In Catholic Church law, being forcibly laicized is sometimes called the death penalty for priests. A dismissal from the priesthood is permanent — something that can’t even be said of excommunication. Even priests who request laicization are told to move away and, unless necessary, to keep quiet about what happened to avoid scandalizing other Catholics. No working in parishes, seminaries, Catholic schools. Your previous identity is wiped out.
But, in the eyes of the church, the mark of priestly ordination can never be removed. Something metaphysical changes that can’t be undone.
Theodore McCarrick is believed to be the first cardinal — a title he held until sexual abuse allegations against him surfaced in the summer — laicized for sexual misconduct. He is one of just six bishops accused of similar crimes and dismissed, according to the abuse-tracking group BishopAccountability. But in an era of rampant clergy scandals, experts predicted that many Catholics won’t see the rare defrocking as sufficient justice for McCarrick’s alleged victims.
“The reality is that, leaving aside the issue of embarrassment, and I’d be cautious on that, what difference does it make to McCarrick?” said Jennifer Haselberger, a canon lawyer who represented the archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis until 2013, when she quit over what she described as the office’s mishandling of abusive priests. “Realistically, when we think of justice, what will he experience? And he will know in his heart of hearts that he’s still a priest."
However, on Saturday, Francis’ decision felt like swift vindication to Robert Ciolek, a former priest to whom the church paid a settlement, in part based upon his accusations that McCarrick pressured him into back rubs and into sleeping in the same bed with him when Ciolek was a seminarian and young priest in McCarrick’s diocese. Ciolek said he was “ecstatic” about the decision, in particular its precedent-setting punishment of abuse of adults.
“There is, in my view, very little worse that could have happened to him from his own lens than this, given the power to which he had risen in the church, his standing, his influence,"Ciolek said. "You know, to be called Mr. McCarrick the rest of his life and be barred from celebrating any of the sacraments is personally devastating -- but more important, deserved, given his conduct.”
There is a lot of debate in Catholicism about the value of defrocking abusive clerics, an action that is extremely rare and somewhat new in Catholicism. Since the sex abuse crisis erupted in the early 2000s there have been more defrockings, and church leaders have wrestled with whether it’s wiser to keep abusers in-house, where they can be monitored closely, or whether Catholicism’s main business should be forgiving and not condemning. McCarrick’s high-profile defrocking has raised another question: Is the church’s legal system too focused on the accused and not enough on restitution for victims?
“If we kick this person out, [and] he’s no longer on our books, what are we doing then? Are we just protecting the liability of the institution or are we doing justice?” said Kurt Martens, a canon law professor at Catholic University.
Haselberger suggested dismissal isn’t as crushing a punishment as it may sound for McCarrick, who was one of the most powerful and popular U.S. clerics until his case exploded in June. She predicted he won’t suffer financially or go to jail and many will continue to treat him as a priest, she said.
McCarrick and his lawyers haven’t commented since the summer, so it’s impossible to know how he feels about the penalty. Shamed? Justified? Wronged? But people who know him say McCarrick, a frail 88-year-old, hasn’t seemed able to fully accept what’s happening. The former cardinal could still face civil suits.
Priests who have been forcibly laicized and canon lawyers say laicization can elicit a wide range of reactions. To some, it’s a kind of personal trauma, the fracturing of a critical relationship. For people being crushed by a celibacy vow they couldn’t keep, it can feel like relief. Many say they still feel, act and sometimes are treated like priests, even if they can’t wear the clothes or perform the sacraments.
“I joined this men’s group, and three weeks into it, they all called me ‘Father.’ I asked why, and one said, ‘It’s what you are. It’s who you are.’ This is a lovely thing to hear. It’s painful but lovely," said a man who was laicized several years ago after being accused of sexual misconduct with a minor.
The man, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he doesn’t want the accusations against him publicized, said perhaps his biggest loss is being barred from privately celebrating Mass every day, which he could do when he was suspended and not defrocked. “That’s a big deal. [While celebrating Mass,] we believe the whole church celebrates with you. Even if you’re alone, you’re still part of the community.”
Canon law allows bishops to strip defrocked clerics of all financial benefits, though civil law requires they receive their pension once they’re vested. Deals vary; some receive nothing, while others may negotiate for health care or education to allow them to make a new career. Experts say diocesan legal officials like laicizing clerics because it relieves the organization of future liability.
According to BishopAccountability, more than 1,000 priests have been laicized for sexual misconduct in the past few decades. Of the 99 bishops worldwide accused of similar crimes, just six were laicized, the group said. A process the church created in the early 2000s made it easier to remove priests but didn’t clearly establish rules around dismissing higher-up clerics.
Ciolek recalled the pain of petitioning the Vatican to approve his request to leave the priesthood. He was already married and a father, but he wanted to be formally released from his promise of celibacy to allow his civil marriage to be recognized by the church and to be in good standing to receive the sacraments. He had to wait about 10 years and submit thick documents arguing that it was a mistake for him to have become a priest. In reality, Ciolek said he believes he was called to be a priest and might still be one if not for the church’s celibacy requirement. He didn’t like having to put in writing that there was something flawed with his ministry.
Laicized priests are still considered priests in the Catholic Church. The defrocking means they are free of the rights and responsibilities of the position. They may not present themselves as priests in their dress nor perform sacraments such as celebrating Mass or hearing confession. The one exception is that they are obliged to hear the last rites of the dying if no other priest is available.
Priests choosing to leave or being forced to leave was rare for centuries, Haselberger said. Even in cases of priests suspended for abuse claims, she said, laicization was usually done at the request of the priest. The church was loath to dismiss clerics. The big wave came after the second Vatican Council in the 1960s, a series of meetings many expected to liberalize the church and let priests marry. Disappointed that changes weren’t made, many priests left and asked to be relieved of their celibacy vows. After years passed, Pope John Paul II stopped granting the petitions.
Men who requested dismissal had to prove that they could no longer function as priests, making arguments such as the one Ciolek did: that they really shouldn’t have been a priest to start with. Church law does not view laicization in a neutral way.
Complicating the matter of laicization’s use as punishment is the Catholic Church’s view that it is its job to forgive, Haselberger said. "There’s a tension between that spiritual reality and the idea of imposing penalties. It’s not in their nature,” she said. As a result, the penal process can seem at times more focused on the accused than justice for the victim, she said.
A priest can be dismissed from the clerical state by a local tribunal or by the Vatican, depending on the situation, Martens said.
But some groups that advocate for accused priests say canon law has always made it possible to remove clerics. What’s new is a rush by higher-ups to judge priests without a transparent, fair process to present an image of cracking down, they say. Unlike bishops, priests don’t have the means to properly defend themselves, these advocates say.
McCarrick will continue to reside at the St. Fidelis Friary in Victoria, Kansas, where he began living in September after his removal from ministry, “until a decision of permanent residence is finalized,” the Diocese of Salina said in a statement Saturday. Some who know McCarrick say he has significant savings and a pension and eventually will likely be offered housing or other support by the many to whom he ministered over the decades. High-up clerics who are dismissed, like McCarrick, are insulated from much of the pain, while the average priest is ruined.
That said, Haselberger says the comparison to a “death penalty” is offensive to people who receive real death penalties.
McCarrick faces a possible civil suit, as New York just passed an extension of the window for victims to sue. New Jersey is expected to as well. Both are states where victims have alleged misconduct by McCarrick. For now, that means waiting.
“It’s not satisfaction” we’re feeling, said the Rev. Matt Fish, a priest in the District. “But the priest is meant to signify something, and there is a virtue and dignity that goes along with it. And maybe this is a step towards restoring that.”