Former U.S. cardinal Theodore McCarrick defrocked by Pope Francis over sexual misconduct allegations

Theodore McCarrick was once a high-ranking American cardinal. Now he’s no more than a parishioner who shows up for mass.

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By Matthew Vann and Linda Givetash

Disgraced ex-cardinal Theodore McCarrick has been expelled from the Roman Catholic priesthood after an investigation found sex abuse allegations against him were credible, the Vatican said Saturday.

The church is penalizing McCarrick, the former Archbishop of Washington, D.C., and Newark, New Jersey, with "dismissal from the clerical state," it said in a statement.

He will not be able to appeal the decision.

The canonical investigation found that he was guilty of "sins against the Sixth Commandment with minors and with adults, with the aggravating factor of the abuse of power." He was also found guilty of "solicitation" during confession.

The commandment cited regards sexual behavior.

McCarrick became one of the highest-ranking Americans to be removed from public ministry amid the global scandal that has engulfed the church after he was publicly accused last year of sexually abusing two children decades ago, as well as coercing adult seminarians to sleep with him.

McCarrick did not immediately comment Saturday.

He has previously denied one of the allegations and is unlikely to face criminal charges as they are beyond the statute of limitations.

Pope Francis accepted his resignation from the College of Cardinals in July and ordered him to observe a life of prayer and penance in seclusion.

The scandal was prompted by a sexual abuse allegation involving a teenage altar boy from nearly 50 years ago in New York. At the time of the claim, McCarrick issued a statement saying he had “absolutely no recollection of this reported abuse" but that he was “sorry for the pain the person who brought the charges has gone through.”

After his removal, church officials in New Jersey revealed that the 88-year-old cardinal had also been accused of sexual misconduct by adults three times in the past. Two of those accusations resulted in secret settlements, officials said.

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McCarrick has not commented on subsequent allegations, including from a man who said the cardinal, a family friend, had abused him starting when he was 11.

In October Francis authorized a "thorough study" of Vatican archives into how McCarrick advanced through church ranks despite allegations that he slept with seminarians and young priests.

The Vatican was informed in a 2000 letter from a seminary professor that McCarrick, then archbishop of Washington, had pressured seminarians to sleep with him. But McCarrick was still made a cardinal the next year, and he remained one of the American church’s most sought-after fundraisers and commencement speakers, gaining honorary degrees from prominent Catholic universities, at least six of which have been rescinded.

Last year, Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, the former papal ambassador to the United States, wrote a public letter that called for the resignation of Pope Francis for allowing McCarrick to travel on church missions while being aware of the allegations against him. Vigano alleged that Francis’ predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, had imposed sanctions on McCarrick a decade ago, ordering him to withdraw to a life of prayer and penance.

Pope Francis has not directly responded to the allegations in Vigano’s letter.

Saturday's announcement came days before a highly anticipated meeting between Pope Francis and the heads of national Catholic bishops conferences. The Feb. 21-Feb. 24 meeting at the Vatican is being held to discuss the global sexual abuse crisis which has eroded the faith of many Catholics and threatened Francis' papacy.

The pope pleaded with sexual abusers within the church to surrender to authority in December while promising the church will "spare no efforts" to seek justice for sexual abuse victims.

"The church will never seek to hush up or not take seriously any case," Francis had said.

McCarrick served the Washington diocese from 2001 to 2006. He had retired as archbishop in 2006 when he turned 75 and went on to become a Vatican emissary after Francis was elected, traveling to international hotspots including Iran and lobbying Washington lawmakers, making him a global name.

He remained one of the American church’s most sought-after fundraisers and commencement speakers, gaining honorary degrees from prominent Catholic universities, at least six of which have been rescinded.

McCarrick, 88, now lives in a friary in Kansas. The latest punishment means he won't be allowed to celebrate Mass or other sacraments.

The decision on McCarrick is a rare punishment of a high-level church official in an abuse case.

Richard Gaillardetz, chair of theology at Boston College, said ahead of Saturday's decision if Francis were to reduce McCarrick to “a lay state tells you that he’s finally beginning to get the outrage.”

He added, “He’s also recognizing that a much more stern disciplinary protocol is going to be the norm here.”

But others criticized the pope for not moving sooner.

“It’s too, little too late,” said Winnie Obike, who has organized several demonstrations at the Vatican embassy in Washington calling for consequences for abusive clergy and any church leaders who knew about the abuse.

“His offenses are just so egregious, and he has shown no sign of remorse,” she said of McCarrick before he was defrocked.

One of McCarrick's accusers issued a statement Saturday saying that while he is "happy" that the pope believed him, the cardinal's actions will "always haunt the church."

"This great historical and holy situation is giving rise to all Catholics and victims of abuse across the world. It’s is time for us to prepare for the complete cleansing of the church," James Grein said.

CORRECTION (Feb. 16, 2019, 10:03 a.m. ET): A previous version of this article misstated the years in which Theodore McCarrick served the Washington diocese. It was from 2001 to 2006, not 1981 to 1986.

Matthew Vann reported from Washington, and Linda Givetash from London.

Claudio Lavanga, Associated Press and Reuters contributed.