Pope Francis on Saturday accepted the resignation of Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, one of the U.S. Catholic Church’s most prominent figures, who has been at the center of a widening sexual abuse scandal.
McCarrick, 88, the former archbishop of Washington, D.C., is the first cardinal in living memory to lose his red hat and title. Other Cardinals who have been disciplined in sexual abuse scandals kept their membership in the College of Cardinals and their honorific “your eminence”.
The allegations against McCarrick, which first surfaced publicly last month, came with Francis facing an image crisis on a second front, in Chile, where a growing abuse scandal has enveloped the Church.
A Vatican statement said the pope, acting only hours after McCarrick offered his resignation on Friday night, ordered his suspension from the exercise of any public ministry. This means he remains a priest but will be allowed to say Mass only in private.
Francis also ordered McCarrick to go into seclusion “for a life of prayer and penance until the accusations made against him are examined in a regular canonical trial”.
The Vatican said the pope wanted to send a strong message that high rank would no longer be a shield.
“The important point is that McCarrick is no longer a cardinal. What this means is that, no matter how important your position, no matter how prestigious, when it comes to sex abuse you’re going to be held accountable. That is the message being sent today,” spokesman Greg Burke told reporters.
McCarrick’s sudden fall from grace stunned the American Church because he was a widely respected leader for decades and a confidant of popes and presidents.
Last month, American Church officials said allegations that he sexually abused a 16-year-old boy almost 50 years ago were credible and substantiated.
Since then, another minor has come forward with allegations that McCarrick abused him when he was 11 years old, and several men have come forward to allege that McCarrick forced them to sleep with him at a beach house in New Jersey when they were adult seminarians studying for the priesthood.