Vatican investigators have finished collecting evidence in the sexual abuse case of disgraced ex-cardinal Theodore McCarrick, according to a person familiar with the investigation, indicating that the Catholic Church is moving quickly toward sentencing the cleric in its secretive justice system.
The former prominent archbishop of Washington, who now stands accused of sexually abusing three minors and harassing adult priests and seminarians, already has become the first U.S. cardinal ever removed from that office due to sexual misconduct allegations. Now, he faces the prospect of soon being defrocked — meaning he would no longer be a priest of the Catholic Church and would lose his church housing and financial support.
In the past several weeks, witnesses far from the Vatican offered testimony under questioning by American clergy tapped to help with the case. James Grein, who has spoken publicly about his alleged abuse by McCarrick which he says began when he was 11, told The Washington Post that he testified in late December in the office of the Archdiocese of New York. A man who says McCarrick molested him when he was a teenage altar boy has also testified, along with a third man who was a minor when he was allegedly abused by McCarrick.
A person familiar with the investigation said that the Vatican required all testimony be completed by the first weekend in January. The transcripts and recordings of all those witness statements are now in the hands of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, an arm of the church that handles discipline in many abuse cases.
Another person in the Vatican, who like others in this report spoke on the condition of anonymity, said he felt that the Holy See waited too long to start the canonical process, the workings of the Vatican’s internal justice system, but that the case is now accelerating. The CDF is now trying to “make up for lost time,” he said.
The bishops have the option, “when the evidence is clear,” to skip a full canonical trial, which can last years, and instead opt for an abbreviated process, he said. In rare instances, the pope has decided such cases directly. In the last two instances, a decision could conceivably be reached ahead of a February meeting of top bishops from around the world called by Pope Francis to discuss the subject of sexual abuse in the church.
“I don’t know what the timetable will be. Much depends on the results of those testimonies. But I think it may as well be very short,” he said. “But always respecting the rights of the individuals. They are not trying to be theatrical. They have already done that part by stripping him” of his rank as cardinal.
The Rev. Davide Cito, a canon lawyer at Rome’s Pontifical University of the Holy Cross, said the process would happen mostly on paper, if the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith opts for the accelerated option. “Don’t imagine a public debate. The accused isn’t present,” he said.
The CDF would give a file of evidence to the accused cleric’s defense lawyer, and the lawyer would write back with his defense, Cito said. Then a judge and two assistants would meet — in a room that Cito described as “little more than a closet” — and make a decision, which the cleric could appeal.
McCarrick, who was ordered last year to a friary in a remote Kansas town to live in seclusion, prayer and penance, testified in the case by electronic means, according to a report in the Wall Street Journal. When the first accusation, that of the teenage altar boy, was publicly reported last year, McCarrick denied any memory of the abuse. He resigned from the college of cardinals when additional reports came to light, and he has not offered any public statement since. His church and civil lawyers have both declined to comment.
Kurt Martens, a professor of canon law at the Catholic University of America, said the faster administrative penal process can be used instead of a full trial when the evidence is very strong or, when the evidence is strong and the accused does not dispute the charges, the decision can come straight from the pope. The last option is rare, he said: “The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith understands they have to give the accused some fair trial as well. It’s always a balancing act.”
McCarrick is the most prominent defendant in such a case in recent memory. Martens pointed to other bishops whose cases took a variety of courses. Archbishop Anthony Apuron of Guam went through a complete trial on charges including sexually abusing minors last year. He was found guilty on some charges and is appealing his case. Archbishop Józef Wesolowski, a Polish cleric who was the Vatican’s ambassador to the Dominican Republic, was expelled from the priesthood after a canonical trial for abusing children, and died in 2015 while awaiting a civil trial.
In other cases, Pope Francis has acted directly. In October, he expelled from the priesthood — the official term is “laicized," or made a member of the laity — two Chilean bishops accused of sexually abusing minors. The Catholic site Crux, in reporting the news then, called it “an extremely unusual, if not unprecedented, move,” one “tantamount to the Church’s version of capital punishment.” Francis also laicized two other Chilean clergy earlier in 2018.
A common punishment in Vatican cases is to sentence the accused to a life of prayer and penance — which Francis has already imposed on McCarrick before trial.
McCarrick, currently an archbishop, would lose his church housing and stipends if he is laicized, Martens said. He would not be allowed to wear clerical garb, celebrate Mass or present himself in a priest in any way. He would retain only one priestly role, Martens said, because the church believes the ordination it confers on priests is permanent: In an emergency, he would still be obligated to minister to a sick person in danger of dying.
Catholics are already debating McCarrick’s potential punishment. Some Catholics are saying they find it insulting — and insufficient — that regaining the status of a layperson is a punishment for a cleric who abuses children.
McCarrick served as archbishop of Washington from 2001 until his retirement in 2006, after which he remained a prominent diplomat representing the church and occasionally the U.S. State Department around the world. His successor in Washington, Cardinal Donald Wuerl, announced his own early retirement in October due to vociferous complaints about his handling of sexual abuse when he was bishop of Pittsburgh.
Wuerl has denied knowledge of McCarrick’s behavior. But critics suspect he knew, because the cardinal’s indiscretions with adult priests and seminarians were widely rumored and because Wuerl was named in Robert Ciolek’s 2005 settlement involving McCarrick, a fact reported by The Washington Post in September before Wuerl stepped down.
Wuerl remains the administrator of the Archdiocese of Washington until Pope Francis appoints a new archbishop, and remains a member of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. But archdiocese spokeswoman Chieko Noguchi said his duties on the CDF do not include judging McCarrick’s case.
Stefano Pitrelli contributed to this report.
Correction: An earlier version of this story said that Archbishop Anthony Apuron was expelled from the priesthood. He was not expelled, and is still appealing his case.