ROME—Pope Francis, it seems, works in mysterious ways. The pontiff broke his silence after weeks of speculation—fueled by an 11-page letter from his former top-level diplomat to the United States—about what the pontiff knew or didn’t know about cardinal Theodore McCarrick and his alleged penchant for young seminarians and altar boys.
In a Saturday afternoon news bulletin, hidden among a flurry of other Vatican notices about the synod currently underway in Rome, the pope appeared to admit that the church may have erred when it came to its handling of well-known allegations against McCarrick.
“The Holy Father Pope Francis, aware of and concerned by the confusion that these accusations are causing in the conscience of the faithful, has established that the following be communicated: In September 2017, the Archdiocese of New York notified the Holy See that a man had accused former Cardinal McCarrick of having abused him in the 1970s,” the statement says. “The Holy Father ordered a thorough preliminary investigation into this, which was carried out by the Archdiocese of New York, at the conclusion of which the relative documentation was forwarded to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.”
The statement then goes on to say that the pope “has decided that information gathered during the preliminary investigation be combined with a further thorough study of the entire documentation present in the Archives of the Dicasteries and Offices of the Holy See regarding the former Cardinal McCarrick, in order to ascertain all the relevant facts, to place them in their historical context and to evaluate them objectively.”
In other words, the pope admitted that he has been investigating McCarrick for more than a year, and now he wants to combine the still-secret results of that investigation with a new probe into the famously secret archives the Holy See may have on the cardinal.
What’s there, may be substantial. For decades as he rose through the ranks of the American church, McCarrick, now 88, had earned quite a reputation for hosting six or more adult seminarians at his five-bedroom Jersey shore beach house, which apparently implied that one of the seminarians had to share a bedroom with the prelate. But it wasn’t until this summer when he was accused of molesting an 11-year-old boy for more than 20 years that the Vatican took note, with Francis ordering McCarrick to a life of prayer. McCarrick is currently living out his days in prayer at a friary in Kansas.
McCarrick had spent much of his career as a diplomatic attache for the Holy See, traveling multiple times to China to work out the very deal that the Vatican just signed with the Chinese church. Many Vatican experts have speculated that the cardinal’s peccadillos were ignored by Francis and his predecessors because of the value he offered the church, both politically in the United States and globally.
But in late August, Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, the Vatican’s former apostolic nuncio, or top-diplomat, to the United States, penned a “testimony” in which he claimed that Francis lifted sanctions that Pope Benedict XVI placed on McCarrick and that the pontiff should resign over his handling of the McCarrick case to set an example for other clergy who have been turning a blind eye to abuse for decades. The pope responded by telling reporters on a flight back from an apostolic voyage to Ireland he would “not say one word” about Viganò’s claim, which led to further condemnation by both those abused by priests and those who oppose Pope Francis.
Now, the pope seems, at least on the surface, to be listening to the criticism by at least admitting that he is on the case. “The Holy See will, in due course, make known the conclusions of the matter regarding Archbishop McCarrick,” the tersely-worded statement says.
The statement then goes on to half-heartedly admit that the news might not all be good, and that the pope and his predecessors may have gravely erred in the past. “The Holy See is conscious that, from the examination of the facts and of the circumstances, it may emerge that choices were taken that would not be consonant with a contemporary approach to such issues.”
Whether that means Francis may have signed off on keeping McCarrick in active duty or whether he just simply knew about it may never come out. Some in Rome have speculated that the Vatican’s curious Saturday statement may pave the way to accepting the resignation of the current archbishop of Washington, D.C., Donald Wuerl, who was named in the damning Pennsylvania Grand Jury report and who has also been accused of covering for McCarrick.
Wuerl tendered his resignation three years ago when he turned 75, which is the custom for all cardinals. But the pope has not yet accepted the resignation, which is also standard for high-ranking prelates like Wuerl who run important archdiocese for the church.
Wuerl was in Rome last week and saw the pope in several public settings, but the pontiff’s public calendar did not list any private audiences with the American cardinal. Wuerl has said several times that he intended to insist that Francis accept his resignation, but apparently those pleas have fallen on deaf ears--at least so far.
Others have speculated that the Saturday statement is a precursor to another bombshell revelation about systematic clerical sex abuse or even a move to preempt another dispatch from Viganò, who remains in hiding with access to key conservative Catholic journalists who have released subsequent dispatches pointing the finger at other high-ranking clergy close to Francis.
Whatever the hidden meaning of the Saturday statement, it has roused even more suspicion, especially with regard to what the pope’s preliminary investigation into McCarrick uncovered.
“Both abuse and its cover-up can no longer be tolerated and a different treatment for Bishops who have committed or covered up abuse, in fact represents a form of clericalism that is no longer acceptable,” the statement concludes. “The Holy Father Pope Francis renews his pressing invitation to unite forces to fight against the grave scourge of abuse within and beyond the Church, and to prevent such crimes from being committed in the future to the harm of the most innocent and most vulnerable in society.”
Francis has called a meeting in Rome this coming February that will gather the presidents of all the world’s bishops’ conferences to discuss clerical sex abuse on a global scale.