Will Pope Francis break the Church?
On August 25, Francis was wrapping up his first visit as pope to Ireland, a country struggling with its own grim legacy of abuse by clergy and religious orders. That was when Viganò, a former Vatican ambassador to the United States with a history of tension with Francis and a reputation as one of the Vatican’s loosest contemporary cannons, published the 11-page letter, in which he made his unprecedented call for Francis’s resignation.
Viganò claimed Francis had ignored his and others’ warnings about McCarrick’s patterns of inappropriate behavior toward seminary students and alleged that Francis’s predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, had placed sanctions on McCarrick in 2009 and that Francis had subsequently removed them. (Over decades, McCarrick allegedly told more than a few seminarians to call him “Uncle Ted” and welcomed them into his bed, The New York Times reported in a detailed account this summer.) Viganò did not provide evidence in his letter of Benedict’s sanctions or of Francis’s response to them, but he did name a lot of names, and mapped out what he called a “homosexual current” inside the Vatican, which he said needed to be rooted out.
Viganò has not explained his motivations, and the Italian journalist who helped him write the letter told the Times that Viganò had “disappeared,” fearing for his safety. But it’s worth noting his tense history with Francis. The pope sidelined Viganò after the archbishop foisted a Kentucky county clerk who had refused to grant same-sex marriage licenses into a photo op with the pope during his 2015 visit to the United States, a move that added a dissonant note to a pastoral visit. Italian media reported that the pope had even had Viganò evicted from a cushy Vatican apartment after his demotion.
His letter has nevertheless kicked a hornet’s nest of questions that Francis cannot ignore and triggered a moral crisis in his papacy, especially coming just weeks after a damning grand-jury report in Pennsylvania revealed decades of sexual abuse by priests and a cover-up by church authorities, further eroding trust in the Catholic Church.
The questions fit the pattern of those raised by every abuse case to come to light in recent decades, which generally fall into these lines: Who knew what when? Who acted and didn’t act? Who treated abuse as a sin and who as a crime to be punished? And who in the Vatican hierarchy was aware that abuse cases were to be taken seriously, not to be dismissed as calumnious attacks on church officials? More specifically, in this case: What exactly did Francis know about McCarrick? Did Benedict indeed sanction the then-cardinal in 2009, and if so, why weren’t those sanctions applied?
McCarrick was a well-respected figure, known as a voice of moderation, interreligious dialogue, and international diplomacy—he traveled to China to suss out the situation with Catholics there—and he routinely traveled to the Vatican and attended conferences around the world, including after 2009, so if there were sanctions, they certainly weren’t made public. (I came across the cardinal in Rome several times when I was reporting on the Vatican.) After Viganò’s letter appeared, footage surfaced of Viganò honoring then-Cardinal McCarrick in 2012, six months after when Viganò said he had been told that Benedict had sanctioned the cardinal. If Viganò had any issues with Cardinal McCarrick then, he must have kept them to himself.