The Catholic Church is confronting a series of interconnected scandals so shameful that its very survival is threatened. Pope Francis himself is accused of covering up the activities of one of the nastiest sexual predators ever to wear a cardinal’s hat: his close ally Theodore McCarrick, the retired Archbishop of Washington, DC.
Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI are also implicated; they did nothing, or almost nothing, while McCarrick was seducing every seminarian he could get his hands on. (‘Hide the pretty ones!’ they used to say when he visited seminaries.) Yet powerful cardinals kept quiet and are now suspected of lying their heads off after McCarrick’s crimes were recently made public.
McCarrick is the world’s only ex-cardinal. He was forced to resign in July when sexual abuse allegations against him were found to be ‘creditable and substantiated’ by American church authorities. But now the Pope is also being urged to step down — by his own former apostolic nuncio to the United States. Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò says he told Francis in 2013 that McCarrick had ‘corrupted generations of priests and seminarians’. The Pope ignored him and lifted sanctions that Benedict, who’d been told the same thing, had imposed.
It’s not clear what these sanctions were: they don’t seem to have been as severe as Viganò claims and in any case McCarrick ignored the enfeebled Benedict. What’s certain is that Francis rehabilitated this disgusting old man, sending him swanning round the world as his emissary. Viganò also claims that McCarrick — a sanctimonious ‘progressive’ who, when he wasn’t unbuttoning cassocks, was wringing his hands over climate change — persuaded the Pope to promote his liberal protégés.
Meanwhile, last month a Pennsylvania grand jury lifted the lid on hundreds of abuse cases. Most of the accused priests are now dead. You could argue that things are different now. Since the US bishops issued new guidelines in Dallas in 2002, the incidence of abuse has fallen sharply. But there’s a catch. Bishops were exempted from the so-called Dallas Charter. Which was convenient for its author: Cardinal McCarrick — or ‘Uncle Ted’, as he invited his victims to call him as he groped them in his beach house.
If you’ve read all this in the newspapers, you must have been keeping a pretty close eye on the story: the coverage has been fragmentary, to say the least. Cardinals close to the Pope are terrified, waiting for bombs to go off. For the time being, however, they are one step ahead of media outlets — not difficult, given that (for reasons we’ll come to) the media aren’t chasing them.
Here, then, is my attempt at a brief overview of the two main issues.
First, there’s the collapse of the moral authority of the US bishops. They let a sexual abuser write their guidelines on dealing with sexual abuse — at a time when, we now learn, he had already faced scandalous and serious accusations.
Cardinal Donald Wuerl, the current Archbishop of Washington, says he knew nothing of his predecessor’s serial abuse. That’s odd, given that even his janitor could have told him. And what about Cardinal Joseph Tobin, given a red hat by Francis before his surprise appointment as Archbishop of Newark? In 2016, the Vatican journalist Rocco Palmo reported that McCarrick got Tobin the job; Viganò agrees. Yet McCarrick’s sins were news to Tobin.
Cardinal Kevin Farrell, who previously worked for McCarrick, told the press he was ‘livid’ that he, too, was ‘kept in the dark’. For six years he shared an apartment with Ted in Washington and he didn’t suspect a thing. Such naivety is touching, but perhaps a handicap if, like Farrell, you’re running the Vatican’s department for family life. Indeed, Farrell’s claim is so implausible that Italian journalists are openly mocking him. It’s also been noted that when he acquired a coat of arms, Farrell incorporated a tribute to Ted McCarrick into it.
Second, there are Viganò’s allegations against Francis. His testimony has its contradictions and hyperbole — but when, on his flight back from Ireland, the Pope was given the chance to deny that Viganò told him about McCarrick, he refused to comment. As a result, Catholics don’t know whether the Vicar of Christ willingly revived the career of a sexual predator, thus putting idealistic seminarians at risk. Perhaps they should be reminded that Francis invited the disgraced Cardinal Danneels of Belgium to his synod on the family. In 2010, Danneels was recorded telling a young man to shut up about being abused by a bishop who was also the young man’s uncle. Three years later, Danneels was also one of the cardinals who lobbied to make Jorge Bergoglio pope.
There are other cases of Francis ignoring gross allegations about his allies. Moreover, the duplicitous pontiff depicted by Viganò is instantly recognisable as the cynical, backstabbing Bergoglio in Henry Sire’s book The Dictator Pope, which — though profoundly hostile to its subject — is based on first-hand testimony from Argentina and Rome. Every Catholic should read it. Why do so many churchmen who knew Bergoglio regard him as a backstabbing cynic? And why does he refuse to set foot in his native country? Forthcoming revelations may enlighten us.
Finally, hardcore papal loyalists known as Team Francis are engaging in Nixonian black ops intended to discredit Viganò and anyone who believes him. Their task is made easier by the fact that the Pope’s critics include anti-gay conspiracy theorists; these can be hard to distinguish from non-bigoted Catholics who quite reasonably suspect that predatory gay clergy conspired to protect each other.
But the team’s one priceless asset is the mainstream media. Since editors no longer employ religious correspondents, and tend to be secular in their outlooks, they are happy to believe that the negative stories against the ‘progressive’ Francis are part of a right-wing conspiracy because he has said kind things about gays and divorce.
Where are the Catholics who support a gentler line on divorce and homosexuality but who, having reviewed the evidence, think Francis is unfit to occupy the See of Peter? Liberal Catholicism, for now, appears to have been hijacked by ‘Francisism’, a cult-like devotion to this pontiff that absolves him of all his sins, rather as he absolves those of his allies.
Team Francis are confident that their man won’t resign. He’s basically a Peron-ist, and they don’t go quietly. And even if conservatives forced him to announce his departure, church law says popes can’t be compelled to resign. ‘It would take only one or two diehard Francis cardinals to refuse to accept a successor on those grounds, and we’d be back to popes and antipopes,’ says a canon lawyer.
On the other hand, if Francis’s opponents reluctantly agree to sit out the reign of ‘a bad pope’, there are many ways of pulling up the drawbridge. They’ll pray for him at Mass but otherwise ignore his directives. The number of priests and, increasingly, bishops ready to do this is growing all the time. In that respect, the pontificate of ‘The Great Reformer’ has already ended in failure; whether it also ends in disgrace remains to be seen.
This article was originally published in The Spectator magazine.