The criminal case against a former cardinal who was once one of the most prominent and revered Catholic leaders in the country was suspended Wednesday, possibly ending efforts to prosecute him on sex abuse charges.
Theodore McCarrick, the highest-ranking Catholic official in the nation to be criminally prosecuted on charges of sexual abuse, was found not competent to stand trial.
Wisconsin county Judge David M. Reddy did not dismiss the case outright, since he said he did not have the power to do so. That decision will be up to District Attorney Zeke Wiedenfeld, who was not immediately available for comment on Wednesday. His deputy, Jim Sempf, said Mr. Wiedenfeld said Tuesday, the day before the hearing, that he had not wanted to dismiss the charges.
But any future prosecution would likely be difficult. Mr. McCarrick is 93, and his lawyers say he suffers from dementia. The Wisconsin judge said he was “not likely to be competent” within the rest of the statutory time frame that would allow the case to proceed.
The next hearing was not scheduled until December, though the case could be dismissed earlier.
Mr. McCarrick did not attend Wednesday’s hearing. His attorney, Jerome Buting, said the ruling “isn’t a victory or defeat, it’s reality.”
Mr. McCarrick had faced similar charges in Massachusetts, but a judge there ruled in August that he was not competent to stand trial. That, plus Wednesday’s suspension, disappointed victims and their supporters who wanted to see Mr. McCarrick face criminal consequences.
“It’s deplorable, but it’s not at all surprising,” Anne Barrett Doyle, co-director of the advocacy group BishopAccountability.org, said of the case’s apparent end. “We shouldn’t accept as normal that Catholic bishops evade justice.”
Though the Roman Catholic Church has acknowledged that hundreds of priests abused thousands of children and young people over decades, criminal prosecutions are rare because of statutes of limitations. Many of the alleged perpetrators have died, and victims are not always willing to come forward. Some victims have filed civil suits against the church, which have resulted in payouts and bankruptcy for some archdioceses.
The state of Wisconsin had commissioned its assessment of Mr. McCarrick by the same expert in the Massachusetts case, Kerry Nelligan, who came to the same conclusion about the cognitive decline.
Mr. McCarrick, the former archbishop of Washington, D.C., was charged with one count of fourth-degree sexual assault in Wisconsin last year, stemming from an accusation that he assaulted an 18-year-old in 1977 at a home on Geneva Lake where they were both guests. The victim told law enforcement he was swimming near a dock when Mr. McCarrick and another adult man entered the water and fondled his genitals without his consent.
The charge in Wisconsin was a misdemeanor, carrying the possibility of nine months in prison and a $10,000 fine. But after the charges in Massachusetts were dismissed, it represented what was likely the last best hope for survivors of sexual abuse in Catholic settings to see a criminal case brought against Mr. McCarrick.
At the hearing in Massachusetts last year, he attended by video, where he appeared frail and did not speak. Mr. McCarrick has said he has no memory of the abuse and that he believes he is innocent.
The criminal charge against Mr. McCarrick in Wisconsin was able to proceed because of a quirk in state law: Because he did not live in the state at the time of the alleged abuse, the clock on Wisconsin’s statute of limitations stopped once he left the state, so it did not expire as it would have if he were a resident. Prosecutors in Massachusetts used the same strategy to file the charges there.
“McCarrick is a case study for why statutes of limitation must be reformed in every state,” Ms. Barrett Doyle said. “Whether sexual abuse is prosecutable shouldn’t depend on the perpetrator’s travel plans.”
Climbing the ranks of the Catholic hierarchy, Mr. McCarrick moved from leading the small Diocese of Metuchen, N.J., to become the archbishop of Newark, where he led a large public mass for Pope John Paul II in 1995. Later, as archbishop of Washington, he received the title of cardinal, and socialized with politicians and media figures. He participated in funerals and memorial services for figures like Ronald Reagan and Beau Biden, the son of Joe Biden, then the vice president.
When a church investigation found Mr. McCarrick had been credibly accused of sexually abusing a teenage altar boy in the 1970s, he was removed from the ministry in 2018. He was removed from the priesthood the following year, after a Vatican trial. In 2020, the Vatican released an explosive report examining how Mr. McCarrick was able to rise in the church despite church leaders receiving multiple warnings that he had abused minors and adult seminarians over the course of decades.
The criminal prosecution of Mr. McCarrick, though it represented a fraction of the accusations against him, was a hard-won triumph for advocates for victims of sexual abuse in the church.
The prospect of Mr. McCarrick being forced to answer questions in a criminal trial “gave some hope to survivors that no matter who you are, no matter your power or station in life, you won’t be able to go into that good night without some kind of accountability,” said Peter Isely, a founding member of the organization Ending Clergy Abuse who lives in Milwaukee and was in the courtroom on Wednesday.
Despite all the accusations against Mr. McCarrick, Mr. Isely added, “this man never saw a jail cell.”
Robert Chiarito contributed to this story.