SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Just five days before Pope Francis opens a global summit on clerical sex abuse, the pope approved the dismissal from the priesthood of a once-powerful American prelate, former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick. McCarrick had been found guilty by the Vatican of sexual abuse of minors and adults. He is the highest profile Roman Catholic figure in modern times to have been defrocked. NPR's Sylvia Poggioli joins us from Rome. Sylvia, thanks for being with us.
SYLVIA POGGIOLI, BYLINE: Thank you, Scott.
SIMON: Remind us again of the accusations against McCarrick.
POGGIOLI: Well, today, the Vatican spokesman, Alessandro Gisotti, read out the ruling handed down by the Vatican's theological watchdog office. McCarrick, who is 88 years old, was found guilty of the following crimes.
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ALESSANDRO GISOTTI: Solicitation in the sacrament of confessions and sins against the Sixth Commandment with minors and with adults with the aggravating factor of the abuse of power.
POGGIOLI: Now, the crime of solicitation takes place when a priest takes advantage of the sacrament of confession - when the penitent is at an emotionally vulnerable state - to commit an immoral act. And the Sixth Commandment in Catholic doctrine concerns sexual behavior and the vow of celibacy that all priests must take. The ruling, which is definitive, means that McCarrick can no longer consider himself a priest. And he cannot celebrate the sacraments. And as you may remember that - already last July, on the pope's orders, McCarrick became the first Catholic prelate in nearly 100 years to lose the title of cardinal. His downfall has really been stunning.
SIMON: There have been allegations about sexual misconduct around Cardinal McCarrick for a number of years, weren't there?
POGGIOLI: Absolutely. Rumors had been circulating and - around McCarrick. He had risen to a position of power as archbishop of Washington. Several priests and former priests came forward with allegations that he had used his authority to coerce seminarians studying for the priesthood to sleep with him. Then, last summer, allegations emerged that he had abused a minor some 50 years ago. Another man who claimed he'd been abused as a boy said McCarrick - then a priest - had touched his genitals during confession. In any case, he will not be prosecuted in the U.S. because the statute of limitations on these crimes has run out.
SIMON: The pope's decision is historic. Was it unexpected?
POGGIOLI: Not at all. We've been expecting it for weeks. The McCarrick case, along with several other clerical sex abuse scandals that erupted around the world, dominated headlines for much of 2018. This had led Pope Francis to calling to Rome the presidents of all the world's bishops conferences for a summit that starts next Thursday. And the pope wanted to have the McCarrick case closed before that event started. Spokesman Gisotti today also repeated a statement he issued in October when the scandals were really at their peak.
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GISOTTI: Both abuse and its cover up can no longer be tolerated. And a different treatment for bishops who have committed or covered up abuse in fact represents a form of clericalism that is no longer acceptable.
POGGIOLI: Now, you know, McCarrick was once one of the most powerful prelates in the Catholic Church. He was a globe-trotting power broker, one of the most successful fundraisers in the American church. His downfall is now raising questions about the protection he enjoyed during the papacy of Pope John Paul II, who has since been proclaimed a saint. If you remember, the first clerical sex abuse scandals in the U.S. revealed by The Boston Globe in 2002 were pretty much dismissed here at the Vatican. John Paul himself, who grew up in a communist state, had seen Polish police use pedophilia accusations against priests as slander. Others here at the Vatican saw the American abuse scandal at best as solely American, at worst as part of an anti-Catholic media campaign. That's no longer the case here. I spoke to a church historian today who said the defrocking of McCarrick can be seen as the first sign of a reassessment of the John Paul papacy.
SIMON: NPR's Sylvia Poggioli in Rome. Thanks so much for being with us, Sylvia.
POGGIOLI: Thank you, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.