Disgraced former US Cardinal Theodore McCarrick has been expelled from the Roman Catholic priesthood following various allegations against him, including sexual abuse of minors, the Vatican announced.
McCarrick, 88, who became the first Catholic prelate in nearly 100 years to lose the title of cardinal in July, has now become the highest profile church figure to be dismissed from the priesthood in modern times.
Saturday’s announcement comes as the Church is still grappling with a decades-long sexual abuse crisis that has exposed how predator priests were moved from parish to parish instead of being defrocked, or turned over to civilian authorities in countries across the globe.
With the latest ruling, Pope Francis appears to be sending a signal that even those in the highest echelons of the hierarchy will be held accountable.
The ruling, made by the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith three days ago, was announced in advance of next week’s meeting at the Vatican between the heads of national Catholic churches to discuss the global abuse crisis.
McCarrick appealed the decision, which was made secretly in the first instance on January 11, but it was upheld earlier this week and the pope has ruled that no further appeal would be allowed.
Defrocking means McCarrick can no longer call himself a priest or celebrate the sacraments, although he would be allowed to administer to a person on the verge of death in an emergency.
McCarrick was named as cardinal, or prince of the church, by Pope John Paul II, who was himself accused of overlooking allegations of sex abuse by Fr Marcial Maciel, perhaps the 20th century Catholic Church’s most notorious paedophile.
Fall from grace
The allegations against McCarrick, whose fall from grace stunned the US Catholic church, date back to decades ago when he was still rising to the top of the hierarchy there.
McCarrick, who became a power-broker as archbishop of Washington from 2001 to 2006, has been living in seclusion in a remote friary in Kansas.
He has responded publicly to only one of the allegations, saying he has “absolutely no recollection” of an alleged case of sexual abuse of a 16-year-old boy more than 50 years ago.
A Vatican statement said McCarrick was found guilty of the crimes of sexual abuse with minors and adults and the separate crime of solicitation, both with “the aggravating factor of the abuse of power”.
Pope Francis ordered a “thorough study” last year of all documents in Holy See offices concerning McCarrick.
McCarrick had already received one of the severest punishments short of defrocking. When the pope accepted his resignation as cardinal last July, he also ordered him to refrain from public ministry and live in seclusion, prayer and penitence.