As the drama of the Viganò testimony continues, two competing interpretations have developed regarding whether Viganò’s most important accusations have been discredited or substantiated. Since the initial document was released on August 22, Viganò has released two additional “testimonies,” and Cardinal Marc Ouellet issued an impassioned response with papal approval on October 7.

Catholic pundits seem to be at odds over whether Viganò’s core allegations hold up against the factual record, and whether Pope Francis took an active role in allowing then-Cardinal McCarrick to appear in public and to publicly exercise ministry.

I’ve been criticized for describing the two sides as “Team Francis” and “Team Viganò,” but it’s an unfortunate, unavoidable fact that opinions on this issue are drawn along ideological lines. Those commentators and journalists who have criticized Pope Francis for Amoris Laetitia and the recent changes to the Catechism on the death penalty have (predictably) argued that evidence has affirmed Viganò’s main charges. Those inclined to support Francis and give him the benefit of the doubt believe that the most important of Viganò’s accusations against Francis have not been proven, and that the record has shown that there are major inaccuracies in Viganò’s testimony, casting doubt on his credibility.

For “team Viganò,” these now seem to be the most important allegations:

  1. Then-Cardinal McCarrick was placed under some type of sanctions in 2010 or earlier by Pope Benedict, because McCarrick was known to have engaged in predatory behavior with seminarians in the past.
  2. Cardinal Viganò informed Pope Francis of these restrictions in June 2013 in a private meeting.
  3. Francis ignored or lifted these sanctions and made Cardinal McCarrick a key advisor, despite knowing that he was a sexual predator.

“Team Francis” responds with the following:

1. While it appears that McCarrick was given private verbal instructions (not formal canonical sanctions, which was Viganò’s original claim) in 2007 (not 2009-10, as Viganò’s original testimony asserted) to keep a low profile, these restrictions had very little impact on McCarrick’s activity prior to 2013. He appeared at numerous public events, under the noses of both Benedict and Viganò, with Viganò even caught on camera praising McCarrick and kissing him on the cheek. He also continued to travel, make public appearances, ordain priests for religious orders, and attend USCCB meetings.

In short, whatever restrictions were imposed had little to no effect on McCarrick’s activities during Benedict’s papacy.
Cardinal Ouellet, in his letter to Viganò, asserts that McCarrick,

had been requested not to travel or to make public appearances, in order to avoid new rumors about him. It is false, therefore, to present those measures as “sanctions” formally imposed by Pope Benedict XVI and then invalidated by Pope Francis. After a review of the archives, I find that there are no documents signed by either Pope in this regard, and there are no audience notes from my predecessor, Cardinal Giovanni-Battista Re, imposing on the retired Archbishop the obligation to lead a quiet and private life with the weight normally reserved to canonical penalties.

Ouellet then spells out the main reason for the informal request (as opposed to formal sanctions):

Back then, unlike today, there was not sufficient proof of his alleged culpability. Thus, the Congregation’s decision was inspired by prudence, and the letters from my predecessor and my own letters urged him, first through the Apostolic Nuncio Pietro Sambi and then through you, to lead a life of prayer and penance, for his own good and for the good of the Church.

2. Regarding the second point, that Viganò told Francis about McCarrick, a key fact is that this was a verbal exchange. Viganò does not claim to have reported allegations to Francis in detail. Nor does he claim to have provided documentary proof of canonical sanctions (because they weren’t formal canonical sanctions). In essence, Viganò repeated the rumors that had long circulated around McCarrick.

Certainly, by not investigating this further or ignoring the rumors about McCarrick, Pope Francis made an error in judgement. No one is denying this. Still, McCarrick is known to have denied the rumors when asked about them, and even the out-of-court settlements against him did not contain admissions of guilt.

3. In retrospect, we see clearly that the McCarrick case was mishandled for decades. His case was mishandled by Pope John Paul II, who promoted him in Metuchen, Newark, and Washington, and made him a cardinal. It was mishandled by Pope Benedict XVI, who issued restrictions on McCarrick that were both insufficient and unenforced. It was mishandled by Viganò, who was an eyewitness to the fact that McCarrick ignored his restrictions during his five years as papal nuncio, yet did not feel a responsibility to speak up until two years after he retired. And it was mishandled by Pope Francis, who allowed McCarrick to continue his public life until a substantiated allegation of abuse of a minor was brought to him. Finally, at that point, he took decisive action.

Cardinal Ouellet addresses the culpability of the popes that promoted and enabled McCarrick:

“It must be understood that the decisions taken by the Supreme Pontiff are based on the information available to him at the time and that they are the object of a prudential judgment which is not infallible. I think it is unjust to reach the conclusion that there is corruption on the part of the persons entrusted with this previous discernment process, even though in the particular case some of the concerns that were raised by testimonies should have been examined more closely.”

The point is that McCarrick eluded justice for decades. Pope Francis inherited a situation that should have been resolved years before he became pope. Additionally, we have no idea what files Francis was shown once he became pope, and we don’t know who else advised him about McCarrick.

Even if Francis regarded McCarrick as a friend and trusted advisor (and the degree to which that is true is uncertain), that doesn’t mean that Francis intentionally rehabilitated someone he knew to be a sexual predator. It’s possible that McCarrick lied to him about his past, or that–absent concrete proof–Francis didn’t believe the rumors about him.

We all know how Francis feels about gossip:

“Gossip always carries within a criminal dimension.” (Source)

“It’s so rotten, gossip. At the beginning, it seems to be something enjoyable and fun, like a piece of candy. But at the end, it fills the heart with bitterness and also poisons us.” (Source)

“The gossip is a ‘terrorist’ who throws a grenade – chatter – in order to destroy” (Source)

“Gossip is like a bomb. One throws it, it causes destruction and you walk away tranquilly.” (Source)

“Gossip is not a work of the Holy Spirit, it is not a work of the unity of the church. Gossip destroys the work of God. Please stop gossiping.” (Source)

The problem with gossip is that it sometimes turns out to be true. In the case of McCarrick, the rumors were grounded in reality.

The pivotal question is whether Francis wilfully promoted someone that he knew was a predator. Since all of the restrictions went into effect before he became pope (and were subsequently ignored), it’s unclear what he was informed about, what rumors was he aware of, and what he knew and understood about the restrictions against McCarrick.

Since it is clear from the public record that both Benedict and Vigano did very little to enforce the sanctions from 2006-2013 (their public praise and appearances with McCarrick while he was under sanctions is quite scandalous if Viganò’s claims are true), to what degree should we hold Francis responsible for not enforcing them either?

No one is saying that it’s a good thing that Francis might have been friendly towards McCarrick or treated him as a friend, or relied on his advice. As I mentioned above, we don’t know exactly what role, if any, McCarrick played in Francis’s decisions as pope. Regardless of whatever role McCarrick played in the early part of Francis’s papacy, we simply do not know what Francis knew.

And this is where preconceived notions take the place of objective analysis. Those who believe Pope Francis is malicious, dishonest, or evil think, “Of course he knew! How could he not? He’s been caught red handed!” Those of us inclined to think favorably upon Francis are willing to extend the benefit of the doubt. We think Francis likely did not believe the rumors about McCarrick, and therefore treated him as the cardinal-in-good-standing that he was.

The reasonable explanation is that Francis made a grievous error in judgment about McCarrick’s character, and that he possibly followed bad advice or was misled about his case. This speaks to institutional failure rather than malicious intent on his part. That’s a lot less malicious than what he’s been accused of by Viganò. And, lest we forget, once Francis was presented with credible and substantiated allegations against McCarrick, he acted decisively.
The most serious charge, one that Viganò and the available documentation have not proven, is that Francis granted favors and sought the advice of someone he knew was a sexual predator. What we do know for certain is that McCarrick was promoted and not effectively sanctioned by three consecutive popes, until he was finally removed from ministry and stripped of his cardinal’s hat by Pope Francis this year.

A full investigation of McCarrick’s records might be useful in helping us to understand why he was promoted and why it took so many years to publicly expose him. But an investigation will likely never reveal why his case was neglected, ignored, or overlooked by so many in the hierarchy.

It is good that the truth about McCarrick has come to light. It has exposed systemic, institutional failures and provides the Church with an opportunity to implement much-needed reforms. But for reforms to be effective, they need to be free of the polarization that infects Viganò’s writing and many of the commentators who see this as nothing more than an opportunity to take down Pope Francis.

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Mike Lewis is the founding managing editor of Where Peter Is. He and Jeannie Gaffigan co-host Field Hospital, a U.S. Catholic podcast.

A Church at odds over Viganò’s “core charges”
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