Archbishop Viganò’s letter makes some explosive claims about the Pope and senior Vatican figures. But it is remarkable for another reason: it breaks the code of silence – the omertà, as the Mafia would say – which had previously been in force.
There was, in effect, an agreement not to speak publicly about McCarrick. More than 15 years ago, when I was a student in Rome, a fellow-student told me about McCarrick, the now-infamous beach house, and homosexual goings-on. At around the same time, a highly respected professor, in the course of a lecture at which dozens were present, lamented the existence of homosexual networks among the clergy. Bishops and cardinals, he said, acted in unison to appoint their fellow homosexuals to high office.
After the lecture, we discussed who the professor could have meant. A few names were mentioned, but the wiser students kept quiet. It did not do to discuss these things. After all, who wants enemies, and who wants powerful enemies?
Archbishop Viganò has ended this silence: he has revealed something of how this network operates.
Viganò also shows the fate, within such a system, of anyone who tries to act with integrity. He records that Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re – then Prefect of the Congregation for Bishops – opposed the appointment of McCarrick to Washington. According to Viganò, “At the Nunciature in Washington there is a note, written in his hand, in which Cardinal Re disassociates himself from the appointment.”
Here’s a question: Cardinal Re was the man in charge of episcopal appointments. Why was he not listened to? What sort of dysfunctional bureaucracy is it where the man in charge of the department is overruled in this way?
But then McCarrick had a way of persuading people. One of his greatest assets, according to Viganò, was his closeness to President Barack Obama. Viganò tells us that McCarrick was “the most listened to advisor in the Vatican for relations with the Obama administration.” Pope Francis and President Obama always connected at a personal level: Obama described the Pope as making him want to do better., and the pair collaborated on matters such as climate change and good relations with Cuba. All this is in mighty contrast to the marked coolness between the Vatican and the Trump administration, best exemplified by the Pope’s comments that those who build walls cannot be called Christians. This all helps to explain the Pope’s backing for the cardinal: McCarrick brought with him the Obama gold dust.
So, what happens now? Actually, I fear, very little. The Pope is damaged by this letter, and the Vatican even more so, but they will all dig in. The negative briefing about Viganò will continue. Nevertheless, Viganò gives times, places and dates, and talks of documents and witnesses. I am sure he kept a copy of everything, and that those copies are all in a safe place. These won’t be so easy to dismiss.
Again, after the Barros scandal, where the Vatican dug in for three years, defending an obscure Chilean bishop, can they really hope to hunker down and sit this one out in the same way? In the end they had to give up on Barros, let’s remember; and let’s also not forget that the United States is not Chile: it has a bigger press with a wider reach. By breaking omertà, Mgr Viganò may well have opened the floodgates.
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