Since Pope Francis’s election, the US Conference of Catholic Bishops has increasingly reflected the Pontiff’s own priorities. But this may change after the “testimony” of Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò. The former US nuncio claimed that Benedict XVI attempted to quietly remove Theodore McCarrick from public ministry after hearing reports that he preyed on seminarians and young priests. Viganò accused Francis of rehabilitating McCarrick upon succeeding Benedict and, despite being aware of accusations against him, making McCarrick a “kingmaker” for appointing American bishops.
Among those McCarrick supported, Viganò claims, was Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago. Cupich was plucked from relative obscurity and appointed to a major diocese. A small but influential “Francis party” emerged in the US bishops’ conference: a group of liberal prelates who owed their advancement to the Holy Father.
But the “Francis party” also includes several senior bishops promoted during previous papacies. McCarrick, appointed Archbishop of Washington by John Paul II, is one. So is Cardinal Donald Wuerl, whom Benedict chose to succeed McCarrick in 2010.
Viganò accuses Wuerl and Cupich of knowing about McCarrick’s predatory behaviour but refusing to intervene – and, in Wuerl’s case, even protecting him from scrutiny. They deny the allegations. But their contrasting responses to the former nuncio’s letter suggest the “Francis party” may no longer be as united as it once was.
For his part, Wuerl denied any knowledge of his predecessor’s misdeeds. On August 26, his spokesman told the Catholic Herald that “Cardinal Wuerl did not receive any documentation or information during his time in Washington regarding any actions taken against Archbishop McCarrick.”
Wuerl struck a more conciliatory note on August 30, when he published a letter asking Washington’s priests “for forgiveness for my errors in judgment, for my inadequacies, and also for your acceptance of my contrition for any suffering I have caused, as well as the grace to find, with you, ways of healing, ways of offering fruitful guidance in this darkness”. (This was no admission of guilt in the McCarrick case. Wuerl was also accused of mishandling abuse in the recent Pennsylvania grand jury report. The report alleged that Wuerl protected and reinstated abusive priests while serving as Bishop of Pittsburgh from 1988 to 2006. He has denied the claims vigorously.)
On McCarrick, Wuerl is sticking close to Francis. He told priests that “we need to hold close in our prayers and loyalty our Holy Father … Increasingly, it is clear that he is the object of concentrated attack.” Wuerl was presumably referring to
Viganò’s plea for Francis to resign over the McCarrick scandal, a call taken up by several prominent commentators.
Even before he was accused of complicity, Wuerl was roundly panned for his tin-eared responses to the McCarrick crisis. On August 8, he downplayed the severity of the accusations altogether. “I don’t think this is some massive, massive crisis. It was a terrible disappointment,” Wuerl told Fr Thomas Rosica of Salt and Light Media.
Cupich, on the other hand, appears to be striking out on his own. In a statement, he denied the allegations levelled against him by Viganò, but not those against Francis, Wuerl or any of his other allies. On the contrary: he chronicled his pleasant relationship with Viganò before demanding “a thorough vetting of the former nuncio’s many claims”.
The man widely held to be the leader of the “Francis party” did, however, strongly support the Pope in a later interview with NBC’s Chicago affiliate. “The Pope has a bigger agenda. He’s got to get on with other things, of talking about the environment and protecting migrants and carrying on the work of the Church,” Cupich said.
But the next day he released a statement claiming that the footage was misleadingly edited. “I was referring to the recent letter by Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, not the terrible crime of clergy sexual abuse,” Cupich wrote. He added that he continued to support “a thorough investigation” into Viganò’s allegations.
Cupich also quoted a letter he published after the Pennsylvania grand jury report, repeating his condemnation of “the woeful responses of bishops who failed to protect the people they were ordained to serve”, adding: “We must resolve to face our failures and hold each other accountable.”
It’s worth remembering the grand jury’s strong criticisms of Wuerl. Cupich could have said more in defence of the Archbishop of Washington, if he had wished – just as he could have made a more forceful defence of the Pope. As the situation develops, will he speak out more for his US and Vatican allies? Come what may, it sounds like the “Francis party” is beginning to wind down.
This article first appeared in the September 7 2018 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here