A powerful former US cardinal has been expelled from the Catholic Church for sex offences against minors and adults following a Vatican trial, becoming the highest ranking figure cast out from the priesthood in modern times.
The defrocking of Theodore McCarrick, who served as archbishop of Washington DC and mingled with presidents and popes but who asked young men to call him "Uncle Ted", was announced by the Holy See on Saturday.
A Vatican trial found the 88-year-old guilty of soliciting for sex while hearing Confession as well as sexual abuse of minors and adults, officials said.
The claims included a sexual assault on a teenager in New York’s St Patrick’s Cathedral in the 1970s, first made public by the current archbishop of New York, Timothy Dolan, last year.
Several men then said McCarrick forced them into sex at a beach house in New Jersey while they were studying for the priesthood. Another came forward with further allegation of assault while he was a minor.
McCarrick, who has been living in isolation in a Kansas priory since losing his title as cardinal last July, had claimed to have "no recollection" of the alleged assault on the teenager, and never publicly addressed the other claims.
It later emerged that financial settlements had been made in at least two cases of sexual misconduct involving the cardinal.
The unprecedented punishment of such a senior prelate comes just days before Pope Francis is due to hold an extraordinary summit of bishops from around the world to address the sexual abuse crisis that has shaken the Church to its foundations.
The decades-long scandals involving sexual crimes by clergy and systematic cover-ups by the church hierarchy have undermined the faith of many Catholics. The allegations have run so deep that last year all 34 of Chile’s bishops tendered their resignation en masse after being excoriated by the pontiff for "grave negligence" in their handling of abuses.
In the United States, Pennsylvania prosecutors found 300 priests were involved in child sexual abuse since the 1940s, crimes covered up by a series of bishops. Prosecutors in half a dozen other US states have announced plans for similar investigations.
McCarrick is unlikely to face criminal charges due to the US statute of limitations, though he could face civil suits.
But it is an astonishing downfall for the influential cardinal who, despite being officially retired, had continued to travel the world on Church business, including human rights work.
The scandal was particularly damaging to the Church because McCarrick’s sexual behaviour, at least involving adults, was apparently an open secret. Despite that, he was allowed to ascend to the highest ranks, and in 2002 even acted as a spokesman for a "zero tolerance" policy against sexually abusive priests in the US.
"Today I am happy that the pope believed me," said one of his main accusers, James Grein, who had testified that, among other abuses, McCarrick had repeatedly groped him during confession.
In a statement issued through his lawyer, Mr Grein called for a reform of the statute of limitations, saying: "Hundreds of priests, bishops and cardinals are hiding behind man-made law." It is "time for us to cleanse the Church," he urged.