NEW YORK – Sometimes the fates who govern the news business have a wicked sense of timing. After a long stretch of relative quiet regarding Theodore McCarrick, the ex-cardinal who was defrocked over sexual misconduct and abuse charges, Tuesday brought not one but two major new developments.
Crux, along with CBS, published correspondence from McCarrick confirming that he was placed under Vatican restrictions in 2008, claiming that Cardinal Donald Wuerl (the Archbishop of Washington at the time) was aware of those restrictions despite his denials, and also revealing that McCarrick played a major role in backchannel diplomacy with China under Pope Francis.
Roughly an hour after our story broke, a new interview with Francis by Mexican journalist Valentina Alazraki made the rounds, in which the pontiff insisted “I knew nothing, obviously, nothing, nothing,” about accusations against McCarrick.
To be clear, the two stories do not contradict one another. While the correspondence at the heart of the Crux report clearly suggests that senior officials under Pope emeritus Benedict XVI knew about the informal restrictions and did not obstruct McCarrick from gradually returning to his activities, they do not speak to what Francis or his team knew.
However, the double whammy of these two stories coming at once does neatly illustrate two of the major questions left hanging by the McCarrick case, which in turn encapsulates the meta-narrative of the entire saga.
One of those hanging questions, obviously, is what Wuerl knew and when he knew it.
One piece of the correspondence in Tuesday’s Crux piece is an August 25, 2008, letter from McCarrick to the late Italian Archbishop Pietro Sambi, at the time the Vatican’s ambassador in the U.S., referring to an earlier letter in which the Vatican restrictions were outlined. McCarrick said he wanted to discuss some points in that letter “having shared it with my Archbishop,” meaning Wuerl.
In comments to Crux, however, a spokesman for Wuerl denied that Wuerl ever knew about the restrictions. The clear implication is that McCarrick was lying in his letter to Sambi, misrepresenting the extent to which Wuerl was informed and supportive.
Right now, that’s basically a he said/he said situation, leaving observers to choose between two figures each with apparent motives to be less than fully candid. The only way to truly settle it would be to scour the archives of the Vatican, the papal embassy in Washington and the Archdiocese of Washington to see what other correspondence, memoranda, etc., may be lurking there, and whether any of it speaks to what Wuerl knew.
The other hanging question, equally clear, is what Pope Francis knew.
Speaking for the first time in his own voice on the question, at least in public, Francis flatly told Alazraki that he didn’t know anything. That contradicts the sensational charge made last August by Italian Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, another former papal ambassador in the States, that he had personally briefed Francis on McCarrick in June 2013.
Referring specifically to that alleged conversation, Francis told Alazraki, “I don’t remember if he told me about this,” although he immediately hedged on whether the conversation with Viganò took place. “If it’s true or not. No idea!”
Viganò interrupted his self-imposed exile to accuse the pope of lying.
“He pretends not to remember what I told him about McCarrick, and he pretends that it wasn’t him who asked me about McCarrick in the first place,” Viganò told LfeSiteNews, which is generally considered an outlet for sentiments hostile to the pope.
Here again, we have a basic he said/he said standoff – and again, the only way to resolve it would be thorough and independent examination of the records. The Vatican promised such a review in early October, but to date there’s been no sense of when we might expect its results to be made public.
What both hanging questions neatly capture is the most significant piece of unfinished business from the abuse scandals: Accountability, not for the crime but the cover-up.
Back in 2002, Boston’s John Geoghan was the perfect embodiment of the horrors associated with the crime of sexual abuse: A serial child rapist, who was eventually accused of abuse involving more than 130 minor boys. The revulsion generated by the Geoghan revelations sparked the first massive wave of the crisis in the United States.
Today, McCarrick is likewise the perfect embodiment of perceptions of a cover-up. We’re talking about a churchman around whom there were rumors of misconduct at least as early as the 1990s, but who continued a steady march up the ecclesiastical ladder and who remained close to the flame in retirement even after the Vatican imposed apparently secret restrictions.
The unavoidable question is how that was possible – including whether certain officials deliberately ignored indications something was amiss because, in some sense, they found McCarrick useful, or because they simply didn’t want to challenge someone that high up the food chain. (That question, by the way, applies equally well to Viganò himself, since as papal ambassador he too was witness to McCarrick apparently flouting the Vatican restrictions.)
It remains to be seen what, if anything, the Vatican will choose to make public from its archives on McCarrick, and whether the investigations in the four American dioceses where he served – New York; Metuchen, N.J.; Newark; and Washington, D.C. – will add anything to the record.
Speaking to the press May 29, Vatican Secretary of State Pietro Parolin insisted that the Holy See “has said many times that they are making an investigation, which consists of gathering together all of the documentation regarding this case.”
Parolin offered no clarification on his own awareness of the restrictions or the timeline of the investigation, saying only that “once this work is done, there will be a declaration.”
Until the questions about accountability are answered, it’s unlikely that many people will regard the McCarrick case as closed, no matter how many senior officials protest they didn’t know.
Follow John Allen on Twitter: @JohnLAllenJr
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