DENVER — On its face, the arc of Archbishop Carlo Viganò’s story is straightforward.

In a testimony released Aug. 25, Archbishop Viganò wrote that in 2006, he sent a memo to his Vatican superiors, which said that Cardinal Theodore McCarrick had a history of sexual misconduct with seminarians and priests and that an example should be made of him for the good of the Church.

Archbishop Viganò claimed that his memo was ignored, and so he sent a second one in 2008. That one, he said, had its desired effect. His testimony said he was told that Pope Benedict XVI imposed “canonical sanctions” on Cardinal McCarrick in 2009 or 2010, forbidding him from living in a seminary, celebrating sacraments publicly, and from making other kinds of public appearances.

Finally, Archbishop Viganò alleged that Pope Francis knowingly ignored Benedict’s sanctions on Cardinal McCarrick, and made the cardinal one of his closest advisers. For that, the archbishop said, Pope Francis should resign.

The story is simple, but the fallout from Archbishop Viganò’s testimony has become quite complex.

In the week since the testimony was released, detractors have pointed out that the nuncio may himself have shut down an investigation into former Archbishop John Nienstedt of Saint Paul-Minneapolis, that he had axes to grind with several of the people he implicated in the memo, and that he may have dishonestly misrepresented some family obligations at the time he was appointed apostolic nuncio to the United States.

At the same time, facts have emerged that seem to corroborate some parts of Archbishop Viganò’s account, and affirm the credibility of his subsequent press statements.

Two sources told CNA last week that they were witnesses to a 2008 meeting in which Archbishop Viganò’s predecessor, Archbishop Pietro Sambi, told Cardinal McCarrick to move out of the seminary where he’d been living. Auxiliary Bishop Andrew Cozzens of Saint Paul and Minneapolis released a statement Friday that seemed to corroborate the nuncio’s account of the Archbishop Nienstedt investigation.

Sources told CNA Sunday that they could confirm a meeting Viganò claimed to have had with Pope Francis in 2015. And several U.S. bishops have spoken out to say that they believe Archbishop Viganò to be a man of integrity, encouraging that his allegations be thoroughly investigated.

The most serious complicating factor came in an Aug. 31 report from the National Catholic Register’s Edward Pentin. While Archbishop Viganò has claimed that Pope Benedict imposed “canonical sanctions” on McCarrick, Pentin reported a source close to Benedict telling him that, as far as the former pope could remember, “the instruction was essentially that McCarrick should keep a ‘low profile.’ There was ‘no formal decree, just a private request.’”

Pentin, who broke the story of Archbishop Viganò’s testimonial, had reported in his initial coverage of the memo that a source told him the former Pope remembered issuing restrictions of some kind, but could not remember exactly how the matter was handled. His Aug. 31 report elaborated, with a source saying that Cardinal McCarrick might have been the recipient of a “private request.”

There is a great deal of distance between what Archbishop Viganò claimed — that Benedict imposed “canonical sanctions” — and what Pentin’s source revealed: that the restrictions might have come through no more than a “private request.”

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For some commentators, Pentin’s report seems to discredit Viganò’s entire testimonial. “Private requests” are not “canonical sanctions,” they argue, and therefore Archbishop Viganò has been untruthful about the central argument of his memo.

Those commentators have a point, in part: Private requests are not canonical sanctions. Archbishop Viganò, who has a doctorate in canon law and a lifetime of ecclesiastical service, should know the difference. Misrepresenting a “private request” that a cardinal keep a low profile as “canonical sanctions” seems very obviously to be a grave defect in Archbishop Viganò’s report.

Of course, it is possible, though unlikely, that Archbishop Viganò directly and intentionally misrepresented Pope Benedict’s actions. This seems unlikely because the archbishop has called consistently for a release of files and documents; if he believed those documents would prove him wrong, he would not likely be doing so.

It is also possible that the archbishop wasn’t certain exactly what happened, and that he overcommitted to what he did know by claiming to have “certainty” Benedict had imposed canonical sanctions. This seems a likely scenario, given that the former nuncio’s entire testimony has a certain dramatic flair.

But there are a few other factors worth at least considering in a responsible assessment of the situation.

The first is the effect of a game of ecclesiastical telephone.

Archbishop Viganò has not claimed that he saw written letters or decrees enacting restrictions. Instead, his testimony says he was informed by Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re that Pope Benedict imposed the sanctions on Cardinal McCarrick. Pentin’s initial reporting says that Benedict instructed Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone to handle the matter. This means that by the time Archbishop Viganò heard about whatever happened, the story had gone through at least Cardinals Bertone and Re, and it’s possible the story had even more intermediaries before it landed on Archbishop Viganò’s desk.

The Vatican has a penchant for gossip, and many of its officials have a marked zeal for hyperbole. Anyone who knows the Vatican well can imagine how a “private request” made by Pope Benedict could become “canonical sanctions” by the time the story reached Archbishop Viganò.

The second possible factor is the generally loose relationship many bishops, of all theological perspectives, have with the nuances and finer points of canon law.

The frequency with which some bishops misuse or fail to use canon law as it’s written was on full display in the Pennsylvania grand jury report, which depicted countless instances in which bishops failed to follow the procedures required of them by Church law.

Many commentators have argued, for years in some cases, that if bishops in the United States had followed canon law exactingly in recent decades, they might have stopped the most egregious stories in the grand jury report even before they happened.

But if bishops have misused or failed to use the processes outlined in canon law with regularity, they even more frequently misuse canonical terms.

Every canon lawyer can tell stories about bishops who say that they have “suspended” a priest — a formal action that can be undertaken only as the result of a penal process — when they mean simply that they have temporarily benched him, sometimes without paperwork.

Similarly, the word Archbishop Viganò used — “sanction” — is understood almost exclusively by canonists to mean a technically imposed penalty following an established process. But it is the kind of word that is often used loosely by hierarchs, in reference to any number of on or off-book disciplinary measures.

It is quite possible that Archbishop Viganò has not grasped some of the implied distinctions contained in the phrase he chose, and includes in his definition of the term “sanctions” less formal verbal instructions.

Whatever the backstory, it seems absolutely clear that when Archbishop Viganò used the term “canonical sanctions” he was not referring to a technical penalty imposed after a penal process. If Cardinal McCarrick had undergone a formal penal process — a trial — the entire Church would know about it.

It seems clear to most commentators that Archbishop Viganò should have used a less technically loaded term. By failing to be clear about what he meant, he’s opened the door for criticism, and those who take issue with the substance of his letter have marched through that door with indignation.

But none of that changes the big-picture allegations of Archbishop Viganò’s memo: that after receiving multiple reports, Pope Benedict took some action against Cardinal McCarrick, and that action was later reversed or rescinded.

In the past week, several sources, speaking to different media outlets, have provided evidence that Benedict did make some kind of response to reports he received about the cardinal’s sexual misconduct. While it seems highly unlikely that response was technically a “sanction” in the formal sense, it also seems increasingly apparent that Benedict did give some kind of restrictive instruction to Cardinal McCarrick.

Archbishop Viganò says he might have received a memo about Benedict’s restrictions in 2011, and that if so, it would be found in the archives of the U.S. nunciature or the Congregation for Bishops. That would likely shed some clarity on the matter. It remains to be seen whether the Holy See will review those archives and release pertinent documents, but few journalists expect documentary clarity to be forthcoming from the Vatican.

It seems unlikely that semantic disagreements about Archbishop Viganò’s claims will lead Catholics to dismiss entirely the questions he has raised, implicitly and explicitly, about whether and by whom, Cardinal McCarrick’s situation was inadequately addressed or simply papered over.

Those are the precisely the questions for which Catholics have been seeking answers.

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Many Catholics have asked this week why, if Pope Benedict XVI did respond in some way to Archbishop Viganò’s memos, he didn’t respond in a stronger fashion.

Benedict is well-known to have a record of active intolerance for sexual misconduct in the Church. During his tenure leading the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, he led a charge to develop more stringent processes and penalties for clerics accused and convicted of abuse. He is known to have referred to sexually abusive priests as a “filth” in the Church.

Archbishop Viganò says he reported that Cardinal McCarrick had sexually coerced young priests and seminarians, publicly embarrassed at least one who would not acquiesce to his demands, and possibly committed related canonical crimes of sacrilege. Many Catholics assume that such a report would have caused Benedict to issue an immediate, public and serious set of penalties. Taking a soft approach on the prelate seems incongruous with his record.

The Register reported last week a source telling them that “as well as being very active, the media and public opinion didn’t speak any more about McCarrick, and sometimes it’s better if something is sleeping to let it sleep.” To many Catholics, such reasoning is unacceptable, and to many close observers, it doesn’t sound quite like Pope Benedict.

Archbishop Viganò’s report alleged that some of Pope Benedict’s most powerful advisers shielded Archbishop McCarrick from the Pope. True or not, the allegation merits investigation as Benedict’s action — or inaction — is reviewed and evaluated.

Catholics have also asked why Pope Francis, if he knew that Cardinal McCarrick was reportedly sexually engaged with seminarians for decades, would make a him an important adviser and emissary.

To understand and assess the responses of Benedict and Francis to allegations about the disgraced archbishop, it is important to understand the canonical context in which those allegations were made.

Since 2002, all bishops in the United States have known exactly how to address an allegation that a cleric sexually abused a child. The procedure is uniform and clear, and bishops seem to understand the importance of following it precisely and promptly. But the manner in which allegations of sexual misconduct with adults are handled looks nothing like those clear procedures.

Church law does not expressly establish that sex between a cleric and an adult is a canonical crime. As a consequence, bishops everywhere find themselves vexed, and frequently, about how exactly they should handle allegations of clerical sexual misconduct involving adults — even in cases like Archbishop McCarrick’s, where coercion is an operative factor.

Bishops often send priests accused of sexual misconduct involving adults to inpatient therapy, and it has become typical for bishops to unofficially and temporarily sideline priests who engage in sexual dalliances with adults, usually until the bishop is convinced that the priest has addressed whatever issues are believed to have contributed to his misconduct. But there is seldom a canonical process involved in such cases, and, at the moment, there is not even an obvious canonical crime with which such priests could be charged.

Those practices might help to explain why Pope Benedict didn’t act more publicly or directly on Cardinal McCarrick. They might also explain, at least in part, why Pope Francis was apparently able to be convinced that the Washington archbishop had been reformed, and that he could be brought into his inner orbit.

That context is not offered as an excuse; most commentators on the matter argue compellingly that, whatever the context, both popes should have understood the seriousness of the situation. But it is possible that one or both of them did not, which is the reason why an investigation into all available records and testimonies would be of great help to the Church.

In the aftermath of the #MeToo movement, and the Archbishop McCarrick revelations, it is now becoming clear to bishops and other Church leaders that priests and bishops are almost always in unbalanced relationship of power with other Catholics and so clerical sexual misconduct with adults should never be presumed to be consensual, as it often has been presumed to be in the past. And it is becoming especially clear to bishops that when the sexual partners of clerics are seminarians, “consent” is really not an operative or relevant principle.

As a result of what’s happened, some bishops are now beginning to understand that they need the same kinds of clear procedures for handling misconduct involving adults that they have for handling allegations involving children. The specifics might be different, but the importance of developing some kind of clearly delineated protocol is becoming obvious, mostly so that bishops can be nearly conditioned to handle them in appropriate manner each time they arise.

There remain Catholics who defend Benedict or Francis by arguing that since sexual misconduct with adults is not canonically prohibited, bishops and popes are free to handle those matters as they wish. While that argument is technically correct, it is obvious that most Catholics expect bishops and popes to enact severe punitive measures for any kind of sexually coercive activities involving clerics and other adults.

The U.S. bishops’ conference has the opportunity to lead on this matter at its November meeting, since it is unlikely anything will come from the Vatican on the matter before that.

In fact, several sources tell CNA that the most likely long-term outcome of this summer of scandal is a universalized protocol for handling allegations of clerical sexual misconduct or abuse involving adults.

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A review of the responses from Benedict and Francis to allegations about Archbishop McCarrick seems to be a reasonable response to Archbishop Viganò’s testimonial.

Archbishop Viganò says that he warned Pope Francis about the retired Washington archbishop, informing him that Pope Benedict had restricted his ministry, but he claims the Pope ignored those warnings and drew Cardinal McCarrick into his inner circle, allowing him to influence key episcopal appointments in the United States.

Journalist David Gibson in 2014 wrote about Cardinal McCarrick’s restored place of importance in the Francis pontificate, and Rocco Palmo wrote in 2017, before the allegations became public, that the cardinal had been influential in at least one major U.S. episcopal appointment.

If Francis did knowingly place into a position of influence a cardinal who was alleged to have sexually abused priests and seminarians, the Church should know about it, and know who helped to influence that decision. It seems immaterial to Francis’ position whether Benedict imposed formal sanctions on Archbishop McCarrick, made a “private request,” or something happened in between. No pope is bound by the administrative decisions of his predecessor, and, as with Benedict, a full review of Francis’ response to the allegations against McCarrick seems appropriate.

Archbishop Viganò alleges that a number of documents related to these questions can be found in several different Vatican archives. Some journalists, including CNA’s reporters, have begun requesting those documents. But again, it remains to be seen whether they’ll be made available.

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The big-picture Archbishop Viganò’s memo is that Benedict, Francis and other Vatican officials may have mishandled allegations raised to them about Archbishop McCarrick. That big-picture is not changed if Archbishop Viganò did not accurately convey Benedict’s actions on the matter.

There could be important lessons to be learned by a thorough review of the former nuncio’s claims, whatever the outcome. But, as a surprise to almost no one, the archbishop’s memo has mostly been reduced to a cudgel to be used in the ideological culture wars that divide U.S. Catholics. 

Archbishop Viganò has been attacked relentlessly, and his credibility has been impugned far beyond those criticisms supported by evidence. Cardinals and bishops have called his claims a distraction, and some prominent Catholics have openly called the former nuncio a liar.

Catholics of all theological perspectives could do justice for abuse victims through an unbiased investigation of facts. Archbishop Viganò’s memo raises questions that, whatever the answers, seem to merit serious inquiries. It remains to be seen whether those opposing such an investigation, including some prominent bishops and cardinals, will relent, or at least better articulate their positions. It also remains to be seen whether Pope Francis will support such an investigation, making files available, and breaking his silence on Archbishop Viganò’s story.