National News

Letter Accusing Pope Inflames American Catholic Church

WASHINGTON — In a remarkable break from the usual decorum among the bishops, U.S. Catholic leaders are in open conflict over the explosive allegations from a former Vatican diplomat that Pope Francis knew about, and ignored, accusations of sexual abuse against a now-disgraced American cleric.

Posted Updated
Letter Accusing Pope Inflames American Catholic Church
Elizabeth Dias
Laurie Goodstein, New York Times

WASHINGTON — In a remarkable break from the usual decorum among the bishops, U.S. Catholic leaders are in open conflict over the explosive allegations from a former Vatican diplomat that Pope Francis knew about, and ignored, accusations of sexual abuse against a now-disgraced American cleric.

Cardinal Joseph Tobin of Newark, New Jersey, a Francis appointee, said that the pope’s opponents were using the accusations by Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò to advance a larger agenda.

“I do think it’s about limiting the days of this pope, and short of that, neutering his voice or casting ambiguity around him,” Tobin said in a phone interview on Monday. “And it’s part of a larger upheaval both within and without the church.”

Some conservative American bishops swiftly came to Viganò's defense. Cardinal Raymond Burke, the ultraconservative former archbishop of St. Louis who is now based in Rome, said that after the truth of Viganò's accusations is established, “then the appropriate sanctions must be applied.”

The battle lines were being drawn even before Viganò issued his stunning 11-page letter calling for the pope’s resignation over allegations that he covered up an abusive cleric, former Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick.

Two weeks ago, Viganò privately shared his plan to speak out with an influential American friend: Timothy Busch, a wealthy, conservative Catholic lawyer on the board of governors of the media network in which Viganò ultimately revealed his letter.

“Archbishop Viganò has done us a great service,” Busch said in a phone interview Sunday night. “He decided to come forward because if he didn’t, he realized he would be perpetuating the cover-up.”

Busch said he believed Viganò's claims to be “credible,” and that he did not know in advance that the archbishop would choose to publish his attack in the National Catholic Register, which is owned by the Eternal Word Television Network, where Busch is on the board of governors.

Busch said leaders of the publication had personally assured him that the former pope, Benedict XVI, had confirmed Viganò's account. Details and accuracy of that confirmation have not been externally verified.

He added that the letter was not about “left versus right wing,” but about the sex abuse scandal.

Nonetheless, Viganò's extraordinary 11-page letter, filled with personal attacks, has brought simmering ideological differences among U.S. Catholics out into the open. Divisions in the church are quickly coming to a head, with many conservatives lining up to defend Viganò and progressives rallying around Francis, wrapping ideological competition and political maneuvering into what is quickly threatening to be the church’s biggest scandal in decades.

The stakes now are twofold: how the church will address sexual abuse and cover-ups among its ranks, and the power struggle emerging between conservative and progressive factions of the church’s U.S. leadership. The scandal around sexual abuse has escalated into the biggest test yet of Francis’ papacy, and the resolution will determine the future of the church in the United States.

Stateside, two bishops of small American dioceses, Bishop David A. Konderla of Tulsa, Oklahoma, and Bishop Joseph E. Strickland of Tyler, Texas, stepped forward in support of Viganò's allegations against Francis.

In an extraordinary move, Strickland issued his statement hours after Viganò's letter was made public, and instructed his priests to read his statement during Mass on Sunday.

“As your shepherd, I find them credible,” Strickland wrote of Viganò's allegations. Both bishops declined interviews.

Conservative American Catholics have been among the most vocal opponents of Francis’ agenda since he came into power in 2013. They have resisted his efforts to bring back into the fold those Catholics who have fallen away from the church because they are divorced and remarried, or are gay or lesbian, or are secular nonbelievers. They have also been opposed to Francis’ political priorities of protecting immigrants and refugees, questioning corporate capitalism and stemming climate change.

After several years of a progressive alliance between Francis and the Obama White House on issues including the détente with Cuba, climate change and the Iran nuclear deal, conservative Catholics have praised a new agenda in President Donald Trump’s Washington, which has returned largely to culture war issues like abortion and same-sex marriage.

“Unfortunately some Catholics are using the suffering of children to advance some of their own ecclesial agendas, such as attacking Francis,” said the Rev. James Martin, a Jesuit leader and editor at large of America Magazine. “They are rightly angry at sexual abuse. But all Catholics are angry at sexual abuse. Cardinal McCarrick was active under John Paul II and Benedict. Their ire is only on Francis.”

The American cardinal who is now the most deeply embroiled in the sexual abuse scandal is Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington, who succeeded the disgraced McCarrick.

In his letter, Viganò asserted repeatedly that Wuerl knew that Benedict had imposed sanctions on McCarrick, and blithely disregarded them. But in a statement on Monday, Wuerl said he “categorically denied” those claims. And he suggested that if the Vatican sends a delegation to investigate the McCarrick scandal, as the U.S. bishops have called for, the investigation should include the tenure of Viganò — who was previously shown in church documents to have covered up abuse by the former archbishop of St. Paul-Minneapolis.

There is no sign — at least not yet — that Francis has lost the loyalty of the American bishops’ central organization, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. The group’s president, Cardinal Daniel N. DiNardo, archbishop of Galveston-Houston, said that Francis shared the group’s goals of finding ways to report and discipline bishops guilty of abuse or misconduct. DiNardo struck a skeptical tone about the letter from Viganò, saying it deserved answers “based on evidence,” because without such answers “innocent men may be tainted by false accusation and the guilty may be left to repeat sins of the past.”

Cardinal Blase J. Cupich of Chicago said Viganò's letter made clear that he had concerns with a specific group of leaders within the Catholic Church, most all of whom are viewed as allies of Pope Francis.

Asked if the letter signaled an attempt to take down a pope, Cupich said “it would take a lot more” than that.

“The real crisis in this moment here is that the church has to be very expressive and dedicated in the way it goes forward for the concern of the healing of victims,” Cupich said in a phone interview on Sunday. “That is what we need to be concerned about, not all of these other inside baseball issues.”

The clerical sexual abuse is not only a personal and professional tragedy, but an institutional one, said John Carr, the director of the Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life at Georgetown University.

“We need to find out who knew what when, and what they did or did not do to protect young people,” Carr said. “The weaponization of the sexual abuse scandal uses the suffering of the vulnerable to advance ideological agendas and makes a horrible situation worse.”

Copyright 2023 New York Times News Service. All rights reserved.