The bombshell letter of “testimony” written by Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, the former apostolic nuncio to the United States, regarding the Vatican’s handling of sexual misconduct allegations against the disgraced former Archbishop of Washington, DC, Theodore McCarrick, has raised more forcefully than ever several questions, including: what did McCarrick’s successor, Cardinal Donald Wuerl, know – and when did he know it?
Cardinal Wuerl has said that he knew nothing of McCarrick’s alleged behaviour until news reached him of an allegation under review in the Archdiocese of New York, where McCarrick began his ecclesiastical career, according to which McCarrick sexually assaulted an altar boy on at least two occasions in St Patrick’s Cathedral, starting in 1971.
In his 11-page letter, Archbishop Viganò claims that Pope Benedict XVI became aware of at least some of the accusations against McCarrick, and imposed strict discipline on him around 2009 or 2010. “I learned with certainty,” writes Viganò, “through Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re, then prefect of the Congregation for Bishops, that [the American psychotherapist] Richard Sipe’s courageous and meritorious statement had had the desired result.”
In his letter, Viganò goes on to specify the nature of the disciplinary measures. “Pope Benedict had imposed on Cardinal McCarrick sanctions similar to those now imposed on him by Pope Francis: the cardinal was 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, with the obligation of dedicating himself to a life of prayer and penance.”
It is legitimate to ask whether Cardinal Wuerl – by then the Archbishop of Washington, DC, the archdiocese in which McCarrick resided – was completely unaware of the reported sanctions. The Archdiocese of Washington told the Catholic Herald: “In spite of what Archbishop Viganò’s memo indicates, Cardinal Wuerl did not receive any documentation or information during his time in Washington regarding any actions taken against Archbishop McCarrick.”
One detail of the account Archbishop Viganò gives in his letter makes that assertion particularly worthy of scrutiny. The episode occurred some time after Viganò assumed his duties as nuncio in 2011, and before Francis’s election in March, 2013:
I had to draw [Cardinal Wuerl’s] attention to [the disciplinary measures], because I realised that in an archdiocesan publication, on the back cover in colour, there was an announcement inviting young men who thought they had a vocation to the priesthood to a meeting with Cardinal McCarrick. I immediately phoned Cardinal Wuerl, who expressed his surprise to me, telling me that he knew nothing about that announcement and that he would cancel it. If, as he now continues to state, he knew nothing of the abuses committed by McCarrick and the measures taken by Pope Benedict, how can his answer be explained?
Archdiocesan spokesman Ed McFadden confirmed for the Catholic Herald that Cardinal Wuerl did, in fact, cancel the event “at the nuncio’s request”.
At this point, the question becomes: if Cardinal Wuerl was unaware of the sanctions, and unaware of the reason for them, why did he ask no questions of the nuncio regarding the reason for his demand?
Still, the sanctions to which Archbishop Viganò refers do seem to have been a closely guarded secret. This reporter spoke with one former Vatican Radio employee who had no recollection of ever being told not to talk to McCarrick. In some wise, the thing sounds like it may have been a sort of ecclesiastical “double-secret probation” in which only a select few high-ranking officials would have been aware of the measures, which in effect came to no more than a warning to McCarrick to keep his head down.
In any case, a source close to Cardinal Wuerl told the Catholic Herald that Wuerl wrote to McCarrick in the midst of the preliminary investigation into the allegation that the New York archdiocesan review board would eventually find “credible and substantiated”, suggesting that McCarrick remove himself from public ministry and cease public appearances. McCarrick – who was still a cardinal at the time and apparently a cleric in good standing – rejected Cardinal Wuerl’s suggestion.