A young Catholic friend called me as soon as the news broke about Pope Francis. “Is it true?”
I told him I didn’t know. It might be, I said. An anxious, pained tension filled the silence on the line. “No,” he groaned, finally, “not him.”
It was the same horrified pulse of denial I felt when I first read the allegations against Francis, whom I, like many young Catholics, have dearly loved.
Last weekend, Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, who served as a top Vatican diplomat to the United States for five years, released an 11-page document alleging that Francis lifted sanctions that Pope Benedict XVI had imposed on Cardinal Theodore McCarrick for alleged sexual abuse. Viganò’s scorched-earth indictment pins blame for the crisis on several liberal-leaning members of the Catholic Church, and pointedly takes aim at Francis himself, calling on the pope to resign along with all the cardinals and bishops who allegedly covered for McCarrick, the former archbishop of Washington.
There’s plenty more in Viganò’s testimony, and quite enough in his personal history with Francis, to suggest that this move is the result of a coordinated conservative effort against the pope. In fact, this is transparently the case: Viganò reportedly consulted with conservative American lawyer Timothy Busch during the writing of his missive; Busch’s conservative think tank, the Napa Institute, is hosting a conference next month on “a deep and authentic cleansing of American Catholic life.” Thus, much of the coverage of Viganò’s allegations has focused on their political content.
But that leaves the painful question: Is it true?
The claim that Francis lifted sanctions placed on McCarrick by Benedict is, theoretically, verifiable. Somewhere between the papal nunciature here in Washington, where McCarrick would have been informed of any sanctions, and the Vatican, where Francis would have learned of them, there must be some paper trail lending credence to one version of events or another.
Yet nobody — neither Viganò nor Francis, nor detractors on either side — has produced a single scan. Viganò has submitted no corroboration; Francis announced Sunday aboard the papal plane that he doesn’t intend to “say a word about it.” There have been all kinds of reports and editorials from outraged clergy and laypeople commenting on the grossly political nature of the scandal now unfolding. Silence and uncertainty are kindling for such bitter infighting. We could know the truth. So why don’t we?
In his statements on Viganò’s testimony last Sunday, Francis invited journalists to use their skills and capacities to draw conclusions about the matter. And so, on Monday morning, I began to try.
When Francis recently sanctioned McCarrick because of new allegations of sexual assault, McCarrick essentially went into hiding, disappearing from public life, per papal orders, and adopting a low profile. I was tipped off, however, about where he has apparently been living and reasoned that if anyone would know whether Benedict handed down sanctions against McCarrick, it would be the man himself.
So a little before 9:30 on Monday evening — likely a little later than is fair to an elderly man, I admit — I knocked on his door. I was dismissed by another person, via a muted conversation through a windowpane, but left a note and a business card. Hearing no word, I returned Tuesday afternoon and found my card still on the windowsill where I had left it. I suspected my efforts to contact the former cardinal might not be getting through, and so resolved to try a little more persistence this time, waiting on his doorstep for roughly an hour, with a letter I had brought.
But it seems my contact information had made it to authorities: After I left, a representative from the Washington archdiocese called my editor to complain about my presence. I was surprised to learn I had caused sincere alarm — I don’t present an imposing figure, and nobody ever so much as opened the door to ask me to go away — but my insistence, the ringing and knocking, had clearly inspired fear.
I regret that. I don’t ever want to cause anyone any fear. Yet I can’t ignore the emails and calls and letters I receive daily from vulnerable, shaken Catholics asking: Is this true? They deserve — we deserve — an answer, no matter how embarrassing or painful or damning the truth may be for countless members of the hierarchy.
The church, in all its beauty, has historically imagined itself as a mother; Pope Francis has been especially fond of emphasizing this facet of its identity. Prelates, please listen to a woman who has given birth: Real love requires sacrifice. There are those among you who know the truth. Tell it now. It will hurt, no matter what it is. But it is the only loving thing you can do.