The deep fall of a former star cleric

The deep fall of a former star cleric

Theodore McCarrick © Andrew Medichini

On Saturday, the Vatican announced the removal of ex-Cardinal McCarrick from the clergy – shortly before the anti-abuse summit convened by Pope Francis. Two things are noteworthy about the ruling.

There had already been speculation before Christmas that the de-listing of former Cardinal and Archbishop of Washington, Theodore McCarrick, was imminent. Expectations and nervousness were particularly high in the U.S. for Pope Francis to close this "construction site" before the start of the anti-abuse summit at the Vatican next week.

In July last year, Francis had already dismissed the former star cleric from the cardinal's rank. The last time a cardinal resigned from the cardinalate was 90 years ago, but it had nothing to do with abuse.

Ecclesiastical maximum penalty

McCarrick found guilty of sexual misconduct with minors and adults in connection with abuse of power, according to ruling by Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. In addition, he had abused the sacrament of confession by tempting those willing to confess to violate the sixth commandment, i.e. illicit sexual behavior. For this, the 88-year-old now received the maximum ecclesiastical penalty for a cleric. At the same time, he is the highest Catholic dignitary to whom this happens in modern times.

Against the first judgment of 11. January, McCarrick had filed an appeal. Last Wednesday, the monthly Ordinary Assembly of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith rejected the appeal. Cardinal Luis Ladaria informed the Pope, who confirmed the sentence as irrevocable. On Friday, McCarrick, who has been living in seclusion in a Kansas monastery for months, was told that he was immediately dismissed from the clergy. A priest so punished may not wear clerical garb, pastor or administer the sacraments. In acute danger of death, however, he is allowed the latter, since his priestly ordination does not expire.

Two things are noteworthy about the sentence: first, McCarrick was also found guilty of sexual misconduct with adults. He had invited adult but dependent seminarians to a beach house and had become sexually assaultive there. Second, the congregation assesses abuse of official power as an aggravating ground for punishment. This is precisely one of the Pope's criticisms of so-called clericalism.

Although abuse of adult charges and abuse of power are not explicitly on the agenda at the bishops' meeting at the Vatican, which begins Thursday, the focus will be on abuse of minors. However, it was to be expected that the participants would discuss other topics. With the McCarrick ruling, these aspects now come into additional focus.

McCarrick enjoyed great prestige

In the process, McCarrick enjoyed great prestige for decades because of his social commitment, diplomatic skills and best connections in the highest circles. As Archbishop of Washington (2001-2006), he was also considered a champion against abuse and had a part in the "zero tolerance" policy against abusive priests.

The offenses for which he was now condemned lie in the time before that. Between 1970 and 1990, for example, he had not only seduced candidates for the priesthood into sex but also abused at least two minors.

The McCarrick case received additional attention when, at the end of August last year, ex-Vatican diplomat Carlo Maria Vigano accused Francis, as well as high-ranking curia staff, of having entrusted McCarrick with important tasks, even though his missteps had been known within the Vatican. The Vatican rejected this. But Vigano wasn't the only one who wanted to know why McCarrick had been able to have such a career despite it all. Francis promised a thorough investigation of the case at the time.

It remains to be seen whether the result of this investigation will be made public beyond the judgment that has now been ied. Appropriate and repeatedly promised transparency would lead us to expect that. But then there would probably also be insights into the last years of Francis' predecessor John Paul II. (1978-2005). At the time, McCarrick had been appointed archbishop of the U.S. capital and cardinal, despite rumors already circulating about the abuses at the beach house.

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Christina Cherry
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