The Defrocking of Cardinal McCarrick

In case you haven’t heard, the Church officially defrocked or laicized Cardinal McCarrick. The Vatican has gone all out to publicize this ruling, declaring it revolutionary. The NYTImes reports: “Pope Defrocks Theodore McCarrick, Ex-Cardinal Accused of Sexual Abuse.” NCR and CRUX also provide good coverage, and useful supplements to the Times.

Much is being made of the fact that McCarrick is the first U.S. bishop to be laicized. While the Vatican claims this shows a radical change in its approach to child abuse, I am not convinced. Cardinal McCarrick was found guilty on several counts of abuse. He didn’t only cover up crimes of sex abuse, he actually committed them himself. They laicize abusive priests and bishops. How would they justify not laicizing an abusive cardinal?

Cardinal Pell of Australia has already been found guilty of several offenses, and is still being tried on several other counts. Pell was appointed to several high posts by Pope Francis, and is especially close to him. I suspect the contemplated treatment of Cardinal Pell has affected the handling of Cardinal McCarrick.

The timing of the sentence is noteworthy. The announcement was made days before Pope Francis’ child abuse summit, which the Pope and the Vatican are desperately trying to downplay. It is highly likely that the summit will be a disappointment, and result in complaints that Pope Francis is doing too little about abuse. I think that McCarrick’s sentence is designed in part to prevent such charges. That’s why the spinmeisters have emphasized the role of Pope Francis in this ‘revolutionary’ treatment of a cardinal.

One point about the punishment. Normally, laicized priests continue to live in subsidized housing. They lose their jobs, and can no longer conduct Catholic sacraments or rites, but they continue to receive financial benefits, including housing and pensions. The Times and at least one other source said that Cardinal McCarrick “loses church-sponsored housing and financial benefits.” This would be unusual if true. But I don’t think the Church will allow him to become destitute. Perhaps they know that the cardinal has amassed money over the years. Perhaps they know of support from unofficial channels. Organizations like the Knights of Columbus could fund it out of petty cash, and there is no shortage of wealthy individuals.

The Background

The Times pointed out that Archbishop Viganò claimed that Pope Francis not only knew about Cardinal McCarrick’s crimes, but helped cover them up. NCR went further, reporting charges that Pope Francis “lifted sanctions imposed on McCarrick by now-retired Pope Benedict XVI.”

CRUX went even further: “What remains to be seen, for many observers, is whether the Vatican will also take action against those who covered-up for McCarrick or ignored the allegations.” They alluded to evidence that the Church hierarchy had known about some of McCarrick’s crimes for many years, going back to the papacy of John Paul II. They also noted that “the dioceses of Metuchen and Newark, both in New Jersey, disclosed in June that they had made settlements with some of [McCarrick’s] victims, all of whom were adults.” Some key dates have not been disclosed.

CRUX reports that the Vatican is conducting a further investigation into the history of McCarrick’s crimes. They say the report might not be released because “it could be damaging to St. John Paul II’s legacy, as well as those of his closest collaborators: Polish Cardinal Stanisław Dziwisz, his personal secretary; Italian Cardinal Angelo Sodano, Secretary of State; and Argentine Cardinal Leo.”


While the Vatican and its friends are proclaiming that McCarrick’s sentence marks a watershed in the Church’s handling of the abuse crisis, it is too early to tell. We’ll have more information after Cardinal Pell is sentenced. And even that will not tell us how the Church will address executive covering up of crimes, which is far more important than punishing executive commission of sex crimes. It will be interesting to see if the upcoming summit will shed any light on these matters. To date, the Vatican has not exposed very much of the dirt under its rugs.


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