Figueiredo Report the First of Many to Come?

COMMENTARY: Msgr. Anthony Figueiredo’s release of information on Theodore McCarrick suggests what a new era of whistleblowing might look like in the Church.

Former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick
Former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick (photo: 2013 CNA/

Eleven months after the first revelations about the now-laicized Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, a papal interview with a Mexican journalist and revelations from a former secretary have added to what we know, underscoring the importance of the documents that the Vatican is still reviewing in preparation for a public report.

The developments also suggest what a new culture of whistleblowing might look like in the Church after the publication of the Holy Father’s new sexual-abuse norms, Vos Estis Lux Mundi.

In response to a question from the Mexican journalist about the allegations of Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, Pope Francis emphatically denied that he knew anything about McCarrick’s scandalous behavior before last summer. That comports with a statement released in October 2018 by Cardinal Marc Ouellet, the prefect of the Congregation for Bishops, who stated that he had never spoken to Pope Francis about McCarrick and the various efforts his office had made to restrict his public ministry and travels.

Archbishop Viganò claimed in August 2018 to have told the Holy Father personally about McCarrick in a private meeting in June 2013. In the new interview, Pope Francis says that he does not remember whether Archbishop Viganò told him about the former cardinal or not.

Whatever the Holy Father may or may not have known, excerpts of correspondence published Tuesday by Mgsr. Anthony Figueiredo seem to indicate that the broad outline of what Archbishop Viganò claimed about McCarrick is true.

Msgr. Figueiredo served as McCarrick’s secretary soon after his ordination — by McCarrick himself — in 1994-95. Msgr. Figueiredo then spent most of the next 25 years in Rome and acted as McCarrick’s assistant in Rome, especially after the former cardinal’s retirement in 2006. Msgr. Figueiredo also served as a senior contributor to EWTN News’ Vatican Bureau in 2017 and 2018, until he was arrested on drunken-driving charges in the United Kingdom in October 2018.

According to Msgr. Figueiredo’s materials, Cardinal McCarrick was told in 2008 by Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re, then the prefect for bishops, to move out of the seminary where he lived in retirement, not to travel to Rome, and not to accept any speaking engagements, public appearances or travel without prior approval from Cardinal Re.

It would be shocking if such extraordinary measures against a cardinal were taken without the approval of Pope Benedict XVI. The monsignor’s materials do not explicitly indicate what Benedict’s role was and what decisions he personally took.

Msgr. Figueiredo released his “report” online, quoting from correspondence from McCarrick that describe a letter from Cardinal Re in 2008 with the restrictions and that McCarrick discussed those restrictions with Archbishop Donald Wuerl, his successor as the archbishop of Washington.

The materials were reviewed by CBS and the Catholic news outlet Crux for authenticity, but the original documents themselves were not made public, though Msgr. Figueiredo suggests that he may do so in the future.

The materials appear to clarify several important points:

  • Cardinal McCarrick acknowledged the practice of sharing his bed with seminarians at his beach house in a letter to the secretary of state. This was a familial, and not sexual, arrangement, McCarrick insisted, and no minors were involved. He stopped the practice after 2002. (In 2008, McCarrick’s sexual contact with minors, dating back decades and involving the sacrament of confession, was not known. It was for those canonical crimes that he was laicized in January 2019.)
  • In 2008, Cardinal Re wrote to McCarrick to impose restrictions upon him. These were not the results of canonical discipline, but were arrived at more informally. Nevertheless, for a cardinal to be told not to travel, appear in public or come to Rome is highly unusual.
  • Archbishop Wuerl was notified by McCarrick of the letter and assisted in finding a new place for McCarrick to live.
  • Cardinal Wuerl maintained all last year that he knew nothing about McCarrick’s misbehavior. In January 2019, when it was revealed that Cardinal Wuerl himself had reported allegations about McCarrick to Rome in 2004, Wuerl said that he had forgotten about that. It may be that Cardinal Wuerl also forgot about the 2008 letter from Cardinal Re and his role in carrying it out.
  • McCarrick did not abide by the restrictions. He continued to travel in subsequent years, including to Rome, and to appear in public. It is apparent that whatever decisions were taken by Pope Benedict XVI and Cardinal Re regarding McCarrick, neither of them, nor any other officials in the Roman Curia, nor the two apostolic nuncios to the United States — Archbishop Pietro Sambi until 2011 and Archbishop Viganò afterward — enforced the measures.
  • After the election of Pope Francis in 2013, McCarrick’s travels on behalf of the Church increased, including trips to China. McCarrick wrote to Pope Francis to update him on this work.

Msgr. Figueiredo’s materials also confirm what Cardinal Ouellet said last October. The prefect for the Congregation for Bishops was very specific, stating that the archives of the congregation contained no record of any direct papal decision by either Pope Benedict or Pope Francis regarding McCarrick. He did acknowledge letters from Cardinal Re and from himself to the nuncios in Washington about McCarrick.

The Vatican announced in October 2018 that a review of all such documents was underway. The key 2008 letter from Cardinal Re has now been acknowledged by multiple sources. The results of the Vatican investigation ought now to make that public, as well as responses from McCarrick and, presumably, Cardinal Wuerl.

Whether the Vatican report — as promised last October — is ever produced and what it contains will be a test of Vatican transparency on the McCarrick matter.

Beyond that, however, Msgr. Figueiredo’s materials provide a glimpse of what a new era of whistleblowing might look like in the Church. The legislation Vos Estis comes into effect June 1, but the mandatory reporting that it requires — of sexual abuse of minors, of abuse of power and abuse of office for sexual purposes — is aimed at changing a clerical culture.

Vos Estis requires that all clerics report what they know, or have good reason to suspect, about abuse of minors, abuse of office and abuse of power. Importantly, it mandates reporting of the offenses themselves, as well as negligent behavior by superiors in dealing with allegations or attempts at cover-up.

“My actions in releasing this report at this time are encouraged by the Holy Father’s motu proprio Vos Estis Lux Mundi,” writes Msgr. Figueiredo, which is “based on the overriding principle that it is imperative to place in the public domain, at the right time and prudently, information that has yet to come to light and impacts directly on allegations of criminal activity, the restrictions imposed on my now-laicized former archbishop, and who knew what and when.”

The Pope’s document seems to have been drafted with the McCarrick case very much in mind. It would now make illegal the nonreporting of what “everybody knew” about McCarrick. In fact, not everybody knew, but some people did and chose to keep quiet, foremost of all the seminarians who were subject to what Vos Estis speaks of as an abuse of power. While the document does not apply to laymen — which seminarians, strictly speaking, are — it would apply to deacons. If the norms of Vos Estis Lux Mundi had been in place when McCarrick was archbishop of Newark, New Jersey, upon ordination as deacons, Newark seminarians — now clerics — would have been obliged to report their archbishop to the nuncio or to the Holy See.

Msgr. Figueiredo was ordained by McCarrick and chose the 25th anniversary of his ordination (May 28, 1994) to release his report. Is what we see from Msgr. Figueiredo now, after the fact, something of what we can expect to take place in real time under the requirements of Vos Estis Lux Mundi?

It would appear to be so, and recall that Vos Estis makes clear that anyone who makes such reports cannot be told to keep them confidential; sharing them with the media cannot be prohibited or punished.

The Figueiredo Report, unique as it deals with the high-profile case of now-Mr. McCarrick, may just be the first of many to come.

Father Raymond J. de Souza is the editor in chief of Convivium magazine.

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