In an unprecedented move, Pope Francis has stripped former cardinal and archbishop of Washington, Theodore Edgar McCarrick, 88, of his status as a priest.
This is the latest in the hardline stance the Argentine pontiff has taken against child sex abuse and abuse of power in the Catholic Church.
In 2015, Pope Francis also removed the priesthood from Scottish cardinal Keith Michael Patrick O'Brien, 81, found guilty of abusing seminarians and priests. These drastic decisions created amazement, because such a sanction had not been applied since 1927, when Pius XI routed the Jesuit Louis Billot (1846-1931) from the college of cardinals for political reasons. The French cardinal had criticized Pius XI's condemnation of Action Française, a traditionalist Catholic association that criticized the papacy. The sentence was later removed by his successor, Pius XII in 1939.
At the end of the criminal trial against McCarrick, who was declared guilty of crimes of solicitation in confession and of impure acts with minors and adults, with the aggravating circumstance of the abuse of power. Therefore, the pope imposed the penalty of dismissal from the clerical state. The pope acknowledged the gravity of this decision, which is not subject to further appeal.
The provision comes after months of controversy caused by Monsignor Carlo Maria Viganò, 77, former apostolic nuncio to Washington. The Vatican diplomat revealed that he personally communicated to Pope Francis, just three months after his election to the pontificate, in June 2013, McCarrick’s sexual abuse. Viganó went on to say that the pontiff had failed to take effective action over McCarrick’s behaviour, and called on the pope to step down.
The sentence on McCarrick comes on the eve of the summit on child sexual abuse by clergy convened by the Pope in the Vatican from 21 to 24 February, and which will be attended by all the presidents of the bishops' conferences from round the world.
Pope Francis recently appointed as his chamberlain, a very important role, cardinal Kevin Joseph Farrell, 71. The American cardinal was McCarrick's auxiliary in Washington and shared an apartment with him. He was repeatedly accused of having covered up the abuse of McCarrick. Precisely to disprove Farrell’s complicity, the pontiff wanted to entrust him with a role of maximum trust.
The appointment of Farrell is also a message from the pope to the American Catholic church, overwhelmed by the scandal of child sex abuse carried out by the clergy. So Francis wants to emphasize that with the reduction to the lay state of McCarrick, his trust and that of the whole church, especially of the faithful, to ensure the episcopate and the US clergy do not collapse under the scandal. Francis wants to make a clear distinction between the affair of McCarrick, and the US Church and prevent the two things from overlapping.
In fact, the pope wants to underline the work to counteract child sex abuse put in place in Boston by the cardinal Sean Patrick O'Malley, 75, who is the only Capuchin friar in the world to be elevated to the rank of cardinal.