The former Apostolic Nuncio to the United States, Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, has written a letter alleging systematic coverup of the disordered and abusive behavior of the former Archbishop of Washington, Theodore McCarrick, who has resigned from the College of Cardinals and awaits canonical trial on charges he molested at least one minor. Since that charge became public on June 20th, other accusers have come forward, some of them alleging they suffered abuse in seminary or as priests, while at least one other accuser — the first person McCarrick baptized as a priest — alleges his abuse began when he was aged 11 years.
McCarrick’s behavior appears to have been an open secret, though high-ranking prelates close to McCarrick claim they were unaware of any hint of impropriety. They include McCarrick’s successor, Cardinal Donald Wuerl, and Cardinal Kevin Farrell of the Dicastery for Laity, Family and Life. The records of both men deserve the most careful and relentless scrutiny, but not here.
Here, the concern is the set of assertions Archbishop Viganò has made in his letter, in which he details a nearly two decades’ coverup of McCarrick’s misconduct. It involves three popes and three Secretaries of State, as well as at least a half-dozen other high-ranking Vatican officials.
Archbishop Viganò, who was Nuncio from 2011 to 2016, asserts that Cardinal Angelo Sodano, when he was Secretary of State under Pope St. John Paul II, knew of the allegations against McCarrick. Viganò strongly suggests Sodano was nevertheless instrumental in securing McCarrick’s appointment to the See of Washington, DC. Viganò speculates that Sodano would have been able to pass McCarrick’s nomination across the desk of the weak and sickly Pope St. John Paul II, from whom he would have kept information regarding McCarrick’s habits.
Some knowledge of McCarrick’s proclivities would have come to Cardinal Sodano and other Vatican officials — and should have gone to the Pope — by way of a letter written by Fr. Boniface Ramsey, OP, some time before November of the year 2000, when then-Nuncio to the US Gabriel Montalvo should have forwarded it to Sodano.
In his letter of the year 2000, however, Fr. Ramsey apparently only noted his concern regarding what he had heard from students about McCarrick’s bizarre sleeping arrangements during his frequent excursions to his beach house: that McCarrick would always bring one more guest — generally seminarians or young priests — than there were beds in the house, and then “solve” the logistical difficulty by sharing a bed with one of the visitors. None of that was, strictly speaking, criminal, though it ought to have been enough to kibosh a nomination to any See. It was not.
Viganò asserts that, sometime between 2006 and 2008, Benedict XVI became aware of further, more gruesome allegations against then-Cardinal McCarrick, no later than when news reached him of a memorandum of indictment written by a laicized priest who was himself an abuser. That document detailed sexual aggressions McCarrick and other priests and seminarians of the Newark archdiocese (which McCarrick led from 1986 to 2000), as well as other allegations detailed in a letter by the former cleric, Richard Sipe, whose career focused on the psychological study of clerics’ aberrant and abusive behavior. Viganò says that sometime thereafter, the then-Prefect of the Congregation for Bishops, Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re, told him Benedict had imposed disciplinary measures on McCarrick.
“I learned with certainty, through Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re, then-Prefect of the Congregation for Bishops, that Richard Sipe’s courageous and meritorious Statement had had the desired result,” Viganò writes in his testimony. “Pope Benedict had imposed on Cardinal McCarrick sanctions similar to those now imposed on him by Pope Francis: the Cardinal was to leave the seminary where he was living, he was forbidden to celebrate [Mass] in public, to participate in public meetings, to give lectures, to travel, with the obligation of dedicating himself to a life of prayer and penance.”
If this rehearsal of the facts is accurate, it raises the question why Benedict should have kept the matter secret, not to mention why McCarrick was allowed to keep his red hat. There are other questions the former Nuncio’s letter raises, as well. It was not accompanied by a dossier containing the many memoranda and other correspondence on which he draws in his construction of events, even though it appears he kept copies of at least some of the documents to which he averts in his letter. At one point, Viganò says:
[A]round April 21-23, 2008, the Statement for Pope Benedict XVI about the pattern of sexual abuse crisis in the United States, by Richard Sipe, was published on the internet, at richardsipe.com. On April 24, it was passed on by the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal William Levada, to the Cardinal Secretary of State Tarcisio Bertone. It was delivered to me one month later, on May 24, 2008.
The following day, I delivered a new memo to the new Substitute, Fernando Filoni, which included my previous one of December 6, 2006. In it, I summarized Richard Sipe’s document, which ended with this respectful and heartfelt appeal to Pope Benedict XVI: “I approach Your Holiness with due reverence, but with the same intensity that motivated Peter Damian to lay out before your predecessor, Pope Leo IX, a description of the condition of the clergy during his time. The problems he spoke of are similar and as great now in the United States as they were then in Rome. If Your Holiness requests, I will personally submit to you documentation of that about which I have spoken.”
One wonders where the documentation to which Archbishop Viganò refers, both in the passage above and elsewhere throughout his testimony, might be. If he has it, he should share it — indeed, should have included it in his “testimony”. If he is no longer in possession of the documents, he ought to say so, and say why and how he came to be dispossessed of them. It could be simply that they remain on file with the Nunciature and/or the Secretariat of State. If that is the case, there is a strong case to be made for their immediate release to the public.
In any case, the former Nuncio’s narrative continues to detail further misdeeds, the most damning of which he attributes to the Holy Father.
In essence, Archbishop Viganò claims that Pope Francis knowing of the allegations against McCarrick and aware of the sanctions Benedict had imposed on him, did not act on the allegations and lifted the sanctions, allowing McCarrick to travel freely and function as a priest and a bishop. Reading Viganò’s recollection of his conversations with the Holy Father regarding McCarrick — in June of 2013, only a few months after Francis’s election — one notes that Viganò never says he explicitly mentioned any specific allegation against McCarrick. He also does a good deal of reading between the lines, and attributes motive:
I began the conversation, asking the Pope what he intended to say to me with the words he had addressed to me when I greeted him the previous Friday. And the Pope, in a very different, friendly, almost affectionate tone, said to me: “Yes, the Bishops in the United States must not be ideologized, they must not be right-wing like the Archbishop of Philadelphia, (the Pope did not give me the name of the Archbishop) they must be shepherds; and they must not be left-wing — and he added, raising both arms — and when I say left-wing I mean homosexual.” Of course, the logic of the correlation between being left-wing and being homosexual escaped me, but I added nothing else.
Immediately after, the Pope asked me in a deceitful way: “What is Cardinal McCarrick like?” I answered him with complete frankness and, if you want, with great naiveté: “Holy Father, I don’t know if you know Cardinal McCarrick, but if you ask the Congregation for Bishops there is a dossier this thick about him. He corrupted generations of seminarians and priests and Pope Benedict ordered him to withdraw to a life of prayer and penance.” The Pope did not make the slightest comment about those very grave words of mine and did not show any expression of surprise on his face, as if he had already known the matter for some time, and he immediately changed the subject. But then, what was the Pope’s purpose in asking me that question: “What is Cardinal McCarrick like?” He clearly wanted to find out if I was an ally of McCarrick or not.
Without regard for the question of motive — and granted that he assumes, rather than demonstrates, Francis’s knowledge of the specific kinds of enormities McCarrick is alleged to have committed — a candid reader must nevertheless admit that, unless Archbishop Viganò is weaving the story up out of whole cloth, it is impossible for Pope Francis to claim he had no knowledge of McCarrick’s behavior prior to this past June, when the Review Board of the Archdiocese of New York deemed an accusation McCarrick committed numerous acts of sexual assault on an altar boy over a period of years — including one in the sacristy of St. Patrick’s Cathedral during preparations for Christmas Mass, 1971, “credible and substantiated”.
The testimony Archbishop Viganò offers is neither perfectly crafted, nor immune to criticism. In addition to its presumption of motive, it also speculates — not wildly, but — without foundation as firm as one would want with matters of such gravity. Archbishop Viganò’s letter is also also is intemperate at times. In it, Viganàò names several men, at whose roles in the affair he can only guess. Among the men named are Cardinal Francesco Coccopalmerio and Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, who, says Viganò, “belong to the homosexual current in favor of subverting Catholic doctrine on homosexuality,” along with Cardinal Edwin O’Brien and Cardinal Renato Martino. Those claims — without respect to their merit or basis in fact — in the absence of explicit and detailed discussion of their specific pertinence to the narrative, approach slander.
Nevertheless, if the allegations contained in Archbishop Viganò’s letter are correct, then it is difficult to escape the conclusion the former nuncio reaches in his testimony: “In this extremely dramatic moment for the universal Church, he must acknowledge his mistakes and, in keeping with the proclaimed principle of zero tolerance, Pope Francis must be the first to set a good example for cardinals and bishops who covered up McCarrick’s abuses and resign along with all of them.”
If there is even a little truth to the allegations, then Francis has failed his own test: he has not practiced what he has preached — transparency and zero tolerance — nor has he tried adequately to become part of the solution, as he supposedly promised to Juan Carlos Cruz, James Hamilton, and José Andrés Murillo, whom he accused of calumny before praising their courage and resolve when his former position became untenable.
(The views expressed in this piece are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the CWR editors and other contributors, or of Ignatius Press.)