Former Washington DC archbishop becomes the highest-ranking churchman to be dismissed from clerical state.
Disgraced former US Cardinal Theodore McCarrick has been expelled from the Roman Catholic priesthood following allegations against him, including sexual abuse of minors, the Vatican announced.
McCarrick, 88, who became the first Roman 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 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 ahead 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 pedophile.
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, DC 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 most severe 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.
Fine Gael Senator Jerry Buttimer has expressed disappointment at Pope Francis’ declaration that there is “no room” in the Catholic church for gay priests.
“The issue of homosexuality is a very serious issue that must be adequately discerned from the beginning with the candidates,” Pope Francis says in a book released in Italy on Saturday.
“In our societies it even seems that homosexuality is fashionable and that mentality, in some way, also influences the life of the church.”
Writing in The Strength of Vocation, Pope Francis says some priests did not exhibit any homosexual inclinations when they joined the priesthood only for it to emerge later but he reminded the faithful that the Catholic Church views homosexual acts as sinful.
“In consecrated and priestly life, there’s no room for that kind of affection. Therefore, the church recommends that people with that kind of ingrained tendency should not be accepted into the ministry or consecrated life
Mr Buttimer, who is gay and studied for five years as a seminarian in Maynooth in the 1980s, said the Pope seemed to be delivering a very traditional message with regard to people from the LGBT community which was at odds with some of his initial comments regarding gay people.
Pope Francis was now adopting “ a very hardline” approach to the LGBT community and to say that homosexuality was about being fashionable failed to recognize that people’s sexual orientation was a fundamental part of their being, he said.
‘In god’s image’
“Being gay is not transient, it’s not a phase, it’s not a passing stage of one’s life – I’ve always made the point that, as a Christian, as a Catholic, I was born and am born in the image of the god who created me and the god that I pray to and worship,” said Mr Buttimer.
“For me, this is disappointing from Pope Francis whom I thought, given his initial statements that he would not judge people, would have travelled a journey of being more open, and understanding and accepting of LGBT people but obviously I was wrong.”
Mr Buttimer said one of the fundamentals of the priesthood was that it was a celibate ministry but to say that applies to just homosexual priests without stressing that similar principles should apply to heterosexual priests was “wrong and deeply unfair”.
“The church would be a better church, a more enhanced church by having a ministry that is open to all and it just baffles that the Pope, on one level seems to be a welcoming man and then in the next breath shuts the door completely to members of the LGBT community,” Mr Buttimer said.
“There are many committed Christians and Catholics who are gay, some of them are afraid to come out but they make very fine contributions in the liturgy as lay readers and lay ministers of the Eucharist and they do a wonderful job in our churches, in our classrooms, in our choirs and as part of parish councils.”
IT IS EVIDENT that the Catholic Church is incapable on its own of exorcising the scourge of clergy sex abuse. The scandal raged unchecked for decades and, even after it was exposed in 2002 by the Boston Globe , has been met by the church hierarchy with denial, temporizing, stone walling and half-measures.
Even as the bishops of America’s 196 Catholic dioceses and archdioceses gathered in Baltimore Monday to grapple with the latest major revelations — a Pennsylvania grand jury’s report from August detailing decades of abuse involving more than 1,000 victims and at least 300 priests — they were stopped in their tracks by an abrupt message from the Vatican, which asked them to hold off. That intercession arrived along with a warning from Pope Francis’s ambassador in the United States, Archbishop Christophe Pierre, who seemed to scoff at the proposal, which the bishops had been set to vote on, to establish a lay commission that would assess bishops’ misconduct — “as if we were no longer capable of reforming or trusting ourselves,” as he put it.
That remark crystallized the arrogance that has often characterized the church’s stance even as countless exposés have laid bare the culpability of its leaders. From high and low, the church has broadcast its conviction that its own transgressions are no worse than that of other institutions; that state statutes of limitations that shield dioceses from lawsuits should be preserved; that no foothold may be allowed for mechanisms to discipline bishops who have enabled abuse by transferring pedophile priests from parish to parish.
Voices of moral clarity have been heard from within the church, urging genuine change. “Brother bishops, to exempt ourselves from this high standard of accountability is unacceptable and cannot stand,” Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said in a speech to the gathered bishops Monday following that of Mr. Pierre. “Whether we will be regarded as guardians of the abused or the abuser will be determined by our actions.”
Yet, more often than not, those voices have been ignored.
The pontiff has summoned bishops from around the world to the Vatican for a meeting to address the scandal in February; this summit, we are urged to believe, will once and for all set the church on a path toward surmounting the blight of abuse. The fact of that pending event was the proffered pretext for the church’s request that the U.S. bishops put off two items on their agenda this week in Baltimore: establishing the lay commission to review complaints against bishops, and adopting a code of conduct for themselves — the first such codified ethical guidelines.
The agenda was modest, and Rome’s intervention is telling. Again and again, the Vatican pays lip service to the suffering of victims. Again and again, it undercuts its own assertions of contrition.
In August, in a letter published in the National Catholic Register, Italian Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò blamed the Roman Catholic Church’s sexual abuse crisis on gay priests who “act under the concealment of secrecy and lies with the power of octopus tentacles, and strangle innocent victims and priestly vocations, and are strangling the entire church.” Pope Francis, he wrote, had sheltered such priests. Viganò specifically named Theodore McCarrick, a “serial predator” who resigned as a cardinal in July after the news broke that he’d sexually abused adolescent boys while rising to become one of America’s most prominent archbishops. Viganò called on Francis to “set a good example” and resign, along with the other cardinals and bishops implicated in the scandal. He wrote little about the fact that McCarrick’s abuse took place during the papacies of Francis’s conservative predecessors, John Paul II and Benedict XVI. Whatever Francis knew about McCarrick, the previous popes likely knew more. But their complicity was overlooked.
Viganò belongs to a traditionalist wing of the church that has never truly accepted Pope Francis. In the United States, this contingent includes Cardinal Raymond Burke of St. Louis, San Francisco Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone, and Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput. These powerful clergymen aren’t just conservative on theological matters, but in their politics as well. While serving as the Vatican’s apostolic nuncio, or ambassador, to Washington, Viganò was responsible for introducing Pope Francis to Kim Davis, the Kentucky clerk who refused to grant marriage licenses to gay couples in 2015. From San Francisco, Cordileone publicly supported California’s Proposition 8, which opposed same-sex marriage, raising over $1 million to get it on the ballot. Chaput has called on the University of Notre Dame to give President Donald Trump an honorary degree. And Burke plans to partner with former Trump campaign chief Steve Bannon to construct a Catholic compound near Rome that will host meetings and seminars with church leaders and politicians interested in protecting “Christendom.”
In late August, several conservative American bishops and their allies published letters in support of Viganò, even after journalists from The Washington Post and The New York Times reported that he had likely exaggerated many of the claims he made in the Register. They are using the worst crimes of the church to attack Francis and his liberal policies. What should have served as a reckoning has been transformed into an opportunity to take him down.
Francis has been fighting off critics practically since the day he was elected in 2013. When Benedict, a Bavarian theologian nicknamed “God’s Rottweiler,” stepped down earlier that year, he still had significant support in the Vatican for his most extreme conservative stances—he once quoted fourteenth-century texts that criticized Islam as “evil and inhuman”; lifted the excommunication of a British bishop who denied the Holocaust; and claimed condoms worsened the fight against AIDS. Since then, conservative dissenters in the Catholic hierarchy have formed a resistance of sorts, pushing back against Francis’s pronouncements on divorce, immigration, climate change, and poverty.
Much of this resistance comes from the United States. Although 63 percent of American Catholics support the pope, according to a recent CNN poll, conservative clergy and wealthy Catholic donors remain among his fiercest critics. Their most common line of attack focuses on Francis’s supposed support for gay priests. In 2013, the pope quipped, “Who am I to judge?” when asked about gay Catholics. Two years later, he met with an openly gay former student, Yayo Grassi, and his partner in Washington. And more recently, he asked James Martin, a Jesuit priest who has written a book on LGBT Catholics, to deliver a talk at the World Meeting of Families in Ireland this past summer. Francis has actually taken no official action to change church policy about homosexuality, but conservatives have still reacted in horror. In May, when Francis told a gay Chilean sexual abuse survivor that God made him gay and loves him anyway, American Conservative columnist Rod Dreher said the pope was destroying the church like a “wrecking ball.” Conservatives like Dreher maintain that gay priests are the main perpetrators of child sexual abuse, and that their powerful supporters within the Vatican—whom Dreher calls the “lavender mafia”—are responsible for harboring them.
Of course, there is no evidence of a higher rate of abuse among gay clergy; in fact, abuse, religious and secular, is most commonly the result of “situational generalists” who abuse whoever is in their control, male or female, children or adults. But that hasn’t stopped conservatives from arguing that gay men are responsible for the abuse crisis. In his letter, for example, Viganò uses the word “child” twice; “homosexual” appears 16 times. Cardinal Burke compared gay priests to murderers in a 2015 interview with LifeSite News, a pro-life web site. The problems the church faces, from child abuse to a lack of men applying to the priesthood, he once said, are because it has become too “feminized,” which, given Burke’s track record, could be taken as a way of saying “too gay.”
The conservatives attempting to blame gay priests for sexual scandals appear to have two main objectives. First, they hope to purge the church of its gay clergy. And second, they want Francis out. Because he has softened the church’s stance on LGBT issues, his opponents can accuse him of sheltering gay priests and, in their minds, saddle him with responsibility for the sexual abuse crisis, despite the fact that it began long before he was elected pope.
No one yet knows how much Francis knew about the abuse. On the papal plane hours after Viganò’s letter was released, he did not deny the charges leveled at him. Instead he told journalists on board, “You have the journalistic capacity to draw your own conclusions.” A strong denial would have been preferable, under the circumstances—he was traveling back to Rome from Ireland, where he had just met with victims of sexual abuse there, which reached such a horrific scale that an entire generation of people had left the church. The pope later said the meeting left a “profound mark” on him. Presented with the letter so soon after seeing the traumatized victims, he may simply have been too shaken to answer. Or it could mean that Francis did know about McCarrick. He has been pope for five years. He could have taken a stronger stance against sexual abuse in the church already. He still can.
But amid this muddled, internecine conflict, one thing is clear: Conservative attempts to tear Francis down, while absolving his predecessors and blaming a global sexual crisis on gay priests, are sinister and abusive. The problems of the Catholic Church stem not from homosexuality but from an entrenched culture that protects clergy—and the church itself—at the expense of the people they are meant to serve. Long ago, the Vatican and its leadership lost their connection to the ordinary lives of the billion Catholics worldwide. Now, they privilege reputation above truth, and, like many of the current accusations flying around, that instinct is rotten.
The Vatican has decided to fight fire and brimstone with fire and brimstone.
Six weeks after Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, the former Vatican ambassador in the United States, shook the church by accusing Pope Francis of covering up sexual abuse, the Vatican broke its public silence on Sunday with a scathing public retort from a powerful prefect for the Congregation for Bishops.
The prefect, Cardinal Marc Ouellet, called the accusations by “dear Viganò” “false,” “far-fetched,” “blasphemous,” “incomprehensible” “abhorrent” and politically motivated to hurt Francis. He suggested that the archbishop would be wise to “quickly repair” his break with the pope.
“I cannot begin to understand how you let yourself be convinced of this monstrous accusation, which does not stand up,” Cardinal Ouellet said in the letter, which was written in French.
Archbishop Viganò did not immediately return a request for comment on Sunday.
On Aug. 26, conservative Catholic outlets critical of the pope published a long letter by the archbishop accusing Francis of lifting punishment for sexual misconduct for a former American cardinal, Theodore McCarrick, that were reportedly imposed by Pope Benedict XVI.
On Sunday, just a day after the Vatican announced that Francis had ordered a “thorough study” into its archives to investigate the charges, Cardinal Ouellet wrote to Archbishop Viganò that accusing the pope of covering up for this “presumed sexual predator” and judging Francis unfit to lead the church was “incredible and far-fetched.”
He noted that he was responding with the permission of a pope to whom he, unlike Archbishop Viganò, had remained loyal. He seemed to suggest that the archbishop, who has disappeared from view, was in serious danger of severe punishment from the church and called on him to “come out of hiding, repent for your revolt and return to better feelings toward the Holy Father instead of worsening hostility against him.”
Cardinal Ouellet urged him to “quickly repair” the injustice of a “political set up” and, in a deft dig at the ambitious cleric, to overcome the “bitterness and disappointment” that had marked his clerical career.
“You should not finish your priestly life involved in an open and scandalous rebellion that inflicts a very painful wound” on the church, he wrote.
Archbishop Viganò’s initial letter was a remarkable broadside against the Vatican hierarchy. Francis has essentially said he would not dignify the accusations with a response. But Cardinal Ouellet did, and he answered in kind.
Cardinal Ouellet offered personal testimony based on his own interactions and the congregation’s archives. He said that there was no written record of punishment against Archbishop McCarrick, though he acknowledged that the American had been “strongly exhorted” to live a discreet life of prayer, without travel or public appearances, because of the sexual misconduct rumors.
“We come to the facts of the matter,” Cardinal Ouellet wrote to Archbishop Viganò, whom Benedict XVI sent to Washington as the papal envoy in 2011, after his involvement in a scandal in Rome that revealed his frustration at not being made a cardinal.
“How is it possible,” Cardinal Ouellet wrote, that Archbishop McCarrick was promoted to the “high offices of archbishop of Washington and cardinal?”
A professor in a New Jersey seminary sent warnings to the Vatican of the sexual misconduct allegations, in 2000, when Archbishop McCarrick was made archbishop of Washington.
Pope John Paul II, who was accused of allowing sexual abuse to fester in the church, made him a cardinal in 2001. Other accusations have recently surfaced, including from men who say they were abused as young teenagers.
In his letter, Cardinal Ouellet treads carefully on the fact that the American’s ascent took place under John Paul, while making clear that Francis had nothing to do with Archbishop McCarrick’s promotions from New York to New Jersey to Washington.
“Without getting into the details,” he wrote, decisions are made by the popes based on the information available at the time, and the judgments “are not infallible.”
Coming to the defense of John Paul II, who is beloved by Archbishop Viganò and his conservative allies, Canadian Cardinal said it seemed unfair to call the decision makers corrupt, even if “some indications supplied by witnesses should have been examined further.”
He said that Archbishop McCarrick showed great ability in defending himself, and, in response to Archbishop Viganò’s ad hominem attacks on Vatican officials for being homosexual or supporting homosexuals within the church, he wrote that “the fact” that in the Vatican there could be people who practice or support sexual behavior “contrary to the values of the gospel” was not reason to generalize and declare “unworthy and complicit” a broad swath of people, “even the Holy Father.”
To do say, he said, was only “slander and defamation.”
He acknowledges that Archbishop McCarrick, who retired in May 2006, was strongly urged “not to travel and not to appear in public, so as not to provoke more hearsay about him,” but he said it was false to present those measures taken against him as punishments decreed by Pope Benedict XVI and then lifted by Francis.
“After a review of the archives, I find that there are no documents signed by either pope in this regard” Cardinal Oullet wrote.
That seems to undercut the central claim of Archbishop Viganò’s story. He had written in his August letter that he first learned from Cardinal Giovanni-Battista Re, Cardinal Oullet’s predecessor, of the punishment Benedict had imposed on Archbishop McCarrick. He has said his own predecessor in Washington, the late Archbishop Pietro Sambi, received instructions to enforce those measures.
Cardinal Ouellet suggests that the moves were merely precautionary.
“Thus, the Congregation’s decision was inspired by prudence, and the letters from my predecessor and my own letters urged him, first through the Apostolic Nuncio Pietro Sambi and then through you, to lead a life of prayer and penance, for his own good and for the good of the Church.”
The direct accusation by Archbishop Viganò was that he had personally told Francis about Cardinal McCarrick’s sexual misconduct during an audience with many papal emissaries on June 23, 2013.
“I can only imagine the amount of verbal and written information that was provided to the Holy Father on that occasion about so many persons and situations,” Cardinal Ouellet wrote. “I strongly doubt that the Pope had such interest in McCarrick, as you would like us to believe, given the fact that by then he was an 82-year-old Archbishop emeritus who had been without a role for seven years.”
To counter the archbishop’s description of Archbishop McCarrick as the pope’s American confidante and political ally, he writes that he had never heard Pope Francis even mention him.
Cardinal Ouellet ends his letter by accusing Archbishop Viganò of harboring political motivations.
“Dear Viganò, in response to your unjust and unjustified attack, I can only conclude that the accusation is a political plot that lacks any real basis that could incriminate the Pope and that profoundly harms the communion of the Church.”