When Church historians look back on the early 21st century, they may focus on a middle-ranking Italian archbishop. He was unfamiliar to most contemporary Catholics, but he was at the centre of two of the great controversies of the second decade of that century, one of which led to a papal resignation and the other whose outcome is currently unknown.
Until last weekend Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò was best known for his role in the so-called VatiLeaks affair, one of the factors that prompted Benedict XVI to step down in 2013. Viganò was named secretary-general of the governorate of Vatican City State in 2009. In this role, which has been compared to that of a city mayor, he tried to introduce sweeping reforms but met resistance. He wrote to the Secretary of State to complain and these letters were later leaked by the papal butler, creating the VatiLeaks scandal.
Archbishop Viganò was unofficially exiled from Rome in 2011, when he was appointed apostolic nuncio to the United States. Five years later, when he turned 75, he submitted his resignation to Pope Francis. It was swiftly accepted and he quietly entered retirement. Until, that is, last weekend, when he released a ferocious 7,000-word letter calling for Francis’s resignation.
Vatican-watcher Marco Tosatti called the letter “one of the most dramatic and important documents which I have ever read in 40 years of covering religious news”. It alleged that Francis had lifted unpublicised sanctions placed on the disgraced former cardinal Theodore McCarrick by Benedict XVI, despite knowing that the American prelate had preyed on seminarians. It further claimed that McCarrick had advised Francis on the selection of bishops to prominent US sees. It also accused a wide array of senior Church figures of corruption.
The letter was seemingly timed to cause maximum embarrassment. Pope Francis was in the middle of a very delicate trip to Ireland, a nation devastated by clerical abuse and episcopal cover-ups. He was also due to face the media hours later on his flight home. In his airborne press conference, Francis refused to respond to Viganò‘s specific claims. “Read the document carefully and judge it for yourselves,” he said. “I will not say one word on this. I think the statement speaks for itself.” This may seem a curious response to allegations of such a grave nature. But it is in keeping with the Pope’s policy – seen clearly during the dispute over his exhortation Amoris Laetitia – of not engaging directly with critics.
The Pope’s comments will not reassure those who worry that his unconventional leadership style leads him to place trust in men who are unworthy of it. But he is right that the letter, which contains very detailed claims, should be thoroughly scrutinised.
The Barque of Peter is in deep, dark, choppy waters. Senior figures are openly warring as the abuse crisis engulfs the worldwide Church. It is natural for lay people to feel anxious and powerless. All we can do is pray, and trust Christ’s promise that, although the Church endures many trials, the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.
The grand jury report into clerical abuse in six dioceses in Pennsylvania should shock but not surprise. There have been other such reports in America and elsewhere. Perhaps the most detailed is the Australian royal commission, which published its conclusions last year following five years’ work. There are telling similarities. One commentator described some of the incidents in Pennsylvania as reading like scenes from a Marquis de Sade novel. Another declared that the Church “has proved itself incapable of self-investigation and self-policing”.
It is this last issue which we need to address. Bishop Philip Egan of Portsmouth has written to Pope Francis proposing a synod on the life and ministry of the clergy. It would include the laity and other experts familiar with the whole area. It would be concerned with the rule of life of clergy, accountability and supervision. The bishop notes the lack of ministerial assessment and supervision between the diocese and the ordained. How many diocesan bishops have had the managerial training and experience needed by senior executives elsewhere?
We can easily understand the wish of a bishop to avoid scandal, to care for the sinner, and to live in hope that they will repent and never repeat the sin. But even if this is so for some individuals, we now have the evidence that this is quite inadequate. The abuse of children is a grave crime. We know how children can be seriously damaged not just at the time of the offence but throughout their lives. We also know that the tendency to commit this crime is deep in the psychology of the offender.
Whatever the proposed synod concludes, it must rule that such allegations, known outside the confessional, should be reported to the police for investigation without delay. And that those in authority who seek concealment of the offender, irrespective of motive, should be treated as accessories.