Defrocked Catholic cardinal Theodore McCarrick was criminally charged Wednesday with sexually assaulting a 16-year-old boy during a wedding reception at Wellesley College in Massachusetts in 1974, according to court documents obtained by The Washington Post. The charges make McCarrick, a former archbishop of Washington, D.C., the highest-ranking Catholic official in the country to face criminal charges for alleged sex abuse.

McCarrick, 91, was for years one of the country’s most connected and influential Catholic leaders before allegations of his behavior were made public in 2018, and he was later expelled from the priesthood. It was long assumed McCarrick would not be criminally charged because of statute of limitations on alleged incidents, though some men have filed civil lawsuits in New York and New Jersey, alleging McCarrick sexually abused them in those states when they were children.

Marci Hamilton, an attorney with Child USA, said the case was able to be prosecuted because McCarrick was not a Massachusetts resident and the statute of limitations essentially expired when he left the state. Hamilton said that such statutes of limitations are quite common across the United States but that McCarrick’s case is highly unusual.

“This is extraordinary,” said Hamilton, who is a professor at the University of Pennsylvania. “Prosecutors feel safe filing charges even against bishops. It shows us the movement for sex abuse cases is becoming mature.”

On Wednesday, McCarrick was charged with three counts of indecent assault and battery on a person over 14 in a criminal complaint filed by Wellesley Police in Dedham District Court and reviewed by The Post.

In 2019, the Vatican defrocked McCarrick after finding him guilty of sexual abuse, delivering him the most significant abuse-related punishment for a former cardinal in modern Catholic history. Once a major power broker within the church who received accolades, his downfall was considered swift and severe.

He was also the subject of an unprecedented Vatican investigation, the results of which were released in November. The report, which took two years to compile, found that multiple officials in the U.S. and in Rome were aware of rumors and reports of his sexual misconduct with seminarians, priests and teenage boys, but either did not pass that information to superiors or chose not to look into them.

The report also found that Pope John Paul II knew about and overlooked claims that McCarrick shared beds with seminarians under his authority; he believed McCarrick’s denial and helped to facilitate the prelate’s rise. The internal report also portrayed Pope Benedict XVI as trying to handle McCarrick quietly, and Pope Francis as assuming that his predecessors had made the right calls before he greenlighted the report in 2018.

Until now, many assumed McCarrick would not face criminal charges because the allegations that have been made public relate to crimes that would be beyond statutes of limitations where the incidents were said to have taken place, making them impossible to prosecute.

McCarrick, now living in Missouri, is expected to appear at the court for arraignment in Dedham, Mass., on Sept. 3. McCarrick’s attorney, D.C.- based Barry Coburn, said, “We will look forward to addressing this issue in the courtroom” and declined to comment further.

Mitchell Garabedian, a well-known lawyer for church sexual abuse victims who is representing the man alleging the abuse by McCarrick, said he could not discuss specific details of the case. The name of the individual accusing McCarrick is redacted in court documents.

“By coming forward, my client is empowering other victims and making the world a safer place for children,” Garabedian said.

According to the police complaint, the alleged abuse by McCarrick started when the man was young and occurred in New Jersey, New York, California and Massachusetts. McCarrick would go on trips with the complainant’s family and would perform Mass for them during weddings and funerals.

In an incident at the wedding of the brother of the alleged victim, at Wellesley College, the report states that McCarrick told the then-16-year-old that his father wanted the two of them to have a talk.

“You’re being mischievous at home and not attending church,” McCarrick allegedly told the complainant at the time, according to the report. “We need to go outside and have a conversation.”

McCarrick, the man told police, groped his genitals on the campus. McCarrick, he said, led him into a room where he closed the blinds and told him “that he needed to go to confession” and that he would fondle the boy’s genitals “saying prayers to make me feel holy.”

According to the report, McCarrick told the accuser to “say three our fathers and a Hail Mary or it was one our father and three Hail Marys, so God can redeem you of your sins” before they left the room.

When the complainant returned to his brother’s reception, his father asked him how their talk went. The man recalled replying that they went to confession and that his father told him, “Do what [McCarrick] tells you, he’s really going to help you.”

McCarrick, the report said, went on to sexually abuse the complainant later in the towns of Newton and Arlington after the Wellesley incident, as well as in other states. He provided police with photographs of postcards McCarrick had sent when he was younger, as well as a photo he received before the wedding reception at Wellesley.

Anne Barrett Doyle, co-director of a group that advocates for church transparency called BishopAccountability.org, said the charges should serve as a wake-up call to legislators over the potential for reform for statute of limitation policies for child sex crimes.

“Today’s charges are possible only because of a quirk in Massachusetts’s statutes of limitation. What if McCarrick hadn’t decided to attend the wedding in Wellesley?” she said. “Whether sexual assault of a child is prosecutable shouldn’t depend on the predator’s travel plans.”

Magda Jean-Louis contributed to this report.