• Sara Larson

Mr. McCarrick Has Been Defrocked. Is That The End Of This Story?

Updated: Feb 22, 2019

In case you missed it, this weekend brought big news on former-cardinal Theodore McCarrick: This serial abuser has been dismissed from the clerical state or, as the headlines call it, “defrocked.” I’m not a reporter, so I’m not going to attempt to summarize all of the events that led up to this decision. However, before I go any further, I would invite you to read these two articles from the New York Times, which give a good summary of the basic facts of the case.

From July 16, 2018: He Preyed on Men Who Wanted to Be Priests. Then He Became a Cardinal

From February 16, 2019: Pope Defrocks Theodore McCarrick, Ex-Cardinal Accused of Sexual Abuse

Go ahead and read, I’ll wait right here…


In brief, Theodore McCarrick was found 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 Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, who handled the case, found McCarrick guilty on January 11th and rejected his appeal on February 13th. They “imposed on him the penalty of dismissal from the clerical state.” (By the way, it’s always good to read primary sources rather than just summaries from news agencies - or amateur bloggers! - so I would encourage you to read the official decree here.)

This penalty means that McCarrick can no longer celebrate the Mass or present himself as a priest in any public capacity. He will also lose any financial support and housing provided by the Church. It’s not clear what the 88-year old former priest will do with the remaining years of his life; he will now be known simply as “Mr. McCarrick.” (For an interesting examination of what it means for a priest to be defrocked, see Michelle Boorstein’s excellent and theologically-sound article in the Washington Post: 'What difference does it make to McCarrick?’ Critics question the value of defrocking.)

(Side Note: To respond to the often-asked question, “Why aren’t these guys in jail?”: That is a question for civil authorities. As far as I understand, when the statute of limitations - which varies state-by-state - has expired, there is not much that can be done within our United States criminal justice system. We might find that reality unjust, but that’s a conversation for another day and is not the direct responsibility of the hierarchy of the Catholic Church.)

The Church has admitted that McCarrick is guilty and has punished him accordingly. This is good news. In a bureaucracy that works very slowly (on all matters, not just those of clerical abuse), this is a fairly quick response, at least if you only count the months since the American public started paying attention. As a former cardinal who traveled in very elite circles all around world, McCarrick is the highest-ranking and most powerful man to be laicized for sexual abuse, and that is a big deal.

But this is not the end of the story. It can’t be the end of the story.

Yes, McCarrick has been convicted and punished to the highest degree possible in canon law. But there is so much more that needs to be done, so many questions that need to be answered. It’s important that we keep on asking those questions and seeking reform. In the next few days, I plan to offer some further reflection on what we can learn from this case. For now, I will just raise a few questions that still need answers:

  • Who knew about McCarrick’s behavior and when? What other members of the hierarchy (from local priests all the way up to the popes) were aware of these issues and did nothing, or not enough, to protect the vulnerable? Who were McCarrick’s protectors and enablers? We know there must be many of them - Will they face consequences for their actions or inactions, or will they remain unnamed and continue to wield power in the Church?

  • What happened during McCarrick’s many humanitarian and diplomatic trips for the Church and for the United States government? What misconduct and corruption might be uncovered if we start asking questions in Ethiopia, Burundi, Cuba, Haiti, or any of the long list of countries he visited over the years?

  • Was McCarrick involved in any financial misconduct along with the pervasive sexual misconduct? History shows us that the two often go together, and McCarrick certainly had his hands in many large financial transactions.

  • Why did Pope Francis recently appoint McCarrick’s protégé and former roommate, Cardinal Kevin Farrell, to the symbolically important role of camerlengo, responsible for the administration of the Vatican upon Pope Francis’ death? While Cardinal Farrell claims he never suspected McCarrick of any misconduct, this seems almost impossible to believe given their close association. Even if Farrell was unaware, why would the Pope make such a questionable appointment at this time in the Church, when he claims to be taking sexual abuse and cover up seriously?

  • What kind of clerical culture allowed McCarrick’s abuse to continue for decades, even when his misconduct was widely known? Why did so many seminarians who suffered abuse feel completely unable to report it at the time? How have the power structures of the Church been used to silence voices who speak out against Church leaders? Has that clerical culture really changed?

We, the Church, need to get to the bottom of these questions, to truly understand what happened and why, so that we can actually move forward in purifying and healing our Church.

How might we find answers?

  • Diocesan Investigations: For reasons that were not made public, the Vatican declined the USCCB’s request for Vatican representatives to conduct an “apostolic visitation” to investigate McCarrick’s story. Instead, individual bishops in the dioceses where McCarrick worked (New York; Metuchen, New Jersey; Newark; Washington, D.C.) have initiated investigations. No reports have been made from these investigations. When the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops met at their General Assembly in November, several younger bishops raised questions and pushed for further investigation into “the McCarrick situation.” Some bishops do seem very motivated to pursue the truth, but only time will tell how deeply these investigations will probe and how much information will be shared with the public.

  • Vatican Review: Although the Vatican did not agree to conduct an apostolic visitation, Pope Francis did order “a thorough review” of Vatican records regarding McCarrick. Very little information has been given about this investigation so far. It’s unclear to me whether the Vatican investigation will continue to dig into the remaining questions, or if they will consider the “case closed” with McCarrick’s verdict. Based on my observations of past behavior, I am not hopeful that this Vatican investigation will dig deeply into these questions and root out high-level enablers of McCarrick.

  • Vatican Summit: While many Americans seem to be pinning their hopes on the abuse summit coming up this week in Rome, the official statements about this meeting do not give any indication that the ongoing questions about McCarrick will be addressed. (More on the summit in a blog post later this week.) I would not expect any specific action or information regarding McCarrick to come from this meeting.

  • Watchdog Groups: Say what you will about the tactics and tone of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, Bishop Accountability, Ending Clergy Abuse, and other advocacy groups. The fact remains that they have invested years into investigating and uncovering clergy sexual abuse, even when no one else (including me) was paying attention. They are highly motivated to keep on digging, and I think they may be a key component to uncovering the truth.

  • Investigative Journalism: Many powerful people in the Church have much to lose if people keep on asking these questions, so I’m honestly not sure if we can count on the truth being revealed through Church investigations. Unfortunately, the hierarchy seems to respond most diligently only after the media brings attention to a story, so it seems like our best hope to get answers to these questions is through the ongoing investigations of both Catholic and secular journalists. I truly hope that they will keep asking these important questions and not give up until we have real answers.

For a more in-depth reflection on some of the open questions surrounding McCarrick, check out this article from veteran Vatican-observer John Allen:

Despite Defrocking, the Fat Lady Hasn’t Yet Sung on the McCarrick Saga


I will write more on McCarrick soon, but for now, I will close this post with words from Cardinal Sean O’Malley, Archbishop of Boston, who is one of the leading voices calling the Church to account for her sins:

“The seriousness of [Theodore McCarrick’s] final dismissal notwithstanding, it cannot in and of itself provide healing for those so terribly harmed by the former Archbishop's scandalous violations of his ministry or for their families. Also, the Holy Father's action by itself will not bring about the healing needed in the Catholic community and our wider society; both are justifiably appalled and outraged that the former Archbishop could have for so long inflicted harm on minors and young adults vulnerable in the life of the Church. As leaders for the Church, as cardinals and bishops, we are rightfully judged by our actions and not our words. Sincere apologies and petitions for forgiveness must be part of the healing process but standing alone they ring hollow in light of the revelations of sexual abuse by clergy that have come forth during the past year and almost twenty years prior. Leadership in the Church must enforce accountability for cardinals and bishops if we hope to have the opportunity to engage the laity in the work of tangible change in the Church.”


Mighty God, let your justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

(Amos 5:24)

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