The Vatican made a dramatic move this morning ahead of the upcoming synod dealing with the sexual abuse scandal in the Catholic Church. Former cardinal Theodore McCarrick got expelled from holy orders in a decision finalized by Pope Francis late yesterday and announced early this morning. McCarrick is the highest-ranking cleric to be defrocked over the sex-abuse scandal in recent decades, and McCarrick’s fall from the ranks of the church is perhaps the most dramatic ever:

The Vatican has defrocked former cardinal Theodore McCarrick, it said Saturday, making him the highest-ranking church official to date to be expelled from the priesthood for sex abuse.

A church tribunal found McCarrick guilty of “solicitation in the Sacrament of Confession and sins against the Sixth Commandment with minors and with adults, with the aggravating factor of the abuse of power,” the Vatican said. Pope Francis has approved the ruling and there is no possibility of appeal, the statement said.

That is the harshest form of punishment that the Vatican can take against non-resident priests. Crux editor in chief John L. Allen told CNN that this “the Catholic equivalent of the death penalty”:

Earlier today, the Vatican issued this terse statement, in both Italian and English:

On 11 January 2019, the Congresso of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, at the conclusion of a penal process, issued a decree finding Theodore Edgar McCarrick, archbishop emeritus of Washington, D.C., guilty of the following delicts while a cleric: solicitation in the Sacrament of Confession, and sins against the Sixth Commandment with minors and with adults, with the aggravating factor of the abuse of power. The Congresso imposed on him the penalty of dismissal from the clerical state. On 13 February 2019, the Ordinary Session (Feria IV) of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith considered the recourse he presented against this decision. Having examined the arguments in the recourse, the Ordinary Session confirmed the decree of the Congresso. This decision was notified to Theodore McCarrick on 15 February 2019. The Holy Father has recognized the definitive nature of this decision made in accord with law, rendering it a res iudicata (i.e., admitting of no further recourse).

The timing on this decision is no coincidence. Bishops from around the world will come to the Vatican next week to find a way to decisively deal with abusive priests and bishops within the Catholic Church. It starts off with a credibility deficit, and McCarrick was a big part of that deficit. Crux reports that McCarrick’s penalty is intended to emphasize a “zero tolerance” approach:

The timing of the announcement is not accidental, coming just ahead of a Feb. 21-24 summit convened by Pope Francis on the abuse scandals for the presidents of all bishops’ conferences in the world, the heads of Eastern churches in communion with Rome, and other senior Church officials.

The verdict is the result of a trial conducted under the terms of Church law within the Vatican’s powerful doctrinal watchdog, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which has had primary responsibility for overseeing disciplinary measures resulting from the abuse scandals since 2001.

In context, the McCarrick verdict is considered an important statement that the Church’s “zero tolerance” policy of permanently removing clergy from ministry who are guilty of sexual abuse of a minor applies across the broad, regardless of rank. The closest thing to a precedent is Francis decision last October to remove two Chilean bishops from the clerical state, both over allegations of sexual abuse of minors.

McCarrick’s punishment certainly makes it look like the Vatican has turned a corner on its approach in dealing with abusive priests. Behind the scenes, however, the situation looks murkier. The Wall Street Journal’s Francis X. Rocca reported on Thursday that a rift has opened between Pope Francis and crusader Cardinal Sean O’Malley as well as between the Vatican and US bishops, over just how aggressively the church must act to confront and end abuse:

Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston, chief adviser to Pope Francis on protecting children from sexual abuse, called a meeting with top papal aides in 2017, concerned the Vatican wasn’t living up to its promise of “zero tolerance.”

An appeals panel set up by the pope had reduced the punishments of a number of Catholic priests found guilty of abusing minors. In some cases, the panel canceled their dismissal from the priesthood and gave them short suspensions instead.

“If this gets out, it will cause a scandal,” Cardinal O’Malley told Cardinal Secretary of State Pietro Parolin, in effect the pope’s prime minister, and other Vatican officials, according to a person present. No action was taken to address the issue.

The Catholic Church’s handling of the long-running crisis over clerical sex abuse has exposed fissures within its hierarchy. Activists and some church leaders hoped the Vatican would take a tougher stance on abuse under Pope Francis—and thought a meeting next week at a global summit of bishops would make progress toward that goal.

Instead, the opposite has happened, deepening the gap between the Vatican and U.S. church leaders, who have pushed for a more stringent response. No clearer is the rift than in the relationship between Pope Francis and Cardinal O’Malley, a bearded Capuchin friar who likes to be called “Cardinal Sean.”

In the last few weeks, the Vatican has attempted to hold down expectations of the upcoming summit — whose organizers pointedly did not include Cardinal O’Malley. At the moment, it does not appear that structural reform for greater transparency and oversight of episcopal actions will be on the agenda. If this meeting produces no significant reforms, especially after Pope Francis ordered the US Conference of Catholic Bishops to refrain on voting for reforms here, the strong zero-tolerance message from McCarrick’s defrocking is likely to get buried.