For decades, he was one of the faces of the Catholic church, representing the Vatican all over the world — and nowhere more so than in Washington.
On Saturday, the former leader of Washington’s Catholics became no longer Cardinal McCarrick, no longer Archbishop McCarrick, not even Rev. McCarrick. Just Theodore McCarrick, disgraced for sexually abusing minors and adults, and punished more severely than any Catholic cardinal ever has been for abuse.
For the local church that he once led and where he was widely beloved, it was a stunning moment.
“Justice has been done, but healing will still have to go on in the church,” said Patricia McGuire, the president of Washington’s Trinity University. “A lot of Catholics, including people in leadership positions like me, a lot of us feel so let down and disgusted. We’re trying to find a way to pick ourselves up, faithful to the church but wary of who we’re dealing with. I hate to say it, but I think it’s blown a hole through the whole trust relationship. ... If we can’t count on religious leaders to be truthful and honest, who can we trust?”
Some area Catholics said they remain concerned about the length of time it took to finally bring McCarrick to justice.
“I think it’s long overdue,” said District resident Erin Cromer as she headed in to a midday mass at Saint Matthew’s Cathedral in Northwest Washington. McCarrick formerly led major masses at the Cathedral and instituted a tradition of hanging a cardinal’s wide-brimmed hat there after death. Had he not been defrocked, he would have been buried in the crypt at St. Matthew’s. “It shouldn’t have taken this long when you have that much proof. It was a nice headline to see, but it just shouldn’t have taken that long.”
The Archdiocese of Washington has been dealt concussive blows in recent months. Less than a year ago, McCarrick — who led the archdiocese from 2001 to 2006 — was the aging and respected cardinal next door, when he wasn’t traveling the world to represent the Vatican and occasionally the U.S. State Department in conflict zones. Cardinal Donald Wuerl, who took over when McCarrick reached retirement age in 2006, was at the helm of an archdiocese thriving in many respects, with Mass attendance and Catholic school enrollment mostly unharmed by the downturn that has weakened other Catholic dioceses across the country.
Then McCarrick was removed from ministry, with the shocking allegation that he had abused a teenager nearly a half-century ago. More allegations swiftly followed: A Virginia man came forward to say that he too had been abused by McCarrick when he was a minor. The church admitted that it had secretly settled two lawsuits against McCarrick more than a decade ago, while McCarrick was still leading the Washington archdiocese, both from men who said McCarrick harassed them when they were seminarians or young priests.
Meanwhile, Wuerl faced his own related scandals. A grand jury in Pennsylvania, in a report that inspired new criminal and civil investigations nationwide, found that more than 300 priests had abused children in the state — including in Pittsburgh during Wuerl’s time as the bishop there. Washington Catholics protested outside Masses, condemning Wuerl for inconsistently handling priests who abused children under his watch in Pittsburgh.
And while Wuerl repeatedly denied ever knowing about the rumors that McCarrick was harassing young men, The Washington Post learned that he did know and had reported the sexual abuse allegations to the Vatican in 2004.
In October, pressured by the protests from his parishioners, Catholic schoolteachers and internally some of his priests, Wuerl retired early. Pope Francis still has not named his replacement, so Wuerl remains in charge of the archdiocese, presiding over ceremonial duties like the ornate Christmas Mass at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Northeast Washington.
Four months after Wuerl announced his retirement, Catholic insiders are waiting with bated breath for the new archbishop to be named.
“You want the naming of the new person to be a turning of the page, starting a new chapter in the life of the church in Washington,” said Catholic writer Michael Sean Winters. “The first thing is to heal whatever woundedness we’re experiencing — first with his priests, second with the people in the pews. ... This has struck them, especially those who really looked up to McCarrick.”
The new archbishop, Winters said, will also have a prominent role by virtue of his job in addressing how the church handles such abuse in the future. “This new archbishop, who’s going to have, it’s safe to assume, a higher profile than wherever he is coming from, needs to use that creatively to look at how we disassemble the unhealthy parts of the clerical culture.”
He pointed out that McCarrick was quickly removed from ministry — and now, from the priesthood — as soon as an allegation of abuse of a minor came out. But the earlier settlements for harassing adults were kept hidden and rumors of McCarrick’s sexual misconduct had swirled for decades. “We failed in terms of not acting on the settlements regarding seminarians,” he said. “That’s something both the Vatican and the U.S. bishops need to try to figure out how to grapple with.”
Many church-watchers heralded the importance of the Vatican tribunal’s verdict defrocking McCarrick, which cited his crimes against both minors and adults, and doled out a punishment once unimaginable for a cardinal — to be removed from the priesthood. “To end this way,” Winters said, “this is going to kill him.”
McGuire said it has been hard for her and other educators to teach about the Catholic virtue of truth, knowing that McCarrick, Wuerl and other leaders seem to have lied for so long. “This is absolutely the right result. It’s painful. It’s a disgrace — but I think the pope had no choice and he did the right thing,” she said. “It was just appalling, to think this person who we trusted did that. I could not see any solution other than that he could no longer be a priest.”
At St. Patrick Catholic’s Church, a gray stone sanctuary on 10th Street NW, just 17 people attended Mass on Saturday. Most arrived alone for the brisk 20-minute service. “I think they did the right thing. Whenever you invade somebody’s body like that -- sexual assault, harassment, things like that -- there needs to be justice for those people,” said Keith Hart, 54, of Washington, who attended the Mass. “His judgement will come from the Lord.”
At St. Matthew’s, District resident Silvia Gutierrez said McCarrick’s penalty struck her as fully just, given the accusations. She even considered attending an Episcopal Church due to her frustration with the allegations against Catholic clergy, she said. But even so, her sense of justice was mixed with dismay.
McCarrick had been one of “my favorite cardinals. I came to this church just to hear him,” Gutierrez said. “I’m sad that it happened to him because I really liked him.”
Michelle Boorstein contributed to this report.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story implied that McCarrick’s cardinal hat hangs at Saint Matthew’s Cathedral. It does not; the honor is intended for deceased cardinals. This version has been corrected.