THEODORE MCCARRICK, a former Catholic prelate who once enjoyed easy access to America’s corridors of power, was formally stripped of the priestly rank this weekend, after a Vatican investigation found him guilty of sexual transgressions involving both adults and minors. He was also found to have solicited sex during confession; his sexual misdeeds were deemed to carry the “aggravating factor” of abuse of power.
The 88-year-old ex-archbishop of Washington, DC, is the highest-ranking churchman in living memory to undergo this punishment. Pope Francis, who will this week convene a four-day “summit” of bishops from around the world to consider the issue of sexual abuse within the Catholic church, stipulated there would be no right of appeal against the defrocking decision.
Mr McCarrick had already forfeited his cardinal’s hat in July. The American had also been removed from public ministry last summer after a panel serving the Archdiocese of New York found “credible and substantiated” complaints that he had abused at least one adolescent at the altar in the 1970s.
The cleric said he had “absolutely no recollection” of such incidents and considered himself innocent but that he would obey the orders of his superiors. Pope Francis commanded him then to live out his days in “prayer and penance” in a secluded place; he is understood to have gone to a friary in Kansas. It has since emerged that two dioceses in New Jersey where Mr McCarrick had served as bishop had made substantial payments to men who said they were abused by him during their training for the priesthood.
The Vatican evidently wanted to send a signal ahead of this week’s summit, which begins in Rome on February 21st, with its tough and terse announcement on Mr McCarrick. But groups that campaign against sex abuse and its concealment are demanding to know who in the senior ranks of Catholicism knew about Mr McCarrick’s behaviour and why it took them so long to act.
The church itself has divisions on how to approach the issue of sexual abuse. At this week’s summit, bishops from the rich world will argue for a zero-tolerance policy, under which suspected abusers will be reported swiftly to the secular authorities. But that will meet a cautious response from prelates from the poor world, who say law-enforcement systems in their countries are cruel or corrupt and that the church must also protect itself from an abusive state.
The Vatican has said the summit’s main purpose is to bring bishops face to face with the problem and eliminate any vestiges of denial. The defrocking of Mr McCarrick is a step in that direction—but only that.