The Defrocking of Theodore McCarrick: What This Means for Sexual Abuse Victims

In June of 2018, Theodore McCarrick, a former American cardinal, resigned from his post in the College of Cardinals after nearly a year-long investigation into claims that he had sexually abused minors and adult seminarians over the course of decades. Throughout this blog post we will be discussing and exploring the many nuances of this case including the following:

Who is Theodore McCarrick?

After becoming an ordained priest in 1958, Theodore McCarrick quickly rose through the ranks of the Catholic Church. Ultimately, Theodore McCarrick worked as one of the highest ranking senior officials for the Catholic Church within the United States—he was perhaps the most recognizable American Cardinal in the world and was known for his work as a diplomat on behalf of the Vatican and occasionally the U.S. State Department. He participated in the funeral masses for numerous high ranking government officials, including Edward M. Kennedy, the longtime Massachusetts senator, and Beau Biden, the son of former Vice President Joe Biden. However, most recently his name has entered the spotlight for being the highest-ranking church official to be expelled from the priesthood.

According to the Vatican, he was found guilty by the church tribunal for crimes of "solicitation in the Sacrament of Confession and sins against the Sixth Commandment with minors and with adults, with the aggravating factor of the abuse of power." Additionally, Pope Francis has approved this ruling which means there is no possibility of appeal and he will no longer be able to take the position of a priest in any form.

The ex-cardinal resigned from his post last year after the investigation had uncovered evidence that he had sexually abused an altar boy nearly 50 years ago. On top of this, there had also been numerous reports of sexual harassment and abuse towards seminarians that he taught and mentored at Immaculate Conception in Newark, New Jersey for decades. The further you look back at his involvement in the Catholic church, the more abuse you’ll uncover, even before he gained power and influence.

What Makes This Case Unique?

Many have heard about the clergy sexual abuse epidemic that occurred in Boston because of the popular film, Spotlight, that documented the Boston Globe’s investigation and reporting of their findings. Since then, investigations into clergy sexual abuse have skyrocketed, and have led experts to estimate that anywhere between 2 to 6 percent of Catholic clergy members have had involvement in sexual abuse of minors. This number does not include clergy members who knew about the abuse and chose to remain silent. So what makes this case so noteworthy? As previously stated, the case against Theodore McCarrick represents one of the most significant falls from grace for a member of the Catholic Church, and especially for an American Catholic cardinal.

Horrifically, what worsens this situation is the fact that McCarrick was involved in helping to address the sexual abuse scandals that have previously plagued the Catholic Church. Considering that he was a perpetrator of sexual abuse himself, it should come as no surprise that little was getting accomplished to help address this issue and find a solution.

Theodore McCarrick’s defrocking came five days before Pope Francis’s landmark summit that was intended to address these sexual abuse cases within the Catholic Church. Pope Francis acknowledges that these sexual abuse allegations surrounding the Catholic Church have swirled for years, and it has tarnished the reputation of the institution.

What Does McCarrick's Fall Represent?

With the defrocking of Theodore McCarrick, Pope Francis has shown that he will not tolerate sexual abusers within the Catholic Church. He has shown his Catholic clergy that abusers and those who participate in the cover-ups of abuse will not go ignored or unpunished as has happened so often in the past. This will be a major stepping stone and landmark in his papacy as this case against McCarrick shows us how high up the chain these sexual abuse allegations can go. Furthermore, we have seen the way other high ranking officials have dealt with these allegations—in most cases burying them or ignoring them altogether.

How These Cases Have Been Handled in the Past

Sexual abuse cases within the Catholic Church have become so prevalent that it has led to the bankruptcy of a number of Catholic dioceses. In Lansing, Michigan, for example, the Archdiocese had to pay out $250,000 to the sexual abuse victims, but other places like Minneapolis, Minnesota, have had to pay out over $210 million, which ultimately led the church to file for bankruptcy. While these financial payouts are a help to the victims of sexual abuse, they don’t do nearly enough to make up for the trauma and pain this systemic abuse has caused.

What will Happen to McCarrick?

Unfortunately, no formal charges have been brought against Theodore McCarrick, but Pope Francis has stated that Theodore McCarrick will be taken to confined seclusion for his pending trial. This represents a serious intensification of actions taken against McCarrick, but unfortunately, without a real prosecution from the United States criminal justice system, it seems as though McCarrick may get away with abuse allegations that extend as far back as 1969. The lack of criminal charges is due in part to the expiration of the statute of limitations, but only time will tell whether the U.S. Justice System will intervene in any capacity.

The trial of ex-cardinal Theodore McCarrick is not the first for the Catholic church, nor will it be the last, but hopefully with time and the proper people in place, the church can prevent such heinous crimes from being committed in the future.

What This Means for the Future

Many have speculated that the Catholic church will soon need to face its own #MeToo movement in order to fully come to terms with, understand, and eradicate the course of this systemic issue.

Additionally, there have been similarities drawn between Harvey Weinstein and McCarrick. Harvey Weinstein was a powerhouse producer known throughout Hollywood. Everyone wanted to work with him because they believed he had the power to spark their careers in the film and television industry. It wasn’t until recently that people began to speak out against his actions which included sexual harassment and sexual abuse against aspiring actresses. Similarly to what happened with Weinstein, many people knew about McCarrick's alleged sexual abuse but kept quiet until it ultimately boiled over.

McCarrick held a position of great power and used this to manipulate young men and boys to his will. This is especially true when we look at the instances of McCarrick’s abuse of the young seminarians he looked after. They believed he could be trusted, they looked up to him, and they thought if they followed him and listened to him that they would be following a safe and righteous path towards priesthood. McCarrick knew this and took advantage of their faith and trust in him, just as Harvey Weinstein did to the young actresses he lured into hotel rooms.

While there is no comfort to find in the past actions of the church, we can, in the meantime, take some comfort in knowing that the Church has begun to take steps to prevent this kind of epidemic from occurring in the future.

If you or someone you love has been the victim of sexual abuse by a Catholic priest, we encourage you to come forward and bring those responsible to justice. Your pain and suffering no longer need to exist in the dark. At White Law, we will fight for you to get you the justice you deserve and have been denied for too long. Even if the statute of limitations has passed on your case, you could still be entitled to some financial compensation. By coming forward, you are helping ensure that others will not be subject to this kind of heinous abuse by showing that these crimes will not be tolerated.