At a gala dinner in the luxury Pierre Hotel in Manhattan in 2012, Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, Pope Benedict’s top diplomat in the United States, bestowed an award for missionary service on Cardinal Theodore McCarrick and praised him as “very much loved from us all.”
But if Archbishop Viganò is to be believed, he was keeping a troubling secret — a claim that is at the heart of a new scandal that has thrown the church into upheaval and led some conservatives to call for Pope Francis to resign.
The archbishop now says he was aware at the time of the gala that Cardinal McCarrick, the former archbishop of Washington, was under orders from Pope Benedict XVI to stop appearing in public on behalf of the Roman Catholic Church because he had sexually abused adult seminary students.
Archbishop Viganò did not explain why he agreed to publicly laud a cardinal under sanctions. But LifeSiteNews — a website run by conservative Catholics — quoted the archbishop on Friday as saying that he could not back out of the event.
Even beyond the gala dinner, however, a review of Cardinal McCarrick’s activities during the years he was supposedly restricted under Benedict showed that he visited seminaries and ordained new priests, officiated at Masses and traveled the world representing the church.
A week ago, Archbishop Viganò released an explosive letter saying that Benedict had ordered Cardinal McCarrick to retire to a life of prayer and penance and had barred him from celebrating Mass in public, traveling for church business, giving lectures and participating in public meetings.
But after Francis became pope, in 2013, he lifted the sanctions and made the cardinal a trusted adviser, the letter claimed. That accusation has stunned the faithful, leaving many clamoring to know whether Pope Francis — who has vowed to rid the church of sexual abuse — had covered up for an abuser or whether Archbishop Viganò, a conservative detractor of Francis’ who was removed from his American post, was lying.
What still remains unclear a week after these accusations surfaced is whether Benedict ever imposed sanctions on the cardinal. And if he was sanctioned but permitted to flout the restrictions so boldly and for so long, it raises questions of how tough the Vatican really is on bishops implicated in sexual abuse.
One explanation given by church analysts is that he had been under sanctions, but that they were not taken seriously because the accusations against him were of sexual misconduct with adults, not children. Canon lawyers said in interviews that while church law treats sexual abuse of minors as a crime, on adults the law is ambiguous.
Francis has reacted to the new revelations by refusing to discuss the matter and has neither confirmed nor denied the allegations in the Viganò letter. Instead, he challenged the news media to ferret out the truth.
The Viganò letter has pitted Francis against Benedict XVI, the emeritus pope, who stepped down in 2013 — confirming the worst fears of Catholics who warned that having two popes living as neighbors in the small, intrigue-laden footprint of Vatican City would be dangerous to the church.
Both popes could clear up the confusion created by the letter. Neither one has.
The silence has left a vacuum into which speculation, gossip and ideological combat have now poured, consuming the Vatican and Francis’ pontificate and drowning out the issue of child sexual abuse, a scourge that is devouring his church from within.
Archbishop Viganò has filled the vacuum with fresh allegations that contradict the Vatican’s account of Pope Francis’ 2015 meeting with Kim Davis, the Kentucky clerk who refused to issue same-sex marriage licenses.
The archbishop argued in another detailed letter published on Friday in conservative Roman Catholic news outlets that he had personally briefed the pope about the meeting beforehand and that the Vatican’s efforts to characterize him as ambushing the pope with the meeting were untrue.
The truth has been difficult to discern. If Cardinal McCarrick was the target of sanctions by Benedict in 2009 or 2010, as Archbishop Viganò claimed, then he openly disobeyed the orders for years.
There is a long and public record showing that the cardinal did not behave like a man forced to retreat to contemplate any possible sins.
The cardinal was a visiting scholar at the Library of Congress in 2011. He made multiple trips to the Vatican. He participated in a Mass there when his successor as archbishop of Washington, Donald Wuerl, received the red cardinal’s hat in 2010. He joined American bishops on their five-year check-in with Benedict in January 2012.
Four months later, he was back in Rome to sing happy birthday to Benedict at a celebration sponsored by the Papal Foundation, which Cardinal McCarrick founded to deliver millions in donations to the Vatican each year.
He traveled to Iran in 2011 and helped win the release of American hikers accused of espionage. Friends of the cardinal who did not want to be named said in interviews that they had no indication at all that he was supposedly restricted in those years.
Only in July, after Cardinal McCarrick had been accused of sexually abusing two boys years ago, did he resign from the College of Cardinals, at 88. Demoted to archbishop, he rebutted the allegations and is appealing his case to the Vatican. Through his lawyer, he declined an interview request.
For years, Benedict’s supporters, appalled by the direction Francis was taking the church, have sought to draw Benedict into ideological fights. He has mostly resisted, and his silence so far on the Viganò letter is in keeping with his promise to essentially disappear after his resignation.
Benedict, who promised his successor “reverence and obedience” when he retired, is now 91 and frail.
But his personal secretary and trusted lieutenant, Archbishop Georg Gänswein, has issued enigmatic comments. He told the German newspaper Die Tagespost that the reports suggesting that Benedict had confirmed Viganò’s letter were “fake news.”
Asked by The New York Times to clarify whether Benedict had placed sanctions on Cardinal McCarrick, Archbishop Gänswein responded in an email: “I have nothing to add or to subtract from what I have said.”
Pope Francis also evaded a response as he flew from Dublin back to Rome last Sunday, hours after the Viganò letter was published in the conservative Catholic news media. In his customary news conference aboard the papal plane, the pope acknowledged that he had read the letter that morning.
But he said: “I will not say a single word about this. I believe the statement speaks for itself. And you have the journalistic capacity to draw your own conclusions.” He added: “When some time passes and you have drawn your conclusions, I may speak.”
Archbishop Viganò did not respond to a request for an interview. But he has defended himself to conservative Catholic media over video footage showing him at ease at the Pierre Hotel gala celebrating Cardinal McCarrick when he was supposedly under sanctions from Benedict.
“I could not say, ‘What are you doing here?’” Archbishop Viganò said in one interview with LifeSiteNews.
Following the pope’s lead, the Vatican has gone on lockdown.
Cardinal Leonardo Sandri, whom Archbishop Viganò also accused in the letter of covering up sexual misconduct by Cardinal McCarrick, rushed a reporter off the phone on Thursday evening.
“Look, I’m not in my office. Good evening. Good evening,” he said. And he was the most talkative.
The Times reached out to every cardinal and bishop said by Archbishop Viganò to have known about the alleged sanctions on Cardinal McCarrick by Benedict. More than a dozen of them declined or did not answer requests for comment.
Cardinal Wuerl of Washington said in a statement that he was never informed about any sanctions on Cardinal McCarrick. Cardinal Joseph Tobin of Newark said in an interview, “I was never aware of any restrictions.”
A visit to the Vatican Embassy in Washington yielded no information.
In the past, some of the offenders sentenced to “a life of prayer and penance” also resisted the restrictions, so Cardinal McCarrick would not be the first to do so. But eventually even the most notorious, disobedient abusers sentenced to prayer and penance finally disappeared behind the walls of a convent or private retreat.
In 2005 and 2007, three archdioceses in New Jersey paid settlements to two former seminarians who said they had been molested by Cardinal McCarrick years before.
In 2017, the first allegation that Cardinal McCarrick had sexually molested a minor was submitted to the archdiocese of New York. Francis imposed his own sanctions on the cardinal, the Vatican has confirmed.
The cardinal’s friends say that he slowed down a bit, but even then didn’t stop. He traveled to China and to the Vatican for several church dinners. He attended the ordinations of a priest and deacons. In May 2018, he celebrated his 60th anniversary as a priest, alongside Cardinal Wuerl, his successor in Washington, with a Mass.
Then in June, the New York Archdiocese announced the results of its investigation of the allegation they had received last year: As a priest 45 years earlier, Cardinal McCarrick had sexually abused an altar boy. And Pope Francis decreed that the cardinal could no longer work or minister as a priest in public.
Elisabetta Povoledo contributed reporting from Rome, and Elizabeth Dias from Washington.