News that the Holy See is preparing the “necessary clarifications” to the allegations of cover-up and corruption made by Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò against Pope Francis and more than 30 past and present senior Vatican officials has been widely welcomed in the church.
As the Vatican prepares its response, many reporters in Rome say Archbishop Viganò also has many questions to answer. Since dropping his bombshell letter, however, he has gone into hiding and acted like an insurgent, making intermittent sniper comments or statements to those journalists and news outlets who share his opposition to Francis. Isn’t it time for him to come out of hiding and meet the press?
Since dropping his bombshell letter, the archbishop has gone into hiding, making intermittent statements to those news outlets who share his opposition to Francis.
The “clarifications” from the Vatican are necessary to help the Catholic faithful and bishops, especially in the United States, as well as the wider public, to distinguish between the truths, half-truths, falsehoods, imprecisions and insinuations in the letter written by the former papal nuncio to the United States and published simultaneously by what The Washington Post called the “conservative Catholic media.”
The former nuncio has certainly raised some disturbing and important questions. It should be noted, however, that while he denounced “the culture of secrecy,” “a conspiracy of silence,” “the corruption [that] has reached the very top of the church’s hierarchy” and the cover-up of the abuses committed by the former cardinal-archbishop of Washington, Theodore McCarrick, under the previous two popes—John Paul II (1978-2005) and Benedict XVI (2005-13)—Archbishop Viganò kept his most lethal ammunition for Pope Francis.
He ignores the fact that Francis, more than any of his predecessors, has reached out to victims and survivors, meets with them regularly, introduced legislation making it possible to remove bishops for negligence in protecting minors or cover-up of abuse, removed many bishops, sanctioned two cardinals and admitted his mistakes in failing to listen to the victims, as in Chile.
In his letter, Archbishop Viganò downplays the fact that Pope Francis inherited the problem of the abusive cardinal from his two predecessors.
In his letter, Archbishop Viganò downplays the fact that Pope Francis inherited the problem of the abusive cardinal from his two predecessors, and by the time of the pope’s election in March 2013, Archbishop McCarrick was nearly 83 years old. Benedict XVI had accepted his resignation almost seven years earlier and, according to Viganò, had subsequently imposed sanctions on him, which he accused Francis of removing.
It is significant that Viganò gave little or no importance to the fact that it was Pope Francis who imposed severe sanctions on Archbishop McCarrick and removed him from the College of Cardinals at the age of 88, once he received firm evidence that he had abused a minor. Since Francis had already imposed these penal measures on the former cardinal in July, why then did Viganò write his letter a month later?
A senior Vatican official, speaking to America, offered one answer to this question, summarizing what many here think: “If Benedict or Francis had made Viganò a cardinal, he would never have written the letter!”
Apart from that, however, one may ask what was the purpose of this letter? To answer this question, it is necessary to understand that Archbishop Viganò’s letter was but the latest and most lethal—but almost certainly not the last—in a series of increasing attacks over five years by a sector of the more traditionalist wing of the church (including bishops and intellectuals) who claim to align themselves with the teaching of John Paul II and Benedict XVI and strongly dislike Pope Francis’ theology and vision of the church. This sector is closely aligned with persons (many of them Catholics) in the conservative political and economic worlds, particularly in the United States. They have been attacking Francis since the start of his pontificate, using media outlets and reporters friendly to their cause. Indeed, Archbishop Viganò’s letter was crafted with assistance from at least one of those reporters and publicized in a coordinated effort by these news outlets and subsequently by a galaxy of bloggers of a like mind.
These attacks against Francis have become regular and systematic. They spring from this vocal minority’s disagreement with the pope’s leadership of the church.
These attacks against Francis have become regular and systematic, as I have seen during my coverage of the papacy for America. They spring from this vocal minority’s disagreement with the pope’s leadership of the church, his ongoing insistence that mercy is at the heart of the Gospel, his commitment to encounter not confrontation and his appointment of bishops that are pastors not cultural warriors. They come from its dissent from his magisterial teaching in “Laudato Si’” (2015), the encyclical regarding climate change and the protection of creation, and in “Amoris Laetitia” (2016), the exhortation about the family. They are also based on these people’s disagreement with his statements (2013-18) on the economy that kills because it prioritizes profit over people, his statements from 2013 onward on immigration, and his condemnation of the possession of nuclear arms (2017) and of the death penalty (2018).
The attacks began soon after Pope Francis’ election because of his alleged “desacralizing of the papacy” and his “Who am I to judge?” response on the return flight from World Youth Day in Rio de Janeiro in July 2013, when asked about gay priests in the church. The attacks multiplied in connection with the assemblies of the Synod of Bishops on the family (2014-15), with the letter of the 13 cardinals in 2014 and the “dubia” raised by the four cardinals in 2016 regarding his opening the possibility for divorced and remarried persons to receive Communion. Especially since 2014, they have taken the form of almost monthly publication of articles or interviews in the media accusing the pope of departing from traditional church teachings on marriage, the family and homosexuality. The attacks have also come through international conferences in Rome (Archbishop Viganò attended at least one) and highly publicized statements by groups of theologians, bishops and priests accusing him of betraying the church’s magisterium and being guilty of “seven heresies.”
Archbishop Viganò’s letter was the most powerful of these attacks to date because by accusing Pope Francis of covering up the abuse of Archbishop McCarrick and of lifting sanctions imposed by Benedict on him, it sought to undermine his moral authority, destroy his credibility in the eyes of the world and seriously damage the vast public support for him. It cleverly manipulated the sexual abuse question in the interests of their wider agenda outlined above.
It is false to claim that Pope Francis lifted sanctions against Archbishop McCarrick; there is no evidence that there were sanctions as such.
The letter, however, has turned into a boomerang for the minority sector that opposes Francis, because it has thrown the spotlight back on how John Paul II and senior Vatican officials in his pontificate responded to the allegations against Archbishop McCarrick that arrived in 2000 with the letter from the Rev. Boniface Ramsey. It raised the disturbing question as to whether there is a parallel in how the allegations against the Rev. Marcial Maciel, founder of the Legionaries of Christ, and those against Archbishop McCarrick were both mishandled under John Paul.
The letter has also brought the spotlight to bear on how Benedict XVI and his senior officials responded to the allegations in 2006 against Archbishop McCarrick by Father Gregory Littleton, and by Richard Sipe in 2008. It brings to center stage the question of Viganò’s own role then and in the following 10 years. He first called for removing the red hat from Cardinal McCarrick and subjecting him to sanctions prescribed in canon law (2008); he then expressed “dismay” at the slow response under Benedict. In the letter, he affirmed that “what is certain is that Pope Benedict imposed the above canonical sanctions on McCarrick,” perhaps in 2009 or 2010, sanctions “similar to those now imposed on him by Pope Francis: the cardinal was to leave the seminary where he was living, he was forbidden to celebrate [Mass] in public, to participate in public meetings, to give lectures, to travel, with the obligation of dedicating himself to a life of prayer and penance.”
Archbishop Viganò and journalists who sustain his position have been forced to admit that Benedict XVI did not impose canonical sanctions on the errant cardinal-archbishop. At most, Benedict or Vatican officials in his name issued “private” instructions or recommendations to keep a low profile and to leave the seminary (something he did at the end of 2007). It is false, therefore, to claim that Pope Francis lifted sanctions against Archbishop McCarrick; there is no evidence that there were sanctions as such.
The former nuncio claimed that Pope Francis knew about the abuses committed by Archbishop McCarrick because he had informed him of this in a private 40-minute audience on June 23, 2013. But it should be remembered that it was Francis, not Archbishop Viganò, who raised the subject of Archbishop McCarrick. This raises the question: If the matter was of the great importance he subsequently claimed in his letter, why then did the nuncio not introduce the subject first, since he asked for the audience? Indeed, the reason he asked for an audience was something quite different; it related to clarification regarding the kind of candidates for bishops that Francis wanted. Viganò did not ask for the audience to report on McCarrick. Why not?
He wrote in his letter that when the new pope asked, “What is Cardinal McCarrick like?” he responded “Holy Father, I don’t know if you know Cardinal McCarrick, but if you ask the Congregation for Bishops, there is a dossier this thick about him. He corrupted generations of seminarians and priests and Pope Benedict ordered him to withdraw to a life of prayer and penance.”
Was that all he told the pope about Archbishop McCarrick? Did he go into any depth about these grave matters (note, he did not use the word “abuse”)? How long did he talk with the pope about this? In the following years as nuncio (2013-16), did he submit any dossier or provide Pope Francis with any new or more substantial information about his abuses? Did he ever raise the matter in his various meetings with Francis—for example,during his visit to the United States in 2015, when the pope stayed with him at the nunciature in Washington? If not, why not? And why, if he was so concerned about the then cardinal’s immoral behavior, did he participate in so many public events in the United States with Archbishop McCarrick?
There are many other questions to be answered, but one stands out above all others: Why did Archbishop Viganò wait to go public with his accusatory letter until almost two years into his retirement and one month after Francis had removed Archbishop McCarrick from pastoral ministry and the College of Cardinals?