Late Saturday night, an 11-page letter attributed to Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò was published by the National Catholic Register, Life Site News and a number of other sites that report about the church. In it, the former Vatican ambassador to the United States under Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis makes a number of allegations about how Vatican and U.S. cardinals, as well as Pope Francis and previous popes, handled allegations of sexual misconduct against former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick. He also calls on Pope Francis to resign.
On Sunday morning, Archbishop Viganò confirmed the authenticity of the letter, but he told The Washington Post he would not comment further.
Asked about the letter during his press conference while returning to Rome from Ireland, Pope Francis confirmed that he had read it but refused to respond to it in detail, telling the journalists on the plane, “Read the statement carefully and make your own judgment. I will not say a single word on this.” He also said they had the “journalistic capacity” to draw their own conclusions and that once some time has passed, he may speak further in response.
Read the statement carefully and make your own judgment. I will not say a single word on this.
What the archbishop alleges
The letter alleges that the Vatican was made aware of allegations of sexual misconduct by then-Archbishop McCarrick as early as 2000. He says that high-ranking church officials turned a blind eye to his reports that then-Cardinal McCarrick should be removed from ministry, until 2009 or 2010, when, he alleges, Pope Benedict XVI sanctioned the cardinal, who by then had retired as archbishop of Washington, D.C. He alleges that Pope Francis lifted those sanctions in 2013, despite him verbally informing Francis about then-Cardinal McCarrick’s dossier and Benedict’s restrictions of his ministry.
Archbishop Viganò also says that Cardinal Donald Wuerl, then-Cardinal McCarrick’s successor in Washington, knew about the penalties imposed on the former cardinal McCarrick, and thus charges that Cardinal Wuerl is lying when he says he did not know about his predecessor’s alleged behavior.
The letter also alleges that Archbishop McCarrick played “kingmaker” under Francis, responsible for the appointments of Cardinal Blase Cupich to the Archdiocese of Chicago, Cardinal Joseph Tobin to the Archdiocese of Newark and Bishop Robert McElroy to the Diocese of San Diego.
The archbishop also devotes a number of pages to what he alleges is a “homosexual network” in the church, which he blames for the church’s continued sexual abuse crisis and cover up.
Here’s what he doesn’t allege
In this instance, what Archbishop Viganò does not allege is nearly as important as what he does. He does not say that Pope Francis knew about allegations that Archbishop McCarrick sexually abused a minor. That allegation is what eventually caused the pope to remove the former cardinal from ministry in June, after a review board in the Archdiocese of New York found the allegations to be credible and substantiated. Archbishop McCarrick resigned from the College of Cardinals in July.
In this instance, what Archbishop Viganò does not allege is nearly as important as what he does. He does not say that Pope Francis knew about allegations that Archbishop McCarrick sexually abused a minor.
Why some people find it credible
Archbishop Viganò held an important post in the church, representing the Holy See to the United States under two popes. He would have known intimately the inner workings of the U.S. church and he would have been in touch with leaders of the church here and in Rome on a regular basis. He says in his letters that all his allegations can be confirmed by memos and files kept at the nunciature, or the Vatican’s embassy, in Washington. The allegations in the letter are detailed, including dates and quotes, which some have suggested indicate that the archbishop took careful notes that he used in what he called his “testimony.”
Others note that Pope Francis’ handling of sexual abuse allegations in the church have been lacking, pointing to the lack of progress made by his own sexual abuse commission, the doubts he expressed toward victims of clerical sexual abuse in Chile and the lack of urgency on the part of the pope to implement new procedures for holding bishops accountable. They say the charges laid out in Archbishop Viganò’s letter fit this pattern.
Why others are skeptical
Some Catholics have expressed skepticism about charges in the letter for different reasons.
For one, Archbishop Viganò has a checkered history when it comes to sex abuse in the church. When Archbishop John Nienstedt, the former head of the Archdiocese of Minneapolis-St. Paul who was a vocal opponent of same-sex marriage, was accused of mishandling sexual abuse claims, Archbishop Viganò, who was then the pope’s representative to the United States, used his office to quash an inquiry into the allegations once investigators discovered charges of sexual misconduct against Archbishop Nienstedt, who eventually resigned.
Others say that one of the central claims of the letter, that Pope Benedict placed sanctions on Cardinal McCarrick, which were kept secret, that were later lifted by Pope Francis, does not hold up. According to Archbishop Viganò, who says he learned about them from Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re, the sanctions were placed in 2009 or 2010. Initial reporting by the National Catholic Register said that the retired pope remembers ordering the sanctions but not their exact nature. But Cardinal McCarrick continued to keep a public profile during Benedict’s pontificate.
Others say that one of the central claims of the letter, that Pope Benedict placed sanctions on Cardinal McCarrick, which were kept secret, that were later lifted by Pope Francis, does not hold up.
In 2011, he celebrated Mass and preached publicly, including an ordination in June and again in October at Saint Patrick’s Cathedral. He also testified before the U.S. Congress, he appeared on Meet The Press, and he also accepted at least two awards.
The following year, then-Cardinal McCarrick accompanied other U.S. bishops to a meeting in January with Pope Benedict at the Vatican. During the same trip, he concelebrated Mass with Cardinal Wuerl and the other U.S. bishops at the tomb of St. Peter. In April, then-Cardinal McCarrick was back in Rome, part of a delegation from The Papal Foundation to wish Pope Benedict a happy birthday.
Cardinal McCarrick was even present at Pope Benedict’s final meeting with the cardinals in 2013 before he stepped down; the pair are seen shaking hands.
In May of 2013, just two months after Francis was elected pope, Archbishop Viganò concelebrated a Mass, along with Cardinal McCarrick and Cardinal Wuerl, before The Catholic University of America’s Annual Cardinals’ Dinner, hosted by the school’s president, John Garvey.
Still others have pointed to Archbishop’s Viganò’s perceived hostility toward Pope Francis, noting that the pope recalled the archbishop from his post in 2016. The decision came after the Vatican decided Archbishop Viganò had become too enmeshed in U.S. culture wars, particularly regarding same-sex marriage: He arranged the meeting between Pope Francis and Kim Davis, the former Kentucky clerk who refused to sign a marriage certificate for a same-sex couple, blindsiding the pope during his 2015 U.S. visit.
The timing of the letter’s release has also raised questions. It was made available early to news outlets in the United States and Italy known for their opposition to Pope Francis and its timing,in the midst of Pope Francis’ two-day visit to Ireland for the World Meeting of Families and on the eve of his return journey to Rome, seemed designed to force the pope to confront the allegations during his customary in-flight press conference.
Archbishop Viganò has also not explained why he did not make his grave concerns about then-Cardinal McCarrick’s behavior known publicly sooner.
The claims that then-Cardinal McCarrick acted as “kingmaker” may also be overblown, according to some church experts. David Gibson, director of Fordham's Center on Religion and Culture who formerly covered the Vatican as a journalist, told America that this claim seemed to be “highly exaggerated because it serves Viganò’s purposes,” but noted that it may also reflect “McCarrick’s sense of his own influence and importance.” He said that while it is true that Archbishop McCarrick shared many of Francis’ priorities and had some influence, “there were many other people with more influence, particularly with regard to the selection of bishops.”
How victims of abuse and advocates are reacting
Peter Isely, a survivor of abuse, told The New York Times that the letter appears to be about church politics. “This is infighting between curia factions that are exploiting the abuse crisis and victims of clergy sexual abuse as leverage in the struggle for church power,” he said. “The sexual abuse crisis is not about whether a bishop is a liberal or a conservative. It is about protecting children.”
This is infighting between curia factions that are exploiting the abuse crisis and victims of clergy sexual abuse as leverage in the struggle for church power.
The advocacy group Bishop Accountability did not say Francis should resign but hoped the letter would encourage the pope to take more concrete actions on sex abuse. It also took issue with Archbishop Viganò for implying the issue of sexual abuse has been mismanaged by progressive bishops. “Both liberal and orthodox bishops have covered up the abuse crisis, just as both liberal and orthodox priests have abused children, often using their respective ideologies as cover and even as tools of seduction,” the group said, according the The National Catholic Reporter.
Marie Collins, a survivor of abuse who previously served on the Vatican’s sexual abuse commission, told The National Catholic Reporter that Francis condemned Archbishop McCarrick during a private meeting with her and other victims in Ireland over the weekend but added, “I've no idea if what is in [the] letter [is] true or not."
How some people named in the report are reacting
Three of the central characters in the report—Pope Francis, Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI and Archbishop McCarrick—are still living, but none has yet weighed in on the specific charges. During his flight from Ireland to Rome, Pope Francis said he may comment on the allegations in the letter at some point in the future, but he urged journalists to “read the statement carefully and make your own judgment.”
Among others named in the report, a spokesman for Cardinal Donald Wuerl denies the charges in the report. Ed McFadden told The Post, “Cardinal Wuerl did not receive any documentation or information during his time in Washington regarding any actions taken against” the former archbishop.
On Aug. 27, the Archdiocese of Washington reiterated in a press release that Cardinal Wuerl did not receive information from Archbishop Viganòo about sanctions placed on then-Cardinal McCormick.
“Archbishop Viganò at no time provided Cardinal Wuerl any information about an alleged document from Pope Benedict XVI with directives of any sort from Rome regarding Archbishop McCarrick,” the statement reads.
The archdiocese also called for an investigation into Archbishop Viganò’s time as the pope’s representative in the United States, saying that the only way Cardinal Wuerl would have known to remove his predecessor from ministry was with information from the former nuncio.
“Perhaps the starting point for a serene and objective review of this testimony is the inclusion of Archbishop Viganò’s tenure as Apostolic Nuncio to the United States in the mandate of the Apostolic Visitation already called for by Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, President of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops,” the statement continues, referring to a request to the Vatican from U.S. bishops earlier this month for an investigation of allegations of mismanagement in the case of Archbishop McCarrick.
Cardinal DiNardo released a statement on Monday as well, saying he convened the bishops conference executive committee on Sunday to discuss the latest allegations.
“The recent letter of Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò brings particular focus and urgency to this examination,” Cardinal DiNardo said, adding that he is seeking an audience with Pope Francis. “The questions raised deserve answers that are conclusive and based on evidence. Without those answers, innocent men may be tainted by false accusation and the guilty may be left to repeat sins of the past.”
Two other U.S. cardinals named in the letter also weighed in, calling the allegations untrue.
Cardinal Cupich released a statement on Sunday calling the letter “astonishing” and correcting what he said are factual errors. He points to Archbishop Viganò’s claim that he was appointed to the Vatican body that chooses bishops “right after he was made a cardinal,” but notes he was appointed to the Congregation for Bishops in July 2016 and that he was not named a cardinal until October. He called for a “thorough vetting” of the claims made in the letter.
Cardinal Tobin also discounted the allegations in the letter, saying in a statement on Aug. 27 that they “cannot be understood as contributing to the healing of survivors of sexual abuse.”
The statement said the letter is filled with “factual errors, innuendo and fearful ideology.” It said the church pledges to “move ahead resolutely” in its efforts to protect children and to break down the “structures and culture that enable abuse.”
“Together with Pope Francis, we are confident that scrutiny of the claims of the former nuncio will help establish the truth,” the statement says.
Archbishop Charles J. Chaput of Philadelphia commented via his spokesperson to the New York Times that Archbishop Viganò’s service as nuncio had been “marked by integrity to the church” but said that he could not comment on the letter as it was “beyond his personal experience.” Though he is not named explicitly in the letter, Archbishop Viganò alleges in the letter that Pope Francis spoke negatively of Archbishop Chaput as someone too ideological to be an effective bishop.
Questions remain unanswered
The archbishop has so far refused to speak to the press about the allegations in his letter, other than to confirm that he wrote it, so a number of questions remain. Most urgently, did Francis know about allegations of sexual misconduct leveled against then-Cardinal McCarrick but nonetheless urge him to act as a global diplomat? If so, why?
Most urgently, did Francis know about allegations of sexual misconduct leveled against then-Cardinal McCarrick, but nonetheless urge him to act as a global diplomat? If so, why?
Also, why did then-Cardinal McCarrick continue his public ministry throughout Benedict’s papacy if the former pope had sanctioned the D.C. archbishop? What, if anything, was Francis told specifically about the allegations facing then-Cardinal McCarrick? Is Cardinal Wuerl telling the truth when he says he was not aware of the allegations against his predecessor and that he was unaware of the alleged sanctions imposed on him by Rome?
There are further questions about the exact nature of the sanctions imposed by Benedict on then-Cardinal McCarrick. The National Catholic Register reported that it had “independently confirmed that the allegations against McCarrick were certainly known to Benedict, and the Pope Emeritus remembers instructing Cardinal Bertone to impose measures but cannot recall their exact nature.” Since the Register does not claim that it was Benedict himself who confirmed issuing the sanctions, who knew of these sanctions and remembers their nature, and whether details of them were documented and available to Francis, remain open questions.
America staff contributed to this report.
Correction (Aug. 26, 2018): Pope Emeritus Benedict's inability to remember the specific nature of the sanctions was mistakenly described as being included in Archbishop Viganò’s letter; it was instead revealed in initial reporting on the letter. Pope Benedict's final meeting with the cardinals before he stepped down was mistakenly described as his final general audience. We regret the errors.
This article was updated on Aug. 27, 2018 at 2:53 p.m. ET to include statements from U.S. cardinals and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.