When Theodore McCarrick was defrocked on Saturday, becoming the first cardinal ever removed from the priesthood because of sexual abuse, he lost his right to the support he has received his entire adult life: housing and income provided by the Catholic Church.
But McCarrick, who is 88 and has been living in a secluded friary in Victoria, Kan., for several months while the Vatican considered the case against him, will be allowed to remain there until his permanent housing is finalized, church officials have said.
“There’s got to be basic sustenance. You can’t turn an almost-89-year-old out on the street,” said Susan Gibbs, who served as McCarrick’s spokeswoman when he was archbishop of Washington. She noted that the decision is now in part McCarrick’s own; for the first time since he entered the seminary and then served 60 years as a priest and bishop, he is not bound to go where the church tells him to go. “Technically, he could walk out the door right now. In the church, you make a promise of obedience. If you’re not a priest, you don’t have that anymore. But in his heart, he’s still there. He’s still a priest in his heart. That’s all I think he knows.”
Laicization, the most serious penalty the Vatican can hand down to a priest who has done wrong, removes a person from the priesthood permanently. McCarrick is no longer allowed to wear clerical garb or to perform priestly sacraments such as Mass.
Several people connected to the church declined to answer questions about McCarrick’s source of income. He was not required to take a vow of poverty in his prior priestly roles, and he may have independent savings to support himself.
Cardinal Donald Wuerl, who was archbishop of Washington until he retired in October in connection with his own oversight of abusive priests, took on the task of finding housing for McCarrick in the fall, while McCarrick was awaiting his Vatican trial. Pope Francis has not yet appointed an archbishop to replace Wuerl in Washington, so Gibbs said that the church might wait to remove McCarrick from the Kansas friary until a new archbishop is in place to deal with the task.
Bishop of Salina diocese Gerald L. Vincke, who now says McCarrick can stay for the time being in the friary, was initially surprised when Wuerl called to ask him to take the disgraced ex-cardinal into his remote Kansas diocese. “I had to reconcile my resentment and disappointment,” he said at the time.
Since then, McCarrick has lived quietly in the friary. The Rev. John Schmeidler, the priest in charge of the facility, said he eats meals and prays with the elderly brothers. “The living condition here is for elderly people, and he is an elderly person. He doesn’t have the capacity to do a whole lot of things, when you’re 88 years old. He fits into our community beautifully,” Schmeidler said. “We’re all elderly.”
Schmeidler said that McCarrick does not leave the friary, which is adjacent to the Basilica of St. Fidelis, known as the Cathedral of the Plains. Peggy Fitzpatrick, a member of the pastoral council for the parish, said she was stunned to learn that the disgraced ex-cardinal she had heard about was living in her town. “All of a sudden, boom. Father told us about it after he was already here,” she said.
“It’s right a block from the elementary school. That had a lot of people worried,” she said. “Father John had his sermon and he assured everybody. And I have total faith in Father John. ... He said there was no way [McCarrick] would have any contact with the public, and he hasn’t.”
McCarrick moved in more than four months ago. By now, Fitzpatrick said, “I think we’ve all pretty much dealt with it in our own ways.”
That’s how Bill Robben, another local pastoral council member, feels about it. “To me, it’s not a problem. No qualms about it. I’m kind of a Christian guy. I’m not perfect. Nobody’s perfect,” he said. “I’m fine with it. Somebody’s gotta go somewhere. I hope they forgive me, and I’ll forgive them.”