After Ireland visit, Francis’ papacy buffeted by Vigano claims

By Christopher Lamb | Contributor
Wednesday, September 5, 2018

Pope Francis arrives to lead his general audience in St. Peter’s Square Aug. 29 at the Vatican. (CNS photo/Alessandro Bianchi, Reuters)

VATICAN CITY — Three days after his return from Ireland, Pope Francis was holding his Wednesday General Audience in St. Peter’s Square. Toward the end, a group of students from Lucca, a Renaissance-era city in Tuscany, started chanting “Italo! Italo!” when they spotted their Archbishop Italo Castellani up at the front alongside the pope.

Some commentators watching the audience online, however, became convinced the young people were chanting “Vigano! Vigano!” in support of Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, who on Aug. 26 issued a document accusing Francis of ignoring acts of sexual abuse allegedly committed by Archbishop Theodore McCarrick. 

Their mistaken belief about the chanting underlined the febrile atmosphere the church has been in since the former papal ambassador to Washington dropped his bombshell claims. 

I was traveling with the pope when the Vigano document came through and can attest to the drama it caused among journalists, along with its polarizing effects. The 11-page dossier was released during the second day of the pope’s Ireland visit and was designed for maximum impact: For the first time, I saw this papacy as vulnerable. 

Opponents of Francis immediately pronounced that Archbishop Vigano’s claims “must be true” and called on the pope to resign. Some even seemed to relish Francis’ difficulties. On the plane from Dublin to Rome, the pope encouraged journalists to examine the document for themselves and that he would not say “a single word” about the matter. On Sept. 3 he said during a homily that the only way to respond to those who seek scandal and division is “silence” and “prayer.”

As a retired Vatican diplomat, trained for a lifetime of service to the papacy and appointed to one of the most prestigious foreign postings, Archbishop Vigano’s allegations cannot simply be written off as coming from a figure on the fringes.

At the heart of his claims is that Francis was aware of allegations against Archbishop McCarrick, along with sanctions that had been supposedly placed on him in 2009 or 2010 by Benedict XVI urging the now ex-cardinal to live a life of prayer and penance out of the spotlight.   

As the fevered debate has started to calm down, a more forensic analysis of Archbishop Vigano’s testimony is now underway. It is now clear that any restrictions placed on Archbishop McCarrick were either unenforced or ignored. Throughout the years he was supposedly under sanction, the former archbishop of Washington traveled widely, kept up an active ministry and, in May 2012, was feted at a gala as “very much loved by us all,” words spoken by none other than Archbishop Vigano.  

Since the release of his dossier, the 77-year-old former nuncio has said the sanctions imposed by Benedict XVI were “private,” which raises obvious questions about whether they can fairly be called sanctions at all. 

It’s also important to recall that after Francis was informed that Archbishop McCarrick had been credibly accused of abusing a minor, he authorized his removal from ministry along with his resignation from the College of Cardinals. Archbishop McCarrick is now facing a canonical trial. There is also talk in Rome that the Vatican will authorize an investigation into the case and how he rose up the ranks of the church despite the allegations against him. 

But Archbishop Vigano’s claims need to be read in the context of his decision to align himself with groups in opposition to this papacy. In April of this year, he attended a conference in Rome where the keynote speaker, Cardinal Raymond Burke, set out the limits of papal power and when it was acceptable to correct a pope. 

While Francis has repeatedly diagnosed the sexual-abuse crisis and its coverup as a problem of clericalism, the concentration of power among a select few, Archbishop Vigano is among those who see it as a problem that is really about gay priests. In his “j’accuse” (“I accuse”) of the pope, the archbishop rails against “homosexual networks” and accuses allies of Francis of being “blinded by their pro-gay ideology.”

Opponents of Francis already see him as too weak on the gay issue, and are disturbed by his attempts to loosen regulations on giving Communion to some divorced and remarried Catholics. 

Unable to win the argument on these topics, they have now decided to weaponize the abuse issue as a way of undermining Francis, a strategy that will do nothing to solve the crisis. And it is notable that survivors’ groups have roundly condemned Archbishop Vigano’s testimony.

For this pope, combating abuse in the church requires a collective approach, without falling into the never-ending spiral of mutual recriminations. And along with concrete steps to hold priests and bishops accountable, it also requires humility and personal holiness, qualities exemplified by St. Francis of Assisi, the man this pope decided to name himself after.


  • pope francis
  • clergy sexual abuse
  • archbishop carla maria vigano

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