Theodore McCarrick, a former cardinal and archbishop of Washington, has been laicized by the Vatican, stripping him of all rights and obligations as a member of the clergy. The rare and severe penalty marks the end of the investigation into McCarrick launched by Rome after the Archdiocese of New York found allegations of sexual misconduct against the former cardinal credible last summer. According to a statement issued by the Vatican, McCarrick was found guilty of "solicitation in the Sacrament of Confession, and sins against the Sixth Commandment" involving both minors and adults, with "the aggravating factor of the abuse of power." These findings are based on allegations brought by a reported three accusers in 2018 during a penal process initiated by Rome. Pope Francis has rendered the verdict "definitive." There will be no appeal.
Rome's decision on McCarrick marks the first time a U.S. bishop has been laicized due to sexual abuse. While many U.S. priests have been laicized for the same, prelates such as McCarrick have been dismissed from the clerical state for sexual misconduct much more rarely - until now. The Vatican has laicized several recently, including two Chilean bishops, perhaps signaling the seriousness of Pope Francis's "zero tolerance" campaign against the sexual abuse of minors. But for McCarrick, the penalty represents a dizzying, precipitous fall from grace.
Before news of the allegations against him broke last summer, McCarrick was among the most powerful, well-connected prelates in America. Ordained in 1958, McCarrick was first assigned as a chaplain at the Catholic University of America, where he went on to serve as a dean of students for several years. In 1965, he was made a monsignor by Pope Paul VI and was named president of the Catholic University of Puerto Rico in Ponce, a stunning double feat for an up-and-comer in only his mid-30s.
McCarrick was called back to his native New York in 1969 by Cardinal Terence Cooke, who made McCarrick assistant secretary for education in the Archdiocese of New York; in 1971, Cooke made him his personal secretary. In 1977, he became an auxiliary bishop of New York; in 1981, the first bishop of Metuchen, New Jersey; and in 1986, the archbishop of Newark. In early 2001, McCarrick was installed as archbishop of Washington and shortly thereafter was made a cardinal by Pope John Paul II.
There was always a paradox to McCarrick, and something of a mystery: He was personally humble and folksy, distributing nicknames to friends and arriving at important events in threadbare jackets - but he also had an uncanny ability to insinuate himself among the ranks of the rich and powerful, and to persuade them to direct their largesse toward the church.
Which was the real McCarrick: “Uncle Ted,” the avuncular, easygoing, liberal priest with a heart for the developing world, or the jet-setting prelate intimate with money and power, who seemed finally to care so little for the vulnerable people he himself abused?
As head of the Papal Foundation, a nonprofit that fundraises for the Vatican, McCarrick raised millions for Rome, in part thanks to his capacity to make fast friends with the well-to-do. The plain-spoken priest from Washington Heights gave a warm homily at the funeral of Bing Crosby in 1977, and then offered the funerary mass for Beau Biden, Vice President Joe Biden's son, in 2015. He dined with President George W. Bush and Laura Bush, chatted education policy with President Richard Nixon and hosted Leona Helmsley at his 2000 birthday party in Midtown Manhattan.
It could've been either McCarrick's extraordinary facility with fundraising or his intense personal charisma or some combination thereof that made him such an indispensable figure in Rome. He hosted Pope John Paul II's first visit to New Jersey in 1995 ("He kept inviting the Pope, every time he saw him, for a long time," the Rev. Robert Fuhrman told The New York Times that year, "and lo and behold, one day, the Pope said yes"), and by the new millennium was variously described as an "emissary" of the pope and his "top man" in Washington. McCarrick spoke at length of his involvement in the election of Pope Francis as pontiff after the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI, and liked to reminisce about his friendship with Francis, which, he said, went back years before his papacy.
Were these the things that preserved him? In 2002, McCarrick told The Post that he had been accused of sexual abuse in an anonymous letter sent to various Catholic officials during his tenure as archbishop of Newark. Whence that letter, and who reviewed it? Who determined to take no further action? In 1993, Father Boniface Ramsey, now a priest in New York, spoke to Archbishop Thomas Kelly of Louisville, warning him about McCarrick. He sent a letter to the apostolic nuncio, the Vatican's U.S. embassy, in 2000 airing the same concerns, and another, in 2015, to Cardinal Sean O'Malley of Boston. The two letters were received by the nuncio and O'Malley's secretary, respectively, but again: nothing. Why? In 2004, Donald Wuerl, then bishop of Pittsburgh, forwarded an abuse allegation against McCarrick to the apostolic nuncio - again, to silence.
There are other questions, too, that now seem destined to go largely unanswered: Did McCarrick simply perpetrate abuse, or was he involved in its coverup in any of his illustrious posts? (The ongoing New Jersey investigation into allegations against the state's clergy may well yield answers here, though they won't play a role in the church's formal accounting of McCarrick's activities.) How many victims were there - seminarians, young men or minors? Reports on the Vatican's inquest list three individuals who submitted testimony of abuse by McCarrick, but I have learned in subsequent reporting of at least four others who testified, all of them from the same extended family.
Rome’s investigation appeared to gather just enough rope to hang McCarrick - but is that all there is? Are there more who hesitated to come forward? McCarrick declared his innocence when the allegations against him were first publicized last summer and hasn’t spoken on the charges since.
Still, the penumbra of questions around McCarrick ultimately issues from the mystery about the core of the man himself: Was any of this genuine? All of the pathos, the empathy, the cozy homespun charm - even the ambition, the tireless fundraising, the globe-trotting - were any of them rooted in sincere things? Or were they all means to an end, the darkness and breadth of which we may now never really understand?
McCarrick may always have been honest about one thing: He always called himself a sinner. In a 2008 essay, he wrote, "There is a hell. I hope there aren't too many people going there. . . . There are evil spirits in the world, but we have to hope that there'll always be - for everybody, even the worst of us - a moment when the Lord will say, 'Tell me, do you really not love me?' And the answer will be, 'I love you, and I am sorry.' "
Maybe McCarrick will repent at the very last, when all wrongs are finally accounted for. And maybe the penalty imposed on him today will come as some comfort to his victims - and maybe not. It is good that he was finally punished at the end of his 60-year tenure as a cleric. But there were so many chances.
Elizabeth Bruenig is an opinion columnist at The Washington Post.