Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, the former head of the Archdiocese of Washington, has been removed from public ministry by the Vatican following a "credible and substantiated" allegation of sexual abuse involving a teenager from nearly 50 years ago.
As the move was announced, Roman Catholic Church officials in New Jersey revealed that McCarrick, 87, also had been accused of sexual misconduct by adults three times in the past. Two of those accusations resulted in secret settlements, officials said.
In a written statement, McCarrick said he was "shocked" when he learned of the allegation involving a minor some months ago and supported a thorough investigation by the police and the Archdiocese of New York, where he was working as a priest when the abuse allegedly occurred.
"While I have absolutely no recollection of this reported abuse, and believe in my innocence, I am sorry for the pain the person who brought the charges has gone through, as well as for the scandal such charges cause our people," McCarrick said.
A well-known religious figure around the world, McCarrick is now one of the highest-ranking Americans in the church to be removed because of sex abuse allegations.
"In obedience I accept the decision of the Holy See, that I no longer exercise any public ministry," he said in the statement. "I realize this painful development will shock my many friends, family members and people I have been honored to serve in my 60 years as a priest."
However, a church statement said that McCarrick, who was archbishop of Washington from 2001 to 2006 and participated in the selection of the current pope as a cardinal, was appealing the finding through the canonical process.
Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the archbishop of New York, said in a statement that the archdiocese knew of only one complaint against McCarrick involving a minor. Law enforcement officials and an independent forensic agency thoroughly investigated it before a review board within the archdiocese reviewed the results and found the claim "credible and substantiated," he said.
"This archdiocese, while saddened and shocked, asks prayers for all involved, and renews its apology to all victims abused by priests," Dolan said. "We also thank the victim for courage in coming forward."
In New Jersey, where McCarrick served as a bishop and archbishop between 1981 and 2001, a statement from Newark Cardinal Joseph Tobin disclosed that the church knew of other claims.
"In the past, there have been allegations that he engaged in sexual behavior with adults," Tobin said in a statement. "This archdiocese and the Diocese of Metuchen received three allegations of sexual misconduct with adults decades ago; two of these allegations resulted in settlements."
The Newark Archdiocese refused to provide any details, including when the misconduct was reported, citing "confidentiality." The Washington Archdiocese said New Jersey church officials did not notify them of the settlements at the time. A Washington spokesman said no complaints about McCarrick have been lodged there.
It remained unclear whether church higher-ups knew of any allegations against McCarrick when he was appointed head of the Washington archdiocese.
Tim Lennon, president of Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, said it was no surprise that the New Jersey allegations were only coming to light now since most dioceses do not make public the names of those accused of misconduct.
He also noted that McCarrick, in his role as head of the Washington Archdiocese, had opposed legislation in Maryland to ease statutes of limitations and make it easier for victims to sue the church.
"This pattern of the church hierarchy allowing and covering up for sexual abuse of children is decades long," Lennon said.
In their statements, church leaders said they were committed to rooting out abuse.
"The abuse crisis in our church has been devastating," Tobin said. "We cannot undo the actions of the past, but we must continue to act with vigilance today. I renew my commitment to seek forgiveness and healing, while ensuring a safe environment for children in this archdiocese. I will continue to report immediately to civil authorities any accusation of sexual abuse of a minor by clergy and will cooperate fully in the investigation and adjudication."
McCarrick had to retire as archbishop in 2006 when he turned 75, but he became a globe-trotting Vatican emissary after Pope Francis was elected — traveling to international hot spots like Iran and lobbying Washington lawmakers.
In 2013, he passed out from a heart condition while celebrating Mass in St. Peter's Basilica. He later told the Religion New Service that the pope called to check in him when he was back from the hospital.
"I guess the Lord isn't done with me yet," McCarrick joked.
"Or the devil doesn’t have your accommodations ready!" Francis replied with a laugh.