ROME – If there’s one thing anyone who’s covered the Vatican for a long time ought to have learned by now, it’s never to say a particular story just can’t get anymore surreal, because trust me – it always can.
On Tuesday, veteran Vatican journalist Edward Pentin, who broke the story about Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò’s bombshell letter accusing Pope Francis of covering up abuse charges against ex-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick and calling on the pope to resign, added a new twist to the evolving narrative.
According to Pentin, “Viganò has gone into hiding and fears for his life following the publication of his testimony.”
Assuming that’s accurate, it’s either the result of stress and an overactive imagination, or Viganò has some genuine reason to fear that he might be in danger. Either way, it’s another odd development in what began life as an already remarkable storyline.
Aside from that, there have been two other chapters to the story which have come into focus over the last 48 hours.
First, several American bishops (and one from Kazakhstan) have commented on the Viganò accusations, and in some cases the tone has been incredibly blunt.
Here’s Bishop Robert McElroy of San Diego: “In its ideologically-driven selection of bishops who are attacked, in its clear efforts to settle old personal scores, in its omission of any reference to Archbishop Viganò’s own massive personal participation in the covering up of sexual abuse by bishops, and most profoundly in its hatred for Pope Francis and all that he has taught, Archbishop Viganò consistently subordinates the pursuit of comprehensive truth to partisanship, division and distortion.”
Meanwhile, here’s Bishop Robert Morlino of Madison, Wisconsin: “The criteria for credible allegations are more than fulfilled, and an investigation, according to proper canonical procedures, is certainly in order … I must confess my disappointment that in his remarks on the return flight from Dublin to Rome, the Holy Father chose a course of ‘no comment’ regarding any conclusions that might be drawn from Archbishop Viganò’s allegations. Pope Francis further said expressly that such conclusions should be left to the ‘professional maturity’ of journalists. In the United States and elsewhere, in fact, very little is more questionable than the professional maturity of journalists.”
Overall, the scorecard so far is four bishops speaking in defense of Pope Francis (Cupich of Chicago, Tobin of Newark, Wuerl of Washington and McElroy), six supportive of Viganò (Konderla of Tulsa, Olmsted of Phoenix, Strickland of Tyler, Texas, Chaput of Philadelphia, Schneider of Kazakhstan and Morlino.)
To make the record complete, those whose statements appeared to skew in the pope’s favor generally were also responding to allegations against themselves too contained in the Viganò missive.
Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, on behalf of the executive committee of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, issued a careful statement that called for investigation but didn’t really take sides. Archbishop Allen Vigneron of Detroit also put out a statement that seemed deliberately neutral.
Also in recent hours, some of the behind-the-scenes advisers to Viganò in crafting his document have emerged. Tim Busch, an American Catholic lawyer and major player in various Church circles, has confirmed he spoke to Viganò before he went public. Veteran Italian Vatican writer Marco Tossati said he spent three hours with Viganò refining the statement, and another Italian journalist, Aldo Maria Valli, said he talked about it with Viganò over dinner.
What’s hard not to notice is that reaction from the bishops, at least to this point, breaks along eerily predictable ideological lines – the more liberal a bishop is perceived to be the more likely he is to disbelieve Viganò, and vice-versa.
The same holds true with the people who advised Viganò, and the media outlets that first published his document: They all have strong conservative credentials, and none are recognized experts or leaders of reform efforts on the sexual abuse scandals. All that provides fodder for those who want to suggest this is a politically-driven attack.
Right now, in fact, one could say that Viganò overnight has become the Whittaker Chambers of the Catholic Church. Just as whether one believed Chambers about Alger Hiss was a marker for broader ideological alignments in the Cold War, at the moment one’s reaction to Viganò may say more about political assessments of Francis than about the hard evidence.
Survivors of clerical abuse clearly have concerns along those lines. Peter Isely, for instance, who founded the group “Ending Clergy Abuse,” had the following to say:
“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,” Isley said. “The sexual abuse crisis is not about whether a bishop is a liberal or a conservative. It is about protecting children, accountability for bishops, and justice for survivors.”
None of this, of course, means the accusation at the heart of Viganò’s statement isn’t deadly serious, or that it doesn’t deserve a credible and transparent investigation.
Finally, here’s a prediction in the midst of a fluid and highly unpredictable situation: Whatever else happens, the pope’s answer about Viganò aboard the papal plane en route from Dublin to Rome on Sunday night probably won’t be enough in the long run.
In essence, the pope took the “no comment” option, though he said more than enough to suggest he doesn’t find the document credible. However, he did not engage the heart of the matter, which is what he knew about McCarrick and when he knew it.
Let’s be clear: This is an accusation that a pope was personally involved in a sex abuse cover-up, from a former Vatican official who was in a position to know. If anyone thinks media outlets around the world aren’t going to pursue that story with maximum aggressiveness – knowing that bringing down a pope would be infinitely bigger than what the Boston Globe did in 2003 by bringing down Cardinal Bernard Law, winning a Pulitzer Prize and inspiring a Hollywood movie in the process – they’re delusional.
At some point, pressure to give an accounting will almost certainly become irresistible. From the Vatican’s point of view, therefore, getting ready for that accounting now might be a wise use of time.