By Cindy Wooden, Catholic News Service
VATICAN CITY (CNS) – Pope Francis has accepted the resignation from the College of Cardinals of Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick, retired archbishop of Washington, and has ordered him to maintain “a life of prayer and penance” until a canonical trial examines accusations that he sexually abused minors.
The announcement came first from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and a few minutes later from the Vatican press office.
The press office said July 28 that the previous evening Pope Francis had received Archbishop McCarrick’s letter of “resignation as a member of the College of Cardinals.”
“Pope Francis accepted his resignation from the cardinalate and has ordered his suspension from the exercise of any public ministry, together with the obligation to remain in a house yet to be indicated to him, for a life of prayer and penance until the accusations made against him are examined in a regular canonical trial,” the Vatican statement said.
In late June, Archbishop McCarrick, the 88-year-old retired archbishop of Washington, said he would no longer exercise any public ministry “in obedience” to the Vatican after an allegation he abused a teenager 47 years ago in the Archdiocese of New York was found credible. The cardinal has said he is innocent.
In the weeks that followed the announcement, another man came forward claiming he was abused as a child by Archbishop McCarrick and several former seminarians have spoken out about being sexually harassed by the cardinal at a beach house he had.
Although unusual, withdrawal from the College of Cardinals in such circumstances is not unheard of. Just 10 days before then-Pope Benedict XVI retired in 2013, Scottish Cardinal Keith O’Brien announced he would not participate in the conclave to elect Pope Benedict’s successor because he did not want media attention focused on him instead of the election of a new pope.
Pope Benedict had accepted the cardinal’s resignation as archbishop of St. Andrews and Edinburgh after reports that three priests and a former priest had accused the cardinal of “inappropriate conduct” with them going back to the 1980s.
One week after the conclave that elected Pope Francis, the Vatican announced the new pope accepted Cardinal O’Brien’s decision to renounce all “duties and privileges” associated with being a cardinal. He died March 19.
USCCB offers pope thanks
Cardinal Daniel N. DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, USCCB president, thanked the pope for accepting Archbishop McCarrick’s resignation from the College of Cardinals.
In a July 28 statement he said: “I thank the Holy Father for his leadership in taking this important step. It reflects the priority the Holy Father places on the need for protection and care for all our people and the way failures in this area affect the life of the church in the United States.”
In New Jersey, Cardinal Joseph W. Tobin of Newark, an archdiocese then-Archbishop McCarrick headed from 1986-2000, stated July 28: “The somber announcement from the Vatican this morning will impact the Catholic community of the Archdiocese of Newark with particular force.”
“This latest news is a necessary step for the church to hold itself accountable for sexual abuse and harassment perpetrated by its ministers, no matter their rank,” Cardinal Tobin said. “I ask my brothers and sisters to pray for all who may have been harmed by the former cardinal, and to pray for him as well.”
Before being named to Newark, then-Bishop McCarrick was founding bishop of the Diocese of Metuchen, New Jersey, serving there 1981 to 1986. Other reaction from U.S. bishops included a strongly worded letter from Bishop Michael F. Olson of Fort Worth Texas, to the people of the diocese.
A Texas bishop’s rebuke
“Ministry in the church is a grace from God that carries with it sober responsibility. Ministry is not a right to be claimed by anyone as an entitlement; rather, it involves a convenantal trust established through our baptism as members of the church established by Christ,” he said.
“We see in the scandalous crimes and sins alleged to have been committed by now former Cardinal McCarrick, the violation of trust and the grave damage caused to the lives and health of his purported victims,” he continued. “The scandal and pain are compounded by the horrific fact that reportedly one of his victims was his first baptism after his priestly ordination.”
Bishop Olson said the former cardinal’s alleged crimes “have caused further damage to the integrity of the hierarchy and the mission of the church,” and as a result “his prompt reduction canonically to the laity should be strongly deliberated.”
The Texas bishop also said church leaders who knew of the former cardinal’s “alleged crimes and sexual misconduct and did nothing (must) be held accountable for their refusal to act thereby enabling others to be hurt.”
Bishop Olson added that the Fort Worth diocese “and I have zero tolerance for sexual abuse against minors, as well as against vulnerable adults by its clergy, staff and volunteers, including me as bishop.” He assured Catholics that any such allegation is taken seriously and swiftly acted on according to the diocese’s protocols.
Another resignation: Australian Archbishop Wilson
Pope Francis also accepted the resignation of Archbishop Philip Wilson, who had been found guilty by an Australian court of failing to inform police about child sexual abuse allegations. The Vatican made the announcement July 30.
Archbishop Wilson of Adelaide was sentenced to 12 months of house arrest by the Newcastle Lower Court July 3 with another hearing set for Aug. 14 to assess the location of his home detention.
The archbishop was convicted in May for failing to report allegations of child sexual abuse by a priest in the 1970s. He stepped aside from his duties in the Adelaide Archdiocese May 25 but at the time maintained his title as archbishop.
Archbishop Wilson had resisted calls to resign and had said July 4 he would do so only if an appeal of his conviction had failed.
However, “there is just too much pain and distress being caused by my maintaining the office of archbishop of Adelaide, especially to the victims of Father (James) Fletcher,” Archbishop Wilson said in a statement released July 30.
“I must end this and therefore have decided that my resignation is the only appropriate step to take in the circumstances,” he said.
Archbishop Wilson said the pope did not ask him to resign, but he submitted his request to the pope July 20 “because I have become increasingly worried at the growing level of hurt that my recent conviction has caused within the community.”
Hoping for healing
The archbishop said he hoped and prayed his decision would be a “catalyst to heal pain and distress” and allow everyone in the archdiocese, including victims of Father Fletcher, to, according to the archdiocese’s statement, “move beyond this very difficult time.”
The Newcastle court found that, in 1976, then-Father Wilson had been told by a 15-year-old boy that he had been indecently assaulted by a priest, but that Father Wilson chose not to go to the authorities despite believing the allegations were true. Father Fletcher, the abusive priest, was convicted in 2004 of nine counts of child sexual abuse and died in 2016 while in prison.
Archbishop Wilson, who had led the Archdiocese of Adelaide since 2001, is the highest-ranking church official to be convicted of covering up abuse charges. He recently was diagnosed with early stages of Alzheimer’s disease, and throughout the magistrate’s hearing he testified that he had no memory of the conversation with the 15-year-old.
Archbishop Mark Coleridge, president of the Australian Catholic Bishops’ Conference, said that “while the judicial process will continue, Archbishop Wilson’s resignation is the next chapter in a heartbreaking story of people who were sexually abused at the hands of Jim Fletcher and whose lives were forever changed.”
“This decision may bring some comfort to them, despite the ongoing pain they bear,” he said in a written statement released July 30.
“Archbishop Wilson has been praised by many for his work to support victims and survivors of child sexual abuse as bishop of Wollongong, archbishop of Adelaide and president of the bishops’ conference,” Archbishop Coleridge wrote.
However, he said, Archbishop Wilson has decided “that his conviction means he can no longer continue as archbishop because to do so would continue to cause pain and distress to many, especially to survivors, and also in the Archdiocese of Adelaide.”
Meanwhile, the Australian Catholic Bishops’ Conference announced July 26 it would hold a special meeting Aug. 2-3 in Melbourne to expedite the Catholic Church’s formal response to the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.
Archbishop Coleridge said in a statement that they had received additional advice from the Truth, Justice and Healing Council, the Implementation Advisory Group, Catholic Professional Standards Limited, local safeguarding experts and canon lawyers that would better inform the bishops’ response.
“We have also begun discussions with the Holy See about issues that concern the discipline and doctrine of the universal church,” he wrote.
The archbishop said he hoped the bishops’ formal response to the Royal Commission would be released as soon as possible after the early August meeting.
The commission released its report in December 2017 after five years of hearings, nearly 26,000 emails and more than 42,000 phone calls from concerned Australians. The report made 20 recommendations to the Catholic Church, including asking the bishops’ conference to work with the Holy See to change the Code of Canon Law “to create a new canon or series of canons specifically relating to child sexual abuse.”
Another recommendation was for the Australian bishops to work with the Holy See to determine if the absolute secrecy concerning matters discussed during confession also applies to a child confessing he or she has been abused sexually. The report also said the church should consider if “absolution can and should be withheld” if a person confesses to perpetrating child sexual abuse.
The commission called for improved screening of and formation for members of religious orders.