ROME — The Vatican on Saturday said it had defrocked former cardinal Theodore McCarrick, leveling a historic penalty against a onetime church power broker and former archbishop of Washington after the church found him guilty of sexual abuse.
It is the most significant abuse-related punishment given to a former cardinal in the modern history of the Roman Catholic Church.
In a short statement, the Vatican said a canonical process had found McCarrick guilty of two charges: soliciting sex during confession and committing “sins” with minors and adults “with the aggravating factor of the abuse of power.”
The defrocking, which strips McCarrick of the rights of the priesthood, marks the conclusion of a closed-door Vatican proceeding and comes just days before Pope Francis plans to gather bishops from around the world for an unprecedented summit on abuse.
It also finalizes the downfall of a figure who entered the priesthood six decades ago, climbed the ranks of the faith and earned influence and honorifics — before becoming a symbol of the church’s struggle to root out abuse in its highest ranks.
“He was cardinal up until a few months ago. Today, he is Mr. McCarrick,” said the Rev. Davide Cito, a canon lawyer at Rome’s Pontifical University of the Holy Cross. “This is a humiliation in that world such as one cannot imagine.”
The decision against McCarrick is known formally as a “dismissal from the clerical state.” The sentence is considered by the Catholic Church to be the most severe form of canonical punishment for a cleric — worse than excommunication, which is temporary and lasts only as long as a person persists in sin.
McCarrick, 88, accused of sexually abusing three minors and harassing adult seminarians, probably won’t face criminal prosecution because the allegations that have been made public relate to crimes that would be beyond statutes of limitations in the U.S. jurisdictions where they are said to have occurred.
In its statement Saturday, the Vatican said that its Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith had found McCarrick guilty of the charges on Jan. 11. On Wednesday, the Vatican “considered the recourse” that McCarrick presented but confirmed its original decision: a determination that McCarrick was informed of on Friday. Pope Francis has affirmed the decision, meaning it is final.
A Virginia man, James Grein, who has said McCarrick abused him for years, starting when he was 11, said in a statement on Saturday that “nothing can give me back my childhood and I have not taken any pleasure in testifying or discussing what happened to me.
“With that said, today I am happy that the Pope believed me. I am hopeful now I can pass through my anger for the last time. I hope that Cardinal McCarrick will no longer be able to use the power of Jesus’ Church to manipulate families and sexually abuse children.”
The accusations against McCarrick, and the notion that they languished for years, have been a central component of a renewed and painful global crisis for the church. To critics of the Vatican and of Pope Francis, McCarrick’s case exemplified a persistent culture of secrecy and coverup, and a reluctance to hold church leaders accountable.
McCarrick’s defrocking had been widely expected among church experts, who had said the Vatican was trying to conclude the proceedings in advance of the four-day meeting on sexual abuse. Francis has tried to tamp down expectations for that summit, but the decision on McCarrick acts as a “signal moment,” said Austen Ivereigh, a Francis biographer.
Ivereigh said it is telling that the Vatican’s charges included McCarrick’s alleged actions with minors but also adults.
“Francis sees very clearly that sexual abuse is an abuse of power,” Ivereigh said. “You can’t get a clearer signal of that than this.”
In a statement, the Archdiocese of Washington said it hoped and prayed that this “decision serves to help the healing process for survivors of abuse, as well as those who have experienced disappointment or disillusionment because of what former Archbishop McCarrick has done.”
Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, the president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, said the Vatican’s decision showed that “no bishop, no matter how influential, is above the law of the church.”
McCarrick was a globe-trotting diplomat, representing the Vatican abroad, advocating for human rights and religious freedom. He was the de facto lead spokesman among U.S. cardinals when the abuse crisis first exploded in the early 2000s, and he helped draw up rules in the United States for how the church would handle abuse, rules that provided zero tolerance for predator priests but did little to improve oversight of bishops or cardinals. McCarrick served as archbishop of Washington from 2001 to 2006 and afterward regularly testified before Congress and attended White House meetings.
But abuse allegations against McCarrick exploded into public view in the summer, along with reports that some in the church hierarchy had known about his misconduct for years.
McCarrick was suspended from ministry in June after the church determined he had been credibly accused of molesting a minor when he was a priest in New York nearly 50 years ago.
McCarrick maintained he had “absolutely no recollection of this reported abuse and believe in my innocence.”
He has not responded publicly to subsequent allegations, including that two New Jersey dioceses settled cases brought by men who said he harassed them when they were seminarians or young priests.
In July, under intense pressure, McCarrick became the first cardinal in nearly a century to fully resign his position. Pope Francis ordered him to a life of “prayer and penance,” and he moved to a friary in Kansas.
The outrage over McCarrick — coupled with additional scandals in the United States, Europe, Latin America and Australia — has damaged the reputation of Francis, who said after becoming pope in 2013 that he wanted the church to act “decisively” on abuse. Advocates and abuse survivors say the pope has succeeded in acknowledging the severity and seriousness of the issue, but he hasn’t backed up his words with action, either by making changes in church law or adding ways to hold bishops accountable.
Even as the canonical proceeding explored the facts directly surrounding McCarrick, the Vatican has remained silent about who might have helped protect McCarrick during his long career. In the summer, a former Holy See ambassador, Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, accused Francis and a litany of Vatican higher-ups of knowing about — and failing to act on — McCarrick’s alleged misconduct. Francis has not responded to the accusations, and the Vatican has not released the findings of a promised investigation into its archives on McCarrick.
Francis last year defrocked several priests in Chile at the center of a nationwide scandal. Also last year, Archbishop Anthony Apuron of Guam — tried on charges that included sexually abusing minors — was found guilty on some charges, though the Vatican did not specify which ones. He is appealing his case.
Experts in church law say the punishment technically does not mean McCarrick is no longer a priest, because ordination cannot be undone. But McCarrick can no longer perform priestly duties.
In an open letter released last month, Viganò called on McCarrick to repent publicly as a way to “bring a significant measure of healing to a gravely wounded and suffering Church.”
Stefano Pitrelli contributed to this report.