Should We Believe ‘Bombshell’ Report on Pope’s Knowledge of Sexual Abuse?

On Saturday night, Catholic News Agency dropped what everyone’s calling a bombshell, an article hotter than the inside of Raymond Burke’s cappa magna after a long, hard-fought Latin mass:

In an 11-page written testament, a former apostolic nuncio to the United States has accused several senior prelates of complicity in covering up Archbishop Theodore McCarrick’s allegations of sexual abuse, and has claimed that Pope Francis knew about sanctions imposed on then-Cardinal McCarrick by Pope Benedict XVI but chose to repeal them.

Wow, if true, as the kids say. But is it true? Damned if I know. Damned if anyone knows. There are a lot of reasons to be dubious about these allegations. For one thing, they’re being put forward by Carlo Maria Viganò, a culture warrior close to Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI who has clashed with Pope Francis more than once, and who was responsible for the embarrassing meeting between Francis and Kim Davis, the Kentucky county clerk who refused to issue licenses to same-sex couples in defiance of duty, the US Supreme Court, and common decency. If all that weren’t enough, Viganò himself has been implicated in covering up sexual abuse by bishops.

Viganò is very much on the side of Vatican conservatives who would like Francis to take his Laudato Si’ and his tolerance of gays, lesbians and the divorced and just go back to Argentina. And indeed, he’s ready for Francis’ resignation, even before the substance of the allegations has been investigated, as is the conservative bishop of Tyler Texas, Joseph Strickland. Marching right behind them is just about the entire crew terrified of the “homosexual lobby” taking over Catholicism.

(Oddly, Cardinal Burke has been relatively restrained so far, saying only that “The corruption and filth which have entered into the life of the Church must be purified at their roots,” before calling for a full investigation of Viganò’s charges.)

Also worth noting is that Viganò spends time in his letter complaining not just that Francis ignored allegations of sexual abuse, but that a former Vatican Secretary of State “notoriously favored promoting homosexuals into positions of responsibility,” and that McCarrick somehow helped maneuver liberals into episcopal positions. The agenda becomes clear: Viganò and his supporters don’t want increased tolerance for gays in ministry, and they blame them for the sex abuse crisis. Viganò says as much directly:

The homosexual networks present in the Church must be eradicated, as Janet Smith, Professor of Moral Theology at the Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit, recently wrote. “The problem of clergy abuse,” she wrote, “cannot be resolved simply by the resignation of some bishops, and even less so by bureaucratic directives. The deeper problem lies in homosexual networks within the clergy which must be eradicated.” These homosexual networks, which are now widespread in many dioceses, seminaries, religious orders, etc., act under the concealment of secrecy and lies with the power of octopus tentacles, and strangle innocent victims and priestly vocations, and are strangling the entire Church.

(Emphasis in the original.)

This isn’t a bomb being dropped, it’s a fragging back at the bureaucratic HQ.

There are too many holes in Viganò’s allegations to list here. Benedict supposedly quashed McCarrick’s public ministry in the mid-2000s, preventing him from celebrating mass, travelling, or representing the church in any official capacity. But nobody seems to have known about it, and multiple people report having seen McCarrick presiding over masses and signing “Happy Birthday” to Pope Benedict in Rome around the same time. Most of Viganò’s evidence comes down to memos he says were undelivered or went unread, private conversations that can’t be documented, or actions taken by people who are now dead. Benedict could presumably confirm putting McCarrick on a short leash, but so far, the Pope Emeritus has been wise enough not to get sucked into the drama. Francis, meanwhile, won’t dignify Viganò with a comment.

Now, Francis is not exactly pristine. He has bungled responses to the sexual abuse crisis before, dragging his feet in removing bishops accused of concealing predatory clerics in Honduras and Chile, among other things. It’s entirely possible he blew it here again. The questions raised by Vigano’s allegations deserve answers.

At the same time, calls for Francis’ immediate resignation are premature, and all of the available evidence points to a systemic issue, not a problem of a single misguided pope. Even if you completely cleaned house, it wouldn’t solve the problem, because the problem isn’t any one particular people, it’s patriarchal clericalism, as Angela Bonavoglia pointed out here on RD. God knows there’s plenty of that to go around, and chasing the queers out of the church won’t solve it either. Viganò and his fellow traditionalists fundamentally misunderstand the nature of the problem. Bishops aren’t covering for homosexuals, they’re covering for predators to save their own hides, and because they know the offenders much better than their victims.

Sooner or later, Viganò’s allegations will be investigated, and in all likelihood turn out to be at best highly exaggerated and at worst pretty much utter horseshit. (A cursory read of his letter ought to indicate which end of that continuum to pick, but the official solution might take a little longer.) The investigation won’t be accepted by the conservative wing, of course, and the allegations will live on as a conspiracy theory. That will allow conservatives in the church to offload widespread blame for the sexual abuse crisis onto liberals. In turn, divisions in the church the conservatives helped sponsor will be reinforced. Meanwhile, the pews in America and Ireland and elsewhere will continue to hemorrhage adherents disgusted by the whole spectacle.

The thing is, the clerics have nobody to blame but themselves on this. For nearly thirty years, what we’ve seen out of the Catholic church is a lot of ass-covering and apparatchiks trying to hang on to their positions. Viganò’s entire complaint boils down to the bureaucrat’s lament that no one ever read his memoranda. Think of the memos!

The idea that sexual abuse is a grievous wound to the body of Christ? That hasn’t gotten much more than lip service. Viganò’s allegations bear checking out, but they ultimately will do nothing to solve the issues in the church. Because the problem isn’t McCarrick, or Francis, or Benedict, or whoever’s in the hot seat today. It’s what the whole system from top to bottom has produced. “By their fruits you shall know them,” scripture tells us. The fruits on display are tens of thousands of ruined lives and case after case of higher-ups abusing the trust given them to sweep it all under the rug.

Viganò and his friends might like to scapegoat gay priests for this, and maybe take out their detested Francis while they’re at it. They should be careful what they wish for. A thorough investigation of sexual abuse in the church might turn up more than a few issues in their own ranks, for one thing. For another, there’s only one way the crisis will ever resolve itself, and that’s to take power away from the priests and bishops and give it to the laity. For church traditionalists who like to celebrate the clergy like nobility, the cure might be worse than the disease. Everyone else will be standing in line at the clinic, if they haven’t left the church already.