Seven Notable Points From Cardinal Ouellet’s ‘Viganò Letter’

COMMENTARY: While it points backward to St. John Paul and Benedict XVI and their senior officials, it also raises questions about those presently in office.

Cardinal Marc Ouellet, prefect of the Congregation for Bishops, attends the annual new bishops' conference, 'Witnesses of the Risen Lord,' at the Holy See Press Office Feb. 1, 2016.
Cardinal Marc Ouellet, prefect of the Congregation for Bishops, attends the annual new bishops' conference, 'Witnesses of the Risen Lord,' at the Holy See Press Office Feb. 1, 2016. (photo: Alexey Gotovskiy/CNA)

Developments in Rome suggest that the Holy See has now reviewed what is in its files regarding disgraced Archbishop Theodore McCarrick and is prepared to argue that the focus of investigation should be on his rise through the hierarchy rather than how he was treated in retirement.

On Saturday, the Vatican Press Office announced that Pope Francis had ordered a review of the available documents regarding Archbishop McCarrick in the offices of the Holy See. It’s a far more limited investigation than the “apostolic visitation” that the U.S. bishops asked for and which Pope Francis evidently refused. Such a visitation would conduct interviews and would have a certain independence.

What Pope Francis has initiated, instead, is a review only of available documents, which will be conducted by the same officials whose offices may be implicated by what is found. It is possible that such a review may lack the necessary credibility and transparency requested by the U.S. bishops.

The announcement likely means that the Holy See has already reviewed its relevant files. After all, it’s been more than two months since the U.S. bishops asked for Vatican cooperation in an investigation. One plausible explanation for delaying a formal response until now is that the Holy See was conducting its own internal review until it knew what would be found in the paper trail. The announced review of the documentation is now possible because the Holy See already knows what will be found there. Not everything, after all, gets written down.

That was confirmed in spectacular fashion by Cardinal Marc Ouellet, the prefect of the Congregation for Bishops, who released an “open letter” to Archbishop Carlo Viganò six weeks after the former nuncio published his “testimony” alleging that Pope Francis had lifted disciplinary sanctions that Pope Benedict XVI had placed upon then-Cardinal McCarrick, the retired archbishop of Washington.

Coming the day after the announcement of the documentation review, Cardinal Ouellet’s open letter — written with the explicit approval of Pope Francis — constitutes, to date, the public Vatican response to Archbishop Viganò’s charges.

Cardinal Ouellet is a careful and thorough man, and his open letter requires careful and thorough reading. It says both more and less than at first glance. It is a blistering attack on Archbishop Viganò’s testimony and the character of its author, matching in denunciation the text to which it responds.

But on the substance of Archbishop Viganò’s claims, it confirms some explicitly and other implicitly. While it points backward to St. John Paul and Benedict XVI and their senior officials, it also raises questions about those presently in office. The following seven notable points might be taken from Cardinal Ouellet’s open letter.


Main Charge Confirmed

Even while Archbishop Viganò is denounced, his main charge is confirmed. Cardinal Ouellet writes that while there is no written record in the files of the Congregation for Bishops, he confirms that he told Archbishop Viganò “in person” in 2011 that Archbishop McCarrick was “supposed to obey certain conditions and restrictions due to the rumors surrounding his past behavior.” Then-Cardinal McCarrick had been “strongly advised not to travel and not to appear in public, so as not to provoke additional rumors in his regard.”

Cardinal Ouellet states that “it is false to present the measures taken in his regard as ‘sanctions’ decreed by Pope Benedict XVI and revoked by Pope Francis.”

However, any restriction — even if not a formal canonical sanction — upon Cardinal McCarrick would have had to come from the Pope himself, Benedict XVI. Presumably he acted after news of the first sexual-abuse settlement made in 2005 had reached the Vatican. And advising Cardinal McCarrick not to travel would have been to him a matter of the most severe gravity. Telling the gregarious prelate not to travel is like a fish being told not to swim.

Archbishop Viganò claims that he informed Pope Francis of these restrictions in a one-on-one meeting in June 2013, when the Holy Father took the initiative to ask him about Cardinal McCarrick. Afterward, McCarrick traveled to China with — McCarrick claims — the blessing of Pope Francis, so there is at least an apparent shift in attitudes toward McCarrick’s travel.

About that June 2013 meeting: Cardinal Ouellet accepts that it took place. As to the content, he observes only that Pope Francis would have had a lot on his mind and may not have recognized the significance of what Archbishop Viganò claims that he told him.

The former nuncio’s core claims regarding McCarrick have now largely been confirmed as true, from the original 2000 letter written to the nuncio in the United States after Archbishop McCarrick’s appointment to Washington to the fact that there were “restrictions” placed on him sometime between 2006 and 2011.

What still remains unconfirmed is what took place in the meeting between Pope Francis and Archbishop Viganò in June 2013, but what Cardinal Ouellet writes is compatible with what Archbishop Viganò claims.


Restrictions Were Known

Cardinal Ouellet acknowledges that the Congregation for Bishops and the apostolic nunciature in Washington on more than one occasion made these restrictions known to McCarrick.

“My predecessor’s letters, as well as mine, reiterated through the Apostolic Nuncio Pietro Sambi, and then also through you [Archbishop Viganò], urging a discreet style of life, of prayer and penance for [Archbishop McCarrick’s] own good and that of the Church,” Cardinal Ouellet writes.

So there is some confusion here. Cardinal Ouellet writes that there is nothing in the congregation’s files about restrictions on Archbishop McCarrick, but refers to these letters. The documentation review will now certainly have to provide the letters written by Cardinal Ouellet and his predecessor, Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re.


Obstructed Information Flow

The open letter gives a glimpse of how information may not indeed flow freely at the highest levels of the Vatican.

“Since I became prefect of this congregation on 30 June 2010, I never brought up the McCarrick case in an audience with Pope Benedict XVI or Pope Francis until these last days, after his removal from the College of Cardinals,” Cardinal Ouellet writes.

Given that the “prayer and penance” urged upon Archbishop McCarrick — and about which Cardinal Ouellet himself wrote letters — is the penalty usually given to elderly priests found guilty of sexual abuse of minors, that it would be applied, even informally, to a cardinal is a matter both grave and nearly singular. That Cardinal Ouellet would not have warned Pope Francis about it, or mentioned it when Archbishop McCarrick’s presence became more prominent after the Holy Father’s election in 2013, is no less surprising for being true.

“Without entering here into the details, it needs to be understood that the decisions taken by the Supreme Pontiff are based on information available at a precise moment, which constitute the object of a careful judgment which is not infallible,” writes Cardinal Ouellet.

Here he is referring to the series of Archbishop McCarrick promotions made by Pope John Paul II. Though that certainly does not reflect well upon the late Holy Father, Cardinal Ouellet seems to suggest that whatever information the Holy See had — and it may not have had anything substantial before 2000 and Archbishop McCarrick’s final promotion — it is quite possible that the Holy Father and his household were not told about it. Certainly that would be consistent with Cardinal Ouellet now saying that he never told Pope Francis about the “prayer and penance” admonition given to Archbishop McCarrick.


Congregation’s Recommendations Ignored

In his testimony, Archbishop Viganò claimed that Archbishop McCarrick had influence over the appointment of senior bishops in the United States.

Cardinal Ouellet writes that, in his many meetings, “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. I presume that they are not preferred by you or by those friends who support your interpretation of the facts.”

That is an interesting allusion. For several years, there has been widespread talk in Rome — off the record — that it is not unusual for major appointments to be made ignoring the recommendations of the Congregation for Bishops. Is that what Cardinal Ouellet is referring to when he notes that the Holy Father has “trust” in various bishops to advise him, bishops that would not be preferred by Archbishop Viganò and his allies?


Recrimination and Rancor

The vehement tone of Cardinal Ouellet’s open letter is striking. Those who have followed his work for years recognize a departure from his usual style.

Some weeks ago, while acknowledging the need to investigate Archbishop Viganò’s claims, I argued that it was a mistake for him to call for the Pope’s resignation, to intemperately judge the Holy Father’s motives, and to recklessly malign the good names of many prelates without evidence. It turned up the temperature precisely when the gravity of the situation called for cool heads, pressing firmly for answers, but without further inflaming divisions in the Church.

Cardinal Ouellet’s open letter follows Archbishop Viganò in that style.

While it seems entirely reasonable that Cardinal Ouellet would publicly correct behavior he finds “incomprehensible and completely deplorable,” especially when Archbishop Viganò attacked him personally, his letter goes further. It characterizes Archbishop Viganò’s testimony as “blasphemous,” characterizes him as leading an “open and scandalous rebellion” and questions whether he is even able to celebrate the Holy Mass in sincerity.

It is possible that such phrases were suggested to Cardinal Ouellet from various papal advisers, as they are consistent with the harsh and judgmental preaching favored by Pope Francis at his daily Mass, and in his more infamous addresses, accusing those who did not agree with him at the 2015 synod of desiring to “throne stones” at the suffering, or the 2014 address to the Roman Curia, where the Holy Father diagnosed their spiritual failings and psychological pathologies.

Regardless, when a man of Cardinal Ouellet’s measured mien denounces a brother bishop in such a manner, matching the most incendiary aspects of the original Archbishop Viganò testimony, it is a clear signal that the Vatican response to the Archbishop McCarrick affair may well be marked more by recrimination and rancor among prelates, rather than reform and reconciliation for victims.


Clericalism Exposed

The open letter unintentionally exposes the Holy See to the charge of clericalism, in that it reserved its harshest words for Archbishop Viganò, not the disgraced Archbishop McCarrick and those who enabled him.

Like all whistleblowers, Archbishop Viganò can be fairly charged with breaking confidences and mixed motives. But that he would be denounced more harshly than others could give victims the impression that the greatest offense of all is rocking the ecclesiastical boat.


Chile Strategy

To the extent that the Cardinal Ouellet open letter reflects a coordinated Vatican response, it appears that Pope Francis has chosen to employ his Chile strategy in the McCarrick affair.

It is now known that the leadership of the Chilean bishops asked Pope Francis in early 2015 not to proceed with the controversial appointment of Bishop Juan Barros. Nevertheless, for three years, Pope Francis denounced those who objected to his decision as being manipulated by a “leftist” political plot, not revealing that the Church’s own leadership in Chile agreed with them.

Only after the complete fiasco of the January papal visit to Chile did the Holy Father change course. By then, though, the damage was done, and the remedial action was so severe — the mass resignation of the entire Chilean episcopate — that the credibility of the Church there has been lost for at least a generation.

Nevertheless, the same approach is being taken in relation to Archbishop McCarrick.

Pope Francis has refused the open request of the U.S. bishops for an apostolic visitation. And now Cardinal Ouellet has denounced Archbishop Viganò’s testimony as a “political maneuver.”

Like many Canadian Catholics, I have long had great esteem for Cardinal Ouellet, which remains. But in adopting the Chilean strategy regarding ex-Cardinal McCarrick, I think he has been ill-advised, presumably by those at the highest levels of the Vatican.

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

Former Catholic Cardinal Theodore McCarrick appears for an arraignment at Dedham District Court, Sept. 3, 2021, in Dedham, Mass. The defrocked Cardinal McCarrick, the highest ranking Roman Catholic official in the United States to face criminal charges in the clergy sexual abuse scandal, was found not competent to stand trial Wednesday, Aug. 30, 2023.

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