Unfolding Scandal in the Vatican

As #ChurchToo continues to unfold — and even brushes up against American partisan fights — the Vatican is finally responding to accusations leveled against Pope Francis and his predecessors.

As a reminder:

  • Ex-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick was long rumored to abuse priests and seminarians. When allegations emerged that he had also sexually assaulted minors, he was removed from the College of Cardinals.
  • His successor in Washington, Cardinal Donald Wuerl, was implicated both in cover-ups in Pennsylvania and suspicions about how much he knew vis-a-vis McCarrick. Wuerl has since resigned his cathedra in DC.
  • Former nuncio to the United States and noted “culture warrior” Archbishop Carlo Vigano published a letter accusing Pope Francis of knowingly covering for McCarrick and even rescinding sanctions against the disgraced cleric.
  • For all of his indignation, Vigano himself has been implicated in cover-ups and was repeatedly seen publicly alongside McCarrick. Which is to say, his credibility is lacking.
  • All of this is mired not only in the latest round of abuse and cover-up scandals but also an ecclesial cold war between “traditionalist” Catholics suspicious of Francis’ reform agenda and more progressive Catholics cheering on the pontiff‘s program.

The Vatican has taken over a month to respond to these allegations. Vigano has written a second letter. Both sides have dug in, and the culture war wages on.

This week, though, has finally seen noteworthy developments.

First, the Pope has approved an internal investigation into how McCarrick managed to rise through the ranks. The statement, though, does not mention Vigano’s allegations. As RNS points out in the link above, we already know several things:

The Vatican knew as early as 2000 that seminarians complained that McCarrick pressured them to sleep with him. The Rev. Boniface Ramsay, a professor at a New Jersey seminary, wrote a letter to the Vatican in November 2000 relaying the seminarians’ concerns after McCarrick was named archbishop of Washington.

St. John Paul II still went ahead with the nomination and made McCarrick a cardinal the following year. McCarrick resigned as Washington archbishop in 2006 after he reached the retirement age of 75.

Rocco Palmo of Whispers in the Loggia, has posted the entire statement on the internal reviews and offers this interpretation:

Notably, given the prior sense among no shortage of Americans that Rome was reluctant to engage a review of its archives in light of the possibility that successive Popes would be implicated in enabling McCarrick’s rise, today’s move represents a head-on tackling of that criticism.

The title of his article, though, says even more:

In Charting New McCarrick Probe, Vatican Concedes Likely Cover-Up

Meanwhile, Cardinal Marc Ouellet, prefect for the Congregation of Bishops (the bishop who oversees all the other bishops) responded forcefully to Vigano’s charges in a letter of his own. As per usual, Whispers in the Loggia has the full text available here.

Ouellet hinted that Vigano’s actions are “blasphemous.” (The source of such an accusation is that multiple Catholic prayers and devotions, to include the Roman Canon of the eucharistic prayer, reference the pope by name. If Vigano truly believes that Francis should resign, Ouellet is suggesting, then Vigano cannot faithfully celebrate the Mass. It’s a nuanced point dependent upon a distinctly Roman understanding of the liturgy, but it’s a harsh accusation all the same.) Later, Ouellet says Vigano is in “open and scandalous rebellion.”

Despite the fury evident in Ouellet’s writing, Jesuit writer and RNS contributor Thomas Reese points out:

It is clear from Ouellet’s letter that rumors of McCarrick sleeping with seminarians were never seriously investigated by the Vatican. Once he was retired, the issue became even less a priority. It was not until he was accused of abusing a minor that the Vatican took action.

Moreover, it seems to me that Ouellet is falling on his own sword while clearing both Benedict XVI and Francis. As a major caveat, I am not a Catholic; I have not taken courses on Catholic polity, and the inner workings of the papal curia are a mystery. That being said, as I read through Ouellet’s response, this portion sticks out to me like a sore thumb:

…the written brief prepared for you by the Congregation for Bishops at the beginning of your service in 2011, said nothing about McCarrick other than what I told you in person about his situation as an emeritus Bishop who was supposed to obey certain conditions and restrictions due to the rumors surrounding his past behavior.

Since I became Prefect of this Congregation on 30 June 2010, I never brought up the McCarrick case in an audience with Pope Benedict XVI or Pope Francis until these last days, after his removal from the College of Cardinals. The former Cardinal, who had retired in May 2006, had been strongly advised not to travel and not to appear in public, so as not to provoke additional rumors in his regard. It is false to present the measures taken in his regard as “sanctions” decreed by Pope Benedict XVI and revoked by Pope Francis. After re-examining the archives, I can ascertain that there are no corresponding documents signed by either Pope, neither is there a note of an audience with my predecessor, Cardinal Giovanni-Battista Re, giving Archbishop Emeritus McCarrick an obligatory mandate of silence and to retire to a private life, carrying canonical penalties. The reason being that at that time, unlike today, there was not sufficient proof of his alleged guilt. Hence, the position of the Congregation was inspired by prudence, and my predecessor’s letters, as well as mine, reiterated through the Apostolic Nuncio Pietro Sambi, and then also through you, urging a discreet style of life, of prayer and penance for his own good and that of the Church.

That, to my ear, sounds like Ouellet is admitting that he and several of his predecessors and subordinates knew about McCarrick’s behavior and chose not to investigate. They believed the rumors were credible enough to merit informal action but not investigation.

That’s unacceptable. That’s precisely the type of behavior that has led to so much pain and strife. And now we learn that it was not only the standard operating procedure in local dioceses decades ago but was the norm in the Vatican within the current papacy?

As I’ve said previously, I’m rooting for Francis. His papacy has been good for the Catholic Church, the catholic Church, and the entire world. I want him to do good and do well. But it’s also time for some bishops to begin hanging up their hats.


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