If anyone thought the 2002 sexual-abuse crisis, which washed over the Catholic Church in the United States like a fetid tsunami, was the high-water mark for the scandal brought on by decades of abuse and cover-up, well, buckle up: because you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.
On Saturday, Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, a former nuncio to the United States (the equivalent of a Vatican ambassador) published a stunning, 11-page letter detailing claims about the network of cover-up and abuse surrounding disgraced former-cardinal, Theodore McCarrick. Viganò pulls no punches; he names names: American bishops, cardinals, members of the Roman curia, and above all, Pope Francis himself.
What began as a child-sex-abuse scandal has mushroomed into the greatest crisis of confidence in the Catholic hierarchy since the Reformation. What happens next will define Pope Francis’ entire pontificate, and much more.
Viganò alleges that no later than 2013, Pope Francis knew McCarrick was an abuser, knew he had been previously put under private sanction by the Vatican, and despite Viganò’s warnings about McCarrick’s past, chose to rehabilitate McCarrick anyway. It was only in June of this year, after accusations involving abuse of a minor emerged, that Pope Francis finally took McCarrick out of commission. According to Viganò, Pope Francis should, “set a good example to cardinals and bishops who covered up McCarrick’s abuses and resign along with all of them.”
Because of the scope and gravity of the allegations, the release of the Viganò letter is significant in its own right. But in the current volatile environment, its charges — and the credibility of the source — are all the more explosive.
Earlier this summer, it was revealed that McCarrick had been credibly accused of sexually abusing a minor while he was a priest of the Archdiocese of New York. This report was accompanied by the news that both the diocese of Metuchen and the Archdiocese of Newark had paid settlements to men who claimed McCarrick had sexually abused them as seminarians.
McCarrick’s penchant for inviting young men under his authority into his bed had been widely known for years. It had even been reported to Rome on several occasions. McCarrick’s fall into ignominy has raised some burning questions: how could a man with a reputation for bedding his own seminarians have risen so far and so quickly through the ranks of the Catholic hierarchy? Who was protecting him? Who was benefitting from his influence and patronage?
Before any of these questions could be answered, a Pennsylvania Grand Jury released a report detailing more than 1,000 cases of abuse in six Pennsylvania dioceses. Almost all the allegations were decades old, but the scale and depravity of the cases was staggering. Slick public relations campaigns by some of the bishops named in the report were intended to soothe angry flocks but had the opposite effect. Confidence in the bishops’ ability to police themselves, already wavering after the McCarrick revelations, began to crumble.
Then came Saturday’s letter.
The timing was no accident. Pope Francis was in Ireland this weekend for the World Meeting of Families: the Pope would be in the spotlight, surrounded by press, in a country where the Church’s handling of clerical sexual abuse would be front and center. It was going to be a delicate visit given the Pope’s credibility on sexual abuse had already taken some serious hits for his mishandling of cases in Chile and elsewhere.
In one sense, the Viganò letter is exactly what everyone has been clamoring for — an insider’s account of who knew what about McCarrick and when. But now that the letter is out, the blowback has been fierce. Even before the prelates named in the letter had a chance to respond, Viganò was being denounced as a disgruntled ideologue. One progressive theologian denounced Viganò as a “terrorist” and likened the letter to an attempted coup d’etat.
Almost as stunning as Viganò’s allegations and call for a papal resignation is the Pope’s response: asked directly about the letter, Pope Francis said he had read the letter, but declined to confirm or deny any of the allegations saying to the press: “I won’t say a word about it.”
Others named in the letter — especially the American Cardinals Wuerl, Cupich, and Tobin — have been scrambling to respond. So far, only Wuerl has denied any of the specific allegations.
As for the claim that Pope Francis should resign, it’s worth recalling that his predecessor, Benedict XVI, resigned in part because he judged himself inadequate to addressing the very same problem of clerical abuse and cover-up now threatening to consume the pontificate of Francis. But Benedict’s resignation simply passed the unholy mess to the next guy.
Now Pope Francis, like so many other bishops, is at risk of completely losing the confidence of his flock. Clear signs of repentance and transparency are badly needed. If Pope Francis is unwilling to do that now, then he should go; but if he’s the fearless reformer his supporters think he is (or believe he can be) then now is the time to show it. He’s the Pope; and it’s his move.
As Cardinal O’Malley of Boston said of the crisis recently, “The clock is ticking.”
White is a fellow in Catholic Studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, DC.