On October 12, Pope Francis officially accepted the resignation of Washington’s archbishop, Cardinal Donald Wuerl, from the high-profile post Wuerl had occupied for 12 years. Wuerl’s resignation was the latest and most direct casualty of the sex-abuse scandal that for years has been rocking the Catholic Church. More specifically, Wuerl — a close ally of Pope Francis — stepped down as a result of a nearly 900-page Pennsylvania grand jury report from 2018, which detailed the extent of the rampant sexual abuse of priests against children and of the systemic cover-up of the crimes.
Cardinal Wuerl was among those accused of covering for abusive priests in the grand jury’s exhaustive investigation of Pennsylvania’s dioceses, including the Diocese of Pittsburgh, which Wuerl had headed from 1988 to 2006. As a consequence of his role in re-assigning or reinstating priests accused of sexual abuse, Wuerl requested that the Pope accept the resignation he had previously submitted in 2015, at age 75, as is tradition. Although Pope Francis accepted Wuerl’s resignation, he nevertheless requested that Wuerl stay on as apostolic administrator of the diocese until a new Archbishop to Washington, D.C. is selected.
It was, however, the Pope’s heaping of praise on Wuerl that especially angered the victims of sexual abuse at the hands of clerics. In his letter accepting Wuerl’s resignation, Francis wrote:
“To our Venerable Brother Card. Donald William Wuerl, Archbishop of Washington,
“On September 21st I received your request that I accept your resignation from the pastoral government of the Archdiocese of Washington.
“I am aware that this request rests on two pillars that have marked and continue to mark your ministry: to seek in all things the greater glory of God and to procure the good of the people entrusted to your care. The shepherd knows that the well-being and the unity of the People of God are precious gifts that the Lord has implored and for which he gave his life. He paid a very high price for this unity and our mission is to take care that the people not only remain united, but become witnesses of the Gospel “That they may all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I in you, that they also may be in us, that the world may believe that you sent me” (John 17:21). This is the horizon from which we are continually invited to discern all our actions.
“I recognize in your request the heart of the shepherd who, by widening his vision to recognize a greater good that can benefit the whole body (cf. Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, 235), prioritizes actions that support, stimulate and make the unity and mission of the Church grow above every kind of sterile division sown by the father of lies who, trying to hurt the shepherd, wants nothing more than that the sheep be dispersed (cf. Matthew 26:31).
“You have sufficient elements to “justify” your actions and distinguish between what it means to cover up crimes or not to deal with problems, and to commit some mistakes. However, your nobility has led you not to choose this way of defense. Of this, I am proud and thank you.
“In this way, you make clear the intent to put God’s Project first, before any kind of personal project, including what could be considered as good for the Church. Your renunciation is a sign of your availability and docility to the Spirit who continues to act in his Church.
“In accepting your resignation, I ask you to remain as Apostolic Administrator of the Archdiocese until the appointment of your successor.
“Dear brother, I make my own the words of Sirach: “You who fear the Lord, trust in him, and your reward will not be lost” (2:8). May the Virgin Mary protect you with her mantle and may the strength of the Holy Spirit give you the grace to know how to continue to serve him in this new time that the Lord gives you.”
A few months earlier, in July, Pope Francis also accepted the resignation of Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick, the former archbishop of Washington, from the College of Cardinals, after he had been removed from public ministry in June over “credible allegations” of his sexual abuse of a minor nearly five decades ago, when he was a priest in New York.
In August, former Papal Nuncio (ambassador) to the United States, Carlo Maria Viganò, called upon Pope Francis to resign the Papacy. Viganò justified this demand by claiming that the Pontiff had covered up allegations of sexual-abuse crimes by McCarrick. Viganò also named several high-ranking, pro-Pope Francis officials — including Wuerl — whom he accused of abetting a homosexual sub-culture inside the Vatican.
In a September 13 piece in National Review, Michael Brendan Dougherty posed two questions about why McCarrick’s influence had endured, despite frequent and long-standing allegations of his predatory sexual behavior. The first was: Did Francis spare McCarrick because he sought McCarrick’s counsel on how the Vatican should reform the American Episcopate (bishops)? The second was: Does Francis overlook the sins of those prelates he views as allies, such as McCarrick, in order to advance his papal agenda?
If the response to either of those questions is yes, then the Vatican’s factional infighting between liberals and conservatives may have reached a critical level. This moment may demand a massive restructuring of church structure to sustain Catholicism’s vitality as the moral compass for half of the world’s Christians.(Non-Catholic Christians such as Orthodox and Protestant sects comprise the other half of the world’s 2.2 billion Christians.)
Viganò’s 11-page “indictment” was published at a vulnerable moment for the Catholic Church, already reeling from ever-widening evidence of sexual abuse of innocents by predator priests. Viganò had launched his attack during the Pope’s visit to Ireland, a country where respect for the Catholic Church had already declined, following revelations of sexual crimes by priests and decades of harsh treatment of young women who have given birth to children outside of marriage.
Given public knowledge of the bitter factional disputes within the Vatican, Viganò’s detailed accounts of political maneuvering within the College of Cardinals and the Roman Curia (the Catholic Church’s administrative bureaucracy) are indeed plausible. He is allied with high-ranking Vatican conservatives who are opposed to the apparent liberal agenda of Francis, such as permitting divorced and remarried Catholics, in some cases, to receive the Eucharist (Communion). He is also allied with whoever is against the Vatican’s recent pastoral rhetoric on same-sex attraction; and with those who are skeptical of what they perceive as the Pope’s antipathy to capitalism. Other high-ranking church officials have denounced the West for failing to support Christians being persecuted in Muslim lands.
These denunciations can be interpreted as criticism of Pope Francis’s perceived unwillingness directly to confront the issue of clerical sexual crimes. Additionally, some Catholics have criticized the pope’s tendency to grant unscripted in-flight media interviews, and then seeming to blame them for confusion among Catholic laypeople as to where he stands on key theological and social questions.
Viganò himself has been a casualty of inside-the-Vatican bureaucratic wars during his tenure as Secretary-General of the Vatican Governorate (2009-2011), the equivalent of serving as Mayor of Vatican City. While in this position, he was accused by some of his Vatican City adversaries of, among other things, nepotism and exhibiting “a harsh and intransigent managing style.” However, these accusations may have been generated by Viganò’s uncompromising opposition to financial improprieties he had previously uncovered in the Vatican Bank.
Those criticisms prompted Viganò’s removal at the time by Pope Benedict XVI from his position as the Vatican Bank’s Secretary-General. Subsequently, Benedict dispatched him to the United States to serve as nuncio (ambassador from the Vatican). Viganò may also be disappointed by the failure of Popes Benedict and Francis to appoint him as president of Vatican City, a post that automatically includes a promotion to Cardinal.
Viganò’s allegations against Pope Francis were buoyed by some recently surfaced corroborating evidence, including a letter from 2006 indicating that the Vatican had been aware of McCarrick’s alleged predatory behavior for some time. This letter, addressing McCarrick’s alleged pattern of sexual abuses, was written by Father Boniface Ramsey. Ramsey then was a faculty member at Immaculate Conception Seminary at Seton Hall University in New Jersey. The university was in the Diocese of Newark, where McCarrick was archbishop at the time. The letter appears to confirm Viganò’s charge that McCarrick’s sexual criminal activity had been known by the Vatican for several years.
On September 27, Viganò released an additional letter, appealing directly to Canadian Cardinal Marc Ouellet, Prefect of the Congregation of Bishops, to reveal documents that would further corroborate Viganò’s allegations. Cardinal Ouellet, however, refused to substantiate them. Instead, he defended the Church as having been grievously wounded by Viganò’s unproven assertions.
Some prominent Catholics imply that the Vatican gave a pass to McCarrick because of the Cardinal’s prodigious fund-raising capabilities for the Catholic Church’s Papal Foundation in America. That theory, which connects McCarrick’s fund-raising prowess to the Vatican’s toleration of the Cardinal’s aberrant behavior, was furthered by an announcement on September 13 that West Virginia’s only bishop, Michael Bransfield, had resigned over allegations of sexual harassment. Bransfield was the President of the Papal Foundation for several years in conjunction with his tenure as Rector of the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C. He had worked closely with Cardinal McCarrick, raising millions for the favorite charities of Popes Benedict XVI and Pope Francis.
As for former Ambassador Viganò, he reserved some of his most pointed criticism for those in the Vatican who allegedly promoted the careers of members of homosexual networks in the Holy See. It seems likely that Viganò supports Catholic teaching that “homosexuality is a psychological and moral disorder… that is always sinful, depraved, and ruinous of character.” In addition, Viganò asserted that one Vatican prelate possessed a “pro-gay ideology” and another favored the promotion of homosexual clerics to positions of authority.
In his original letter, Viganò also sardonically ridiculed the Pope’s public condemnation of clerical careerism, as if that were the source of the Church’s problem, when the real issue was predatory sexual behavior. Viganò may be calling out the inadequate response of the Pope because he is genuinely horrified. The Pope’s silence on Viganò’s specific charges, however, as well as his thinly veiled comparison of Viganò to the devil, may lend further credibility to Viganò’s accusations and character.
Moreover, Pope Francis, a week before he accepted Wuerl’s resignation, ordered a search of the Vatican Archives to determine how McCarrick managed to climb the ladder of Catholic hierarchy despite allegations that he had abused both seminarians and younger priests.
The President of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, urged Francis to establish a more exhaustive investigation — called an “Apostolic Visitation” — of McCarrick’s crimes. This would be similar to the investigation that the Vatican approved recently in Chile, which helped lead to the resignation of almost all of its bishops.
More significant than the personalities involved in these allegations of misconduct, however, is the greater question of what the American Catholic Church can do to redeem its moral authority among its approximately 70 million lay faithful. What must the Church do to restore the trust of the billions of Christians and non-Christians around the world? How can the Vatican recalibrate its primary mission that every human’s ultimate and proper destination is union with the divine presence of God?
One thing Pope Francis should not do is resign — at least not immediately. Such a dramatic move might throw the Church into chaos and lead to a feeding frenzy by secular enemies of Catholicism and cynical media outlets. If, however, reports are verified that Francis, while Archbishop of Buenos Aires, defamed accusers of predator priests, refused to meet with them, and denied that any abuse occurred under his watch, then he may not possess the moral authority to cleanse the Church of predatory priests, and those who protected them, without resigning himself. These reports about the Pope’s tenure in Argentina were echoed in a cover story on Francis’s papacy raised in Der Spiegel, charging that there are currently 62 cases on trial in Argentina concerning allegations of clerical sex crimes.
While Francis is still Pope, he should first demand that any cleric or lay person guilty of sexual abuse or its cover-up resign immediately. The Vatican should then invite lay investigative authorities to review all allegations of criminal behavior, including any possible related blackmail activity. Only when innocent clergy, seminarians, and lay Catholics believe that a total eradication of inappropriate sexual activity within the Church’s hierarchical structure has occurred, will harmony be restored to the Church.
Such a purge is not likely to result in an open-season hunting period on homosexuals inside the church. The church teaching on homosexual behavior as immoral is likely to remain constant, but continued compassion towards those with a same-sex attraction is also likely. The Vatican, it seems, still needs to make a policy decision on whether to allow homosexual-oriented clergy. Paedophilia, on the other hand, needs to be treated with zero tolerance.
The Catholic Church, one of humanity’s oldest institutions in civilization, will endure. Moreover, its followers embrace as article of faith the words of Jesus that “the gates of hell will not prevail against it (the church).” All the same, to remain relevant in this contemporary moment, the Church would do well to draw open the curtains to let fresh air and new ideas into its hallowed halls.
The Vatican could convene a new Vatican Council where resolutions could be adopted to permit priests to marry and have children. In a world where women are increasingly recognized as equals before the law, such a council could also decree that female priests are permissible. These changes would be superficial and would not alter the eternal truths and dogma of the Catholic faith.
The Church needs to be revolutionary in action in a revolutionary era. Its high clerics must lead, not manage. It must not seek to be popular or even welcomed in the halls of state power. The Catholic Church needs to recast itself as the conscience of the world, although this could invite censure, even persecution, and risk alienation from secular authorities and some leaders of other religions over issues such as abortion, immigration, capital punishment, religious freedom, the equality of women, and freedom of conscience. The Church’s hierarchy must not shy away from confrontation with some of society’s materialistic, one-dimensional view of man.
If the papacy can regain its moral authority, it might also be able to rally Christians to the cause of defending Western civilization from religious totalitarian extremism, responsible for the martyrdom of hundreds of thousands of the faithful in recent decades — around 90,000 in 2016 alone.
The failure of the Vatican to posit a comprehensive rebuttal of Viganò’s allegations has seriously wounded this Papacy. The Pope’s indecision is sapping his once-wide international acclaim. His lack of exigency is characterized by his decision to wait until January before formally addressing the issue of sexual criminality among the clergy in front of Church’s bishops. There is also confusion and anger within the body of the Catholic faithful. If support for Francis continues to ebb, it will, and should, lead to his resignation as Pontiff.