US Catholics React to Cardinal Ouellet’s Letter

NEWS ANALYSIS: Opinions differ about whether the letter adequately debunks Archbishop Viganò’s claims of a Vatican cover-up of Archbishop McCarrick’s sexual misconduct.

Cardinal Marc Ouellet, prefect of the Congregation for Bishops, listens to a statement at a 2011 press conference.
Cardinal Marc Ouellet, prefect of the Congregation for Bishops, listens to a statement at a 2011 press conference. (photo: Alan Holdren/CNA)

WASHINGTON — Six weeks after Archbishop Carlo Viganò accused Pope Francis and other Church authorities of engaging in a yearslong cover-up to shield now-disgraced Archbishop Theodore McCarrick, Cardinal Marc Ouellet, the prefect of the Congregation for Bishops, attacked the former nuncio’s denunciation of the Holy Father as “blasphemous” and “far-fetched.”

But the cardinal didn’t deny many of the central elements of Archbishop Viganò’s claims, and reaction to his letter from U.S. Catholic leaders has been mixed.

Cardinal Ouellet’s extraordinary letter was released Oct. 7, one day after the Vatican formally confirmed that it would initiate a “thorough study of the entire documentation present in the archives of the dicasteries and offices of the Holy See regarding the former Cardinal McCarrick.”

The prefect reported that he had received permission to respond to Archbishop Viganò’s initial Aug. 26 testimony and a second statement that specifically called on Cardinal Ouellet to confirm that Pope Benedict XVI had directed McCarrick to end his public ministry. 

What followed was a scathing critique of Archbishop Viganò’s allegations and his disloyalty to Pope Francis, along with a warning of possible canonical penalties, should the accusations persist.

The campaign to shore up the moral authority of Pope Francis in the period following publication of Archbishop Viganò’s bombshell testimony has highlighted its corrosive impact.

Initially, it shifted the media’s focus from an investigation of the Archbishop McCarrick cover-up to claims that Archbishop Viganò was engaged in political score-settling — a charge also made by Cardinal Ouellet, who wrote that he could “only conclude” that the archbishop’s testimony “is a political plot that lacks any real basis that could incriminate the Pope and that profoundly harms the communion of the Church.”

Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago — one of the two U.S. cardinals singled out by Archbishop Viganò as allegedly having been promoted as a direct result of Archbishop McCarrick’s intervention on their behalf with the Holy Father — echoed Cardinal Ouellet’s defense of the Pope in an Oct. 8 statement.

“I join my voice to those of the prefect and of the president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops in urging ‘all in the Church, particularly the bishops, to reaffirm our communion with Pope Francis, who is the visible guarantor of the communion of the Catholic Church,’” said Cardinal Cupich, who insisted the Pope was committed to confronting sexual abuse in the Church.


Cardinal DiNardo

In an Oct. 7 statement, released shortly after the publication of Cardinal Ouellet’s letter, Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, welcomed the “additional steps Pope Francis is taking to ensure the faithful are protected from the evil of sexual assault.”

He warmly greeted the Vatican’s Oct. 6 announcement, which confirmed that the findings of the New York Archdiocese’s recent investigation of allegations against Archbishop McCarrick that involved the alleged abuse of a teenager dating back half a century would be combined with this new review of the Vatican’s Archives.

And while the USCCB leadership had pressed for a more comprehensive apostolic investigation, conducted in part by independent lay experts, Cardinal DiNardo still embraced the “Holy Father’s ‘pressing invitation to unite forces to fight the grave scourge of abuse.’”

The Oct. 7 statement did not reference Cardinal Ouellet’s letter directly. But Cardinal DiNardo strongly reaffirmed the U.S. bishops’ solidarity with Pope Francis, in what could have been a response to Cardinal Ouellet’s condemnation of Archbishop Viganò for allegedly using “the clamorous sexual-abuse scandal in the United States” to inflict “an unmerited and unheard-of blow” to the Holy Father’s moral authority.

Cardinal DiNardo also met with Pope Francis and other Vatican officials Oct. 8. Archbishop José Gomez of Los Angeles, the USCCB’s vice president; Msgr. Brian Bransfield, the USCCB’s general secretary; and Msgr. Jeffrey Burrill, the USCCB’s associate general secretary; also participated. The USCCB did not release a statement following that meeting.


More Critical Responses

Other Church leaders and Catholic commentators similarly applauded the Vatican’s plans for an investigation of its archives and underscored the importance of Cardinal Ouellet’s vigorous defense of the Pope.

Yet Cardinal Ouellet’s response to the most substantive claims in Archbishop Viganò’s Aug. 26 testimony provoked considerable skepticism, with experts and commentators suggesting that the letter offered only a weak defense of the Vatican’s handling of McCarrick’s case and upheld key elements of Archbishop Viganò’s testimony.

In an Oct. 8 commentary, Phil Lawler, the author of Lost Shepherd, noted that Cardinal Ouellet “acknowledged the existence of rumors about McCarrick, but argued that no action was required” without sufficient proof, said Lawler. “Wouldn’t a more responsible approach have been to investigate the rumors, to ascertain whether there was a cause for concern?” 

Lawler was equally frustrated with the Vatican’s striking silence on a subject with particular relevance in McCarrick’s case: tolerance of homosexual misconduct in seminaries and the priesthood. Cardinal DiNardo had raised this matter in an earlier statement addressing Archbishop McCarrick’s misconduct, and several U.S. seminaries have already begun investigations into reports of sexual misconduct that surfaced in news stories and social media.

In contrast, the Vatican statement that announced the forthcoming investigation does not mention the word “homosexual,” said Lawler.

He insisted that “candor” was essential if Pope Francis and other Church authorities hoped to win back the trust of Catholics.


What Was Known?

In his letter, Cardinal Ouellet discounted Archbishop Viganò’s claims that he had concretely informed Pope Francis about Archbishop McCarrick during a meeting on June 23, 2013, commenting that “I strongly doubt that McCarrick concerned him to the degree you’d like to think, given he was an 82-year-old emeritus archbishop who had been out of a job for seven years.”

He also disputed Archbishop Viganò’s assertion that Pope Benedict XVI had imposed sanctions on the U.S Church leader that prohibited him from public ministry, because of his abuse of seminarians, and that Francis had lifted those sanctions, thereby allowing Archbishop McCarrick to raise his public profile and become a trusted papal adviser.

Cardinal Ouellet said he did not find any evidence in the files of the Congregation for Bishops to support these charges.

Nevertheless, Cardinal Ouellet conceded that Archbishop McCarrick had faced some kind of informal restriction following a spate of rumors and warnings about the ex-cardinal’s sexual misconduct with adults.

The Vatican’s Oct. 6 statement, which announced the review of archival documents on Archbishop McCarrick, did provide one potential explanation, but it was one that is unlikely to satisfy many Catholics.

The Holy See, read the statement, “is conscious that, from the examination of the facts and of the circumstances, it may emerge that choices were taken that would not be consonant with a contemporary approach to such issues.”

The statement suggests Church authorities “have only gradually become more aware of the immorality associated” with sexual misconduct between a bishop and seminarians under his authority, noted Father Boniface Ramsey, a former New Jersey seminary professor who had raised concerns about Archbishop McCarrick in a 2000 letter to then-U.S. nuncio Archbishop Gabriel Montalvo and in a 2015 letter to Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston.

“But if that’s the case,” Father Ramsey told the Register, “what explains the fact that almost two decades ago [Archbishop Montalvo] understood the gravity of McCarrick’s actions and tried to raise the alarm?”

“How is it possible that his behavior with seminarians could be glossed over?” asked Father Ramsey.

“It should have been enough to stop him,” he added, well before the recent allegations involving minors triggered an immediate investigation.


Evidence Still Needed

Dominican Father Joseph Fox, the vicar for canonical services for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, approached the Vatican statement and Cardinal Ouellet’s letter from a different angle.

“Cardinal Ouellet is saying that they did not have the evidence to propose formal restrictions on McCarrick, and so they warned him to be prudent,” Father Fox told the Register.

The canon lawyer emphasized the need for evidence and referenced the recent national debate over the allegations of sexual assault against Judge Brett Kavanaugh.

“You have to have evidence of the crime, and that, more or less, is what Cardinal Ouellet is saying to [Archbishop] Viganò about his statements regarding Pope Francis: ‘You are making claims about the Pope, but you are not providing evidence,’” he said.

Questioned about the Vatican’s likely handling of Father Ramsey’s 2000 letter flagging Archbishop McCarrick’s abuse of seminarians, Father Fox speculated that it might have been treated as “secondhand information” that did not carry the weight of a victim’s direct testimony.

In his letter, Cardinal Ouellet addressed this question and said that, “at that time, unlike today, there was not sufficient proof of his alleged guilt.”

The cardinal said that it seemed “unjust … to conclude that the persons in charge of the prior discernment are corrupt, even though, in this concrete case, some suspicions provided by witnesses should have been further examined.”

Father Fox was also asked to elaborate on Cardinal Ouellet’s stark warning that Archbishop Viganò could face canonical penalties if he did not reconcile with the Pope, and he pointed to three possible violations. “Canon 1373 applies to a ‘person who publicly incites among subjects animosity or hatred against’ the Holy See or provokes subjects to disobey,” he said.

Further, Archbishop Viganò had, by his own admission, “violated the pontifical secret,” while a third norm “deals with the more general need to prevent scandal.”

Setting aside the question of whether the Vatican would actually impose canonical penalties on Archbishop Viganò, Father Fox underscored the central purpose of Cardinal Ouellet’s letter.

“He is putting a frame on Viganò’s testimony, and he is appealing to Viganò to withdraw his allegations.”


Conflicting Explanations

Russell Shaw, the author of Nothing to Hide: Secrecy, Communication and Communion in the Catholic Church, agreed with this characterization of Cardinal Ouellet’s intent, and said Cardinal Ouellet served as a “surrogate for the Pope.”

At the same time, the letter was designed to defend the Vatican prefect’s reputation, after Archbishop Viganò said he had failed to act on reports about Archbishop McCarrick, even if it didn’t entirely achieve that goal.

According to Shaw, Cardinal Ouellet in his letter fails to knock down two key points in Archbishop Viganò’s testimony: Pope Benedict’s attempt to restrict Archbishop McCarrick’s public ministry, and the 2013 meeting where Pope Francis asked Archbishop Viganò to comment on McCarrick’s profile.

In the first case, said Shaw, the prefect effectively “confirms” the thrust of Archbishop Viganò’s narrative. In the second case, he downplays the Pope’s remarks at the 2013 meeting but does not explain “what prompted the Pope to raise that question,” said Shaw.

These points are important, he said, because they shift “the focus back to ‘what Pope Francis knew and when.’ But now there are two explanations that are more or less in conflict.”

Joan Frawley Desmond is a Register senior editor.