those resignations.
Francis later this month will travel to Ireland, another country where the church was scarred and weakened by systemic abuse.
Austen Ivereigh, a Francis biographer, said the appetite across the world has grown for the pope to show more than just verbal contrition in the biggest cases. “I think a lot of people are saying this is the time for new kinds of action, rather than repeating words,” Ivereigh said. “A much more proactive stance. Of the sort like sending your top prosecutor to investigate Chile. A stance where the pope, when he sees or suspects an institutional omertà, he reacts.”
The allegations against McCarrick unfolded piecemeal over the past two months. In June, McCarrick was removed from ministry when a church review board found he had been credibly accused of abusing a teenager early in his career, when he was a priest in New York. The youth was helping prepare for a Christmas service when McCarrick allegedly put his hands in the boy’s pants.
When he was removed from ministry, McCarrick said he had no memory at all of that incident and maintained his innocence, but he accepted the Vatican’s decision.
Then came more. A Virginia man, now 60, told the New York Times and then The Washington Post that McCarrick, a friend of his father, abused him for nearly 20 years, starting when he was 11. He said it started when McCarrick urged him to show him his genitals while changing clothes after a swim party, and continued into his adulthood.
The New Jersey diocese of Metuchen and the archdiocese of Newark, both of which McCarrick led before he was promoted to archbishop of Washington in 2001, revealed they had reached settlements in the 2000s with two men who accused McCarrick of sexually harassing them when they were adults.
In one case, Robert Ciolek, a former priest, said McCarrick would invite him and other seminarians to a beach house, where there was always one bed too few, so one man would have to sleep with the bishop. Ciolek, who said McCarrick never kissed him or touched him below the waist but did give and demand unwanted back rubs, reached an $80,000 settlement with the dioceses for McCarrick’s conduct and abuse he also suffered at the hands of a high school teacher when he was a teenager in Catholic school.
Ciolek said the church imposed an agreement that he not speak to the media about McCarrick’s abuse, which it released him from this year.
In the second case, which The Washington Post learned about after examining extensive church files, a former priest said McCarrick abused him while on a fishing trip and again on a trip to New York City, where McCarrick made him sleep with him and rubbed his crotch. The New York Times reported the church settled with that former priest — who himself was removed from ministry in the mid-2000s, about a decade after he admitted that he had touched two teenage boys — for $100,000. That priest has not returned requests for comment.
A third man brought a lawsuit over McCarrick’s harassment in 2011 but then withdrew it from the court system. According to files obtained by The Washington Post, that man — a priest from Brazil — also alleged McCarrick forced unwanted sexual acts on him while at a trip to a beach house.
Francis apparently is moving toward a church trial based on the sum total of these news reports, not just the New York case involving the teenager that the church has already investigated. The Vatican’s statement Saturday said the canonical trial would handle the “accusations,” plural, against McCarrick.
The allegations have startled Catholics, especially in Washington, where McCarrick was a well-liked local archbishop from 2001 to 2006.
At the Shrine of the Sacred Heart in Northwest Washington on Saturday, parishioners were discussing the cardinal with their families as they walked into 4 p.m. Mass. Michael Mora, who said he’s very involved in the church, said he had been shocked to hear the reports about his former archbishop: “I feel betrayed.”
“I’m glad that he resigned and the church is doing something about it,” Mora said. “They have to follow the rules of discipline, whoever it is, but especially for someone higher up.”
McCarrick stepped down from the Washington archdiocese when he reached retirement age but remained an active diplomat for the church — traveling around the world at the behest of the Vatican and occasionally the U.S. State Department to advocate for religious freedom and intervene in conflicts.
“The message is quite clear: no person or institution can feel safe,” said Father Hans Zollner, a member of the Vatican Commission for the Protection of Minors. “Even those who hold the office of a bishop or cardinal. If there are allegations, we need to follow the normal procedure, and it’ll no longer be possible to muddy, conceal or hide them in a drawer and forget about it.”
In an interview with Washington radio station WTOP, Cardinal Donald Wuerl, who succeeded McCormick as the Archbishop of Washington, said that the pope’s acceptance of McCarrick’s resignation “highlights for me … that the pope takes very seriously the allegation of an abuse of a minor.”
“The pope is saying that we need to show that we are hearing these things, paying attention and acting,” Wuerl said in the interview.
Wuerl also said he has never been approached by anyone alleging of abuse by McCarrick and was unaware of the rumors surrounding McCarrck’s behavior, WTOP reported.
Pope Francis has faced increasing calls to more forcefully handle cases of sexual abuse involving not just priests, but also leaders at the highest echelons of the church. Earlier this week, Cardinal Sean O’Malley, Francis’s chief adviser on sexual abuse, said a “major gap still exists” and called for more muscular church policies to address the punishment of bishops and cardinals.
“Failure to take these actions will threaten and endanger the already weakened moral authority of the Church,” O’Malley said.
Critics say the Vatican still handles cases without transparency and too often fails to take action against priests unless allegations become public. McCarrick was a high-profile figure whose behavior was probably known by many, said Marie Collins, a former member of the Vatican Commission for the Protection of Minors who resigned last year, citing a reluctance among Vatican administrators to implement the commission’s recommendations.
“I don’t think the pope or the Vatican has changed in any way,” Collins said. “When things are public or are no longer tenable, they are asked to resign, and they have the prayer and penitence. But that is not the same thing as proper accountability.”
Michelle Boorstein and Lynh Bui in Washington and Stefano Pitrelli in Rome contributed to this report.