Pope Francis recently suspended Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick, a former archbishop of Washington who was accused of sexually assaulting a teen, from the ministry. Shortly after that, more abuse allegations flooded in.
Now, about a week after at least four new allegations against McCarrick surfaced, the man who became the highest ranking American official in the Church to be formally accused of child sexual assault became the first to step down from the College of Cardinals. Pope Francis accepted his resignation and ordered him to a “life of prayer and penance,” according to the New York Times.
Acting swiftly to contain a widening sex abuse scandal at the highest levels of the Roman Catholic Church, the pope officially suspended the cardinal from the exercise of any public ministry after receiving his resignation letter Friday evening. Pope Francis also demanded in a statement that the prelate remain in seclusion “until the accusations made against him are examined in a regular canonical trial.”
Cardinal McCarrick appears to be the first cardinal in history to step down from the College of Cardinals because of sexual abuse allegations. While he remains a priest pending the outcome of a Vatican trial, he has been stripped of his highest honor and will no longer be called upon to advise the pope and travel on his behalf.
This case has already made history several times over, but what would be really impressive is a stiff sentence resulting from the internal Vatican trial. That’s unlikely, though, because many clergymen who undergo that Church-based practice leave unscathed (despite overwhelming evidence against them).
If a life of prayer is the only punishment McCarrick receives, though, it would be a troubling slap on the wrist. He’s accused of sexually abusing several adults and children, including an 11-year-old who went by “James” in news reports.
Among his alleged victims is a man who has told reporters that he was 11 when McCarrick first exposed himself to him. Identified as “James” in news reports, the alleged victim expressed hope that McCarrick’s resignation would help other victims “become free” and foster healing.
The Vatican and Pope Francis are certainly acting more quickly than they have in the past, and being slightly more proactive than is tradition, but we’ll see how far that goes. Will they actually punish McCarrick based on their internal investigation? Will they hold others accountable if they were aware of thew abuses but said nothing? Is the #MeToo movement powerful enough to force Church leaders to hold offenders accountable?
A resignation would be the easy way out. The Church owes the victims far more than McCarrick’s quiet retreat from accountability.