It seemed the news couldn’t get more troubling for American Catholics, already inundated with new sexual abuse scandals ensnaring (in different ways) former Washington Archbishop Theodore McCarrick, his successor Donald Wuerl and hundreds of Pennsylvania priests.
Then, on Saturday, another hammer blow landed. The Post reports that “A former Vatican ambassador to the United States has alleged in an 11-page letter that Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis — among other top Catholic Church officials — had been aware of sexual misconduct allegations against former D.C. archbishop Cardinal Theodore McCarrick years before he resigned this summer.” It’s the latest sign that the church likely needs nothing less than a complete overhaul of its hierarchy.
Let’s be clear: The letter’s author, Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, is no fan of Francis. Viganò “was recalled [by the Vatican] from his D.C. post in 2016 amid allegations that he’d become embroiled in the conservative American fight against same-sex marriage,” and he has criticized Francis’s papacy. And there are many powerful conservatives in the church who would relish Francis’s resignation given his emphasis on social justice issues and relative liberalism on issues like divorce.
But there is independent evidence to support the letter’s allegation that then-Pope Benedict sanctioned McCarrick in 2009 or 2010 (years after the Vatican knew of allegations against McCarrick), only for Francis to lift those sanctions. The National Catholic Register “has 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.” And as Michael Brendan Dougherty points out, McCarrick’s departure from Redemptoris Mater Seminary in 2009 or 2010 matches Vigano’s timeline.
Francis has already struggled with the sexual abuse scandal, including foolishly defending a Chilean bishop who covered up a priest’s crimes. But now he has to deal with credible evidence that he re-elevated a man who should have been completely removed from leadership years, if not decades, ago. It is the biggest crisis of his papacy.
Like many Catholics, I have been largely impressed with Francis’s papacy. His humility and compassion have reminded me of the good that the church and its believers do, even as the abuse scandals exposed the institution’s rot. That even Francis, like his predecessor, is now facing credible evidence of covering for an abuser shows just how deep the rot goes.
To recover, the church needs nothing less than an end to its culture of silence and nontransparency, which means a massive turnover in its top ranks. I do not know how that would take place; I suspect few do. But just as a derelict house must be cleaned out before it can be restored, so the current church leadership must be gutted so the church itself can be saved.
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