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It is no small thing to call the pope a liar. Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò has done just that, in straightforward language. “What the Pope said about not knowing anything [about Theodore McCarrick’s misconduct] is a lie,” he told LifeSite News.

On the other hand, it is no small thing to claim that an archbishop, a veteran member of the Vatican diplomatic corps, had lied about the pope as part of a political conspiracy to undermine his authority. Such charges have been leveled against Viganò by the pope’s most stalwart public defenders and perhaps—depending on how one interprets some unusually convoluted papal utterances—by the pontiff himself.

Someone is not being forthright here. The unedifying charges and countercharges have aggravated a scandal that already plagues Catholicism, and the faithful have waited far too long for a restoration of confidence that Church leaders are telling the truth.

The conflict between Francis and Viganò became a public matter last summer, when the former papal envoy in Washington reported that the pope had been informed of, and decided to rescind, disciplinary restrictions placed on McCarrick by Pope Benedict XVI. Viganò’s testimony was vigorously contested by the pope’s allies, who said that McCarrick’s ministry had not been restricted, and/or that Francis had not been informed of the restrictions. Francis himself had refused public comment on the matter, until this week.

Now, in an interview with the Mexican Televisa network, he has said that “about McCarrick I knew nothing, obviously—nothing, nothing.” But he paired that sweeping denial with another, contradictory statement: “I don’t remember if [Viganò] told me about this.” If he does not remember, how could he say with confidence that he knew nothing?

The available evidence (including some new documentation released this week) confirms that Benedict did instruct McCarrick to retire from public ministry, that the restrictions were conveyed in writing, and that several key Vatican officials were aware of them. It is equally clear that McCarrick flouted the papal directive with impunity. But it is still not clear—at least it is not proven—that Francis was aware of the restrictions and deliberately lifted them.

What did the pope know, and when did he know it? The answers to those questions are probably readily available, in the files of the Vatican or the apostolic nuncio in Washington. Last October the Vatican promised a thorough investigation. But no new information has been forthcoming from Rome. The world’s Catholic bishops, who might have demanded the truth, have been content to wait, with rare exceptions showing a remarkable docility to the Holy See. Still more remarkable, the world’s major media outlets have not pressed the question, passing up opportunities to investigate a potentially enormous scandal.

In his Televisa interview, Francis disclosed that he had remained silent for tactical reasons, implying that he was confident the media would take their cues from his allies and dismiss Viganò as a conservative crank. Since early in his pontificate, when he won the sympathies of the liberal media—most notably by replying to queries about a homosexual prelate with his most famous phrase, “Who am I to judge?”—Francis has been able to bank on favorable coverage, dodging difficult questions.

But the pope’s account with the media may now be overdrawn. Journalists do not enjoy being manipulated, and in his Televisa interview the pontiff came dangerously close to saying that he knew journalists would not question him too closely: the sort of statement that constitutes a challenge to any red-blooded reporter. The pope was also imprudent in saying that criticisms of his top ally, Cardinal Óscar Maradiaga, were “calumnies.” Reporters have heard that line from Francis before, in his adamant defense of the Chilean Bishop Juan Barros, which the pope was eventually forced to retract as the evidence of Chilean corruption mounted.

To compound the pope’s problems, this week a former secretary to McCarrick, a staunch Francis supporter, released the new documentary evidence of Benedict’s restrictions on McCarrick’s ministry. In doing so, Msgr. Anthony Figueiredo disclosed that he had been inspired by new canonical rules, promulgated by Francis earlier this month, encouraging whistle-blowers. The Figueiredo dossier did not address the key question of what Francis knew. But it now seems only a matter of time until some other cleric releases another stack of documents, raising new questions about the pope’s handling of the abuse scandal.

And already Francis is facing the sort of media skepticism that he has somehow escaped for years. Nicole Winfield of AP observed this week that in the face of mounting complaints about McCarrick, “Francis’ claim to not remember if Vigano told him about McCarrick now amounts to his defense against such criticism.” A lapse of memory is a perilously weak foundation for a pope’s authority.

Philip Lawler is editor of Catholic World News and author of The Smoke of Satan.

Photo by Mariodoro via Creative Commons. Image cropped.

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