It seems unlikely that semantic disagreements about Viganò's claims will lead Catholics to dismiss entirely the questions he has raised, implicitly and explicitly, about whether, and by whom, McCarrick’s situation was inadequately addressed or simply papered over.
Those are the precisely the questions for which Catholics have been seeking answers.
Many Catholics have asked this week why, if Benedict did respond in some way to the Viganò memos, he didn’t respond in a stronger fashion.
Benedict is well known to have a record of active intolerance for sexual misconduct in the Church. During his tenure leading the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, he led a charge to develop more stringent processes and penalties for clerics accused and convicted of abuse. He is known to have referred to sexually abusive priests as a “filth” in the Church.
Viganò says he reported that McCarrick had sexually coerced young priests and seminarians, publicly embarrassed at least one who would not acquiesce to his demands, and possibly committed related canonical crimes of sacrilege. Many Catholics assume that such a report would have caused Benedict to issue an immediate, public, and serious set of penalties. Taking a soft approach on McCarrick seems incongruous with his record.
The National Catholic Register reported last week week a source telling them that “as well as being very active, the media and public opinion didn’t speak any more about McCarrick, and sometimes it’s better if something is sleeping to let it sleep.” To many Catholics, such reasoning is unacceptable, and to many close observers, it doesn’t sound quite like Benedict.
Viganò’s report alleged that some of Benedict’s most powerful advisors shielded McCarrick from the pope. True or not, the allegation merits investigation as the former pope's action- or inaction- is reviewed and evaluated. So does Benedict's reputation for being non-confrontational as a manager, even to a fault.
Catholics have also asked why Francis, if he knew that McCarrick was reportedly sexually engaged with seminarians for decades, would make a him an important advisor and emissary.
To understand and assess the responses of Benedict and Francis to allegations about McCarrick, it is important to understand the canonical context in which those allegations were made.
Since 2002, all bishops in the United States have known exactly how to address an allegation that a cleric sexually abused a child. The procedure is uniform and clear, and bishops seem to understand the importance of following it precisely and promptly. But the manner in which allegations of sexual misconduct with adults are handled looks nothing like those clear procedures.
Church law does not expressly establish that sex between a cleric and an adult is a canonical crime. As a consequence, bishops everywhere find themselves vexed, and frequently, about how exactly they should handle allegations of clerical sexual misconduct involving adults- even in cases like McCarrick’s, where coercion is an operative factor.
Bishops often send priests accused of sexual misconduct involving adults to inpatient therapy, and it has become typical for bishops to unofficially and temporarily sideline priests who engage in sexual dalliances with adults, usually until the bishop is convinced that the priest has addressed whatever issues are believed to have contributed to his misconduct. But there is almost never a canonical process involved in such cases, and, at the moment, there is not even an obvious canonical crime with which most such priests could be charged.
Those practices might help to explain why Benedict didn’t act more publicly or directly on McCarrick. They might also explain, at least in part, why Francis was apparently able to be convinced that McCarrick had been reformed, and that he could be brought into the pontiff’s inner orbit.
That context is not offered as an excuse; most commentators on the matter argue compellingly that, whatever the context, both popes should have understood the seriousness of the situation. But it is possible that one or both of them did not, which is the reason why an investigation into all available records and testimonies would be of great help to the Church.
In the aftermath of the #MeToo movement, and the McCarrick revelations, it is now becoming clear to bishops and other Church leaders that priests and bishops are almost always in unbalanced relationship of power with other Catholics and so clerical sexual misconduct with adults should never be presumed to be consensual, as it often has been presumed to be in the past. And it is becoming especially clear to bishops that when the sexual partners of clerics are seminarians, “consent” is really not an operative or relevant principle.
As a result of what’s happened, some bishops are now beginning to understand that they need the same kinds of clear procedures for handling misconduct involving adults that they have for handling allegations involving children. The specifics might be different, but the importance of developing some kind of clearly delineated protocol is becoming obvious, mostly so that bishops can be nearly conditioned to handle them in appropriate manner each time they arise.
There remain Catholics who defend Benedict or Francis by arguing that since clerical sexual misconduct with adults is not always a canonical crime, bishops and popes are free to handle those matters as they wish. While that argument is technically correct, it is obvious that most Catholics expect bishops and popes to enact severe punitive measures for any kind of sexually coercive activities involving clerics and other adults. The U.S. bishops’ conference has the opportunity to lead on this matter at its November meeting, since it is unlikely anything will come from the Vatican on the matter before that.
In fact, several sources tell CNA that the most likely long-term outcome of this summer of scandal is a universalized protocol for handling allegations of clerical sexual misconduct or abuse involving adults.
A review of the responses from Benedict and Francis to allegations about McCarrick seems to be a reasonable response to the Viganò testimonial.
Viganò says that he warned Francis about McCarrick, informing him that Benedict had restricted his ministry, but he claims the pope ignored those warnings and drew McCarrick into his inner circle, allowing him to influence key episcopal appointments in the United States. Journalist David Gibson in 2014 wrote about McCarrick’s restored place of importance in the Francis pontificate, and Rocco Palmo wrote in 2017, before McCarrick allegations became public, that the cardinal had been influential in at least one major U.S. episcopal appointment.
If Francis did knowingly place into a position of influence a cardinal who was alleged to have sexually abused priests and seminarians, the Church should know about it, and know who helped to influence that decision. It seems immaterial to Francis’ position whether Benedict imposed formal sanctions on McCarrick, made a “private request,” or something happened in between. No pope is bound by the administrative decisions of his predecessor, and, as with Benedict, a full review of Francis’ response to the allegations against McCarrick seems appropriate.
Viganò alleges that a number of documents related to these questions can be found in several different Vatican archives. Some journalists, including CNA’s reporters, have begun requesting those documents. But again, it remains to be seen whether they’ll be made available.
The big-picture of Viganò’s memo is that Benedict, Francis, and other Vatican officials may have mishandled allegations raised to them about McCarrick. That big-picture is not changed if Viganò did not accurately convey Benedict's actions on the matter.
There could be important lessons to be learned by a thorough review of Viganò’s claims, whatever the outcome. But, as a surprise to almost no one, the archbishop's memo has mostly been reduced to a cudgel to be used in the ideological culture wars that divide U.S. Catholics. Viganò has been attacked relentlessly, and his credibility has been impugned far beyond those criticisms supported by evidence. Cardinals and bishops have called Viganò's claims a distraction, and some prominent Catholics have openly called the former nuncio a liar.
Catholics of all theological perspectives could do justice for abuse victims through an unbiased investigation of facts. Viganò's memo raises questions that, whatever the answers, seem to merit serious inquiries. It remains to be seen whether those opposing such an investigation, including some prominent bishops and cardinals, will relent, or at least better articulate their positions. It also remains to be seen whether Pope Francis will support such an investigation, making files available, and breaking his silence on Viganò’s story.