It’s been more than two weeks now since a former papal ambassador in the U.S. leveled his bombshell charge that Pope Francis knew about sexual misconduct allegations against ex-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick and ignored them, promoting that former ambassador to call on Pope Francis to resign.
Asked about that charge when it first appeared, Pope Francis vowed that “I won’t say a word,” suggesting that journalists look into it for themselves and draw their own conclusions.
Since that time, neither the pope nor the Vatican’s spokesmen have had anything to say about the accusation. Of course, that hasn’t stopped the pope’s biggest allies and fans from having plenty to say, most of it disparager toward the accuser and his supporter, but as far as official commentary goes, the silence has been deafening.
That strategy has held even after Italian Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, the former ambassador, was back at it, accusing the pope and his team of lying about the circumstances of a September 2015 private meeting between Pope Francis and Kim Davis, the former Kentucky county clerk who garnered 15 minutes of fame for refusing to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples and was briefly jailed.
When that story broke, Vatican spokespersons scrambled to put distance between the pope and Davis, suggesting the encounter was all Archbishop Viganò’s idea and Pope Francis didn’t even know who he was meeting. Archbishop Viganò has vigorously contested that claim, saying he’d personally briefed both the pope and two of his top aides the night before.
Once again there’s been no official reaction, though two former Vatican spokesmen put out a set of notes suggesting that the archbishop left out some key details and, in any event, it doesn’t change the fact that he should have had a better sense of how such a meeting would play out.
In all this, the obvious question is: Why is the pope keeping mum? His moral credibility on the child abuse issue has been called into question by a former senior aide, which, one would think, would give him powerful incentive to set the record straight.
At one level, it’s possible to give a purely PR answer: Right now, anyway, the silence seems to be working, since in its vacuum various questions have arisen about just how seriously one ought to take Archbishop Viganò’s charge.
His 11-page letter is full of innuendo and malicious suggestions about no fewer than 31 other senior churchmen, creating an impression of personal scores being setted.
The letter is also shot through with ideologically tinged excuses on homosexuality and its influence in the Vatican, suggesting a political axe being ground. That’s enhanced by the fact that most of the archbishop’s backers are strong Catholic conservatives, localized mostly in the United States and Italy.
In the letter, Archbishop Viganò claimed that McCarrick was placed under informal restrictions by Pope Benedict XVI, yet there are plenty of occasions during that time period when McCarrick appeared in public with Pope Benedict and even with the archbishop himself, never with a hint of disapproval.
There’s also no suggestion that Archbishop Viganò ever attempted to take action on McCarrick, while questions still surround his role in the investigation of Archbishop John Neinstedt in Minneapolis-St. Paul over cover-up charges.
Finally, there’s the memory of Archbishop Viganò’s role as a whistleblower over Vatican financial corruption under Pope Benedict, when members of his own family contested his motives for wanting to stay in Rome to finish the job. In reality, his brother said, there was litigation over family property underway at the time and Archbishop Viganò wanted to protect his interests.
Given all that, it’s fair to say that the pope’s silence hasn’t been entirely disadvantageous to his side of the argument.
Some experts on Pope Francis, however, say that his silence actually has deep spiritual roots. They point to the way he reacted when he was accused, unjustly as it turns out, of having been complicit in the arrest and torture of two Jesuits under his authority when he was the superior of the Jesuit province in Argentina during the country’s “Dirty War.”
In a 1990 essay on silence, the future pope wrote:
“In moments of darkness and great tribulation, when the knots and the tangles cannot be untangled or straightened out, nor things be clarified, then we have to be silent. The meekness of silence will show us to be even weaker, and so it will be the devil who, emboldened, comes into the light, and shows us his true intentions, no longer disguised as an angel but unmasked.”
There are times, in other words, he suggested, when the only way to show one’s innocence is to allow the ill will of the accuser to become crystal clear.
However spiritually compelling that may be, many observers express skepticism that it can really hold up over the long haul.
At the end of the day, the archbishop’s accusation is prima facie credible — he really was the nuncio, and he would have had the access to the pope necessary to issue the warning he describes. Whatever his motivations for doing so, however suspect they may be, doesn’t settle the factual question of what the pope knew on McCarrick and when he knew it.
Right now, a delegation of American bishops led by Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, president of the U.S. bishops’ conference, is preparing to come to Rome to lay out a plan for an investigation of the McCarrick case.
Although it’s primarily focused on the American end, it’s impossible to imagine the question of what kind of information the Vatican had and what they may have done with it won’t come up.
If Pope Francis wants to short-circuit this process, there are a couple of simple steps he could take.
First, Archbishop Viganò said he told the pope there’s a “thick dossier” on McCarrick in the Vatican’s Congregation for Bishops. Pope Francis could order the release of that document, even if some redacting would be necessary to protect the identities of victims who don’t want to be made into public figures.
Second, Archbishop Viganò asserted that documents verifying his claims are presently in the archives of both the Vatican’s Secretariat of State and also the papal embassy in Washington, D.C. Again, the pope could direct that any such documents, assuming they exist, be made public.
To be sure, there are plenty of times when staying silent is the most spiritually mature thing to do. Yet in other moments, one probably has to be transparent, not just taciturn, in order to end what could turn into yet another toxic scandal for a Church that certainly doesn’t need one right now.
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