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Will battles erupt within the Catholic hierarchy following allegations by Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò that Pope Francis has long been aware of ex-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick's sexual misconduct? The prospect of open warfare among the bishops is of course enticing to the growing pack of reporters covering the story. Perhaps more surprisingly, it is also welcome to the many faithful Catholics who, exhausted and enraged by the serial revelations of cover-ups and corruption that they have endured for years, want the full truth now, whatever the cost. 

The impatient demands for a full account of the abuse scandals have now been linked to questions about Francis's leadership. Elected with a clear mandate for reform, especially on the sex-abuse question, the pontiff has failed to match strong statements with effective actions. Now Archbishop Viganò's testimony casts into doubt the pope’s professed commitment to rid the Church of predatory clerics.

Viganò undeniably qualifies as an expert witness in the case. For years a ranking official at the Vatican Secretariat of State, whose duties included handling the cases of “problem” prelates, he was appointed in 2011 as apostolic nuncio (the equivalent of Vatican ambassador) to the U.S. In the former assignment, he reports, he saw memos about McCarrick’s habit of luring seminarians into bed at his beach house. In the latter, he spoke directly with Francis about McCarrick’s continued public role. 

In his statement, Viganò reveals that Pope Benedict XVI had disciplined Cardinal McCarrick for his misconduct, ordering the prelate to retreat from public life. According to Viganò, Francis later lifted that sanction, giving McCarrick influence as papal adviser and allowing him a key role in the appointment of American bishops. 

Here we encounter the first difficulty with Viganò’s testimony, because in fact McCarrick, after retiring as archbishop of Washington, did not retreat from public life. He moved out of a seminary in Washington (apparently as a result of Benedict’s order) but continued to make public appearances. He even joined other cardinals at the Vatican in a farewell ceremony for Benedict when the pope left office. 

So is Viganò’s testimony inaccurate? Or was McCarrick flouting a papal directive? “Viganò said the truth,” reports Msgr. Jean-François Lantheaume, a former counselor at the nuncio’s office in Washington who had first-hand acquaintance with Benedict’s order. But apparently McCarrick had powerful friends in Rome, including the former Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, who made sure the papal sanctions were not strictly enforced. 

That explanation matches reports that Benedict was frustrated by his inability to ensure his orders were carried out. He once told a visitor that his papal authority extended only as far as the door to his office. Indeed, the Viganò testimony may provide a hint of why Benedict felt compelled to resign; he lacked the strength and managerial skill necessary to overcome the resistance of the Vatican bureaucracy. 

Then again, if Benedict had disciplined McCarrick, why did he impose sanctions secretly? It is easy to second-guess the former pontiff on that score, particularly in light of the current demands for full disclosure. But again the action fits a pattern. Earlier in his papacy, Benedict had quietly imposed the same sort of sanctions on Father Marcial Maciel, the powerful founder of the Legionaries of Christ (who, not coincidentally, had also been protected by Sodano). Learning that Maciel had led a scandalous double life, Benedict ordered him to a private life of penance; only later did the Vatican acknowledge the full extent of Maciel’s perfidy. 

If Viganò’s testimony is accurate, then Francis has now done only what Benedict sought to do nearly a decade ago: Remove McCarrick from the public scene. But whereas Benedict can be criticized for shielding McCarrick from disgrace, Francis deserves much greater censure for both allowing a predator into his inner circle and taking disciplinary action only after the scandal became a matter of public knowledge. 

Sadly, this too follows a familiar pattern. Again and again Catholic bishops have removed abusers from office and issued public apologies only after the media reported the offenses. During his visit to Ireland this past weekend, Francis used one of his scatological references to describe the pattern of cover-ups. Now he himself is implicated in the behavior he has denounced.  

All this assumes, again, that the Viganò testimony is accurate. But what motive would he have for making false claims? Archbishop Viganò knows that one word from Pope Emeritus Benedict would destroy his credibility. He must have known, too, that parts of his report reflect badly on himself, and that his own role in cover-ups would soon come to light. The archbishop says that he made his statement to clear his conscience, and that explanation rings true. 

Francis has chosen not to defend himself—at least not for now. He told journalists that he would not say “a single word” about the Viganò testimony, leaving reporters to investigate the claims for themselves. Perhaps he was relying on the ability of his aides to impugn Viganò’s character, or the distaste of the secular media for any inquiry into the influence of homosexuals in Rome. But eventually the pontiff must give an accounting. 

Meanwhile, in the little diocese of Tyler, Texas, Bishop Joseph Strickland—who has played no special role in this drama to date, and has no particular access to inside information—has told his flock that he finds the Viganò testimony credible, and demanded an in-depth investigation. Will other bishops—prompted by Viganò’s example and the Catholic laity's fury—join in the call for full disclosure? 

The questions raised by Viganò cannot be un-asked. They can only be answered or ignored. To answer them will entail a painful process, quite possibly leading to a purge of the Catholic hierarchy. But to ignore them would require another cover-up. That could be fatal to this papacy.

Philip Lawler is editor of Catholic World News and author of Lost Shepherd: How Pope Francis is Misleading his FlockThis article has been updated to correct a factual error.

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