The bombshell

Today, an eleven-page document, apparently written by Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, former nuncio to the United States, was released. It is a stunning document, alleging basically that the Holy Father was aware of then-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick’s abusive activities but promoted McCarrick for a variety of reasons. More than that, it paints McCarrick as a close adviser to Francis on American matters. Indeed, it suggests that McCarrick was the architect of Francis’s high-profile American appointments, such as Blase Cupich’s appointment to Chicago and Joseph Tobin’s appointment to Newark. Some of these allegations were known; for example, Rocco Palmo reported when Tobin was translated from Indianapolis to Newark that McCarrick was behind the move. However, after McCarrick’s meteoric fall, Tobin’s partisans pressured Palmo to recant the reporting. He has refused to do so. However, other allegations are coming to light for the first time.

Viganò’s document implicates a huge number of high-profile churchmen. Three Secretaries of State—Sodano, Bertone, and Parolin—are alleged to have furthered McCarrick’s career, despite warnings in Rome about his misdeeds. Other high prelates are alleged to have known about McCarrick’s crimes. Viganò states that Benedict XVI imposed some sanctions on McCarrick following these warnings, basically ordering him out of public life. However, Viganò’s most serious allegation is that Francis rescinded these sanctions upon his election in 2013. Viganò goes on to claim that McCarrick became—along with Cardinal Maradiaga—a kingmaker in the Curia under Francis and a trusted adviser, especially with respect to the Obama administration. The whole document must be read, and the allegations take one’s breath away.

In a small but explosive bit of Edward Pentin’s coverage of Viganò’s statement, Pentin writes that Benedict XVI was aware of the allegations against McCarrick and recalls (today, presumably) ordering Cardinal Bertone to impose sanctions on McCarrick, but he cannot recall what the nature of those sanctions was. This adds some confirmation to Viganò’s statement, since he alleges that Benedict’s sanctions against McCarrick were common knowledge in the Curia and had been communicated repeatedly to McCarrick and his successor, Donald Cardinal Wuerl. He suggests that Cardinal Bertone and others may have helped McCarrick skirt Benedict’s sanctions by delaying their imposition.

The bottom line is this: Viganò alleges that McCarrick was aided and abetted by prominent churchmen from Pope Francis on down, despite his misconduct with seminarians being documented thoroughly. As a result of the corruption that Viganò details in his letter, Viganò demands that the Pope and high prelates resign over all this. At the very least, one wishes that there would be total transparency on the McCarrick case. Surely someone in Rome has a scanner and could make a PDF of his file at the Secretariat of State and the Congregation for Bishops; ideally, this would be posted on the Vatican’s website, so that the Church, if it is interested, can review the documents and come to its own conclusions about the McCarrick affair. But Viganò’s demand that Francis abdicate goes well beyond a Truth and Reconciliation Process for the McCarrick case.

The demand is not quite unprecedented—after all, in the climax to the Investiture Controversy, Kaiser Heinrich IV demanded that Pope Gregory VII resign. But it is hard to think of more recent examples of an archbishop and longtime Vatican bureaucrat and diplomat calling for the abdication of the Roman Pontiff. It is supremely unlikely that Francis will abdicate over this. But it is a sobering reminder of the corruption at the highest levels of the Church. It is rumored that Benedict XVI abdicated when he realized he lacked the strength to reform the Roman Curia. Tonight, anyway, Francis’s pontificate teeters on the edge under the weight of these allegations—allegations that are remarkably similar to what is alleged to have brought down Benedict’s papacy.

No doubt the Pope’s partisans will dredge up Viganò’s misdeeds. He will be presented as the far-right culture warrior who brought Kim Davis to meet the Pope. He will be presented as a longtime malcontent and complainer, whose letter to Benedict about his promotion to the nunciature (engineered by Cardinal Bertone when Viganò started poking his nose into Bertone’s business) touched off the first Vatileaks scandal. He may even be presented as someone who has played his own sorry role in the abuse scandal, as it is alleged by the people who investigated Archbishop John C. Nienstedt that Viganò told them to keep quiet. Of course, this last affair begins to look strange in the light of Viganò’s allegations today.

However, the funny thing is that it’s hard to see how Viganò’s misdeeds make him a liar. He may, in fact, be a culture warrior who has a grudge against Francis for sacking him from the nunciature and withholding the customary red hat. He may, in fact, be a talented Curial bureaucrat who torpedoed his career by asking questions better left unasked. And he may have made bad decisions when confronted with the misdeeds of others, like Nienstedt. But it’s hard to spin this past into the conclusion that Viganò is a fabulist. Indeed, he seems like exactly the sort of character who ends up spilling the beans on everything for a variety of motives, some noble and some less noble.

The ball is now in Francis’s court—not a happy thought from any perspective. The Vatican seems incapable of managing a crisis, and this probably counts as a crisis. The Holy See Press Office has been caught flat footed time and time again. The Barros affair in Chile seriously damaged Francis’s credibility and the narrative was out of control before the Vatican acted. The combination of the McCarrick revelations and the Pennsylvania grand jury report imperiled (and still imperils, frankly) the moral authority of the U.S. hierarchy, but it took quite some time for Francis to respond. And when he did, he blamed clericalism. It will be bitterly ironic if Viganò’s allegations are confirmed, either by individuals with knowledge who are emboldened to come forward or by solid reporting by outside journalists, since there’s no other word for McCarrick’s protection and promotion under Francis than clericalism.

Pointing to noted non-Catholic and bouillabaisse enthusiast Rod Dreher’s coverage of the breaking news, Alan Jacobs seems to think that nothing will come of this. We shall see. We agree with Jacobs that Francis probably will not address this head on, but we already see Francis’s partisans like the anonymous (but allegedly well connected) Twitter account @Pope_news coming out to attack Viganò. We know that Francis is perfectly happy to use intermediaries, like Fr. Antonio Spadaro, S.J., or the bishops of the Buenos Aires pastoral region or any of a whole host of people, to make his arguments for him. How they react to this will be a good sign of how Francis reacts to it. Moreover, it will be harder for prelates like Blase Cupich, Joseph Tobin, and Robert McElroy, to maintain silence if intrepid journalists follow up on Viganò’s allegations and find confirmation. In the meantime, there is little for the rest of us to do—except watch, wait, and pray.