Pope Francis has defrocked former US Cardinal Theodore McCarrick after Vatican officials found him guilty of soliciting for sex while hearing Confession and sexual crimes against minors and adults, the Holy See said on Saturday.
The punishment for the once-powerful prelate, who had served as the archbishop of Washington and had been an influential fundraiser for the church, was announced five days before Francis is set to lead an extraordinary gathering of bishops from around the world to help the church grapple with the crisis of sex abuse by clergy and systematic cover-ups by church hierarchy. The decades-long scandals have shaken the faith of many Catholics and threatened his papacy.
Defrocking means McCarrick, 88, who now lives in a friary in Kansas after he lost his title of cardinal last year, won't be allowed to celebrate Mass or other sacraments.
The Vatican's press office said that on January 11, the Holy See's doctrinal watchdog office, the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, had found McCarrick guilty of "solicitation in the Sacrament of Confession, and sins against the Sixth Commandment with minors and adults, with the aggravating factor of the abuse of power".
The officials "imposed on him the penalty of dismissal from the clerical state".
The Sixth Commandment regards sexual behaviour. In addition, McCarrick, when he was ordained a priest his native New York City in 1958, took a vow of celibacy, in accordance with church rules on priests.
McCarrick appealed the penalty, but the doctrinal officials earlier this week rejected his recourse, and he was notified on Friday, the Vatican announcement said.
The pope "has recognised the definitive nature of this decision made in accordance with (church) law, rendering it as 'res iudicata'," the Vatican said, using the Latin phrase for admitting no further recourse.
That meant McCarrick, a one-time "prince of the church", as cardinals are known, becomes the highest-ranking churchman to be laicised, or dismissed from the clerical state. It marks a remarkable downfall for the globe-trotting powerbroker and influential church fundraiser who mingled with presidents and popes but preferred to be called "Uncle Ted" by the young men he courted.
The scandal swirling around McCarrick was even more damning to the church's reputation in the eyes of the faithful because it apparently was an open secret that he slept with adult seminarians.
No response from Francis
The Vatican summit, running February 21-24, draws church leaders from around the world to talk about preventing abuse. It was called in part to respond to the McCarrick scandal as well as to the explosion of the abuse crisis in Chile and its escalation in the United States last year.
Despite the apparent common knowledge in church circles of his sexual behaviour, McCarrick rose to the heights of church power - he was archbishop of Washington from 2001-2006 - and even acted as the spokesperson for US bishops when they enacted a "zero tolerance" policy against sexually abusive priests in 2002.
That perceived hypocrisy, coupled with allegations in the Pennsylvania grand jury report detailing decades of abuse and cover-up in six dioceses, outraged many among the rank-and-file faithful who had trusted church leaders to reform how they handled sex abuse after 2002.
Francis removed McCarrick as a cardinal in July after a US church investigation determined that an allegation he fondled a teenage altar boy in the 1970s was credible. It was the first known allegation against McCarrick involving a minor - a far more serious offense than sleeping with adult seminarians.
But Francis himself became implicated in the decade-long McCarrick cover-up after a former Vatican ambassador to the US accused the pope of rehabilitating the cardinal from sanctions imposed by Pope Benedict XVI despite being told of his penchant for young men.
Francis hasn't responded to the claims. But he has ordered a limited Vatican investigation. The Vatican has acknowledged the outcome may produce evidence that mistakes were made, but said Francis would "follow the path of truth, wherever it may lead".
McCarrick moved from his Washington retirement home to a Kansas religious residence after Francis ordered him to live in penance and prayer pending final outcome of the investigation.
It wasn't immediately clear if he would be allowed to continue to live in a religious residence.
Vatican watchers have compared the McCarrick cover-up scandal to that of the Rev Marcial Maciel, perhaps the 20th-century Catholic Church's most notorious pedophile. Maciel's sex crimes against children were ignored for decades by a Vatican more impressed by his ability to bring in donations and vocations. Among Maciel's staunchest admirers was Pope John Paul II, who later became a saint.
Like Maciel, McCarrick was a powerful and popular prelate who funnelled millions in donations to the Vatican. He apparently got a calculated pass for what many in the church hierarchy would have either discounted as ideological-fuelled rumour or brushed off as a mere "moral lapse" in sleeping with adult men.