The sexual abuse accusations against a prominent American archbishop reveal a "grievous moral failure" within the Catholic Church, the president of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops said on Tuesday.
Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, president of the Catholic bishops conference, also said the conference "will pursue the many questions" about the accusations against Archbishop Theodore McCarrick "to the full extent of its authority."
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"Our Church is suffering from a crisis of sexual morality," DiNardo said. "The way forward must involve learning from past sins."
DiNardo's statement comes as the Catholic Church, including Pope Francis, is facing a quickly escalating sexual abuse scandal that has ensnared top church leaders on several continents.
On Saturday, the Vatican announced that Pope Francis had accepted the resignation of McCarrick, 88, from the College of Cardinals, one of the most powerful bodies in the Catholic Church.
On Monday, Pope Francis accepted the resignation of Australian Archbishop Philip Wilson of Adelaide, the highest-ranking Catholic official ever to be convicted of covering up sex abuse. Another Australian church leader, Cardinal George Pell, is on trial for sexual abuse charges from decades ago.
On Wednesday, Bishop Ronald Gainer of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, released the names of 71 priests, deacons and seminarians who had been accused of sexually abusing minors since the 1940s. Gainer has also ordered his diocese to remove the names of bishops who failed to protect children from sexual abuse from places of honor on church property, including buildings and rooms.
"The decision to remove names of bishops and clerics may prove to be controversial, but as a bishop, I strongly believe that leaders of the Diocese must hold themselves to a higher standard, and must yield honorary symbols in the interest of healing," Gainer said in a statement.
In May, every bishop in Chile offered his resignation to Pope Francis after a three-day emergency summit at the Vatican to discuss Chile's sex abuse scandal. Five of the resignations have been accepted, according to the Vatican.
The accusations against McCarrick, the first American cardinal ever to be removed from ministry because of a sexual abuse accusation, has presented the church with one of its toughest challenges to date.
Not only was McCarrick a powerful and popular figure in the American church, but he apparently was allowed to remain serving in prominent posts, including in the College of Cardinals, even after two dioceses in New Jersey had reached settlements with alleged victims.
On Saturday, the Archdiocese of Washington said neither Cardinal Donald Wuerl, McCarrick's successor, nor others in the archdiocese were aware of the settlements.
"The confidential settlements involving acts by Archbishop McCarrick in the Diocese of Metuchen and the Archdiocese of Newark were not known previously to Cardinal Wuerl or the Archdiocese of Washington," the archdiocese said in a statement.
McCarrick has been ordered by the Pope to lead a "life of prayer and penance until the accusations made against him are examined in a regular canonical trial."
The Pope also ordered McCarrick's suspension from public ministry and instructed him to "remain in a house yet to be indicated to him" until the trial.
A spokesperson said McCarrick is unavailable for comment. In June, when the accusations against him first came to light, the former cardinal maintained his innocence.
"While I have absolutely no recollection of this reported abuse, and believe in my innocence, I am sorry for the pain the person who brought the charges has gone through, as well as for the scandal such charges cause our people," McCarrick said in a statement.
But the Archdiocese of New York, where the alleged abuse occurred, said a review board composed of jurists, law enforcement experts, parents, psychologists, a priest and a religious sister found the allegations against McCarrick to be "credible and substantiated."
Patrick Noaker, the attorney for the man who made the accusation against McCarrick, said his client was molested by McCarrick on two separate occasions, once in 1971 and once the following year. Noaker said his client has asked to remain anonymous because he is still processing the news of McCarrick's removal.
McCarrick was also accused three times of sexual misconduct with adults "decades ago" while he served as a bishop in Metuchen and Newark, New Jersey, the current bishops of those cities said. Two of those allegations resulted in settlements, the bishops said.
Last week, Cardinal Sean O'Malley of Boston, one of the Pope's top advisers on sexual abuse, said the charges against McCarrick reveal a "major gap" in the church's policies on sexual abuse. While there are policies in place to deal with abusive priests, no such policies exist for cardinals and bishops.
"The Church needs a strong and comprehensive policy to address bishops' violations of the vows of celibacy in cases of the criminal abuse of minors and in cases involving adults," O'Malley said, warning that failure to take action "will threaten and endanger the already weakened moral authority of the Church."
It is unclear, though, what steps bishops can take to discipline their fellow bishops, who usually operate with a degree of autonomy in their diocese.
DiNardo said he has convened the US Conference of Catholic Bishops' executive committee to try to answer that and other questions. More than 250 bishops from around the country will attend their annual meeting this November, where the issue is expected to be at the top of the agenda.
"These failures raise serious questions," DiNardo said in his statement Wednesday. "Why weren't these allegations of sins against chastity and human dignity disclosed when they were first brought to Church officials? Why wasn't this egregious situation addressed decades sooner and with justice?"