Archbishop Theodore McCarrick has begun a life of prayer and penance in a monastery in Kansas. In any other circumstances, a cleric beginning something akin to an ecclesiastical life sentence would quickly fade from public consciousness. But while McCarrick is now out of sight, he remains very much in mind – both in the United States and Rome.
Questions remain, and continue to be asked, about McCarrick’s rise and fall in the Church. Unusual for Rome, these questions are being asked and answered in public.
Tracking the facts about the McCarrick case and how it impacts other Church leaders has become a regular task for Catholic journalists. What follows is an update on where things stand.
Last weekend a letter was released by Cardinal Marc Ouellet, head of the Vatican’s Congregation for Bishops. His office is alleged to be the repository for files detailing who knew what and when about McCarrick.
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.
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 seminaryin 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.”
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.
Furthermore, Ouellet suggested that McCarrick did not become the close advisor to Pope Francis that Vigano has suggested, and noted that Francis, Benedict, and John Paul II made decisions about McCarrick with the limited information available to them. None of those decisions, he pointed out, are infallible.
Whether McCarrick actually became a close advisor to Pope Francis is a question that, perhaps, only one of them can answer.
Ouellet’s letter could raise new questions for Cardinal Donald Wuerl. Confirmation that “conditions and restrictions” were communicated to McCarrick by two apostolic nuncios challenge the plausibility of Wuerl’s claim to have been left totally out of the loop, especially given that it is a standard practice of the Holy See to inform the local bishop about concerns or measures taken against a cleric living in his diocese, especially in cases where there is a risk of public scandal.
When he released his Aug. 25 “testimony,” Viganò said that he was speaking out because he wanted to clear his conscience, and help shed light on how a man like McCarrick could have risen to such a high position in the Church.
Because he focused his criticism on Pope Francis, and called for his resignation, many suggest that Viganò has become the single greatest distraction in the McCarrick affair. His subsequent interventions and the Vatican’s responses to them seem to be generating more heat than light – but some light is indeed being shed.
It remains to be seen how much will really be known about the McCarrick case. But if Ouellet’s letter and the details it confirms are a sign of things to come, there may yet be further significant revelations. For now, whatever else Viganò’s public conflict with Pope Francis may be, it seems to be the only engine driving Vatican transparency.