Ouellet’s unexpected intervention was a response to the most recent open letter from former apostolic nuncio Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, who has – for good or for ill – driven much of the ongoing pressure on the hierarchy to come clean about the handling of McCarrick’s case.
Following the announcement of a credible allegation against McCarrick in June, questions about the archbishop were urgent but practically rhetorical; it was unclear who would be responsible for answering them. That changed with Viganò’s Aug. 25 release of a “testimony” claiming that McCarrick’s behavior had been known to Roman authorities for years, during this pontificate and the two preceding it.
As part of that “testimony” Viganò called for Francis to resign, and that call has colored almost all engagement with the substance of his narrative. This has proven to be a double-edged sword, both for him and for those exclusively concerned with investigating the ways in which McCarrick was allowed to escape detection and punishment for so long.
On the one hand, by laying at least a measure of the responsibility for McCarrick at the feet of the pope, Viganò has ensured that public interest in and scrutiny of the case has endured, even after McCarrick was sent into a life of prayer and penance.
On the other hand, by attacking the pope openly and directly, Viganò has gone beyond the pale, in the eyes of many figures in the hierarchy and nearly everyone in the curia. As a result, Rome has framed his claims as primarily a challenge to papal authority, and only secondarily as a revelation about the McCarrick scandal.
It was in this order that Ouellet responded to Viganò’s latest letter. However, the cardinal’s Oct. 7 letter to Viganò actually does clarify what the Church knew about McCarrick, and how it responded. It also seems to at least partially substantiate some of Viganò’s claims.
The most incendiary aspects of Viganò’s allegations concern what he says happened after McCarrick retired as Washington’s archbishop in 2006.
In his Aug. 25 letter, Viganò said Pope Benedict imposed in 2009 or 2010 canonical “sanctions” on McCarrick. As part of these supposed “sanctions,” McCarrick was directed “to leave the seminary where he was living, he was forbidden to celebrate Mass in public, to participate in public meetings, to give lectures, to travel, [and] with the obligation of dedicating himself to a life of prayer and penance.”
The extent and formality with which these “sanctions” were imposed has become a crucial line of inquiry: first, because the imposition of formal sanctions would indicate the gravity of what the Vatican knew about McCarrick at the time; and second, because the extent to which they were enforced – or not – could seem to indicate either an implicit tolerance for McCarrick’s behavior, or even his rehabilitation.
The possibility that McCarrick was censured and then restored to a position of influence by Pope Francis is the central and most dramatic allegation made by Viganò. The archbishop has insisted that Francis bears immediate and personal responsibility for either shielding or elevating McCarrick, despite knowledge about his past predatory behavior.
On the surface, Ouellet appeared to refute Viganò, saying that no “sanctions” were imposed upon McCarrick. He wrote that it is “false” to present measures taken against McCarrick as “‘sanctions’ formally imposed by Pope Benedict XVI and then invalidated by Pope Francis.” Ouellet said that having searched the archives of the Congregation for Bishops he found “no documents signed by either pope in this regard.”
The cardinal focused on denying that Pope Benedict formally imposed sanctions – that is canonical penalties – and that Pope Francis lifted these penalties. But in doing so, he confirmed that something was done about McCarrick, and far earlier than had been previously confirmed by the Vatican.
(Story continues below)
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In his letter to Viganò, Ouellet wrote that “the written instructions given to you by the Congregation for Bishops at the beginning of your mission [to Washington] in 2011 did not say anything about McCarrick, except for what I mentioned to you verbally about his situation as bishop emeritus and certain conditions and restrictions that he had to follow on account of some rumors about his past conduct.”
In that sentence Ouellet confirmed that some “conditions and restrictions” had been imposed on McCarrick by Rome, that notice of these was communicated verbally and in writing by the Congregation for Bishops to Viganò prior to his arrival in D.C., and that these were linked to allegations – called “rumors” – concerning his past conduct. Those are not minor details.
Ouellet’s letter, officially released by the Vatican, has essentially confirmed three very large “somethings” – that during McCarrick’s retirement Rome knew “something” of the allegations against him, did “something” about it, and told “something” of that to Viganò to prepare him for his arrival in Washington.
Ouellet also wrote that “conditions and restrictions” were communicated to McCarrick through “letters from my predecessor and my own letters… first through the Apostolic Nuncio Pietro Sambi and then through [Viganò].”
In that light, Viganò’s second-hand account of a stormy meeting between McCarrick and Sambi, during which the terms of McCarrick’s “conditions and restrictions” were communicated appears to gain credibility.
CNA reported in August that McCarrick was in 2008 ordered out of the seminary in which he was living by Sambi, but that McCarrick was slow to leave.