We Need to Know: Silence Is Not An Option in the Abuse Crisis

EDITORIAL: For the sake of the Church’s future, we need concrete and credible answers from the Vatican — and we need these answers soon.

(photo: Unsplash)

Compared to his initial, rambling 11-page discourse, Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò’s more concise second public statement renewing his allegations of a long-standing Vatican cover-up of Archbishop Theodore McCarrick’s sexual misconduct does a much better job of articulating which of his shocking assertions require public and swift answers. And the continuing media deluge of additional revelations of abuse allegations that involve actions by bishops constitutes further proof of the issue’s urgency.

Since the archbishop’s bombshell accusations were published in late August, the Vatican’s response has been a muted one.

The Holy Father’s initial reaction was to declare that he would not provide “a single word” of substantive reply at that time. Instead, he invited media outlets to try to ferret out the truth about the allegations, though it seemed unclear how this could be accomplished absent the Vatican’s concrete cooperation.

Then in mid-September, Francis reportedly rebuffed the U.S. bishops’ appeal — delivered to him personally by Cardinal Daniel DiNardo and other key USCCB leaders — for a wide-ranging Vatican investigation into the mishandling of the Archbishop McCarrick situation.  On Oct. 6, the Vatican announced that Pope Francis had initiated a “thorough study of the entire documentation present in the archives of the dicasteries and offices of the Holy See” on Archbishop McCarrick. The statement said that in “due course” the conclusions of the investigation into allegations against Archbishop McCarrick begun in New York in 2017 would be made known. But the Oct. 6 statement did not directly address Archbishop Viganò’s claims, nor does the review of files rise to the full scope of an apostolic visitation.

Archbishop Viganò’s second statement was drafted with the specific purpose of focusing attention on this silence from Rome.

In the former U.S. nuncio’s own words, the “center of my testimony” is his claim that, in June 2013, while speaking with Francis shortly after the Pope’s election, he told him about McCarrick’s “perverse and evil” misconduct, but despite this clear knowledge, the Holy Father subsequently “made McCarrick one of his principal agents in governing the Church.”

Many media defenders of the Pope have sought to discredit the archbishop by calling attention to various apparent discrepancies in his account with respect to other, more tangential claims of the Church’s mishandling of Archbishop McCarrick’s situation.

The first statement’s scattershot accusations invited such criticism, to some degree, but the overall accuracy of Archbishop Viganò’s assertions can’t be judged without access to the relevant documentation in Vatican files.

More importantly, this focus on secondary aspects obscures consideration of the archbishop’s core claim that the Holy Father chose to rehabilitate Archbishop McCarrick and assign him a key advisory role, despite knowing about his sexual misconduct with seminarians and young priests.

This approach is never going to be adequate. For one thing, there is abundant evidence the Pope did give Archbishop McCarrick an enhanced advisory role.

Those seeking journalistic corroboration can review a June 2014 Religion News Service account penned by David Gibson, a journalist known to be notably supportive at the time of both the former cardinal and of the newly elected Pope.

“McCarrick is one of a number of senior Churchmen who were more or less put out to pasture during the eight-year pontificate of Benedict XVI,” Gibson asserted. “But now Francis is pope, and prelates like Cardinal Walter Kasper (another old friend of Archbishop McCarrick’s) and McCarrick himself are back in the mix, and busier than ever.”

The fact that the Holy Father granted Archbishop McCarrick an enhanced Church role does not confirm the far more explosive element of Archbishop Viganò’s central claim, that Pope Francis conferred this standing despite being informed about the prelate’s sexual misconduct.

But Archbishop Viganò argues persuasively that the continuing lack of a response from the Pope, and the other Vatican officials he named in his first statement, represents proof that he’s telling the truth here, too. If they want to deny his assertions, he wrote, “they have only to say so and provide documentation to support that denial. How can one avoid concluding that the reason they do not provide the documentation is that they know it confirms my testimony?”

Speaking from the perspective of a U.S. Catholic newspaper that has striven to fulfill the Pope’s request that journalists discern the truth of Archbishop Viganò’s claims, the Register’s editors find it difficult to dismiss this argument out of hand.

On Sept. 27, immediately following the publication of his new statement, the Register reached out by email to the Holy See Press Office, asking whether a concrete Vatican response will be forthcoming in light of the archbishop’s renewed allegations. The Register also requested comment from the office of Cardinal Marc Ouellet, the prefect of the Congregation of Bishops, who has been highlighted by Archbishop Viganò as having specific and detailed knowledge of the truth of his claims. Neither Vatican office has replied to our emails.

It could be that the “necessary clarifications” promised by the Vatican on Sept. 10 regarding Archbishop Viganò’s claims will put some of his allegations to rest.

Crux reported Sept. 26 that Cardinal Ouellet’s potentially relevant documentation now lies in the hands of the Vatican’s Secretariat of State, and America magazine reported Sept. 28 that work continues on preparing the promised clarification. But the magazine’s Vatican sources also indicated that the clarification “is likely to be concise,” meaning a comprehensive and conclusive response doesn’t appear to be in the cards.  The Oct. 6 Holy See Press Office statement indicating the Vatican is reviewing files related to Archbishop McCarrick fell short of providing any concrete answers or committing to an apostolic investigation, which the U.S. bishops requested. 

Vatican silence or vague responses are unlikely to stonewall answers for long, given the current context of unrelenting media probing of these matters. And as would be expected, many of the new abuse-related media disclosures continue to be related directly to the Archbishop McCarrick file.

This includes a Sept. 29 Washington Post report that casts renewed doubt on the claims of Cardinal Donald Wuerl, Archbishop McCarrick’s embattled successor as archbishop of Washington, that he somehow was able to remain completely oblivious to the rumors of McCarrick’s sexual misconduct until this spring.

Cardinal Wuerl was also one of the focal points of a Sept. 28 First Things article that cited his links to Archbishop McCarrick in the context of the U.S.-based Papal Foundation.

In recent months, the foundation has been roiled over the decision by its board of trustees, which is dominated by U.S. cardinals and chaired by Cardinal Wuerl, to provide a massive $25-million grant to a scandal-wracked Catholic hospital in Italy — a decision the board made at the Pope’s request, over the strong objections of almost all of the board’s lay members.

The First Things article noted Archbishop McCarrick had been closely associated with the foundation since its inception 30 years ago, and he remained a member of the foundation’s board and apparently played an influential role in winning approval of the Pope’s hospital-funding request, despite the fact that the archbishop knew by then he was under investigation regarding a credible allegation of sexually abusing a minor in the 1970s. These circumstances, according to the First Things article, represent a clear legal conflict of interest that should have disqualified him from any participation in the controversial funding decision.

The article further noted that Bishop Michael Bransfield, a McCarrick protégé who resigned last month as bishop of the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston, West Virginia, because of allegations of sexual harassment involving adults, also had a prominent and long-standing involvement with the foundation.

A new Pew Research Center poll demonstrates how rapidly American confidence in the Pope’s handling of abuse is eroding in the face of this unceasing drumbeat of new and dispiriting revelations

According to the poll, 62% of Americans now rate his performance in this area as only “fair” or as “poor,” compared to 46% in January and 39% in February 2014.

Church leaders in Rome need to realize the situation is driving an ever-broadening range of observers to assert publicly that the Vatican must permanently abandon a strategy of silence when it comes to addressing clergy-abuse scandals — especially those centered on episcopal misconduct.

“Pope Francis has been too slow to understand and act on the moral and spiritual consequences of abuse,” John Carr, the former point man for the U.S. bishops’ conference on social-policy issues and a strong supporter of the Holy Father, commented at a Sept. 26 Georgetown University panel discussion titled, “Confronting a Moral Catastrophe: Lay Leadership, Catholic Social Teaching and the Sexual-Abuse Crisis.”

Carr, who acknowledged during his remarks that he had been Archbishop McCarrick’s friend and close collaborator when they worked together at the bishops’ conference, credited Pope Francis with starting to chart a different course.

But, he stressed, “The lesson here is that silence makes things worse and is not an option for any of us.”

Reportedly, though, a widespread perception persists in Rome that clergy sexual misconduct is far less troubling in most foreign jurisdictions than it is to Americans.

Yet a highly critical recent article published by Der Spiegel, a major German magazine that does not align conservatively in its editorial perspectives, is only one of many recent indications that international indifference, if there was any, is rapidly fading. Entitled Du Sollst Nicht Lügen (“Thou Shalt Not Lie”), the article itemizes a number of the Pope’s most controversial actions — including his refusal to reply to Archbishop Viganò’s claims as well as other reported failures to address sexual misconduct — and comments, “The criticism of him extends far beyond the global network of archconservatives.” The abuse crisis is truly international in scope, and so is negative reaction to its mishandling.

As the Der Spiegel article noted, the questions about the Pope’s personal actions regarding clergy sexual misconduct are by no means centered only on Archbishop McCarrick’s case. He was forced earlier this year to reverse course dramatically in Chile, after three years of downplaying the most prominent clergy-abuse scandal there.

And the Holy Father’s actions have been called into question recently with respect to several other cases, before and after he was elected pope, including his role in the notorious Argentinian case of Father Julio Grassi in Buenos Aires and his actions regarding Father Mauro Inzoli, an Italian serial molester.

Another problematic aspect is the Pope’s apparent determination to designate clericalism as the major driver of all forms of clergy sexual abuse.

No one disputes that clericalism plays a primary role, especially when it involves episcopal misconduct like Archbishop McCarrick’s and the failure of other bishops to respond to such misconduct. But there are many forms of clericalism, some relatively benign.

What’s in play here is clerical sexual misconduct, predominantly but not exclusively homosexual in nature — a moral crime that evokes special condemnation because of the unique capacity of sexual abuse to wound its victims.

Archbishop Viganò is only one of many observers to posit that the alleged Vatican cover-up of Archbishop McCarrick’s actions, and of other similar cases that involve sexual misconduct with adult males, is part of a deliberate campaign undertaken to prevent such actions from coming to light and triggering adverse consequences.

Indeed, the existence of a “gay lobby” acting perniciously at the Vatican is reputed to have been a central focus of the private report by three cardinals that Pope Benedict XVI commissioned in the wake of the “WikiLeaks” scandal.

If it’s true such homosexual networks are active in the Church, inside and outside of the Vatican, why that has been tolerated is a matter that must be investigated, both by the Vatican and by other relevant Church authorities.

Given the gravity of the central questions posed by Archbishop Viganò’s two statements, John Carr’s assessment of the current situation appears completely correct: Silence is not an option. For the sake of the Church’s future, we need concrete and credible answers from the Vatican — and we need these answers soon.

Editor's note: The original version of this editorial was written and published, in the Oct. 14 print edition, prior to the Oct. 6 statement from the Vatican.
It was also published online prior to Cardinal Ouellet's Oct. 7 statement