Pope's cover-up crisis turns battle lines into first salvo
VATICAN CITY (AP) — The author of the bombshell accusation of sex abuse cover-up against Pope Francis denied Wednesday he acted out of revenge or anger, breaking his silence as his claims continued to divide a Catholic Church already polarized under Francis' reformist agenda.
While the Vatican is no stranger to scandal, leaks or plots, Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano's j'accuse has weakened a papacy already under fire for Francis' poor record on dealing with sex abuse cases, and has intensified a long-simmering ideological battle between right and left for the soul of the Catholic Church.
Vigano told an Italian journalist he was "serene and at peace" after publishing his allegation-laden declaration, albeit saddened by subsequent attempts to undermine his credibility.
"I spoke out because by now the corruption has arrived at the top of the church hierarchy," Vigano was quoted as saying.
For the church's conservatives, Vigano's 11-page manifesto, published on Sunday, is a courageous denunciation of sex abuse cover-up and corruption. For Francis' reformist supporters, it's an angry diatribe from a homophobic bishop embittered that he never got the cardinal's red hat he so craved.
Both sides, however, agree Vigano's accusations require a response given that, as the former chief Vatican diplomat in the U.S., he was in a position to know certain information. Francis' decision to punt — "I won't say a word on this," he declared Sunday — hasn't helped his cause or satisfied the faithful.
"I do think this is a crisis in trust and authority that comes really close to the Lutheran Reformations in the early 16th century," said Christopher Bellitto, church historian at Kean University in New Jersey. "It's like a marriage: When trust is questioned you can go forward, but it's not the same."
In his letter Vigano accused a long list of U.S. and Vatican officials — including Popes Benedict XVI and Francis — of covering up for ex-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, the retired archbishop of Washington, whose penchant for sleeping with seminarians was apparently an open secret in some church circles for over a decade.
Francis last month removed McCarrick as a cardinal and ordered him to a lifetime of penance and prayer after a U.S. church investigation determined that an allegation he groped a teen-age altar boy in the 1970s was credible.
Up until then, the only accusations against McCarrick had involved sleeping with adult seminarians — a clear abuse of power that was perhaps quietly tolerated in the pre-#MeToo era, but doesn't fly now.
Vigano said he informed Francis of McCarrick's history with seminarians at a meeting on June 23, 2013, and accused the pope of turning a blind eye and effectively rehabilitating McCarrick from the sanctions he claims Benedict had imposed in 2009 or 2010.
There is ample evidence, however, that any sanctions, if they existed, were never fully enforced since McCarrick travelled widely for the church in those years and participated in official church functions, including alongside Vigano, who was responsible for enforcing the sanctions.
Vigano insisted Francis must resign, given the explosion of the McCarrick scandal in the U.S. and a string of other gay sex abuse and cover-up cases in the church in Chile, Honduras and Australia that have implicated several of Francis' top advisers.
Massimo Franco, a columnist for Italy's leading daily, Corriere della Sera, said the silence from the Vatican is telling.
"I think that in this case, if these allegations were 'fake news,' I think someone would have spoken out on behalf of the pope," he told The Associated Press. "What is striking is the general silence."
The Vatican declined to comment Wednesday beyond Francis' remarks Sunday night, when he was asked by a reporter on a flight home from Ireland if Vigano's claims were true.
"I think the text speaks for itself, and you have sufficient journalistic ability to draw conclusions," he said. "If time passes and you've drawn your conclusions, maybe I'll speak."
For many Vatican watchers, the fallout since has laid bare the ideological tensions that have afflicted the church throughout its 2,000-year history, but which intensified under Francis — and exploded into the open this week.
The battle lines were drawn in 2016 when Francis issued his opening to divorced and civilly remarried Catholics. Later that year four cardinals formally asked him to explain if he was changing church teaching on marriage in a rare public rebuke. Vigano's manifesto marked the first direct shot.
Commentator Philip Lawler wrote in First Things, a conservative U.S. Catholic magazine, this week that while the prospect of "open warfare among bishops" is an enticing story line, the divisions are roiling rank-and-file Catholics who are "exhausted and enraged by the serial revelations of cover-ups and corruption" in the church.
Progressive church historian Alberto Melloni, however, wrote in Italy's left-leaning La Repubblica daily that Vigano's missive had "nothing to do with pedophilia" and everything to do with uniting various anti-Francis forces, from the traditionalists to the more moderate Catholic political right, for the sake of a future conclave to choose Francis' successor.
Bellitto, the historian at Kean University, said such machinations were nothing new.
"It's as old as Christianity itself," he said. "What we're in now is nothing other than a high-tech version of 'I'm more Christian than you are.'"
U.S. bishops, as well as ordinary Catholics, have called for an independent investigation to find out who knew about McCarrick's misdeeds and when, and expose how he was able to rise through the ranks. Vigano's bombshell allegations might complicate the request given that the pope is now personally involved.
That said, Vigano provided no evidence that Francis had lifted any sanctions, saying only that McCarrick emerged from a meeting with the pope in June 2013 and announced he was going to China. Such a trip would have been completely in keeping with McCarrick's rigorous travel schedule before 2013 when he was allegedly under Benedict's sanctions.
But Vigano said McCarrick had become a close adviser to Francis, who was seeking to appoint more pastorally minded bishops like himself to the U.S. church, which he believed had become too ideologically driven by right-wingers.
Franco, the Corriere della Sera columnist, said the McCarrick affair showed once again the danger posed by Francis' penchant for keeping friends with baggage like McCarrick and other compromised cardinals as advisers, rather than relying on official church channels for his information.
"I don't want to say it was a will to ignore or to undervalue," he said. "But it's a boomerang in the end."