McCarrick, Viganò and the Next Archbishop of Washington

Critics wait to see how the scandal will shape the appointment of the next shepherd of the see.

Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle, Washington, D.C.
Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle, Washington, D.C. (photo: Robert Szymanski /

The McCarrick scandal has trained a harsh spotlight on the mostly secret process of appointing bishops to top U.S. Church posts, as I note in my recent story here.

Now, following the retirement of Cardinal Donald Wuerl, who remains as administrator of the archdiocese until a successor is named, critics are waiting to see how the scandal will shape the appointment of the next archbishop of Washington, D.C.

Will a McCarrick protégé take up the reins of the Church in the nation’s capital, as some media outlets predict, or will Pope Francis select a different kind of Church leader who has operated outside the former archbishop of Washington’s circle of influence?

Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, the former U.S. nuncio, is also concerned with this question and broadly raised the matter in his Aug. 25 bombshell “testimony,” which alleged that Pope Francis knew about former Cardinal McCarrick’s sexual misconduct with seminarians and priests but still made him a trusted counselor and “kingmaker for appointments in the Curia and the United States.”

Archbishop Viganò claimed that the “appointments of Blase Cupich to Chicago and Joseph W. Tobin to Newark were orchestrated by McCarrick.”

Archbishop Viganò also alleged that McCarrick successfully campaigned to remove Cardinal Raymond Burke from the Congregation for Bishops and insert Cardinals Wuerl and Cupich in the dicastery that advises the Pope on episcopal appointments, moves that augmented his role in the advancement of like-minded Church leaders.

We will have to wait for the results of the upcoming investigations — one, the “thorough study” by the Holy See; and another, into the four dioceses where McCarrick served, led by the U.S. bishops — to confirm whether these allegations are true. But it is worth noting that well before the McCarrick scandal broke, several journalists had reported on his critical role in episcopal appointments during Pope Francis’ pontificate.

In 2016, while then-Cardinal McCarrick was still traveling the globe on behalf of the Holy See, Rocco Palmo, of “Whispers in the Loggia,” reported that Francis “revere(d)” the U.S. cardinal as “a hero’ of his.” Palmo also said that two sources had confirmed former Cardinal McCarrick’s role in Cardinal Tobin’s appointment to Newark, New Jersey.

“In mid-September 2016, Cardinal McCarrick wrote a letter to the Pope … seeking the appointment of Joe Tobin to Newark. … To that point in the process, Tobin’s name hadn’t figured,” wrote Palmo, who also noted that Cardinal Tobin already enjoyed a close bond with Pope Francis well before his election as the first Latin American pope.

Meanwhile, Vatican watcher Sandro Magister reported that Cardinal Cupich “is thought to have been recommended” for the Chicago post by former Cardinal McCarrick.

Cardinals Cupich and Tobin, as well as Bishop Robert McElroy of San Diego, whose appointment had also been tied to McCarrick, have all disputed the former nuncio’s claims.

On Oct. 7, Cardinal Marc Ouellet, the prefect of the Congregation for Bishops, dismissed the suggestion that McCarrick had helped to orchestrate top U.S. appointments in his “open letter” addressed to Archbishop Viganò.

“I have never heard Pope Francis allude to this self-styled advisor [Archbishop McCarrick] during his pontificate regarding nominations in America, though he does not hide the trust that he has in some of the bishops,” wrote Cardinal Ouellet in his scathing critique of Archbishop Viganò’s allegations.

“I presume that they are not preferred by you or by those friends who support your interpretation of the facts.”

Yet Cardinal Ouellet conceded that mistakes had been made in the series of appointments that advanced McCarrick’s rise to the College of Cardinals.

Archbishop Viganò’s third statement returned to the subject of McCarrick’s influence on the U.S. hierarchy and expressed alarm that the disgraced archbishop had helped to solidify and advance a homosexual “network” at the highest levels of the Church.

“McCarrick was part of a network of bishops promoting homosexuality who, exploiting their favor with Pope Francis, manipulated episcopal appointments so as to protect themselves from justice and to strengthen the homosexual network in the hierarchy and in the Church at large,” he alleged.

Further, he “noted two omissions, two dramatic silences” in the Holy See’s response to his testimony.

The “second silence,” he asserted, reflected a broad failure to “call things by their true names. This is a crisis due to the scourge of homosexuality, in its agents, in its motives, in its resistance to reform. …”

“It is an enormous hypocrisy to condemn the abuse, claim to weep for the victims, and yet refuse to denounce the root cause of so much sexual abuse: homosexuality.”

Archbishop Viganò contends that there is a distinct difference in the behavior of prelates who are “philanders” and operate independently and those who are active homosexuals and typically join forces to protect each other.

Archbishop McCarrick’s reported protégées have rejected Archbishop Viganò’s analysis of the McCarrick-specific case. Concerns about homosexual clerics are “a diversion that gets away from the clericalism that’s much deeper as a part of this problem,” Cardinal Cupich told America magazine in an interview.

In contrast, Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, the USCCB president, clearly believes that Archbishop Viganò’s allegations have merit and should be thoroughly investigated.

But it is still not clear whether or how the findings from the USCCB and Vatican inquiries will influence the Pope’s choice for the next archbishop of Washington.

The Wall Street Journal and other news outlets have reported that Cardinal Tobin and Bishop McElroy are both top contenders for the post.

This speculation will dismay Catholics looking for fresh leadership in Washington, D.C., though it also should be noted that neither Cardinal Tobin nor Bishop McElroy has been directly implicated in a cover-up protecting McCarrick.

But there is still good reason for Pope Francis to delay a decision about Cardinal Wuerl’s successor until the investigations are complete and Church leaders have a better understanding of who may have actively shielded McCarrick, while benefiting from his growing influence. And if investigators find evidence to support the former nuncio’s claims about a powerful network operating behind the scenes to promote and protect its own members, the Pope must also scrutinize his appointments to the Congregation for Bishops, or McCarrick will continue to exert his influence long after he retired from public ministry.

“Right now, any bishop appointed to D.C. would be under a cloud, since in the wake of Archbishop Viganò’s testimony, there’s so much distrust,” Phil Lawler, author of The Faithful Departed: The Collapse of Boston’s Catholic Culture, told the Register.

“If the bishop who is appointed is seen — rightly or wrongly — as implicated in the McCarrick scandal, there would be some understandable outrage. And if he is seen as a McCarrick protégé, that would be disastrous.”