In a letter dated October 7th, Cardinal Marc Ouellet penned an open reply to Archbishop Viganò’s most recent appeal to Ouellet to “bear witness to the truth” concerning the alleged sanctions placed on Cardinal McCarrick by Benedict XVI and subsequently lifted by Pope Francis. Viganò claimed that, as Prefect for the Congregation of Bishops, Cardinal Ouellet had at his disposal “key documents incriminating McCarrick and many in the curia for their cover-ups.”
The cardinal’s reply to Viganò was the first public response by any high-ranking Vatican official since Viganò released his original bombshell “testimony” six weeks ago. In his response, Ouellet chastised the archbishop for his “open and scandalous rebellion” which Ouellet implied resulted from Viganò’s “bitterness and delusions.”
The cardinal then offered a critique of Viganò’s “monstrous accusation” based on his own personal consultation with the relevant archives. He claimed there are no documents signed by either pope imposing or revoking an “obligatory mandate of silence and to retire to a private life, carrying canonical penalties.”
Cardinal Cupich of the Archdiocese of Chicago has called Ouellet’s letter “authoritative and compelling.”
Yet Francis X. Rocca noted that while the Cardinal Ouellet denounces Viganò, his letter simultaneously confirms a central claim of Viganò’s original accusation: McCarrick was required by Benedict XVI to refrain from travel and making public appearances. As Ouellet acknowledged, “The former Cardinal [McCarrick], retired in May of 2006, had been requested not to travel or to make public appearances, in order to avoid new rumors about him. It is false to present the measures taken in his regard as ‘sanctions’ decreed by Pope Benedict XVI and revoked by Pope Francis.”
Still, Cardinal Ouellet’s defense of Pope Francis is not principally based on the claim that Viganò is inaccurate regarding the particular nature of sanctions placed on McCarrick. Rather, Cardinal Ouellet’s defense of Francis is founded on two other claims:
1). There were no formal sanctions against McCarrick because the Vatican was merely aware of “rumors” and lacked “sufficient proof” of his guilt. This, despite documented accusations of his heinous sexual deviancy which have been publicly available for over a decade.
2). Even if Viganò did briefly warn Pope Francis of McCarrick’s misdeeds, the pope could not be expected to use such a conversation as actionable given the quantity of information he received from the nuncios on June 23, 2013. (With this second claim, Ouellet conflates two separate events referred to in Viganò’s testimony: the first, the pope’s reception of Viganò along with many other nuncios on June 21, 2013; and the second, Viganò’s private meeting with the pope on June 23, 2013.)
If Ouellet’s first claim—that until quite recently the Vatican’s information on McCarrick amounted only to inconclusive rumors—is true, then the Vatican should approve a full apostolic visitation in the form called for by the USCCB involving independent lay forensic investigators with access to all of the relevant Vatican Archives. Rightly or wrongly, the integrity of the pope and his Vatican officials are being called into question, east and west, left and right. Only an independent and lay-involved investigation will restore the Vatican’s credibility and the Church’s reputation. The Vatican’s recent announcement of a “thorough study” may entail such an investigation, but this is yet to be seen.
Cardinal Ouellet justifies his second claim by implying that a new pope could not have been expected to pay particular attention to a sidelined and retired archbishop, even as Viganò warned the pope of McCarrick’s misdeeds and Pope Benedict’s “requests.” As Ouellet says, “I strongly doubt that the pope had such interest in McCarrick, as you would like us to believe, given the fact that by then he was an 82-year-old archbishop emeritus who had been without a role for seven years.”
The principal problem with Cardinal Ouellet’s response is the evidence that the pope did, in fact, find interest in Cardinal McCarrick, possibly for many reasons, some of which are alarming. For one, a 2014 Washington Post article claimed that Pope Francis made McCarrick one of the Vatican’s leading geopolitical ambassadors.
Reportedly, the pope used McCarrick in talks with Iran and allowed him to be highly influential, if not the pope’s principal operative, in negotiating the Vatican’s new controversial ecclesial agreement with the Chinese government. In so doing, the pope revived the lifeline of the previously side-lined McCarrick despite the cardinal having been “put out to pasture” during Benedict XVI’s pontificate.
The new pontiff may also have found interest in Cardinal McCarrick’s reported political acumen and influence in American politics. McCarrick was a back-channel ally between President Obama, Cuba, and the pope in the years leading up to the administration’s secretive Cuban deal.
Additionally, McCarrick used his political ties to lobby then-House Speaker John Boehner for immigration reform in 2014.
The following year, the cardinal joined Senator Patrick Leahy to advocate for criminal justice reform speaking as if he were the voice of the pope. Likewise he was part of a religious coalition that joined Democratic Senators Leahy, Durbin, and Kaine to encourage the continuation of the refugee resettlement program.
Then, there is Viganò’s own accusation that the pope used McCarrick as a kind of kingmaker in the appointment of liberally-minded American Cardinals Cupich, Farrell, and Tobin.
Cardinal Ouellet claimed, “For a pope who does not hide the trust that he places in certain prelates, I never heard him refer to this so-called great advisor for the pontificate for episcopal appointments in the United States.”
Yet Cardinal Cupich himself seemed to imply that his alleged dark-horse candidacy for cardinal was bolstered by McCarrick. When asked if McCarrick influenced his election Cupich said, “It’s not as though I just fell out of the sky.”
And who better to vouch for the candidacy of Cardinal Farrell than McCarrick who shared an apartment with Farrell for six years?
In 2016, Rocco Palmo, a well-known and respected Catholic commentator, claimed, “McCarrick—who Francis is said to revere as ‘a hero’ of his—made a direct appeal over recent weeks for Tobin to be named to Newark, according to two sources familiar with the cardinal’s thinking.”
Bishop Barron, who was nominated in the same round as Cupich, also implied that McCarrick had “a disproportionate influence on the appointment of bishops.”
Then there is McCarrick’s own account of being pivotal in the papal election of his “friend” Cardinal Bergoglio. McCarrick’s account may be only a dishonest exaggeration of a prelate who enjoyed the limelight; but it is at least worth asking why a previously reprimanded archbishop felt so comfortable publicly quoting his personal conversations with the pope and even acting as if he spoke on the pope’s behalf.
Finally, there is the Papal Foundation founded by McCarrick in 1988 and which boasted an endowment of over $200 million. Matthew O’Brien’s recent op-ed provides a thorough first pass at shedding light on a largely ignored elephant in the room of the American episcopacy. O’Brien writes, “As an ex officio member of the board of cardinals which controls the Foundation, McCarrick advocated and voted four times to approve an extraordinary, expedited grant of $25 million to the Vatican, in order to help it bail out a scandal-plagued dermatology hospital that it controls, the Istituto Dermopatico dell’Immacolata (IDI) in Rome.” Leaked documents reveal that the pope personally requested the controversial grant. Not only are the accounts of board practices eyebrow-raising, but so are its last three presidents: Cardinal McCarrick, alleged abuser Bishop Bransfield, and alleged enabler Cardinal Wuerl.
Ouellet claimed that McCarrick knew how to “cleverly defend himself from those concerns raised about him.” Whether or not it is the most clever, the control of wealth is one effective way to wield influence, and Cardinal McCarrick maintained leadership positions in the Loyola Foundation, the GHR Foundation, and Catholic Relief Services, orchestrating other newly scrutinized transactions.
You need not be a peddler of conspiracy theories on the fringes of the Catholic blogosphere to find Cardinal Ouellet’s response wanting.
Perhaps Archbishop Viganò is motivated by a desire to settle old scores, embittered by his thwarted attainment of a red hat, and not by care for the victims of McCarrick’s sexual abuses. Perhaps the pope naively, but innocently, thought that the claims against McCarrick were exaggerated by his conservative political enemies. Perhaps Cardinal Ouellet is motivated by a love for the papacy, the Church, and its “living tradition.” A half-cocked response to Viganò’s testimony, however, does not serve the victims who watch carefully as this scandal unfolds, nor does it serve the pope, Christ, or his Church.
The world is watching. History is watching, but as every day passes fewer eyes turn to Rome in the hope of finding a shepherd to provide clarity and leadership while more turn to heaven longing for a time when justice, too, has its fair place next to mercy.
(Photo credit: Cardinal Marc Ouellet in 2016; Daniel Ibanez / CNA)