VATICAN CITY – Two weeks after Pope Francis’ papacy was thrown into crisis by accusations that he covered-up sexual misconduct by ex-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, Francis has refused to respond, his accuser has changed his story and a host of new characters have entered the fray.
Cardinals, bishops, priests and ordinary faithful, meanwhile, are demanding answers, given that the Vatican knew about it as early as 2000 .
Increasingly, Francis is coming under pressure to respond to claims by Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano that he rehabilitated McCarrick from sanctions Pope Benedict XVI had imposed.
Here is a look at the scandal, which has split the U.S. Catholic hierarchy and tarnished Francis’ already troubled record on abuse.
Vigano said in his Aug. 26 expose that Benedict imposed “canonical sanctions” on McCarrick in 2009 or 2010 that were similar to what Francis imposed this summer after McCarrick was credibly accused of groping a minor.
“The cardinal was to leave the seminary where he was living, he was forbidden to celebrate Mass in public, to participate in public meetings, to give lectures, to travel, with the obligation of dedicating himself to a life of prayer and penance,” Vigano wrote.
Vigano said he told Francis on June 23, 2013 that McCarrick had “corrupted a generation of seminarians and priests” and that Benedict “ordered him to withdraw to a life of prayer and penance.”
But he said Francis effectively rehabilitated McCarrick and made him a trusted counselor as he sought to remake the U.S. church leadership to be less focused on the culture wars.
The public record , however, is rife with evidence that McCarrick lived a life devoid of any sanction from 2009 onwards, travelling widely for the church, attending official functions, including at the Vatican alongside Benedict and Vigano, who as Vatican ambassador in 2012 had the duty of honoring him at an awards ceremony in New York.
Faced with such evidence, Vigano altered his story to say that while Benedict’s measures were in place, McCarrick “didn’t obey” them and that he was unable to enforce them.
Vigano told LifeSiteNews, an ultraconservative site, that Benedict had made the sanctions “private” probably because McCarrick was retired and Benedict, seeking to avoid scandal, thought he would obey.
Even the conservative National Catholic Register, which originally published Vigano’s revelation, acknowledged that the severity of the measures reported by Vigano is now an open question.
Citing someone close to Benedict, the Register reported that Benedict couldn’t recall how he handled the matter but that there was no formal decree against McCarrick, “just a private request” to keep a low profile.
If true, that would undercut Vigano’s core accusation that Francis rehabilitated McCarrick from actual canonical sanctions.
Hours after Vigano’s accusations came to light, Francis told an in-flight news conference: “I will not say a word about this .” He challenged journalists to investigate Vigano’s claims and said “If time passes and you’ve drawn your conclusions, maybe I’ll speak.”
That said, Francis has referred indirectly to the scandal a handful of times since. He has said “silence and prayer “ were often the best response to people seeking scandal. He has said it was un-Christian to accuse other people, but necessary to accuse oneself to recognize sin. And he has told newly ordained bishops to work in communion – not as lone actors bent on settling personal scores.
The Vatican press office has refused all comment, including about what, if any, sanctions were ever imposed on McCarrick, and what, if anything, Francis did about them.
When Francis and Vigano met in June 2013, Francis was three months into a new job where he knew he was going to make enemies with the type of conservative culture warriors that Vigano championed.
A month after the reported encounter over McCarrick’s sexual past, Francis would go on to win praise from the liberal Catholic world for having said of another purportedly gay priest he had named a close adviser: “Who am I to judge?”
That suggests that Francis, at least in 2013, didn’t consider the past sex lives or homosexual orientations of his counselors to be a fireable offense – or recognize that those relationships could constitute an abuse of power.
But Francis did recognize something was amiss when he sent the Vatican’s top sex abuse expert to investigate Scottish Cardinal Keith O’Brien, who recused himself from the conclave that elected Francis pope because of allegations he slept with seminarians.
O’Brien was a conservative hard-liner on homosexuality whose sexual peccadillos were aired publicly, which could explain the disparity in treatment.
More than a week before Vigano’s disclosure, the head of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, publicly announced he wanted an audience with Francis to present his request for a full-fledged Vatican investigation into the McCarrick affair.
At the time, DiNardo’s call was seen as a power play by the U.S. bishops, who were under fire for having covered for McCarrick for decades, to shift the blame to the Vatican. McCarrick was made archbishop of Washington and cardinal in 2001 by Pope John Paul II, despite knowledge in the Vatican that he slept with seminarians.
DiNardo followed up his original request for a Vatican investigation with a statement saying Vigano’s accusations deserved answers. More than a dozen U.S. bishops have echoed the call, though others, including a top Francis appointee, Cardinal Blase Cupich, have demurred. Cupich has said Francis shouldn’t go down the “rabbit hole” by responding.
No date for a DiNardo audience has been set. He is due in Rome Sept. 27 to preside over an ordination ceremony.
Meanwhile, Francis has met with embattled Washington Cardinal Donald Wuerl, who is facing calls to step down over both the McCarrick scandal and for mishandling some cases when he was bishop in Pittsburgh that were exposed by the Pennsylvania grand jury report.
Wuerl actually offered to resign two years ago when he turned 75, so the decision on when he leaves rests with Francis alone.
Amid the official silence from the Vatican, some new players have emerged to try to discredit Vigano’s version of events and defend Francis.
One of them is a familiar face, the Rev. Federico Lombardi , the Jesuit who served as Vatican spokesman for Benedict and Francis until 2016. Last weekend, amid a communications crisis for the Vatican, it was announced that Lombardi would rejoin the Jesuit magazine La Civilta Cattolica, which serves as an unofficial mouthpiece for the papacy.
Also last weekend, Lombardi and his English-speaking assistant, the Rev. Thomas Rosica, issued a joint statement contesting Vigano’s version of events about the controversial meeting that Vignao orchestrated between the pope and U.S. anti-gay marriage campaigner Kim Davis during Francis’ 2015 visit to the U.S.
The encounter made headlines because it was viewed as a papal endorsement of Davis’ highly politicized campaign – something Francis had been keen to avoid.
Vigano claimed Francis had only praise for his handling of the visit. But Lombardi and Rosica issued a statement, based on Rosica’s handwritten notes from the time, recalling that Vigano himself had reported that Francis scolded him for having “deceived” him about Davis and omitted that she had been married four times.