ROME — Pope Francis’s famous quip “Who am I to judge?” could go a long way toward explaining his initial attitude toward Theodore McCarrick, the defrocked and disgraced American cardinal who was the subject of a two-year Vatican investigation that was released last week.
Francis uttered the line on July 29, 2013, four months into his pontificate, when he was asked en route home from his first papal trip about reports of a sexually active gay priest whom he had just promoted. His point: If someone violated the church’s teaching on sexual morals in the past but had sought forgiveness from God, who was he to pass judgment?
The comment won plaudits from the LGBT community and landed Francis on the cover of The Advocate magazine. But Francis’ broader tendency to blindly trust his friends and resist judging them has created problems seven years later. A handful of priests, bishops and cardinals whom Francis has trusted over the years have turned out to be either accused of sexual misconduct or convicted of it, or of having covered it up.
In short, Francis’s loyalty to them cost him credibility.
The Vatican report spared Francis blame for McCarrick’s rise in the hierarchy, faulting instead his predecessors for having failed to recognize, investigate or effectively sanction McCarrick over consistent reports that he invited seminarians into his bed.
Francis ultimately defrocked McCarrick last year after a Vatican investigation determined he sexually abused children as well as adults. Francis commissioned the more in-depth probe after a former Vatican ambassador alleged in 2018 that some two dozen church officials were aware of McCarrick’s sexual misconduct with adult seminarians but covered it up for two decades.
It’s perhaps not surprising that an an in-house investigation commissioned by Francis and ordered published by him would largely give him a pass. But it’s also true that the most egregious failures related to the McCarrick scandal occurred well before Francis became pope.
But the report does point to problems that have come to haunt Francis during his papacy, exacerbating his initial blind spot on clergy sexual abuse that he only corrected in 2018 after he realized he had botched a serious case of abuse and cover-up in Chile.
In addition to the prelates he initially defended who have been accused of sexual misconduct or cover-up, Francis has also been betrayed by Catholic laymen: Some Italian businessmen who were “friends of Francis” and exploited that designation are now caught up in a spiraling Vatican corruption investigation involving the Holy See’s $350 million investment in a London real estate venture.
Like many leaders, Francis abhors gossip, distrusts the media and tends to follow his gut, finding it exceedingly difficult to shift gears once he has formed a positive personal opinion about someone, his collaborators say.
Francis knew McCarrick from before he was pope and probably knew that the charismatic and well-connected prelate had had a hand in his election as one of several “kingmakers” who supported him from the sidelines. (McCarrick himself didn’t vote since he was over 80 and ineligible).
McCarrick told a conference at Villanova University in late 2013 that he considered the former Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio a “friend” and had pressed for a Latin American pope during the closed-door meetings that preceded the conclave.
McCarrick twice visited Bergoglio in Argentina, in 2004 and 2011, when he traveled there to ordain priests from the Argentine-based religious community, the Institute of the Incarnate Word, that he called home in Washington.
McCarrick told the Villanova conference that he had been persuaded to spread the word to consider Bergoglio a possible papal candidate after an unidentified, “influential” Roman told him that Bergoglio could reform the church in five years and “put us back on target.”
“Talk him up,” McCarrick quoted the Roman man as telling him.
The report debunked the central thesis of Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, the former Vatican ambassador to the U.S., whose 2018 expose of the two-decade McCarrick cover-up sparked the Vatican report in the first place.
Vigano claimed that Francis had lifted “sanctions” imposed by Pope Benedict XVI on McCarrick even after Vigano told Francis in 2013 that the American had “corrupted generations of priests and seminarians.”
The report said no such lifting occurred, and actually accused Vigano of being part of the cover-up. It also suggested that in 2013, Vigano was far more concerned about persuading Francis to bring him back to Rome from his exile in Washington to help with Francis’ anti-corruption effort at the Vatican than in finally bringing McCarrick to justice.
As archbishop of Buenos Aires, Francis is believed to have discounted rumors of sex abuse and cover-up in neighboring Chile surrounding the popular priest Fernando Karadima, because the bulk of the accusers were over 17, and therefore technically adults in the church’s canon law system. As such, they were considered consenting adults engaging in sinful but not illegal behavior with Karadima.
While head of Argentina’s bishops conference, Francis in 2010 commissioned a four-volume forensic study of the legal case against the Rev. Julio Grassi, a celebrity priest who ran homes for street children and had been criminally convicted of sexually abusing one of them.
Bergoglio’s study, which purportedly ended up on the desks of some Argentine court justices who were ruling on Grassi’s appeals, concluded he was innocent, that his victims were lying and that the case never should have gone to trial.
In the end, Argentina’s Supreme Court in March 2017 upheld the conviction and 15-year prison sentence for Grassi. The status of Grassi’s canonical investigation in Rome is unknown.
More recently, Bergoglio allowed one of his proteges in Argentina, Bishop Gustavo Zanchetta, to resign quietly for purported health reasons in 2017 after priests in the remote northern Argentine diocese of Oran complained about his authoritarian rule and diocesan officials provided reports to the Vatican alleging abuses of power, inappropriate behavior and sexual harassment of adult seminarians.
Francis gave Zanchetta a plum job in the Vatican’s treasury office.
In the cases of Grassi and Zanchetta, Bergoglio was a confessor to both men, suggesting he may have been swayed in his judgment by his role as their spiritual father. In the case of Karadima, Francis was good friends with Karadima’s chief protector, Santiago’s archbishop, Cardinal Francisco Javier Errazuriz.
Francis’ 2013 comment, “Who am I to judge?” didn’t concern a priest accused of sexual misconduct with minors. Rather, the priest was alleged primarily to have arranged for a Swiss army captain to transfer with him from his diplomatic post in Bern, Switzerland, to Uruguay.
Asked about the priest en route home from Rio de Janeiro in July 2013, Francis said he had commissioned a preliminary investigation into the allegations that found nothing. He noted that many times in the church, such “sins from youth” crop up as priests advance through the ranks.
“Crimes are something different: the abuse of minors is a crime,” he said. “But if a person, whether it be a lay person, a priest or a religious sister, commits a sin and then converts, the Lord forgives. And when the Lord forgives, the Lord forgets and this is very important for our lives.”
Referring to reports that a homosexual network in the Vatican protected the priest, Francis said he had never heard of such a thing. But he added: “If someone is gay and is searching for the Lord and has good will, then who am I to judge?”
Nicole Winfield, chief Vatican correspondent for The Associated Press, has covered the Holy See since 2001, focusing in particular on clergy sexual abuse.