NEW YORK — In his first direct comments about the case of former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, Pope Francis said that “about McCarrick I knew nothing, obviously, nothing, nothing.”

“I said it many times, I knew nothing, no idea,” Francis said in an interview with Mexican journalist Valentina Alazraki.

Speaking about the allegation made by Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, who claimed last August that he had told the pope about Vatican-imposed restrictions against the former Archbishop of Washington, Francis said that “I don’t remember if he told me about this. If it’s true or not. No idea! But you know that about McCarrick, I knew nothing. If not, I wouldn’t have remained quiet, right?”

McCarrick was removed from the college of cardinals last year, after he was alleged to have sexually abused both minors and seminarians. Earlier this year, the Vatican announced Francis had removed him from the clerical state, after he was found guilty.

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In a wide-ranging interview, he also spoke about the United States and Mexico.

Speaking about the trip he took to Mexico in 2016, where he said Mass at the U.S. border, Francis said that he doesn’t understand this “new culture of defending territories by building a wall.”

“We know of one, the Berlin one, that brought us many headaches and a lot of suffering … But it seems that what man does is what animals don’t. Right? Man is the only animal that falls twice in the same hole. Right? We go back to the same. Right? [Man] lifts up walls as if this was the defense. Right? When the defense is dialogue, growth, welcoming and education, integration, or the healthy limit of saying ‘we can’t [welcome] anyone else.’”

Still talking about migration, the pontiff turned to the example of what’s going on in the Spanish region of Ceuta and Melilla, which is on the coast of North Africa and is separated from Morocco by razor-wire fences. Francis said that it’s cruel to separate children from their parents, and that it goes against natural law.

Asked what he’d say if instead of Alasraki the pope was facing American President Donald Trump with no cameras on, Francis said that he would say the same thing because he’s said so in public before.

“I also said in public that who builds walls ends up prisoner of the walls they build,” Francis said, adding that the territory can be defended, but perhaps through a bridge and not a wall. “But I’m talking about political bridges, cultural bridges. We cannot build bridges at every border, right? It’s impossible.”

The case of the disgraced Argentine bishop ‘parked’ at the Vatican

Alazraki also asked the pope about Bishop Gustavo Zanchetta, the former bishop of Oran, in northern Argentina, who was transferred by the pope to the Vatican, and who’s currently suspended from his position at the Administration of the Patrimony of the Holy See (APSA).

The journalist said many don’t understand why Francis brought him to Rome to begin with, when there were already allegations against the bishop.

The pontiff confirmed that Zanchetta is currently being judged by the Vatican.

“Before I asked for his resignation, there was an accusation, and I immediately made him come over with the person who accused him and explain it,” Francis said. The accusation involved the bishop’s phone, which contained homosexual pornography, and explicit sexual images of Zanchetta in his bedroom.

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“The defense is that he had his phone hacked, and he made a good defense,” the pope said, adding that it created enough doubt, so Francis told Zanchetta to go back.

“Evidently he had, some say, despotic treatment of others – he was bossy,” and a “not completely clear dealing of finances,” though as the pope noted, this hasn’t been proven.

“But certainly, the clergy didn’t feel well treated by him,” Francis said. “They complained until they made an allegation as a body to the Nunciature,” meaning the Vatican’s embassy in Argentina.

The pope says that he then called the nuncio, who told him that the allegation of mistreatment was “serious,” and the pope understood it to be a case of “abuse of power.” So, he sent Zanchetta to Spain to receive psychological treatment and asked him to resign from the Diocese of Oran.

The treatment, Francis said, found that Zanchetta was within the normal range, but they advised he received further treatment once a month in Madrid, so the pope took him to Rome. In his own words, “parked him” in Italy.

When it comes to the fact that Zanchetta is accused of misusing funds, Francis said that at present there is no evidence of that, only that he wasn’t “ordered” when it came to money. Despite not being good at keeping track, the pontiff said, the bishop had a “good vision.”

Once he had a replacement for the bishop, the pontiff said, he opened the investigation of the allegations. He received the result of the investigation 15 days ago, “and I decided that it’s necessary to have a trial. So, I gave it to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.”

Regarding the “impatient ones” who accuse him of having done nothing, Francis said that the pope doesn’t have to “go publishing everyday what he’s doing, but I was never not on this case from the first moment.”

As Francis noted, he asked for the investigation late last year, but between the holidays and the slowness of Argentina’s summer-  which takes place from December to March – things took longer than they should have.

“There are cases that are long, that wait more [like this one], and I explain why, because I didn’t have the elements,” he said. But now that he does, Zanchetta is on trial. “Meaning, I didn’t stop.”

Francis also said that he must always follow the principle of “presumption of innocence,” something even the most “anti-clerical judges” follow. However, he said, there are cases where the guilt “is evident,” as was the case of McCarrick, which is the reason why he removed him from the college of cardinals even before the trial had ended.

The Council of Cardinals

Speaking about the Council of Cardinals that advises the pope on the reform of the Roman curia, Francis said that it was “obvious” that Cardinal Javier Errazuriz, emeritus of Santiago, Chile, couldn’t continue to be a part of the team. Francis doesn’t give a reason, though he does lump him in with Australian Cardinal Goerge Pell, who’s “imprisoned and condemned, well, he appealed, but he has been condemned.”

Errazuriz is one of nine Chilean bishops who’ve been subpoenaed by the prosecutors’ office on charges that he covered up cases of clerical sexual abuse.

As Alazraki noted, there are also allegations against the coordinator of the group, Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga, of Honduras. Francis said that “the poor [man] will get things from every side, but there’s nothing proven, no … He’s honest and I made sure to find things out. In this case, it’s calumnies.”

“No one has been able to prove anything to me,” the pontiff said. “Maybe he made some mistakes, he’s done things wrong, but not at the level that they want to hang on him. It is important, so I defend him on this.”

Violence against women

Francis said that he wouldn’t know how to give a sociological explanation for what’s happening with violence against women, but “I would dare to say that women today are still in a secondary place.”

In the collective imagination to this day, he said, when a woman reaches a position of power, it’s noted as a thing: “Oh, see, a woman made it! She got a Nobel prize. Great coincidence.”

Going from being “in second place” to being treated as slaves, Francis said, it’s not a long road. It happens in Italy, he said, in the streets of Rome, where women are forced into prostitution. “They are enslaved women. Enslaved. They’re for that … And well, going from there to killing them …”

The number of femicides is growing throughout Latin America, with one woman being killed every 40 hours in Argentina by a partner or former partner.

“The world without women doesn’t function,” he said. “Not because she’s the one who brings children [into the world], let’s leave procreation to the side … A house without women doesn’t function. There’s a word that is about to fall out of the dictionary, because everyone is afraid of it: Tenderness. It’s the patrimony of the woman. Now, from there to femicide, slavery, there’s one step. What is the hatred, I wouldn’t be able to explain it.”

The Church and homosexuality and on being a conservative

As is often the case when he speaks to reporters, Francis answered questions about homosexuality.

He was asked in particular about something he said last year, that parents who have gay children should consult a specialist.

He said that “homosexual persons have the right to be with their families and the parents have the right to recognize their son as homosexual and their daughter as homosexual. No one can be kicked out of their family, nor have their lives made impossible because of that …”

To say that a person has a right to be in their families, the pope continued, does not mean to “approve homosexual acts, in the least.”

Asked about the fact that in Argentina he was known as “doctrinally conservative,” the pope interrupted Alazraki to say, “I am conservative.”

“But when you were made pope, it seemed you became much more liberal than when you were in Argentina,” the journalist replied.

“The grace of the Holy Spirit certainly exists,” Francis answered. “I have always defended doctrine. And it is curious, in the law about homosexual marriage … It’s a contradiction to speak about homosexual marriage.”

Nevertheless, Francis does acknowledge that he’s a different person than he was before being elected to the pontificate in 2013.

“I trust that I’ve grown some, that I’ve sanctified myself some more. One changes in life. That I extended my criteria, that it is possible, seeing the world’s problems I am more aware about things I wasn’t conscious of before. No, I think in that sense there have been changes, yes. But I am conservative … I am both things.”

Speaking about his relationship with the media, he said that he’s grown to appreciate it, and that he understands the need for journalists to be critical, though he doesn’t mind correcting them when he thinks they’ve been unfair. Reporters, the pope said, don’t only have the responsibility of being critical but also of “building.”

Asked about what he thinks is the most beautiful thing he’s done, the pope said that it’s “being with the people,” spending time in the slums, the prisons, the public squares.

What Francis thinks is his biggest mistake

Going through his mistakes, he said that something he wouldn’t do the same way is how he handled the situation in Chile, where he made some errors of judgements, things that he had “to correct” after making bad judgments.

Francis admitted in the interview that the questions from journalists made him rethink his strong defense of Bishop Juan Barros, who had been accused of covering up the abuse of notorious pedophile and former priest Fernando Karadima.

In his interview with Alazraki, the pope admitted after journalists asked him about the case, he reflected and prayed about the issue, before sending someone to investigate the situation.

“I realized that the information I had was not what I had seen [previously],” he said.

Alazraki came to international attention when she was asked to address the Vatican summit on clerical sexual abuse which took place in Rome Feb. 21-24. She told the presidents of the world’s bishops’ conferences that journalists will be the bishops’ “worst enemies” if they continue to cover up abuse.

Follow Inés San Martín on Twitter: @inesanma

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