VATICAN CITY — In a move described as unprecedented, Pope Francis has effectively stripped U.S. prelate Theodore McCarrick of his cardinal's title and rank following allegations of sexual abuse, including one involving an 11-year-old boy. The Vatican announced on Saturday that Francis ordered McCarrick to conduct a "life of prayer and penance" even before a church trial is held.
Breaking with past practice, Francis decided to act swiftly in the case of the emeritus archbishop of Washington, D.C., even before the accusations can be investigated by church officials. McCarrick was previously one of the highest, most well-known Catholic church officials in the United States and was heavily involved in the church's response there to allegations of priestly abuse.
The pope has ordered McCarrick's "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."
Among the boys McCarrick allegedly abused was a child he had baptized shortly after he was ordained a priest.
Francis received McCarrick's letter offering to resign from the College of Cardinals Friday evening, after recent weeks brought a spate of allegations that the 88-year-old prelate had for years sexually abused boys and had sexual misconduct with seminarians. The McCarrick case posed a test of the pontiff's recently declared resolve to battle what he called a "culture of cover-up" of similar abuses in the Catholic church's hierarchy.
The Vatican didn't say where McCarrick would be confined nor when a church trial might begin. The order suspending him from public ministry effectively approved a measure already taken against McCarrick since last month.
A Catholic University canon law expert, Kurt Martens, noted this was the first time an order of penance and prayer had been issued before a church trial takes place.
U.S. Catholics who have followed sexual abuse scandals involving clergy hailed stripping McCarrick of cardinal's rank as an unprecedented shift in how the Vatican has dealt with allegations against top churchmen.
"The Vatican almost never moves at this speed," said Terence McKiernan, of BishopAccountability.org.Inc., a Massachusetts-based nonprofit group that tracks clergy sexual abuse cases.
The pope appears to "understand the gravity of the situation and further harm to the Catholic church's status," he said in a telephone interview.
In the case of Scottish Cardinal Keith O'Brien, accused by former seminarians in 2013 of sexual misconduct, Francis only accepted his resignation after the Vatican's top abuse prosecutor conducted a full investigation, two years after the first revelations came out.
McCarrick had been already removed from public ministry since June 20, pending a full investigation into allegations that he fondled a teenager over 40 years ago in New York City. A man, who was 11 at the time of the first alleged instance of abuse, says a sexually abusive relationship continued for two more decades.
McCarrick denied the initial allegation.
The Rev. James Martin, the editor-at-large at America Magazine, which covers U.S. and worldwide church issues, tweeted that McCarrick's resignation means "means removal of the titles Cardinal' and 'Your Eminence."
Since McCarrick is over 80, he was already no longer eligible to vote in a conclave to elect the next pope. But being a cardinal is a top honor of the church, and those elevated to that rank are called upon to advise the pope.
Now McCarrick is no longer a cardinal.
Martin, a Jesuit like Francis, noted that Bernard Law was allowed to stay a cardinal after he resigned as Boston archbishop, following revelations that he had sanctioned the systematic cover-up of pedophile priests while presiding over that U.S. diocese.
After resigning his Boston post, Law was transferred to a prestigious job at a Rome basilica. That appointment, during the papacy of John Paul II, who was widely considered to have underestimated the scope and severity of the sex abuse scandals worldwide, triggered outrage from many survivors of sexual abuse by clergy.
McCarrick rose steadily up the U.S. church's ranks, from auxiliary bishop in New York City, to bishop in Metuchen, New Jersey, to archbishop of Newark, New Jersey, and then to Archbishop of Washington, D.C., the nation's capital.
Scandals involving pedophile clergy or cover-ups of such abuse have involved hierarchy as well as priests.
One of Francis' closest advisers, Cardinal George Pell, is the highest-ranking Catholic in the world to be charged in the church's global abuse scandal. The 77-year-old faces trial in his native Australia on decades-old child sex abuse allegations. Pell has denied wrongdoing. Details of the allegations haven't been made public.
Bishops have been implicated in the sexual abuse scandals that have stained the Catholic church's reputation worldwide for decades, often for their roles in covering up for pedophile priests by shuffling them from parish to parish and keeping the faithful in the dark about the allegations.
Earlier this month, an Australia bishop became the most senior Roman Catholic cleric to be convicted of covering up child sex abuse. Adelaide Archbishop Philip Wilson was sentenced to 12 months in detention by an Australian court in a landmark case welcomed by some abuse survivors as a strong warning to institutions that fail to protect children.