Late Saturday night in American time zones, two English-language websites published the 11-page “testimony” of Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, former Apostolic Nuncio to the United States from 2011 to 2016. The testimony is an unprecedented indictment of senior Church officials for conspiring to enable the now-disgraced former Archbishop of Washington, D.C., Theodore McCarrick, to enjoy prominence and influence in the Church despite decades of sexual abuse and harassment. Among the Church officials under fire in the testimony is Pope Francis himself, whom Viganò calls upon to resign for abetting abuse cover-up and failing to abide by his own zero-tolerance policy.
Viganò writes of his testimony that his “conscience dictates” he speak out about an ecclesial “conspiracy of silence not so dissimilar from the one that prevails in the mafia,” a corruption that “has reached the very top of the Church’s hierarchy.” He documents his knowledge of the Church’s internal handling of McCarrick, who resigned from the cardinalate in late July after claims that he had sexually abused a minor were found “credible and substantiated” by a review board in the Archdiocese of New York – the first such resignation in nearly a decade.
Viganò’s allegations compass the span of three popes’ pontificates and, as John Allen, Jr., notes, implicate no fewer than 32 senior churchmen, many of them members of the Vatican’s administrative body, the Curia, in wrongdoing or questionable behavior related to McCarrick. And as Philip Lawler writes, “Viganò undeniably qualifies as an expert witness in the case” given his decades-long service in capacities that permitted him access to sensitive administrative and personnel information. Consequently it is understandable that his testimony has induced what Robert George has called “an ecclesiastical civil war.”
According to a CBS News story, the Italian journalist Marco Tosatti claimed that Viganò contacted him out of the blue a few weeks ago about meeting to discuss what he knew. Tosatti says that Viganò was initially not prepared to go public with his testimony, but that after the grand jury report documenting widespread abuse and cover-up by the Catholic Church in Pennslyvania was published in mid-August, Tosatti contacted him and urged him to act now for the good of the Church. Other than confirming the testimony’s authenticity, Viganò has not commented publicly on it since providing initial comments accompanying its publication. At that time he said of the Church that “only the truth can make her free,” citing our Lord’s words in the Gospel of John as the reason for overriding decades’ worth of professional formation in diplomatic discretion and secrecy.
The testimony ranges widely in its scope, but in my view the heart of the matter, as the Associated Press argues, is whether the sanctions Viganò alleges Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI imposed on McCarrick in 2009 or 2010 are real, and if so, when they were communicated, and to whom. No less important is the question: did Pope Francis know about these sanctions and the allegations on which they were based, and if so, when did he know?
Those sanctions, according to Viganò, were that McCarrick was to leave the seminary where he was living, was forbidden to celebrate Mass publicly or participate in public prayer, was forbidden to lecture or travel, and was obligated to live a life of prayer and penance.
The question of whether the sanctions were real is a live one since, as many have noted, McCarrick lived a very public life during the alleged period of discipline, traveling the globe, presiding at public liturgies, and even going to Rome multiple times as part of groups of bishops meeting with Pope Benedict. Additionally, Christopher Altieri has rightly asked why McCarrick was allowed to keep his red hat if Viganò’s insistence that the Vatican knew about his misdeeds is accurate.
Furthermore, the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., has published a statement in which Cardinal Donald Wuerl – whom Viganò asserts “lies shamelessly” in saying he knew nothing of McCarrick’s sexual past – “categorically denies” that any information regarding disciplinary sanctions imposed by Benedict on McCarrick was ever communicated to him, by Viganò or any other Vatican official. Wuerl has also affirmed publicly that no claim whatsoever concerning McCarrick’s sexual misbehavior was ever brought to his attention, either during his tenure in Washington or before it.
Interestingly, Wuerl’s spokesman has acknowledged that Wuerl was aware of McCarrick’s move away from the Redemptoris Mater seminary in Washington, D.C. – a move Viganò alleges was the fruit of Benedict’s sanctions being communicated to McCarrick – but did not know any reason why. One reasonably concludes from Wuerl’s statements that he did not inquire why this senior churchman, who was wholly innocent in Wuerl’s eyes, was suddenly relocated. Similarly, Wuerl has admitted that he and Viganò had a conversation about cancelling a discernment event that would have gathered men discerning the seminary with McCarrick, a gathering that the sanctions forbad. But whereas Viganò implies that Wuerl cancelled the event because he knew it violated the sanctions, Wuerl’s spokesman suggests that Wuerl did not do so due to any knowledge of sanctions. If that’s true, the question is: why would Wuerl he cancel this ordinary vocational promotion featuring a star prince of the Church, given that he claims to have had no knowledge whatsoever of allegations against McCarrick?
Of the apparent flouting of the alleged Benedict-imposed sanctions, Viganò said in an August 25 statement to the National Catholic Register that McCarrick’s ongoing public life owed to the fact that Benedict’s “collaborators — the Secretary of State and all the others — didn’t enforce [the sanctions] as they should have done.”
It has been observed, justly, that Viganò’s testimony contains not only falsifiable, factual claims, bolstered by direction quotations and specific information about dates and personal encounters. It also contains an array of inferences, suppositions, insinuations, and what amounts to editorializing. This “mixed bag” quality of the testimony has made it liable to objections by skeptics that Viganò is disgruntled, launching a “witch hunt” against priests and bishops sympathetic to LGBT objections to Church teaching, and out to “get” the Pope who “replaced” him. (Whatever the truth of that final charge, it should be noted that Viganò was replaced as nuncio when he reached the traditional retirement age for bishops. His successor was appointed just three months after Viganò’s 75th birthday.)
John Allen, Jr., has helpfully indexed several reasons to take the testimony with “a large grain of salt.” America Magazine – whose editor, Fr. James Martin, is vociferously criticized in Viganò’s testimony – has sketched reasons for finding the testimony credible or dubious. Sohrab Ahmari and Philip Lawler have argued that the leading objections of skeptics miss the mark or are non–sequitur. Commentators have weighed in to assess Viganò’s own character; the National Catholic Reporter describes him as a disgruntled “crackpot,” whereas George Weigel, perhaps America’s foremost commentator on ecclesiastical affairs, has defended Viganò’s integrity and character.
One reason adduced by Allen for doubting the testimony is Viganò’s own record on sexual abuse. In a New York Times article published in July 2016, Viganò was accused of having quashed an independent investigation into former Archbishop of St. Paul and Minneapolis, John Nienstedt, going so far as to order evidence pertinent to the investigation to be destroyed. Viganò has issued a statement maintaining his innocence from wrongdoing on that occasion, arguing that his concern for due process was persistently misrepresented, and that the document he ordered deleted was not evidential in nature and would be harmful to the Church. He also released private Vatican documents that appear to corroborate his account. As Rod Dreher has noted, either Viganò is lying about the meeting at which he is alleged to have ordered the investigation halted, or else the Vatican’s failure to rehabilitate his reputation by not publishing a corrective of the dominant narrative is intentional – and insidious.
Others have noted that the release of the testimony appeared orchestrated. Tosatti has in fact confirmed the existence of a publication embargo, and according to the Italian journalist who published the original Italian “testimonianza,” Viganò wanted the pope to have the opportunity to be asked about, and respond to, the testimony during his papal flight home from Ireland. The pope declined to address the allegations and implied that they will crumble under their own inconsistency and falsity.
In the final analysis I tend to agree with those who see that at the heart of Viganò’s testimony and what it means for the Church are factual claims that can be corroborated or dismissed on the basis of hard-and-fast evidence, and which should not be waved away or impugned based on Viganò’s motives or past. And so I agree with the U.S. Catholic bishops that the “questions raised” by the testimony “deserve answers that are conclusive and based on evidence, since “without those answers, innocent men may be tainted by false accusation and the guilty may be left to repeat sins of the past.”
In the coming weeks, I suspect that more bishops and personnel familiar with the circumstances Viganò describes will speak out, and documentary evidence will be arraigned. For now, let’s take stock. What do we know, and what do we need to find out in order to know whether Viganò’s assertions are true?
Here’s what we know. The National Catholic Register reports that it has independently confirmed that Benedict recalls ordering disciplinary sanctions to be communicated to McCarrick by then-Vatican Secretary of State Tarcisio Bertone – though the 91-year old Benedict reportedly does not remember the exact nature of the sanctions.
Additionally, when contacted by the Catholic News Agency for comment, Monsignor Jean-François Lantheaume, counsellor of the nunciature under Viganò, stated that he would not comment publicly on Viganò’s testimony other than to say: “Viganò said the truth. That’s all.” Viganò claimed in his testimony that Lantheaume was prepared to testify that Viganò’s predecessor in the nunciature, Pietro Sambo, had communicated to McCarrick Pope Benedict’s canonical sanctions. It seems to me reasonable to interpret Lantheaume’s endorsement as pertaining specifically to his own involvement in Viganò’s narrative – which is further evidence that the sanctions were genuine.
On the other side, we have the statements by the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., to the effect that Wuerl never knew anything about any sanctions, and that no curial official or nuncio ever communicated with him on that score.
The National Catholic Reporter has published a story in which Benedict’s personal secretary denies that the pope emeritus has read or commented on Vigano’s testimony, and asserts that he will not do so, with the result that Viganò’s testimony is “fake news.” Edward Pentin at the National Catholic Register has countered that the Register never reported that Benedict himself had confirmed the sanctions. He clarifies that a personal source close to Benedict last month confirmed the emeritus pope’s memory of the sanctions, and rightly notes that the Register never claimed to have heard directly from Benedict.
Based on what is available so far, it seems to me most likely that Benedict did sanction McCarrick, but that the sanction was selectively enforced or obeyed while the pope emeritus tended to internal corruption and dealt with his weakening health. This thesis reasonably accounts for the available data.
More corroboration has been provided by Boniface Ramsey, the Dominican priest who in 2000 wrote a letter detailing McCarrick’s sexual antics, who has confirmed that he submitted the letter of which Viganò speaks to then-nuncio Gabriel Montalvo, whom Viganò asserts then sent it to the Vatican.
Other notables whom Viganò insists benefited from McCarrick’s patronage and, he implies, are complicit in the subculture that enabled McCarrick to continue operating, have issued strong responses to the testimony.
Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago has corrected a factual mistake in Viganò’s account. Viganò wrote that “the Pope … immediately appointed Cupich [to the Congregation for Bishops] right after he was made a cardinal.” Cupich righty notes that he was appointed to the Congregation in July 2016 and was not announced as a cardinal-to-be until October 2016. Still, the sequence of events seems to me not as interesting as the explanatory assertion Viganò is making, which is that along with Honduran Cardinal Óscar Maradiaga, McCarrick acted as “kingmaker” under Francis for American appointments despite his sexual past being known to the Congregation for Bishops, the Vatican Secretary of State, and, Viganò alleges, Francis himself.
The Archdiocese of Newark, where Joseph Tobin, who in February raised eyebrows by tweeting “Nighty-night, baby. I love you,” allegedly to his adult sister, released a statement denouncing the “factual errors” of Viganò’s testimony, but did not enumerate any or dispute particular claims. Similarly, Bishop Robert McElroy of San Diego – for whom Viganò says he was ordered without explanation by the Vatican to reserve San Diego’s See – has responded to the testimony, maligning it without disputing or denying any of its factual claims.
Viganò states in a footnote to his testimony that “all the memos, letters, and other documentation mentioned here are available at the Secretariat of State of the Holy See or at the Apostolic Nunciature in Washington, D.C.” If that is the case – and Viganò would have little reason to fabricate these claims if documentary evidence to the contrary were easily within reach of those whom he implicates and who now are publicly impugning him – then journalists and the appropriate ecclesiastical authorities should publicize all the documentation relevant to Viganò’s factual claims. These documents would clarify several points now in question.
The first and most important point concerns the process allegedly leading to, and resulting in, Benedict’s imposing sanctions on McCarrick. The chief documents here would include Montalvo’s 2000 report to the Vatican recounting McCarrick’s misdeeds with seminarians throughout the 80s and 90s, and Viganò’s two memos on the same subject, dated December 6, 2006 and May 25, 2008, sent to Vatican State personnel. They would include Benedict’s instruction to Bertone to communicate disciplinary sanctions to McCarrick, as well as Vatican communication to former nuncio Pietro Sambi concerning the same, communication from the Vatican or from Sambi to Wuerl concerning the same, and communication from then-Prefect of the Congregation for Bishops, Giovanni Battista Re, to Viganò informing the latter of the sanctions imposed by Benedict. These documents would answer conclusively whether the sanction was imposed, when, and whether the principals involved indeed knew about them – and thus are lying in claiming otherwise.
It also should be ascertained whether the pope and Viganò indeed met on June 23, 2013 between morning Mass and the noon Angelus address. It was at that meeting that Viganò informed the Holy Father about the Congregation for Bishop’s thick dossier on McCarrick’s misdeeds. That dossier should be searched for reports of McCarrick’s abuse against minors – the trigger that led Pope Francis to formally sanction McCarrick this June and, eventually, to accept his resignation.
It seems reasonable to believe that this dossier, if it exists, includes the files of the settlements reached by dioceses in New Jersey in the mid-2000s. Those files included eyewitness testimony and first-hand accounts that McCarrick had engaged in sex with seminarians and priests. A spokesperson for the New Jersey dioceses that reached the settlements claims that “they were reported to representatives of the Holy See in the United States.” Also, According to one longtime religion reporter, a former priest named Gregory Littleton, whose 2006 Indictment Memorandum against McCcarrick is said by Viganò to have been the proximate occasion for former nuncio Pietro Sambi’s communication to the Vatican for prompt intervention, is the man who described in graphic detail (as later publicly excerpted by Richard Sipe) McCarrick’s violations of seminarians during ‘fishing trips’ to his New Jersey beach house. Sipe maintains that these documents are on file in Newark, and so, one reasonably supposes, they have been communicated to the nunciature and were thence communicated to Rome.
Was McCarrick indeed a “kingmaker” under Francis for American appointments to the Curia and the episcopacy? This assertion would be corroborated by publication of the lists of recommendation for the Sees of Chicago and Newark that Cupich and Tobin, respectively, eventually filled. (McCarrick’s hand in getting Tobin to Newark was documented at the time.) Viganò claims that neither man was on those lists. The communication from Secretary of State Cardinal Parolin to Viganò, instructing him to “reserve the See of San Diego for McElroy,” should also be made public.
If documentation exists that could substantiate the claim that Pope Francis was aware of the disciplinary sanctions Benedict had imposed on McCarrick by the time he met with McCarrick on June 19, 2013, its publication would be of critical importance. On my reading of the testimony, Viganò does not straightforwardly assert that Pope Francis “lifted” sanctions on McCarrick, contrary to the way many outlets have framed the matter. Indeed, the fact that McCarrick apparently flouted most of the sanctions, allegedly abetted in this by powerful Vatican allies, would seem to weaken the case that Bergoglio, famously averse to Roman politics prior to his election in March 2013, would have been aware of them only a month later. But even if the pope’s June 19 meeting was not an occasion for “lifting” sanctions of which he was as yet unaware, still, if Viganò is telling the truth, Francis has known since only 4 days after that meeting that a dossier full of allegations against McCarrick was on file with the Secretariat of State.
If this is true – that Pope Francis knowingly set aside a dossier full of indications of McCarrick’s violations of his vow to celibacy, and commissioned and empowered him to continue influencing the Church publicly and privately – then Francis should indeed resign.