Further Questions Emerge About Benedict XVI’s Sanctions on McCarrick

Despite the high probability Benedict did impose sanctions or disciplinary measures against McCarrick, it appears the attitude was to ignore his willingness to flout them.

Pope Benedict XVI speaks during the during the 7th World Meeting of Families in Milan, Italy, on June 2, 2012.
Pope Benedict XVI speaks during the during the 7th World Meeting of Families in Milan, Italy, on June 2, 2012. (photo: World Meeting of Families 2012/CNA)

Among the various allegations Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò presents in his testimony, the most crucial concerns the sanctions or disciplinary measures allegedly imposed by Benedict XVI on then-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick. 

Alongside the central question of whether Francis knew of them, as Archbishop Viganò asserts, two other aspects are highly significant: What was the nature of the sanctions? And why, if they were applied, was McCarrick allowed to maintain such a visible public life afterward?

Archbishop Viganò writes that after sending two memos to his superiors in the Secretariat of State in 2006 and 2008, in which he called for sanctions to be applied to McCarrick (and to which he received no response), he eventually heard via the then-prefect of the Congregation for Bishops, Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re, that Benedict had imposed sanctions “similar to those now imposed on him by Pope Francis.”

“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,” Archbishop Viganò wrote.  

He did not know the precise date the measures were issued (he says it was either in 2009 or 2010), as he was no longer working in the Secretariat of State at that time. He also did not know the reasons for such a delay, and wrote in his testimony that he believes it was largely due to obstructions put in place by Secretary of State Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone. 

But he adds that “what is certain is that Pope Benedict imposed the above canonical sanctions on McCarrick, and that they were communicated to him by the Apostolic Nuncio to the United States, Pietro Sambi.” 

He backs this up in the testimony with an account of a “stormy confrontation” between his predecessor, apostolic nuncio Archbishop Pietro Sambi, and McCarrick, overheard by Msgr. Jean-François Lantheaume, then first counselor at the nunciature in Washington — an account that Msgr. Lantheaume said this week is true

Speaking to the Register Aug. 30, Archbishop Viganò reiterated what he said in his testimony, that shortly before leaving Rome to begin his post in Washington in 2011, he “certainly” received a verbal instruction from Cardinal Marc Ouellet, prefect of the Congregation for Bishops, to inform McCarrick of the sanctions. 

After arriving in Washington, he said he received “some instruction” from the same congregation, adding that his “memory isn’t helping me now” but that he believes it was a written instruction. The instruction would be found in the archives in the nunciature in Washington, or could be obtained from the Congregation for Bishops, he said.   

“What I don’t know,” he added, “is if Sambi also communicated in writing the measures taken by Pope Benedict to both McCarrick and Cardinal Wuerl. Certainly, he did so in person, summoning McCarrick to the nunciature, as I have stated.”

Archbishop Viganò also believes two other episodes prove that sanctions were issued: McCarrick’s transfer from a Redemptoris Mater seminary in Washington, D.C., to St. Thomas’ parish (although this happened in 2008, a year before the approximate date Viganò believes the sanctions were issued), and Cardinal Donald Wuerl’s decision to cancel a meeting between McCarrick and seminarians after being reminded of McCarrick’s abuses by Viganò. 

In accordance with the Holy Father’s Aug. 26 invitation to journalists to investigate the veracity of Archbishop Viganò’s claims, the Register contacted Cardinals Re, Bertone, Parolin and other Vatican officials, asking if they would corroborate or disprove Archbishop Viganò’s testimony. 

None of the officials wished to respond to questions on the matter and the Holy See Press Office also declined to comment. That being the case, it would be helpful here to publish comments given to the Register in July — before Archbishop Viganò’s testimony had been written — about Benedict’s purported sanctions against McCarrick. The comments, provided by a reliable source close to Benedict, were given on condition of anonymity but nevertheless help shed more light on the matter. 

The source said the allegations of abuse of seminarians by McCarrick, now 88, were “certainly something known” to Benedict. And, he said, “Certainly, it was known that McCarrick was a homosexual, that was an open secret, all were very aware of that.” (However, it is important to note that there is no evidence that Church authorities either in the Vatican or in the U.S. were aware of any allegations of sexual abuse of minors by McCarrick until long after Benedict had resigned as Pope.)

But, as mentioned in the Register’s initial report on the testimony on Aug. 25, the Pope Emeritus was “unable to remember very well” how the matter was handled, according to the source. As far as Benedict could recall, the source said the instruction was essentially that McCarrick should keep a “low profile.” There was “no formal decree, just a private request.”

The source also noted that, after he had retired as Archbishop of Washington D.C., McCarrick continued to be “very able” and “influential at high levels — ecclesiastical, cultural and political” and so could ignore the measures imposed upon him. 

“Effectively, he was able not to hear what he had to hear,” the source said. 

But he added that McCarrick “knew better not to appear here in Rome,” although he did continue to visit on occasion and, because of his influence, “continued to say ‘I can do this and that for the Holy See’ even though he had no permission.”  

This appears to correlate with this Aug. 29 report in America magazine by Michael O’Loughlin, which lists many of the public Masses, engagements and international travel McCarrick took part in during the years Archbishop Viganò claims he was sanctioned. Also notable is mention of a low-key 80th birthday celebration in which the cardinal “seemed to be avoiding the media.”

One particular area in which McCarrick continued to be active was in the area of China — a role he took up allegedly because of his connections with the U.S. State Department and the Pentagon. Some believe that under Benedict he helped the Holy See’s talks with China during the years when he was allegedly sanctioned. The Register is unable to confirm this, but as far as those currently working at the Holy See on China are concerned, McCarrick has had “absolutely no influence” on the talks for at least the past five years, although his name would be occasionally mentioned.

Asked why Benedict did not issue a stricter instruction seeing as McCarrick had flouted the measures, the source close to Benedict said 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.” 

He said it was important to be “very careful and prudent with McCarrick,” noting that while McCarrick continued to make “many requests” for papal audiences, these were ruled out as “not possible” because such audiences would produce photographs that would give the misimpression that McCarrick’s situation remained normal for a retired cardinal.

Asked if the Pope Emeritus’ office would be willing to issue a statement to provide additional clarity, a spokesman said Benedict was “unable to meet” the request. A number of questions still remain, however, in particular the following:

  • Why were Benedict XVI’s purported sanctions against McCarrick never made public, and given only in the form of a private instruction?
  • Why were the purported sanctions not properly enforced after they were ordered?
  • What role did Cardinal Bertone play in the execution of Benedict’s order (in his testimony, Archbishop Vigano asserts that the cardinal had obstructed it)? 

Editors’ note:  The original article was amended to reflect this clarification: The Register’s source close to Benedict XVI did not describe the action taken toward Cardinal Theodore McCarrick as sanctions but as instruction or measures.