ROME – We’re now four days into the tempest set loose last weekend by the release of an explosive 11-page statement from a former papal ambassador in the U.S. accusing Pope Francis of ignoring sexual misconduct warnings against ex-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick.
That former ambassador, Italian Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, is standing by his accusation, while the Vatican and Francis are sticking with their policy of ignoring it.
Because so much has happened so fast, and because so much remains confusing and uncertain, it’s useful for a moment to stand back and identify three key points which, by now, seem reasonably clear.
Not an “abuse” cover-up
In much short-hand media talk about the story, it’s been said that Viganò charged Francis with covering up “sex abuse” allegations. That can be misleading, and there’s an important distinction in the explanation as to why.
Generally when the term “sex abuse” is used, especially in the context of the Church’s scandals, it refers to abuse of a minor. In fact, the first suggestion that McCarrick was guilty of that crime came earlier this year, when the Archdiocese of New York informed him that it was investigating a claim by a former altar boy from decades ago.
What was at issue back in 2013, when Viganò claims he informed Francis about McCarrick, was sexual misconduct with young adult seminarians. While indefensible, such behavior does not constitute a crime under either civil or Church law, and there is no suggestion in Viganò’s statement that Francis covered up such a crime.
If it’s true Francis ignored those warnings, it would still raise serious questions. It’s not the same, however, as other senior prelates who have been accused of turning a blind eye to clergy who preyed on children.
Centrality of the Congregation for Bishops
In the June 2013 conversation Viganò described with Francis, he claims that he also told the pontiff that the Vatican’s Congregation for Bishops, responsible for supervising prelates around the world, has a “thick dossier” on McCarrick.
The comment came in the context of telling Francis that Pope emeritus Benedict XVI had placed McCarrick under restrictions, presumably due to the information in that dossier.
At the moment, we don’t know whether there were actually any such restrictions or what the basis for them may have been. Until that mystery is resolved, it’s difficult to know what to make of the situation.
There is, of course, a simple solution: For the Congregation for Bishops to tell us what it knows. Francis could order Canadian Cardinal Marc Ouellet, who heads the congregation, to release its McCarrick files – or, to say so publicly if it doesn’t actually have any.
The U.S. bishops already have announced their desire for a comprehensive investigation of the McCarrick case, and shortly will be on their way to Rome to discuss plans for it with the pope. Release of the congregation’s files thus could be presented as a service both to transparency in general, and the American inquiry specifically.
The Geography of Reaction
Because Viganò was the papal ambassador in the United States and McCarrick was an American cardinal, it’s understandable that early reaction to his statement among bishops has been largely concentrated in the U.S.
So far, eight American bishops and archbishops have come out to testify to Viganò’s character and to call for an investigation, while three cardinals plus one bishop have cast doubt on the charges and expressed full support for Francis.
In drips and drabs, however, bishops from other parts of the world are getting into the act.
Shortly after the story broke, Bishop Athanasius Schneider of Kazakhstan endorsed Viganò, saying there’s “no reasonable and plausible cause to doubt the truth content of the document.” Schneider has been an outspoken critic of Francis over Amoris Laetitia and any number of other matters.
Last Sunday, Cardinal Rubén Salazar of Bogotà, Colombia, issued a strong endorsement of Francis at the close of a meeting sponsored by the Episcopal Conference of Latin America (CELAM). He said today “the pope is being attacked personally … in a shameful way” and offered “our tribute of fidelity, closeness and collaboration so the truth shines through above all sin.”
The bishops of Peru likewise defended the pontiff, saying that “in the face of attempts to destabilize the Church and its ministry” they wanted to express “a strong feeling of communion and collegiality with you and your Petrine Ministry at the head of the universal Church.”
The bishops of Spain expressed their “affection, closeness and support,” while bishops in the pope’s native Argentina pledged “our fraternal and filial closeness at this moment in which you suffer a ruthless attack, in which different and narrow worldly interests come together.”
On Thursday, the Italian newspaper La Repubblica published an interview with Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga of Honduras, a close Francis ally and coordinator of his “C9” council of cardinal advisers.
Rodriguez styled the ferment unleashed by the Viganò accusation as part of a broader attack on Francis: “From the beginning, one could see a negative reaction against Francis that had the objective of weakening his magisterium,” the Honduran prelate said.
Finally, also on Thursday Italian Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican’s Secretary of State, said that in situations “that obviously create so much bitterness and worry,” the pope “has the ability to take a very serene approach.” He echoed the pontiff’s response to the Viganò charge, saying, “What was written speaks for itself.”
Summing it all up, what’s clear is that so far, supportive episcopal comments about Viganò, with the exception of Schneider, have come entirely from the United States, while the relatively few bishops or groups of bishops elsewhere who’ve spoken have all backed the pope.
We’ll have to see if that pattern holds, but it does raise a question about how Catholic leaders in other parts of the world might view this — whether some are tempted to think it’s just another chapter in the American culture wars.
Here’s how “Il Sismografo”, a widely read Catholic blog based in Italy, put it on Thursday.
“As the days have gone by, from Sunday morning to today, and after many intelligent and honest journalistic examinations, by now it seems established that the denunciation of Tossati [referring to a well-known Italian journalist who acknowledged helping craft the letter] and Viganò are, in reality, something to contextualize entirely within the United States.”
However understandable that view may be, and whether it’s fully accurate or not, it’s undoubtedly going to complicate the capacity of bishops outside American airspace to take Viganò’s factual claim about the pope seriously.