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Why McCarrick’s defrocking represents an ‘extraordinary signal’ for the Catholic Church

The Catholic Church has taken the most severe measure yet to respond to sexual abuse, and its concealment. Pope Francis defrocked former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, who becomes the first cardinal thrown out of the church for sexual abuse. William Brangham talks to journalist John Allen of Crux about whether this marks a new chapter in the church’s approach to addressing its sex abuse crisis.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    This past weekend, the Vatican made its strongest move yet against sexual abuse in the church by defrocking former U.S. Cardinal Theodore McCarrick for abusing children and adults. McCarrick is the first former cardinal to be thrown out of the church.

    William Brangham examines whether this marks a new chapter in the church's approach.

  • William Brangham:

    The move against McCarrick is seen by many as a turning point in the pope's handling of this crisis, which some have argued has thus far been too slow and too timid. While hundreds of priests have been thrown out of the church, few leaders as senior as McCarrick have been punished.

    This sexual abuse scandal has struck a tremendous blow to the church's authority, and, of course, has left thousands of victims traumatized.

    Now, as bishops from around the world gather in Rome this week for an unprecedented conference to address sexual abuse, we turn to John Allen. He's been covering the Catholic Church for decades. He's written 11 books on the topic and is now the editor of the Crux, an online site covering the Catholic world.

    He joins me from Rome.

    John Allen, welcome back to the "NewsHour."

    For those people who have not been following this as closely as you have for so long, can you help us understand? The Vatican's punishment of McCarrick this weekend, explain the significance of that.

  • John Allen:

    I think what you have to understand is that, for a cleric — that is, a priest or a deacon in the Catholic Church — being defrocked — I mean, the technical phrase is being dismissed from the clerical state — is the most severe punishment that church law can impose.

    It's essentially the Catholic equivalent of the death penalty. And so to see that happen, not simply to an ordinary parish priest who's accused of sexual abuse, but to a cardinal — and this, of course, is the first time that a cardinal has been laicized for the crime sexual abuse of a minor — that's an extraordinary signal by the Vatican and by Pope Francis.

    What it essentially indicates is that the church's stated commitment to zero tolerance — that is, permanent removal from ministry for one act of sexual abuse of a minor — applies at all levels. And that obviously is a signal the Vatican wanted to send ahead of the summit that you mentioned that opens here in Rome on Thursday this week.

  • William Brangham:

    Prior to this move on Saturday, there were many who were arguing that the pope wasn't doing enough.

    Can you summarize what their criticism of him has been?

  • John Allen:

    The message has gone out that, if you are a priest, a deacon, a bishop, now even a cardinal in the Catholic Church, and you are found guilty of sexually abusing a minor, you're out.

    What the church has not adopted — and this is the point that critics have made and will continue to make this week around the summit that's taking place in Rome — is that the church doesn't have an equally strong system of accountability for the cover-up of that crime.

    That is, there are bishops, religious superiors, other leaders in the church who have been accused, and with some basis, of turning a blind eye to abuse committed by people under their authority, of deliberately ignoring it, willfully not knowing about it. They have not suffered this kind of consequence.

  • William Brangham:

    As you know, on Sunday, there was a press conference held by Bishop Accountability, this U.S. advocacy group for victims, and they said that there are many more McCarricks out there. And they named five bishops that they said should face the same fate as he did.

    I'm curious, do you think that is likely, that more senior leaders will be punished?

  • John Allen:

    Actually, I think that's quite likely.

    The five bishops that they names are bishops who have, much like former Cardinal and now former priest Theodore McCarrick, they have been accused directly of the crime of sexual abuse.

    I think the church has established the principle that, if there is a credible accusation of sexual abuse against someone, they're going to be punished, and quite likely will suffer this most severe form of punishment, which is being kicked out of the priesthood.

    Now, what Bishops Accountability and other advocacy groups would also add is that they want the same kind of accountability for the cover-up, not just for the crime. I think that's much more an open question, whether a similar sort of punishment is going to be imposed for concealing the crime, rather than committing it directly.

  • William Brangham:

    About this conference, I'd like to read something that you wrote recently. You wrote: "Perhaps this summit can't deliver everything, but it had damn well better deliver something."

    What would that something be, in order for it to be thought of as meaningful?

  • John Allen:

    Well, honestly, I think the answer to that question depends on where you are in the world.

    I mean, places such as the United States, much of Western Europe, they have experienced the clerical sexual abuse scandals for the better part of two decades now with full force. I think the expectations there are very different than they would be, say, in sub-Saharan Africa or much of Asia, pockets of Latin America, that have not at all experienced the sexual abuse crisis.

    There, I think the expectations would be much more minimal. They would simply like their bishops to be aware that there is a problem and to begin taking steps to address it.

    But I think people who have lived with this scandal for a long time, their expectation would be that out of this summit would come a clear, unambiguous commitment to a policy of zero tolerance, both for the crime of clerical sexual abuse and also for the cover-up of that crime.

    And I suspect that, for many people in the United States, survivors of abuse, reformers, activists around this issue, if this summit doesn't deliver a clear endorsement of that kind of zero tolerance, then they are going to construe it to be a flop.

  • William Brangham:

    All right, John Allen of the Crux, thank you very much.

  • John Allen:

    You're welcome.

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