What Pope Francis can clarify about the Vigano testimony- and what he can't

CNA 5b2ab1f99639d 144522 Pope Francis at a General Audience in Rome, June 2018. | CNA

It has been more than two weeks since the former papal nuncio to the United States, Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, released his 11-page "testimony" concerning what he called the "heart-breaking case of the Archbishop Emeritus of Washington, D.C., Theodore McCarrick."

While neither Pope Francis nor any senior curial cardinals have directly addressed Viganò's claims, or spoken substantively on the ongoing McCarrick scandal, on Sept. 10 a statement from the C9 Council of Cardinals suggested that "the Holy See is about to formulate any necessary clarifications"

What exactly will be "clarified" is not yet clear, but it seems that the Vatican will address the accusation that Pope Francis "covered up" allegations of sexual abuse against McCarrick - even though this was not specifically alleged by Archbishop Viganò.

Until Rome speaks, questions will continue to be asked about Archbishop McCarrick's rise through the hierarchy, and it seems clear that calls for some measure of "full disclosure" from the Church hierarchy will continue.

To that end, some efforts have been made to substantiate the more definite claims made by Viganò about how McCarrick's case developed and what was done, or not done, to address allegations made against him.

Fr. Boniface Ramsey, a former professor at the Newark seminary housed at Seton Hall University, has publicly stated that he sent a letter to the apostolic nuncio, Archbishop Gabriel Montalvo, shortly after McCarrick was appointed Archbishop of Washington in 2000.

In his letter, Fr. Ramsey specifically related accounts he had heard from his students of McCarrick sharing his bed with seminarians. Vigano's testimony states that Ramsey's letter, which went officially unacknowledged, was forwarded to Rome and studied by curial authorities there.

Last week, it emerged that in 2006 Cardinal Leonardo Sandri, then an archbishop and serving as the "substitute" or second highest official at the Secretariat of State, sent Ramsey a letter which made direct reference to his 2000 letter concerning Newark seminarians.

While questions remain about why Ramsey's concerns were not acknowledged or acted upon at the time, Sandri's letter appears to at least vindicate that portion of Viganò's narrative, although it does not directly state what precisely Ramsey reported to the Vatican in 2000.

Yet the overall credibility of Viganò's statement has been called into question because, in addition to asserting what he claimed were facts about the McCarrick case, Viganò speculated about the knowledge and motives of various curial cardinals in several sections of the text. The sometimes stark juxtaposition of fact and speculation has led many to question Viganò's motivations, and to discount his text as a whole.

A considerable amount of Viganò's conjecture concerned the question of how McCarrick came to be promoted to the Archdiocese of Washington, despite indications that at least some accounts of his behavior in New Jersey had made it to Rome. The archbishop suggested that Cardinal Angelo Sodano, Vatican Secretary of State until 2006, may have been instrumental in McCarrick's advancement.

Viganò's testimonial asserted that Sodano played a key role in defending Marcial Maciel, the founder of the Legionaries of Christ who was later revealed to be a serial sexual abuser. The archbishop speculated that "if Sodano had protected Maciel, as seems certain, there is no reason why he wouldn't have done so for McCarrick, who according to many had the financial means to influence decisions."

No evidence, or even firsthand knowledge is presented by Viganò for this supposition, though McCarrick's abilities as a prolific fundraiser were well-known.

While McCarrick was able to produce sizable donations for everything from the Papal Foundation to individual projects in dioceses around the world, the financial support he offered could also be quite personal.

"When he would visit Rome, Cardinal McCarrick was well-known for handing out envelopes of money to different bishops and cardinals around the curia to thank them for their work," a curial cardinal recently told CNA. "Where these 'honoraria' came from or what they were for, exactly, was never clear – but many accepted them anyway." 


When he was promoted, McCarrick was seen by many as a surprise choice for the Archdiocese of Washington, and it is clear that his promotion would have had its share of supporters and opponents in Rome.

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Viganò alleged that McCarrick's move to Washington in 2000 was strongly opposed by the then head of the Congregation for Bishops, Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re. He claimed that files in the nunciature in Washington contain a handwritten note from Re in which he "dissociates himself from the appointment and states that McCarrick was 14th on the list for Washington."

While no serving or former curial cardinals have been willing to publicly address the subject, sources inside the Congregation for Bishops and other Vatican departments have confirmed to CNA that files held on Archbishop McCarrick do contain records of those who pressed for and against McCarrick's advancement. Though unconfirmed, one source told CNA that there is a written record of Battista Re's objections.

Clarity on who supported and opposed his appointment would go a long way to shedding light on how McCarrick was able to advance so far in the hierarchy of the Church.


While the circumstances of McCarrick's elevation to Washington present important questions, it is Viganò's account of what happened after McCarrick retired in 2006 that continues to generate the most controversy.

According to Viganò, as accusations from McCarrick's past continued to surface, Pope Benedict eventually imposed "canonical sanctions" on him. These, Viganò claimed, included an order to leave the seminary where he was living and to withdraw from public life.

Because Viganò has insisted that they were imposed by Pope Benedict and deliberately lifted by Pope Francis shortly after his election, the existence, timing, and nature of these "canonical sanctions" has become central to the archbishop's credibility.

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Viganò claimed that he was first informally informed of these sanctions by Cardinal Battista Re, but he is unaware of the year they were imposed, placing it in either 2009 or 2010. He also said he was officially told of them when he was made nuncio to the United States in 2011, being briefed by Cardinal Marc Ouellet, Re's successor as head of the Congregation for Bishops.

Neither cardinal has spoken out to confirm or deny Vigano's account.

The nuncio's statement claimed that the sanctions were communicated to McCarrick by Viganò's predecessor in Washington, Archbishop Pietro Sambi, who died in office in 2011. In support of this, Viganò cited Monsignor Jean-François Lantheaume, a former Vatican diplomat who served in Washington under both Sambi and Vigano.

Viganò said that, on his arrival in Washington in 2011, Lantheaume told him of a charged meeting between McCarrick and Sambi, during which the nuncio's voice could be heard "all the way out in the corridor."

Lantheaume has declined to comment publicly on the matter, beyond stating that "Viganò said the truth."

CNA reported in August that two sources confirmed a 2008 meeting between Archbishop Sambi and McCarrick, in which McCarrick was ordered to leave the Redemptoris Mater Archdiocesan Seminary where he was living in a self-contained apartment.

This order was given, according to those sources, at the express instruction of Pope Benedict XVI.

On Sept. 10, Italian newspaper La Stampa also reported that McCarrick was told to leave the seminary at the behest of Benedict, dating that directive as early as 2007.

In further support of the existence of restrictions placed on McCarrick, Viganò's testimonial said that Cardinal Donald Wuerl was also aware of the instructions given to McCarrick. Recalling a specific instance where Wuerl intervened to cancel an event McCarrick was scheduled to hold for young men discerning a vocation to the priesthood, Viganò said that it was "immediately clear" to him that Wuerl was fully aware of McCarrick's situation.

For his part, Cardinal Wuerl has denied receiving any "documentation or information from the Holy See specific to Cardinal McCarrick's behavior or any of the prohibitions on his life and ministry suggested by Archbishop Viganò."

Wuerl has also categorically denied that he was ever provided "any information regarding the reasons for Cardinal McCarrick's exit from the Redemptoris Mater Seminary," despite McCarrick subsequently moving into an archdiocesan rectory which was extensively renovated to accommodate him.

Regarding the cancellation of the event at which McCarrick was due to appear, Wuerl's spokesman confirmed the cardinal had intervened but said that "Viganò presumed that Wuerl had specific information that Wuerl did not have."

Meanwhile, numerous media reports have highlighted public appearances made by McCarrick after the supposed imposition of these restrictions, including being publicly greeted by Pope Benedict. These, together McCarrick's subsequent move back into a different seminary in the Washington Archdiocese appear to argue against a true "penalty" having been imposed and enforced upon McCarrick.

On balance, Viganò's claim that some kind of restriction was imposed on McCarrick appears to have been at least partially substantiated - the clear and consistent accounts that McCarrick was ordered out of the Redemptoris Mater Seminary, together with the cancelled vocational event, suggest at least some measures being taken to keep him away from seminarians. Yet McCarrick's continued public schedule strikes many commentators as evidence that whatever instructions were given to him were informal and not strictly enforced.

Some are now speculating that, rather than the "canonical sanctions" Viganò claimed were placed upon McCarrick, Pope Benedict merely requested, albeit insistently, that McCarrick leave the seminary and take a step back from public life. But the distance between "canonical sanctions" and what La Stampa theorizes could have been an "authoritative recommendation" is not necessarily as wide as many suppose.

Following his initial testimony, Viganò's claim that Pope Benedict imposed  "canonical sanctions" was widely challenged. He subsequently clarified that he was not certain what kind of paperwork may or may not have accompanied these restrictions when they were imposed.

"What I don't know is if [Archbishop] Sambi also communicated in writing the measures taken by Pope Benedict to both McCarrick and Cardinal Wuerl. Certainly, he did so in person, summoning McCarrick to the nunciature, as I have stated."

While there is a common assumption that for an action or canonical order to have effect, it must be delivered in a formal and public manner, this is not necessarily the case.

Accounts of McCarrick's immoral behavior with seminarians and priests, while certainly sinful, may not necessarily have been enough to launch a full-scale canonical prosecution. But in cases where a person is suspected of having done something immoral, or of posing a future risk, a precept is often issued. A precept is essentially an authoritative canonical instruction to do or not do something; it often includes direction on where a cleric must live.

Precepts are authoritative canonical measures, even if handled discreetly. They are frequently employed in dioceses when a bishop wishes to take preventative or limiting action against a priest, but is not able to bring canonical charges.

If a precept were issued in McCarrick's case, it could well have been communicated to him verbally by Archbishop Sambi. But even if McCarrick - or anyone else informed of the matter - was not given documentation, some record of the precept and its communication to McCarrick would be kept on file somewhere, almost certainly at the Congregation for Bishops.

CNA has spoken with several curial officials who said that McCarrick could have received such restrictions from the Congregation for Bishops. One senior curial official told CNA that "just because someone isn't handed a decree doesn't mean it didn't happen."


The nature of any limitations placed on McCarrick, and the reasons for them, bears immediately upon two people singled out by Viganò in his "testimony."

The first of these is Cardinal Wuerl. If evidence were to emerge that he was, as Viganò has claimed, aware of restrictions of any kind placed on McCarrick as early as 2011 or before, it would contradict several categorical denials made by the cardinal that he had any reason to suspect McCarrick prior to the investigation in conducted by the Archdiocese of New York beginning in 2017.

In addition to the damage it would do to his personal credibility, such a revelation would also raise serious questions about Wuerl's lack of concern about McCarrick's living arrangements during retirement, including his moving onto the grounds of the Institute of the Incarnate Word (IVE) seminary on the outskirts of Washington, despite having already been moved out of the Redemptoris Mater seminary.

Most crucially, it would call into immediate question why Wuerl did not intervene despite knowing McCarrick had been assigned two seminarians by the IVE to act as his personal staff.

The second person singled out by Archbishop Vigano is, of course, Pope Francis.

Viganò claimed that in the first weeks of his pontificate, Francis acted to rehabilitate McCarrick. He also said that he expressly warned the pope about the contents of McCarrick's file, the "sanctions" imposed by Pope Benedict, and that he had "corrupted generations of seminarians and priests." In spite of this, according to Viganò, McCarrick was given an influential voice in selecting bishops for promotion.

Without clarity on exactly what allegations were contained in McCarrick's file, or how they were responded to under Benedict, it is difficult to assess whether Francis really did give McCarrick a dramatic rehabilitation - or against what kind of evidence.


Viganò ended his testimony by calling for the pope to resign, both for his alleged part in allowing McCarrick back into public life and influence in the Church, and as an example to other bishops who should be held accountable for covering up for McCarrick over the years.

Many working in the curia have expressed quiet sympathy for Viganò's outrage at the substance of his claims. But for many curial officials, sympathy evaporated after the archbishop called upon the pope to resign.

"You cannot do this," one curial archbishop told CNA. "You advise, you warn, you even admonish if it is so serious. But you do not dictate to Peter, this is fundamental."

"We are speaking of the Vicar of Christ, not the mayor of Rome" another curial staffer told CNA. "If you attack the authority of the pope, you touch the spine of the Church."

Of course, a pope can resign, and some commentators have argued that suggesting the pope resign is not necessarily an act of disobedience. Nevertheless, papal resignations are historical aberrations, as are former senior officials breaking ranks to call for them. In the curialist culture of Rome, Viganò's act is seen as an affront to an entire understanding of how the Church functions.

Indeed, while Viganò's intervention succeeded in drawing attention and debate to the McCarrick case, his direct call for the pope to resign seems to have become the single largest distraction from it.

Instead of renewed scrutiny about how McCarrick was able to rise so far in the hierarchy, and return to influence even after action was apparently taken against him, focus has now shifted to Vigano's apparent challenge to papal authority.

As long as the focus of the scandal remains on the pope's position, that will be the priority of any forthcoming Roman response, making even more remote the chances of a meaningful Vatican investigation into Viganò's other assertions.

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