A former Vatican ambassador to the U.S. has alleged in a letter that Pope Francis and his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, had both been long aware of sexual misconduct allegations against Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, and that Francis was complicit in the cover-up and his continued abuses. The letter, which was written by controversial Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, hit the Catholic media on Saturday night and quickly rattled the already reeling Catholic world.
McCarrick, the 88-year-old former archbishop of Washington, D.C., was accused of groping a teenage boy in June, which led to more allegations of abuse and his subsequent suspension and resignation from the church.
The 77-year-old Viganò, who has plenty of professional baggage and enemies in the church, testifies in his 7,000-word letter that Cardinal McCarrick’s history of sexual misconduct was known in the upper echelons of the Vatican for more than a decade. He claims that multiple warnings about McCarrick were ignored, that Pope Benedict eventually sanctioned McCarrick, and that Pope Francis knew McCarrick “was a serial predator” since at least mid-2013, but still covered for and empowered him “to the bitter end.” The letter doesn’t just implicate Francis, whom Viganò calls on to resign, but multiple other former and current church leaders on both sides of the Atlantic.
When asked about the letter during a flight back to Rome following a two-day trip to Ireland, Francis told journalists to “read the statement attentively and make your own judgment.”
“I will not say a single word on this,” he continued. “I think this statement speaks for itself, and you have the sufficient journalistic capacity to draw conclusions.”
“When some time passes and you have your conclusions, maybe I will speak,” said Francis. “But I would like that your professional maturity carries out this task.”
If any of Viganò’s allegations turn out to be true, it would obviously have enormous consequences for Francis and the church. But the letter, whether its claims are accurate or not, is also part of an ongoing ideological civil war between conservatives like Viganò — who are looking to hold onto their power and traditions — and more liberal leaders like Francis, whose well-publicized reform efforts have been credited with making the church more tolerant and more palatable to a wider audience.
Viganò alleges that an archbishop first made the Vatican aware of McCarrick’s misconduct in 2000, and that he personally alerted his superiors about McCarrick via two separate memos in 2006 and 2008. But the warnings — which were about McCarrick’s sexual abuse of seminarians and young priests, not minors — were ignored until a statement from a psychotherapist regarding McCarrick’s behavior reached Benedict in the late aughts and prompted him to act.
According to Viganò, Benedict ordered McCarrick to withdraw from public life and no longer stay in seminaries. That punishment either didn’t happen or wasn’t respected by McCarrick, as he clearly continued to make public appearances afterward.
Viganò also accuses Francis of serious misconduct, alleging that he had personally informed the then-new pope in 2013 about McCarrick’s sexual misconduct and Benedict’s order of punishment, but that Francis “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[.]” He accuses Francis of being a part of the cover-up, ignoring or reversing Benedict’s sanctions, and not only placing his trust in McCarrick — whom he had known for years — but awarding him new influence and power, including a high-profile role as a roving ambassador for the church. Francis only acted, according to Viganò, when media reports of McCarrick’s alleged abuse of a minor emerged.
Viganò has said that his letter was an effort to clear his conscience before he dies, as well as protect the church and sexual abuse victims, but he has not offered any proof of his assertions, and has thus far declined opportunities to back up his claims — responding to a request for elaboration from the Washington Post with the comment that, “Silence and prayer are the only things that are befitting.”
The archbishop also referenced multiple documents in his letter, including his own memos — which means there should be some kind of paper trail to support his allegations — but he has thus far provided none.
The National Catholic Register, a conservative publication that is considered an opponent of Francis, reported on Sunday that it had confirmed at least one of Viganò’s allegations — yet like the archbishop, it offered no evidence. The Register reported that it had “independently confirmed that the allegations against McCarrick were certainly known to Benedict, and the Pope Emeritus remembers instructing [Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone] to impose measures but cannot recall their exact nature.” The publication did not cite a source or on-the-record comment, and does not make clear how it confirmed the allegation about Benedict, or how it learned what he did or did not remember.
There are, however, other accounts which indicate the Vatican was aware of rumors about McCarrick’s misconduct, as the L.A. Times explains:
This summer several clerics said they had communicated to Vatican representatives years ago concern about the rumors, and about the case of a New Jersey priest whose private letters allege his life was ruined by McCarrick’s sexual behavior. The priest reached a $100,000 settlement in 2006 with the church in New Jersey, The New York Times reported this summer. He was himself removed amid allegations of inappropriately touching minors and has not responded to efforts by the Post to be interviewed.
This is also not Viganò’s first bout with damaging headlines. He has faced his own allegations of covering up sexual abuse, is a political enemy of Francis and others within the church hierarchy, and lost what became a widely publicized power struggle with the Vatican leadership under Benedict. Viganò was also bitter when McCarrick was consulted over him in the selection of powerful new American bishops, and according to the New York Times, Viganò “has run with a crowd of traditionalist Catholics deeply critical of Pope Francis and recently attended a raucous meeting of anti-Francis prelates and faithful in the basement of a Rome hotel, where he could be seen talking to the LifeSite news reporter who translated the letter into English.”
Viganò, when he was still the Vatican’s ambassador to the U.S., was the one responsible for arranging the infamous meeting in 2016 between Pope Francis and Kim Davis, the municipal clerk from Kentucky who became a momentary hero on the American right after she was fired for refusing to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. The outcry over that meeting embarrassed Francis during a high-profile trip to the U.S., and his allies subsequently alleged that the meeting was set up by Viganò to accomplish just that. Francis later removed Viganò from his ambassador role. (He had also been removed from a leadership post under Benedict.)
It is thus absolutely not a coincidence that Viganò’s allegations emerged while Francis was making a high-profile visit to Ireland, where the church has steadily lost influence and other instances of widespread sexual misconduct by clergy have occurred. Addressing a crowd on Sunday, the pope asked for forgiveness for the “abuses in Ireland, abuses of power, conscience, and sexual abuses” by church leaders.
Pope Francis defended his methods of addressing allegations of sex abuse by priests on Sunday, telling journalists that a tribunal, which survivors have demanded, “wasn’t viable or convenient because of the different cultures of the bishops who must be judged.” He said his ad-hoc system “works better,” and “several” bishops have already been judged. It is not clear when or if an investigation into the allegation in Viganò’s letter will occur. Whatever happens, it’s likely the church’s dramatic internal conflict and the fallout from this new wave of sex-abuse scandals will continue to unfold simultaneously for some time.
This post has been updated to include Pope Francis’s response.