Pope Francis (right) and US Cardinal Theodore McCarrick. Image Credit: File

Vatican City: Disgraced former US Cardinal Theodore McCarrick has been expelled from the Roman Catholic priesthood following allegations against him, including sexual abuse of minors, the Vatican said on Saturday.

McCarrick, who in July became the first Roman Catholic prelate in nearly 100 years to lose the title of cardinal, has now become the highest-profile church figure to be dismissed from the priesthood in modern times.

The decision comes as the Church is still grappling with a decades-long sexual abuse crisis that has exposed how predator priests were moved from parish to parish instead of being defrocked or turned over to civilian authorities in countries across the globe.

Ruling announced

With the ruling, Pope Francis appears to be sending a signal that even those in the highest echelons of the hierarchy will be held accountable.

The ruling, made by the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith three days ago, was announced ahead of next week’s meeting at the Vatican between the heads of national Catholic churches to discuss the global abuse crisis.

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McCarrick appealed the decision, which was made secretly in the first instance on January 11, but it was upheld earlier this week and the pope has ruled that no further appeal would be allowed.

Defrocking means McCarrick can no longer call himself a priest or celebrate the sacraments, although he would be allowed to administer to a person on the verge of death in an emergency.

The allegations against McCarrick, whose fall from grace stunned the US Church, date back to decades ago when he was still rising to the top of the hierarchy there.

McCarrick, who became a power-broker as Archbishop of Washington, D.C. from 2001 to 2006, has been living in seclusion in a remote friary in Kansas.

He has responded publicly to only one of the allegations, saying he has “absolutely no recollection” of an alleged case of sexual abuse of a 16-year-old boy more than 50 years ago.

A Vatican statement said McCarrick was found guilty of the crimes of sexual abuse with minors and adults and the separate crime of solicitation, both with “the aggravating factor of the abuse of power.”

Crime in confession

The crime of solicitation refers to when a priest uses the pretext of the sacrament of confession to commit an immoral act with a penitent.

One of men who has claimed that McCarrick abused him when he was a boy said McCarrick, then a priest, touched his genitals during confession.

Separately, several priests and ex-priests have come forward alleging McCarrick used his authority to coerce them to sleep with him when they were adult seminarians studying for the priesthood.

McCarrick has not commented publicly on the allegations of misconduct with adults, which was an open secret in the US Church.

Thorough study

Francis ordered a “thorough study” last year of all documents in Holy See offices concerning McCarrick.

The four US dioceses where he served — New York, Metuchen, Newark, and Washington, D.C. — have launched independent investigations.

The pope wanted the case completed before heads of national Catholic churches meet at the Vatican from February 21-24 to discuss the crisis, three sources said.

The meeting offers a chance for him to respond to criticism from victims of abuse that he has stumbled in his handling of the crisis and has not done enough to make bishops accountable.

McCarrick had already received one of the most severe punishments short of defrocking. When the pope accepted his resignation as cardinal last July, he also ordered him to refrain from public ministry and live in seclusion, prayer and penitence.