Vigano’s Testimony; McCarrick’s Defiance

COMMENTARY: A spirit of defiance offers a possible explanation that merits further investigation.

Then-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick in Rome in 2013
Then-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick in Rome in 2013 (photo: via CNA)

Did Pope Benedict XVI put disciplinary restrictions on Cardinal Theodore McCarrick in 2009 or 2010, as claimed by the “testimony” of Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò?

Pope Francis has asked journalists to provide the initial response to the archbishop’s testimony. The Holy Father declared that he will “not say one word,” and no senior Vatican officials have come to his defense on the substance of the charges.

So the journalists are hashing it out, and the key issue debated in the days since the publication of Archbishop Viganò’s testimony is whether Pope Benedict XVI did in fact place restrictions on the cardinal’s ministry. If so, why was there no public announcement of it, and why did McCarrick carry on in retirement as he had while in office, namely the world’s premier “airport bishop”?

It is a legitimate question. The gravamen of the Viganò testimony depends upon the answer.

The simplest answer is that, in fact, there were no sanctions, and that Archbishop Viganò somehow misunderstood what he had been told by the Congregation for Bishops and what his predecessor as nuncio in Washington, Archbishop Pietro Sambi, had told Cardinal McCarrick.

Yet that answer is so simple that, if true, it is a wonder why the Secretariat of State — which supervises nuncios — or the Congregation for Bishops doesn’t simply explain that, making the matter largely disappear.

Pope Benedict himself could make his view known, as he did earlier this year when the Vatican communications chief, Msgr. Dario Viganò (no relation), attempted to manipulate the pope emeritus in relation to a series of booklets celebrating the theology of Pope Francis.

If Benedict did not sanction McCarrick, he could make that known easily.

Not to be forgotten in all this is Archbishop McCarrick himself, who is not dead, but, rather, in seclusion. Unless he takes perverse delight in Pope Francis suffering on his account, he could simply clear the air on the truth about the sanctions. Whether anyone would believe him is another matter, but it would be the least he could do.

So the silence of those who could easily dismiss Archbishop Viganò’s claims at least prompts journalists to consider that some sanctions were in place, but in a manner that was not clear, not public and not enforced. Is that plausible?

In short, yes, as a possibility that merits investigation.

It must be remembered that what “everybody” apparently “knew” about Archbishop McCarrick for years was not the kind of material that could justify a penal sanction, the result of a canonical process. There were plenty of rumors, but no specific allegations from specific victims. Only in 2018 was there a “credible and substantiated” allegation. The settlements made in 2005 and 2007 were on a confidential basis, meaning that the victims were almost certainly not available for a canonical trial.

Whenever Pope Benedict became aware of McCarrick’s abuse, the remedy Ratzinger/Benedict employed in the case of Legion of Christ founder Father Marcial Maciel — send an investigator to interview the known victims in preparation for a canonical trial — may not have been feasible.

Ordering a priest to a life of prayer and penance is a penalty that ought to be the result of a canonical process, which may have been impossible in the circumstances. So is it plausible that communicating the sanctions privately was thought the best option available, counting upon McCarrick’s goodwill to observe them?

Is it plausible that, after receiving such unpublished sanctions, Cardinal McCarrick would simply ignore them? Yes.

In the spring of 2004, the bishops in the U.S. were examining the question of whether resolutely pro-abortion Catholic politicians — John Kerry was running for president that year — should be admitted to Holy Communion. Cardinal McCarrick headed up the bishops’ task force on that question and, in that capacity, received a letter from Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger saying that in such circumstances, politicians “must” not be admitted to Holy Communion.

Cardinal McCarrick concealed that letter from his brother bishops and lied about what Cardinal Ratzinger had written. Only later did the truth come to light when the complete letter was leaked to the press.

So we know that Cardinal McCarrick was willing to defy the prefect for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith even to the extent of withholding a letter intended for his brother bishops. And we know that the consequences were mild.

The following April, Cardinal Ratzinger was elected pope. I recall on the very evening of the election, the press officer for the Archdiocese of Washington was scrambling to assemble the Washington priests and seminarians in Rome. She warned them against speaking to the media, as she wanted to avoid any stories that might examine the relationship of Cardinal McCarrick to the new pope. She assumed that the election of Cardinal Ratzinger would mean the end of her boss — not over sexual abuse, but the previous year’s mendacity.

How did Benedict deal with McCarrick after his election? Cardinal McCarrick turned 75 in July 2005; if Benedict wanted to swiftly punish him for his dishonesty in the 2004 discussion, he could have immediately accepted his resignation in July 2005. But Benedict permitted McCarrick to stay in office until the following spring. That too conforms with the idea that Pope Benedict moved against Cardinal McCarrick, but did not opt for the most severe option.

In May 2009, I covered Benedict’s visit to the Holy Land. At the time, I heard an odd story from a senior member of the papal entourage while in Jerusalem. Apparently in the preparations for the trip, the Vatican made very clear to Cardinal McCarrick that he was not to accompany the Holy Father. At the time, I thought it was because the Holy See was tired of the cardinal’s meddling in their diplomatic activity on his frequent — three or four times a year — trips to the region. So he was not on the trip.

But when Pope Benedict was having his meeting with King Abdullah of Jordan, the king innocently mentioned that Cardinal McCarrick had been through shortly before, passing himself off as doing preparatory work for the papal visit. Cardinal McCarrick had defied Benedict again.

In August 2009, when longtime Massachusetts Sen. Ted Kennedy died, the Vatican opted out of the eulogies. Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston attended the funeral, but was clearly restrained in any praise of the late politician. Cardinal McCarrick took it upon himself to appear at the graveside service in Arlington, Virginia, and read a standard Vatican correspondence reply as if Pope Benedict was eulogizing the late senator personally. It was a clear act of defiant spin.

When the Archdiocese of New York received the accusation that Cardinal McCarrick had abused a minor in the early 1970s, it notified the cardinal that an investigation was underway, led by laypeople in the district attorney’s office and the archdiocesan review board.

The Catholic Herald reports that Cardinal Donald Wuerl, Cardinal McCarrick’s successor in Washington, was also notified in 2017 and wrote to his predecessor, telling him to withdraw from public ministry while under investigation. Yet even while under investigation for abuse of a minor, Cardinal McCarrick was defiant, continuing his public appearances and leading an overseas pilgrimage in honor of his diamond jubilee of ordination.

As a journalist, then, I would conclude that there are four major episodes of defiance that make it plausible that Archbishop Theodore McCarrick could have defied sanctions placed upon him.

A spirit of defiance does not alone establish the truth of Archbishop Carlo Viganò’s testimony. It does not adequately answer questions about why any sanctions were imposed privately and not enforced. It does, though, offer a possible explanation that merits further investigation.

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