Updated at 10:14 a.m. ET
The Vatican has defrocked former cardinal Theodore McCarrick, it said Saturday, making him the highest-ranking church official to date to be expelled from the priesthood for sex abuse.
A church tribunal found McCarrick guilty of “solicitation in the Sacrament of Confession and sins against the Sixth Commandment with minors and with adults, with the aggravating factor of the abuse of power,” the Vatican said. Pope Francis has approved the ruling and there is no possibility of appeal, the statement said.
McCarrick, 88, resigned his post as cardinal last year after an investigation found evidence he had molested a minor altar boy almost a half-century ago. Another man told The New York Times that he was in his 20s when McCarrick abused him in the 1980s. McCarrick was a bishop in New Jersey at the time. The Times also found that two New Jersey dioceses had secretly paid settlements to two men who had accused McCarrick of abuse.
“Both abuse and its cover-up can no longer be tolerated,” Vatican spokesman Alessandro Gisotti said Saturday as he announced McCarrick’s punishment. “A different treatment for bishops who have committed or covered up abuse in fact represents a form of clericalism that is no longer acceptable.”
Reporting on Weekend Edition, NPR’s Sylvia Poggioli said at the peak of his power, McCarrick was a “globe-trotting power broker” and one of the church’s most powerful figures. He served as archbishop of Washington from 2000 to 2006, and he was elevated to the elite position of cardinal in 2001. His successor as Washington’s archbishop, Cardinal Donald Wuerl, resigned last year after reports suggested he knew of widespread abuse while he was bishop of a Pennsylvania diocese but didn’t act to stop it.
For years, McCarrick had been rumored to have used the power of his office to coerce seminarians — young men training to be priests — to have sex with him, Sylvia reports. One priest who encountered McCarrick while in seminary said McCarrick had frightened him. “When he would speak to you, he would touch you,” the Rev. Desmond Rossi told NPR’s Renee Montagne last year. “He was very tactile. He would, at one point, put his hand on my knee and kind of just leave it there when I was alone with him in an office.”
“In situations like that, it isn’t only so much as what this person has done in that moment,” Rossi said. “It’s what they can do because they have this power. What are they going to do next? And that’s what can be traumatizing.”
Stripping clerical status is considered one of the most severe forms of punishments for Catholic priests. The announcement of McCarrick’s defrocking comes days before Pope Francis convenes an extraordinary summit on sex abuse in the church. That meeting is already expected to receive intense media coverage. Last month, Philip Pullella, a veteran Reuters Vatican correspondent, told NPR’s Sylvia Poggioli that defrocking McCarrick before the conference would send a “strong signal” that Pope Francis is serious about addressing abuse.
In addition to the allegations against McCarrick, the Catholic Church last year dealt with a number of other reports of widespread sex abuse and abuse of power around the world. A Pennsylvania grand jury found that for decades, 300 “predator priests” had abused at least 1,000 victims in six of the state’s eight dioceses. German church leaders detailed the cases of more than 3,600 children who were abused by clergy between 1946 and 2014. In October, Pope Francis defrocked two Chilean bishops for what the Vatican called “manifest abuse of minors.”