ROME—Not long after Pope Francis took office in March 2013, he ran into a wall. But it wasn’t the ancient Roman brickwork built around Vatican City. It was stronger. And it came from deep within the very church he was elected to lead. Every time he tried to introduce reforms, the wall was there. His foes were so strong he recently equated reforming the Catholic Church with “cleaning the Sphinx of Egypt with a toothbrush.”
Still, Francis persevered, relying on his immediate popularity and innate charm, and soon the outside world began to look at the Catholic Church in a new, positive light under his guidance. Suddenly, it it was cool to be Catholic.
But the traditional conservatives within the church didn’t want to be cool, and while the new pope was hardly progressive by secular standards (he is still Catholic, after all), they preferred the cold church, the one that protected them from the outside world behind layers of immovable doctrine.
While Francis reached far into the margins to minister to the poor and disenfranchised, the conservatives preferred punishing the sinners and adhering to archaic rules that have little place in the modern world, even if it meant sacrificing the flock.
Francis toyed with allowing divorced and remarried Catholics to take communion, he made it OK to forgive abortion to repentant women, and he was nice to gays. And the conservatives bristled.
It took five long years, but the conservative powers of the Catholic Church have finally begun to turn around the supertanker of support for the pope they seem to hate. And they did it using the one sin the whole church is guilty of: clerical sex abuse.
Francis cannot be blamed for mishandling the bulk of the church’s endemic sex abuse scandals, many of which have played out in dioceses that were run by those who would like to see him resign. There has been no major sex abuse scandal in his native Argentina—at least not yet—so his naysayers have had to pick a softer target.
The conservatives had been trying to find Francis’s weak spot for years, and they finally found it through Carlo Maria Viganò, the Vatican’s former papal nuncio to the United States, who is no fan of Francis. He penned a damning 11-page testimonial in which he said he had long ago told the pope all about American Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, who stands accused of years of inappropriate behavior with seminarians. Rumors that had been swirling around clerical circles for years portraying McCarrick's New Jersey beach house as a sort of Playboy Mansion for young gay clergy. Then allegations surfaced this year of at least one case of sexual molestation of an 11-year-old boy in the 1960s, and the sexual assault of a 16-year-old altar boy in 1971.
The Viganò accusations suggest Francis and those closest to him in the Roman curia knew about such allegations, but knowingly covered for McCarrick by keeping him around to represent the Vatican in an official capacity. Never mind that many of the conservatives arrayed against Francis, including Viganò, shared a certain and easily traceable clerical camaraderie with McCarrick during his heyday—only to use him now as a thorn in Francis’s side in their plot to topple his papacy.
Viganò’s letter blindsided Francis when it was released by a string of hand-picked conservative Catholic news outlets right as Francis was dealing with a whole different set of clerical sex abuse problems on an apostolic visit to Ireland, where he apologized profusely for the church’s mishandling of a century of abuse there.
Francis was left speechless by the Viganò letter, and so he said nothing. In fact he told reporters on the flight back to Rome, he would never say anything, “not one word” on Viganò’s accusations, and he has so far kept that promise.
It must be noted that Francis did remove McCarrick’s title as a cardinal and ordered the 88-year-old to a life of prayer in late July after an investigation into the abuse of a minor made McCarrick’s bad behavior too hard to ignore, but he has not been defrocked. For the most part, prior allegations against him had involved consenting adults, and while it was wrong and likely involved abuse of power, they just weren’t as bad as most instances of clerical sexual abuse involving the rape of little children.
McCarrick is the perfect target in a campaign to score against the pope. Although too old to vote himself, he was one of the cardinals who lobbied for the election of Francis, according to several conclave historians’ accounts. At one point, he even took credit for getting the Argentine elected. “How sweet for conservatives that he would be the one to bring him down,” an American bishop who does not wish to be quoted by name told The Daily Beast. “It’s like twisting the knife.”
Though Francis’ strategy of silence may have been meant to avoid dignifying Viganò’s claims with a response, it has mostly backfired because it was not a flat-out denial of the content of the letter. Conservatives have been able to sow seeds of uncertainty about Francis, as Robert Moynihan, editor of Inside the Vatican puts it in his recent editorial letter. “It does seem clear that the case has ‘parted the veil’ to reveal a profound struggle within the Catholic Church between factions in the Vatican and Church hierarchy, and outside of the Church, for ‘control of the narrative’ about what the Church is and what she believes,” he writes. “Victory in this larger battle requires victory in the smaller battle: control of how all these charges and counter-charges play out. It is clear that the battle ranges across a spectrum of issues and positions that sometimes seem very confused.”
Viganò, who is quite possibly incognito somewhere in the United States since penning the poison letter, has been drip-feeding anti-Francis rhetoric through conservative websites and anti-Francis journalists, including new behind-the-scenes revelations about how the meeting between Francis and Kim Davis, the Kentucky county clerk who was held in contempt for not signing same sex marriage licenses, came to be and who lied when about what. Now, even those who are trying to defend Francis have been forced to admit that everyone lied about how that meeting transpired, despite the official statements from the Vatican at the time. Those close to Viganò say there is plenty more to come.
Though Francis may be silent, save a few homilies and public sermons his supporters are trying to channel into hidden messages, the plot continues to thicken. That’s especially true in the American Church, which has not only spawned one of Francis’s most fervent enemies in Cardinal Raymond Burke, who has found great support for his anti-Francis cause in American alt-right strategist Steve Bannon, but which has also given conservatives plenty of ammunition thanks to endemic clerical sex abuse and cover-ups that seemingly lead straight from the United States to Vatican City.
In particular, the damning Pennsylvania grand jury report that named more than 300 predator priests who victimized more than 1,000 children over seven decades in that state alone, produced one significant culprit: Cardinal Donald Wuerl. He is McCarrick’s successor as the archbishop of Washington, D.C. and he is a former ranking prelate in Pennsylvania, linking him to the two biggest scandals facing Francis right now.
Most of those on the anti-Wuerl bandwagon want him to step down, or better yet be fired by Francis, over his admitted mishandling of clerical sex abuse in Pennsylvania when he was archbishop there. He was a fixture in the Pennsylvania report, his name appearing dozens of times. Wuerl’s critics also say he lied when he said that, like Francis, he too had never heard the rampant rumors about McCarrick, whose now-proven sexual peccadilloes with young seminarians are nauseating.
Wuerl has done little to help his boss out. Instead, he seems to be adding to the pope’s problems. Conservative Catholic conspiracy theorists were abuzz last Thursday when it seemed that Wuerl had disappeared. OnePeterFive, a wildly popular traditionalist website named after the Bible verse in which those “left to tend God’s flock in a time of peril” face the devil, ran a clever tongue-in-cheek column titled “Where’s Wuerldo?” complete with a Waldo-esqe caricature of the missing prelate.
Citing popular anti-Francis conservative Catholic mainstay news sites, Lifesite and Church Militant, OnePeterFive amplified claims that Wuerl had run off to Rome to escape arrest by American secular authorities, going so far as running conspiratorial tweets that suggested Wuerl’s Washington estate on embassy row “looked like a ghost town” and that his cellphone had been shut off while he was “holed up in a DC hotel.”
“Wuerl would be a prime target of such a case,” OnePeterFive’s founder Steve Skojec wrote, quoting Lifesite’s unnamed sources. “Pope Francis wants him out of the country lest he reveal ‘all he knows’ because any potential [Department of Justice] case would lead to the Vatican.”
It is not such a far reach to believe that Wuerl could have been whisked to safety behind fortified walls of the Holy See. After all, the Vatican has a long history of protecting its own from secular authorities, most recently when it shuttled Father Carlo Alberto Capella back to Rome last September as authorities in the United States and Canada were homing in on him.
Never mind that Capella, who was a mid-level functionary at the Vatican’s diplomatic corps whose penchant for kiddie porn was discovered by the FBI which then requested that the Vatican lift his diplomatic immunity and help their investigation, had been placed in his job by Viganò years earlier.
When Capella got into trouble from the kiddie porn, the pope essentially airlifted him to safety in Rome, where he faced an in-house Vatican tribunal just last month. He was sentenced to five years in a Vatican prison and a fine of €5,000. Secular authorities in the United States and Canada will likely never have a chance to prosecute him and, if history serves as precedent, the pope will likely eventually grant him a pardon.
The conservative websites were partially right. Wuerl was on a stealth trip to Rome last week where he met the pope to discuss just what to do about his troubles back home in America. But it seems he wasn’t there to seek shelter since he was back in D.C. behind the pulpit on Sunday, where he was heckled by haters. The Vatican has not officially confirmed Wuerl’s visit, and it was never listed on the pope’s official schedule, which is distributed to the Vatican press corps. Instead, the pope stayed silent on yet another issue that only fans the flames being fed by his conservative enemies.
Vatican expert and author of The Vatican Diaries John Thavis, explained to The Daily Beast what might be behind the pope’s reluctance to engage. “If there's anything Pope Francis hates, it's gossip,” Thavis says. “And I think he views Viganò's letter as eleven pages of gossip, innuendo and outright character assassination. It's unrealistic to expect this pope or the Vatican to respond point by point to that kind of attack.”
Still, Thavis says he is surprised the Vatican has not yet responded to the letter's main accusation—that Viganò alerted Francis to prior sanctions against McCarrick, and that the pope failed to follow up. “This may be a case, however, of where a full explanation by Francis would leave his predecessors, Popes Benedict and John Paul II, open to criticism,” Thavis says. “That's something I'm sure the pope would rather avoid, and may help explain his silence.”
In fact there is one person who could clear up this mess once and for all. Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI, who is whiling away his days in a monastery inside Vatican City, is the one person who knows exactly what Francis knew and when, but he has so far refused to make a public statement on the matter, which has only fanned the flames on both sides of the line that continues to divide the church.
As the palace intrigue continues in Rome, what amounts to clerical abuse contagion continues in America as state after state start investigations into clerical sex abuse and Catholic cover-ups after the landmark report out of Pennsylvania. An investigation in Missouri, where Francis critic Cardinal Burke and Francis supporter Cardinal Timothy Dolan, now the archbishop of New York, both served, is well underway and could be devastating for the American church. Bishop Accountability keeps a database of all reports of predator priests by state. Missouri has 114 listings of serial abusers across four dioceses. There are also credible investigations of clerical sex abuse going on in Florida, Illinois and New York, not to mention a continuation of the Pennsylvania fallout where priests continue to be named and investigated. On Thursday, the New York state attorney general subpoenaed all New York state dioceses for their secret records on abuse.
As for Wuerl, whose resignation would be welcomed by victims of clerical sex abuse and increasingly by supporters of Francis who believe the cardinal is quickly becoming an albatross around his neck, Pope Francis has actually had the cardinal’s resignation letter in front of him since November 2015 when Wuerl turned 75, the age all archbishops are required to offer to resign their posts. The ball is squarely in Francis’s court on Wuerl, and, in fact, on the entire scandal that is now ripping the church apart at its seams.