An attempt to force Pope Francis to resign is unravelling, but serious questions remain to be answered, writes Greg Daly
Just hours ahead of the papal Mass in Dublin’s Phoenix Park a story broke that seemed to threaten Francis’ papacy.
A former papal nuncio had written an 11-page memo in which he claimed that Pope Benedict had imposed sanctions on then-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick for his sexual abuse of adult seminarians, and that Pope Francis had lifted these sanctions and made of McCarrick a trusted adviser. The Pope, said Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, should resign.
There’s more than this in the archbishop’s testimony, of course, but these claims lie at the heart of the document. Predictably enough, little else was spoken of among members of the Vatican press pool in the Phoenix Park media centre, as journalists plotted how to confront the Pontiff with these allegations in the expected in-flight press conference a few hours later.
In the end, the Pope’s response was in effect to say that for now he would not dignify Dr Viganò’s claims with a response, and to urge the press to do its job by interrogating the allegations and establishing their truth or otherwise.
“I read the statement this morning, and I must tell you sincerely that, I must say this, to you and all those who are interested,” he said. “Read the statement carefully and make your own judgment. I will not say a single word about this. I believe the statement speaks for itself. And you have the journalistic capacity to draw your own conclusions. It’s an act of faith.
“When some time passes and you have drawn your conclusions, I may speak,” he continued. “But, I would like your professional maturity to do the work for you. It will be good for you. That’s good.”
Readers of recent issues of The Irish Catholic should not have been surprised at the Pope’s silence. As was related in the commemorative issue ahead of the papal visit, in 1990, while in a kind of exile in the Argentine city of Córdoba, the future Pope wrote an article, ‘Silencio y palabra’ – silence and word – in which he reflected on Christ’s Passion.
“Christ as divine does not destroy his enemies, although he could do so, but allows himself in his sacred human nature to suffer most cruelly,” he wrote, maintaining that the Devil must eventually reveal himself in the light of the Cross.
“In moments of darkness and great tribulation, when the ‘tangles’ and the ‘knots’ cannot be untied and nothing is clear, then we must say nothing: the gentleness of the silence will make us look even weaker, and it will be the same devil who, emboldened, will show himself and his true intentions, no longer disguised as an angel of light but boldly and shamelessly,” he wrote.
Silence, then, was to be the Pope’s approach, at least for now, while he asked those outside the Church to do their work and investigate the reality of Archbishop Viganò’s claims.
The first stage in the investigation was, of course, to find out who Archbishop Viganò really was as a first step to considering the credibility of claims presented without a jot of evidence.
These investigations, which raised serious questions about the archbishop’s honesty and his seriousness around child protection issues, also established that several others were involved in the creation and propagation of the ‘testimony’, ranging from the Italian journalist-bloggers Aldo Maria Valli and Marco Tosatti to a small number of key figures in the North American Catholic press, notably EWTN board member Timothy Busch, National Catholic Register reporter Ed Pentin, and Lifesitenews.com journalist Diane Montagna.
Examining the document and subsequent statements, the holes in Viganò’s account have become increasingly obvious, starting with how he says Pope Benedict issued sanctions in either 2009 or 2010 – the only evidence anyone has been able to find that might suggest there was a sanction of any sort predates this, and so is irrelevant.
The archbishop’s ignorance about the date is curious in any case, given how he cites his old deputy as seemingly remembering the row that ensued when Viganò’s predecessor as nuncio to the US informed McCarrick of the imposition; if the details of the row can be recalled, why such silence about when it happened?
The biggest question, really, is the nature of these sanctions, which Viganò now admits may never have been written down, and which perhaps more importantly Ed Pentin learned in July had merely been a quiet request to a retired cardinal that he keep a low profile.
That this could then have been cast as support for the archbishop’s claims goes a long way to explaining why the Pope Emeritus’s secretary, Archbishop Georg Gänswein, has used the term “fake news” when speaking of the claims.
Certainly, during Benedict’s latter years McCarrick travelled widely and did so several times a year, celebrated public Masses, ordained clergy, gave addresses, received awards, stayed in the North American College, and even represented the US bishops to the US senate, with Archbishop Viganò speaking fondly of him on at least one public occasion and Pope Benedict greeting him with apparent warmth on another.
In real terms, then, there were no sanctions for Pope Francis to lift, and indeed it would seem Pope Francis must have been baffled by Archbishop Viganò’s June 2013 response when he asked him what then-Cardinal McCarrick was like – the future Pope and the American cardinal had had serious disagreements in previous years.
“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,” the archbishop claims to have said. “He corrupted generations of seminarians and priests and Pope Benedict ordered him to withdraw to a life of prayer and penance.”
Leaving aside the vagueness of the line about corruption – might the Pope have assumed that Viganò meant he had taught them ideologically suspect ways? – to the Pope this claim about prayer and penance must have seemed madness. The cardinal, after all, had for years cut a public figure, one that could hardly compare more starkly with that of the disgraced Cardinal Keith O’Brien, who had just months earlier been stripped of his rights and privileges as cardinal. It may well be that, far from ‘knowing about McCarrick’ from this point, the Pope viewed Viganò as something of a crank.
Indeed, a video has since come to light showing the beginnings of the first meeting between Archbishop Viganò and the new Pope – it cuts short before revealing a diplomatically sensitive conversation, but begins in a very friendly way, utterly at odds with the archbishop’s claim that the Pope “immediately assailed” him.
Viganò’s central claim seems to be in tatters, with no evidence in favour of it, evidence on the rise against it, an admission on his part that he cannot even remember if it was an oral communication or a documented written one, and an admission by one of the journalists at the heart of this story that he had known since July that the ‘sanction’ was at most a discrete request.
Still, other claims need investigating. What role has McCarrick had in recent years? Viganò paints him as the Pope’s confidante, but there seem to be few facts supporting this claim. What records are there about McCarrick’s conduct? Is there a substantive file on McCarrick in the Congregation of Bishops, and if so, does it include the 2000, 2006 and 2008 communications Viganò cites in his testimony, as well as details of the sanction and the sanction being lifted? Who would have had access to this file? Who would have access to it now? Would there be a similar or related file in the US nunciature? What about in the CDF, given the alleged role of Cardinal William Levada in having sanctions imposed?
And if there were files on McCarrick, and these files have been destroyed, who is responsible? Heads may yet roll in the Vatican.