ROME — Pope Francis has officially lost control of the American clerical sex-abuse scandal.
On the heels of the damning Pennsylvania grand jury report out this month, he now finds himself facing calls for his resignation over allegations that he was complicit in the cover-up of a different sex-abusing cardinal, this time Washington, D.C.’s Theodore McCarrick, whose abuse was apparently so well known that he once advertised in a church bulletin that young seminarians should seek him out. And now, a BuzzFeed News exposé published Monday about murderous nuns at St. Joseph’s Orphanage in Vermont is sure to feed the fire, or at least prove once and for all—lest anyone doubted—that clerical sex abuse in the Catholic Church is endemic.
Francis may actually be making things even worse by refusing to comment. He was widely criticized for his “no comment” remarks in the days after the Pennsylvania case. And last night on the flight back to Rome from Ireland, he did not deny claims of a cover-up involving McCarrick. Instead, he refused to comment once again.
“I read the statement this morning, and I must tell you sincerely that, I must say this, to you and all those who are interested: Read the statement carefully and make your own judgment,” the pontiff said, according to a transcript of the in-flight Sunday night press conference published on the Catholic News Agency’s website. “I will not say a single word about this. I believe the statement speaks for itself.”
Those in support of Francis will take that as a denial, that the claims are unsubstantiated. But those who doubt the pope instead see it as confirmation that Francis continues to fail to do the right thing.
The latest claims come from Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, the Vatican’s former apostolic nuncio to the United States who is no big fan of Francis. The two have publicly differed on a number of topics, not least of all the pontiff’s tolerance for same-sex couples and his willingness to welcome divorced and remarried Catholics back to the church. Viganò is responsible for the ill-advised private meeting with anti-gay-marriage martyr Kim Davis when Francis visited America in 2015 and he has called the pope’s religious order a “deviated wing of the Jesuits.”
The Vatican’s former man in America says Francis is complicit in the now well-known widespread cover-up of clerical sex abuse in America—starting with McCarrick. He says the pope should lead the way and step down along with Cardinal Donald Wuerl and other prominent prelates tied to recent sex-abuse revelations in Pennsylvania involving more than 300 priests and 1,000 victims. McCarrick, who is a personal friend of Francis, did resign in June over “credible sex-abuse allegations.” Viganò now demands that the pope do the same.
“Francis is abdicating the mandate which Christ gave to Peter to confirm the brethren. Indeed, by his action he has divided them, led them into error, and encouraged the wolves to continue to tear apart the sheep of Christ’s flock,” Viganò wrote in a damning 11-page “testimony” submitted to the Roman Curia while Francis was in Ireland. “In this extremely dramatic moment for the universal church, he must acknowledge his mistakes and, in keeping with the proclaimed principle of zero tolerance, Pope Francis must be the first to set a good example for cardinals and bishops who covered up McCarrick’s abuses and resign along with all of them.”
While it is highly unlikely that the pope will resign on the recommendation of a man who is so clearly and publicly against him, it is as troubling a moment for Francis as it is for the American Catholic church at large.
Even reputable cardinals who have given credibility to the crumbling institution are now caught up in the scandal. Boston’s Sean O’Malley, who leads the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, had also been informed of McCarrick’s record of abuse in 2015, but he revealed that his office had neglected to show him the letter, which included accusations that McCarrick often invited six or more seminarians to his five-bedroom New Jersey beach house, where he asked some to share his bed.
While many thought the pontiff would use at least one of his six speeches in Ireland to lay out new plans for combating abuse and its cover-up, he chose to instead offer up prayers and beg forgiveness for the past sins of the church, which has been his go-to defense.
McCarrick’s crimes and their cover-up are well-documented. Pope Benedict XVI sanctioned the cardinal sometime between 2009 and 2010, according to Viganò’s letter, which states: “The cardinal was to leave the seminary where he was living, he was forbidden to celebrate [Mass] in public, to participate in public meetings, to give lectures, to travel, with the obligation of dedicating himself to a life of prayer and penance.”
Viganò goes on to say Francis then lifted these sanctions when he took office, and only reinstated them in June after it became clear that McCarrick was indeed a serial pervert. Viganò describes a scene in Vatican City when he met the formerly disgraced cardinal. “As soon as I entered the hall I met Cardinal McCarrick, who wore the red-trimmed cassock,” Viganò wrote. “I greeted him respectfully as I had always done. He immediately said to me, in a tone somewhere between ambiguous and triumphant: ‘The pope received me yesterday, tomorrow I am going to China.’”
Viganò, who is a staunch ally of hard-right American Cardinal Raymond Burke, who has also been highly critical of Francis, goes on to make other accusations against the pontiff and the church under his rule. “To restore the beauty of holiness to the face of the Bride of Christ, which is terribly disfigured by so many abominable crimes, and if we truly want to free the church from the fetid swamp into which she has fallen, we must have the courage to tear down the culture of secrecy and publicly confess the truths we have kept hidden,” he writes. “We must tear down the conspiracy of silence with which bishops and priests have protected themselves at the expense of their faithful, a conspiracy of silence that in the eyes of the world risks making the church look like a sect, a conspiracy of silence not so dissimilar from the one that prevails in the mafia.”
The Ireland trip was seen by many as another wasted opportunity for Francis, and one that looks almost sure to repeat itself as he struggles to manage a cancer within the church that is now metastasizing rapidly, especially in the United States, where Francis has yet to fully engage. Marie Collins, a victim of clerical sexual abuse from Ireland who had been a member of Pope Francis’ Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors until she resigned last year over the pope’s “lack of action” to protect children, said she despaired about her conversation with the pope.
“I was very disappointed that he felt that local processes are working,” she wrote in an op-ed in the Irish Independent. “That is not what I was hoping for, not what I was looking for, and not what many people were looking for. It also shows that we are not going to get any universal step in regard to accountability in the near future.”