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.
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.
On the other hand, it appears increasingly less credible that the measures against McCarrick were "canonical sanctions." Ouellet wrote that formal sanctions could not possibly have been imposed by Pope Benedict and that "the reason is that back then, unlike today, there was not sufficient proof of his alleged culpability."
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Still, Ouellet's letter made clear that McCarrick was directed to lead a life of prayer and penance. While he said this would not have been a canonical penalty, it might well have been a precept- a canonically binding directive to do, or not do, something specific. It might have been even a less formal kind of exhortation. The form of the instructions given to McCarrick is not yet clear, and Ouellet's letter does not clarify it.
Ouellet's account does, however, give some indication as to what Vatican officials might have believed to be true about the archbishop, even while they were lacking probative evidence.
Ouellet wrote that McCarrick was urged "to lead a life of prayer and penance, for his own good and for the good of the Church." One does not urge penance on someone not believed to be guilty of something. Similarly, noting that McCarrick's departure from public life was "for the good of the Church" indicates that there was a concern that his behavior could provoke, as it eventually did, a major scandal.
While the public dispute about whether McCarrick's "conditions and restrictions" were imposed informally or via a precept may strike many as a lawyerly quibble, the difference is important: how Pope Benedict handled McCarrick's case helps to explain how Francis is alleged to have regarded the archbishop.
Simply put, Viganò charges that Francis restored to prominence a man placed under serious and formal penalties. Ouellet's account refutes that account. Clearly McCarrick was the subject of restrictions during his retirement and both Viganò and Ouellet knew about them. But since the form of those restrictions is not clear, it is still impossible to know what Pope Francis actually knew about McCarrick, and how he responded to that information.