VATICAN CITY (AP) -- Pope Francis has defrocked former U.S. Cardinal Theodore McCarrick after Vatican officials found him guilty of soliciting for sex while hearing confession and of sexual crimes against minors and adults, the Holy See said Saturday.
McCarrick, 88, is the highest-ranking Catholic churchman to be laicized, as the process is called. It means he can no longer celebrate Mass or other sacraments, wear clerical vestments or be addressed by any religious title. He is the first churchman who reached the rank of cardinal to be defrocked in the church's sex abuse scandals.
The punishment for the once-powerful prelate, who had served as the archbishop of Washington, spent years in New Jersey dioceses and had been an influential fundraiser for the church, was announced five days before Francis leads an extraordinary gathering of bishops from around the world to help the church grapple with the crisis of sex abuse by clergy and the systematic cover-ups by church hierarchy. The decades-long scandals have shaken the faith of many Catholics and threaten Francis' papacy.
The scandal swirling around McCarrick was particularly damning to the church's reputation because it apparently was an open secret in some church circles that he slept with adult seminarians. Francis removed McCarrick as a cardinal in July after a U.S. church investigation determined that an allegation he fondled a teenage altar boy in the 1970s was credible.
The Vatican's press office said the Holy See's doctrinal watchdog office, the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, found McCarrick on Jan. 11 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 commandment forbids adultery.
The officials "imposed on him the penalty of dismissal from the clerical state." It considered his appeal on Wednesday and upheld its ruling, telling McCarrick Friday of that decision, the Vatican said.
McCarrick, when he was ordained a priest in his native New York City in 1958, took a vow of celibacy in accordance with church rules on priests.
The pope "has recognized the definitive nature of this decision made in accordance with (church) law, rendering it as 'res iudicata,'" the Vatican said, using the Latin phrase for admitting no further recourse.
One victim, James Grein, the son of a family friend of McCarrick's, had testified to church officials that, among other abuses, McCarrick had repeatedly groped him during confession. He said the abuse, which went on for decades, began when he was 11.
"Today I am happy that the pope believed me," Grein said in a statement issued through his lawyer.
Grein also expressed hope that McCarrick "will no longer be able to use the power of Jesus' church to manipulate families and sexually abuse children."
Adding that it's "time for us to cleanse the church," Grein said pressure needs to be put on state attorney generals and senators to change the statute of limitations for abuse cases.
"Hundreds of priests, bishops and cardinals are hiding behind man-made law," he said.
McCarrick's civil lawyer, Barry Coburn, told The Associated Press that for the time being his client had no comment on the defrocking. Coburn also declined to say if McCarrick was still residing at the Kansas friary where he had moved to when Francis ordered him to live in penance and prayer while the investigation continued.
The archdiocese of Washington, D.C., where McCarrick was posted at the pinnacle of his clerical career, from 2001-2006, said in a statement it hoped that the Vatican decision "serves to help the healing process for survivors of abuse, as well as those who have experienced disappointment or disillusionment because of what former Archbishop McCarrick has done."
Complaints were also made about McCarrick's conduct in the New Jersey dioceses of Newark and Metuchen, where he previously served.
Francis' move marks a remarkable downfall for the globe-trotting powerbroker and influential church fundraiser who mingled with presidents and popes but preferred to be called "Uncle Ted" by the young men he courted.
The Vatican summit, which starts Thursday and runs through Feb. 24, will draw church leaders from around the world to talk about preventing sex abuse. It was called in part to respond to the McCarrick scandal as well as to the explosion of the abuse crisis in Chile and its escalation in the United States last year.
Despite the apparent common knowledge in church circles of his sexual behavior, McCarrick rose to the heights of church power. He even acted as the spokesman for U.S. bishops when they enacted a "zero tolerance" policy against sexually abusive priests in 2002.
That apparent hypocrisy, coupled with allegations in the Pennsylvania grand jury report detailing decades of abuse and cover-up in six dioceses, outraged many among the rank-and-file faithful who had trusted church leaders to reform how they handled sex abuse after 2002.
The allegation regarding the altar boy was the first known against McCarrick to involve a minor — a far more serious offense than sleeping with adult seminarians.
Francis himself became implicated in the decade-long McCarrick cover-up after a former Vatican ambassador to the U.S. accused the pope of rehabilitating the cardinal from sanctions imposed by Pope Benedict XVI despite being told of his penchant for young men.
Francis hasn't responded to those claims. But he has ordered a limited Vatican investigation. The Vatican has acknowledged the outcome may produce evidence that mistakes were made, but said Francis would "follow the path of truth, wherever it may lead."
An advocate for church accountability in the sex abuse crisis demanded Saturday that Francis "tell the truth about what he knew and when he knew it" about McCarrick. Anne Barrett Doyle of BishopAccountability.org says also demanded that the pope use immediately laicize other abusive bishops.
In a statement, she said of the 101 accused bishops her group has tracked, McCarrick is only the seventh to be laicized. She said the other 94 either still hold the title of bishop or did so until they died.
Vatican watchers have compared the McCarrick cover-up scandal to that of the Rev. Marcial Maciel, perhaps the 20th-century Catholic Church's most notorious pedophile. Maciel's sex crimes against children were ignored for decades by a Vatican bureaucracy impressed by his ability to bring in donations and vocations. Among Maciel's staunchest admirers was Pope John Paul II, who later became a saint.
Like Maciel, McCarrick was a powerful, popular prelate who funneled millions in donations to the Vatican. He apparently got a calculated pass for what many in the church hierarchy would have either discounted as ideological-fueled rumor or brushed off as a mere "moral lapse" in sleeping with adult men.