In recent decades, the whistleblower has occupied a prominent yet uncertain place in American culture. Sometimes, he is greeted as a hero, and his story becomes the stuff of legend, recounted in books, Dateline NBC episodes, and blockbuster Hollywood movies. At other times, depending on whose eardrum gets pierced by his whistle, he is reviled and subjected to whisper campaigns or public character assassination. Of course, one man’s whistleblowing hero may be another man’s scoundrel. And depending on how many secrets he reveals and the length of time over which he reveals them, he may even, like Edward Snowden, find himself praised by some and condemned by others, only to see those roles reversed when he divulges a different set of secrets later.
The American attitude toward the whistleblower is largely a reflection of our national tendency to conform our principles to our politics, rather than the other way around. For two centuries, this was commonly seen as an admirable quality of the American character, a particular pragmatism that earned the label of the “American Genius.” In recent decades, however, some have begun to see it for what it really is—a fundamental lack of regard for the truth—and to call it by less praiseworthy, though more accurate, names: chauvinism, partisanship, and ideology.
For American Catholics, such considerations cannot be dismissed as mere political or social theory. We naturally feel the same pull toward partisanship and ideology as our fellow citizens, but we recognize—or should recognize—that the truth is paramount, because, for Catholics, the truth can never be separated from the Truth. The Truth is a person, not a metaphysical abstraction that can be distorted or disregarded in the pursuit of some worldly end. Every time we deliberately distort the truth for partisan or ideological reasons, every time we elevate politics over principle, we ourselves wield the whip at the scourging at the pillar, and when we do it regarding things religious, we deface the Body of Christ, the Church.
A month into the uneasy fall that has followed the latest Summer of Shame for the Catholic Church in America, the former apostolic nuncio to the United States, Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, has released the third in a series of “testimonies” that have placed this former Vatican functionary in the odd role of whistleblower—odd because all too many high-ranking Catholic clerics prefer backbiting and palace intrigue to taking a public stand that may tarnish their reputation. Predictably, Viganò has been greeted as a hero by some and a scoundrel by others, and he has been described variously as a paragon of moral probity and personal devotion and a conceited conniver with a chip on his shoulder who is determined to get revenge for being passed over for a red hat.
The way in which many American Catholics regard the person of Viganò seems to parallel what they see when they look at the ferula, the ceremonial staff, that Pope Francis has used throughout the Synod on Youth in Rome this month. The question of objective truth—in this case, either the ferula is a “stang,”i.e., a tool of modern Wiccans, or it isn’t, and whether it is or is not depends not a whit on what we wish it to be—is subordinated to how this or that Catholic regards Francis as a man, and the whole of his papacy. Similarly, the reality that each of the claims that Viganò has made in his three testimonies is either objectively true, false, or an admixture of the two has been largely cast aside by those who see Viganò as either an avenging angel, cleansing a Church that has gone astray under Pope Francis, or the Father of Lies himself, determined to take down a reforming pope.
That the ferula may simply be the latest in a long line of ugly ferulas, and that the truth or falsity of Viganò’s specific claims depends not at all on our assessment of the former nuncio’s character, or our estimation of Francis and his pontificate, is incomprehensible to the ideologue or partisan. It should, however, be patently obvious to those who regard truth as an end in itself.
So what are the claims that Viganò has made in his three testimonies that can potentially be proved true or false, as opposed to claims that he has made that may be considered a matter of interpretation?
All involve the scandal surrounding the former cardinal Archbishop Theodore McCarrick, in particular his homosexual activity and abuse of power. While Viganò’s first two testimonies occasionally trail off on tangents, his third testimony is succinct and provides the key points as bullets. The first four bullet points are potentially verifiable: Archbishop Viganò has repeatedly asserted that documentary evidence of each exists in the “appropriate archives” at the Vatican and the nunciature in Washington, D.C.
These include the following claims (quoted from Viganò’s third testimony):
- In November 2000, the U.S. nuncio Archbishop (Gabriel) Montalvo informed the Holy See of Cardinal McCarrick’s homosexual behavior with seminarians and priests.
- In December 2006, the new U.S. nuncio, Archbishop Pietro Sambi, informed the Holy See of Cardinal McCarrick’s homosexual behavior with yet another priest.
- In December of 2006, I myself wrote a memo to the Secretary of State Cardinal (Tarcisio) Bertone, and personally delivered it to the Substitute for General Affairs, Archbishop Leonardo Sandri, calling for the pope to bring extraordinary disciplinary measures against McCarrick to forestall future crimes and scandal. This memo received no response.
- In April 2008, an open letter to Pope Benedict by Richard Sipe was relayed by the Prefect of the CDF, Cardinal (William) Levada, to the Secretary of State, Cardinal Bertone, containing further accusations of McCarrick’s sleeping with seminarians and priests. I received this a month later, and in May 2008 I myself delivered a second memo to the then Substitute for General Affairs, Archbishop Fernando Filoni, reporting the claims against McCarrick and calling for sanctions against him. This second memo also received no response.
In September, Catholic News Service (CNS) confirmed the first point with documentary evidence, and the Sipe letter in the fourth point was made public by Sipe himself.
The next two bullet points—“that Pope Benedict had ordered McCarrick to cease public ministry and begin a life of prayer and penance” and that “Cardinal (Marc) Ouellet, the new Prefect of Bishops, repeated to me, the new nuncio to the U.S., the Pope’s restrictions on McCarrick, and I myself communicated them to McCarrick face-to-face”—were potentially open to interpretation or dispute, but between Archbishop Viganò’s second testimony and his third, Cardinal Ouellet himself, in a letter chiding Viganò for making his allegations public, publicly acknowledged the existence of written communications that confirm both.
So what is left? The remaining points of Viganò’s testimony all concern Pope Francis, what he knew of McCarrick’s behavior and when he knew it, as well as Viganò’s claim that “McCarrick was part of a network of bishops promoting homosexuality who, exploiting their favor with Pope Francis, manipulated episcopal appointments so as to protect themselves from justice and to strengthen the homosexual network in the hierarchy and in the Church at large.” Viganò further claims that “Pope Francis himself has either colluded in this corruption, or, knowing what he does, is gravely negligent in failing to oppose it and uproot it.”
Because Viganò does not indicate that there is documentary evidence supporting these allegations, we are unlikely ever to be able to confirm their truth or falsity. The only other man in the room was Pope Francis, and he has not confirmed them, though he has also, so far, chosen not to deny them.
In the end, that may not matter. The points that Viganò has alleged that have been confirmed either by Oullet or by the Sipe letter, as well as by the testimony of Fr. Boniface Ramsey (who first blew the whistle on McCarrick in 1993, and again in 2000 and 2015), are disturbing enough. They more than justify Cardinal Daniel DiNardo’s initial request for an apostolic visitation to investigate the roots of the McCarrick scandal in the United States, and his subsequent request to Pope Francis himself for an investigation into how the Vatican handled the McCarrick case. As Kenneth L. Woodward, the longtime religion editor for Newsweek, wrote recently in Commonweal, “This is one place where liberals and conservatives can and ought to join forces, demanding release of these documents and an explanation of how the ex-cardinal’s case was handled.”
While what Pope Francis knew and when he knew it will almost certainly remain a “he said, he refused to say” situation, the investigations called for by Cardinal DiNardo, if carried out, are certain to take the Church in the United States, and most likely the Vatican bureaucracy, into uncomfortable territory. Looked at objectively, Viganò is not simply alleging that Pope Benedict acted properly and that Pope Francis acted improperly. The allegations against McCarrick were made known to the Vatican with five years left in John Paul II’s pontificate, at the time John Paul appointed McCarrick to the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., and before he elevated him to the College of Cardinals. By Viganò’s own testimony, Pope Benedict was four or five years into his own pontificate, three or four years beyond Viganò’s letter to Sandri, and at least a year beyond the receipt of Richard Sipe’s public letter, before he imposed sanctions on McCarrick. And when he did impose those sanctions, he chose to do so in a circumspect manner that made it possible for McCarrick repeatedly to flout Benedict’s orders.
Anyone who thinks that Viganò’s allegations against Francis absolve his predecessors of wrongdoing or negligence of their own either isn’t paying attention or isn’t interested in the truth, whole and unvarnished.
And there is more. Whether Viganò’s discussion of homosexual networks is accurate or not, he’s far from the only person who has made claims of their existence. In his Commonweal piece, Kenneth Woodward, drawing on his deep knowledge of the inner workings of the Catholic Church in the United States gained from his four decades as religion editor at Newsweek, writes that
it wasn’t just clericalism that allowed McCarrick to abuse seminarians and young priests for decades, even though his behavior was widely known within clerical circles. And it wasn’t just his ecclesiastical clout that provided him protection. It was networks, too.
By networks, I mean groups of gay priests, diocesan and religious, who encourage the sexual grooming of seminarians and younger priests, and who themselves lead double lives—breaking their vows of chastity while ministering to the laity and staffing the various bureaucracies of the Church.
Woodward is no “right-wing zealot” obsessed with homosexuality; indeed, he throws that very phrase around a touch too freely in a piece that is otherwise an excellent example of how to follow the truth wherever it may lead us. He warns against a “purge” of “all homosexual priests and bishops,” but he clearly understands that nothing good can come of avoiding the investigations that Cardinal DiNardo has requested, for fear of any darkness that may be revealed.
Whatever else there is to say about the clerical sexual-abuse crisis, the McCarrick case, and the allegations of homosexual networks made by Archbishop Viganò and Kenneth Woodward, one thing is clear: Those who thought that they were serving the Church by keeping hidden uncomfortable truths that might lead to public scandal were wrong. The scandal is much worse today than it would have been had Fr. Boniface Ramsey’s first warning regarding McCarrick been heeded 25 years ago. It is much worse today than it would have been had the USCCB’s 2002 Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People been extended to bishops as well as to priests; it is much worse today than it would have been had canon law declared sexual activity between celibate priests and adults, “consenting” or otherwise, a canonical crime; and it is much worse today than it would have been had every diocese across the United States publicly reported the names of all priests credibly accused back in 2002, rather than revealing them reluctantly when compelled to do so by civil grand juries.
As Fr. Ramsey writes in the November 2018 issue of The Priest, “For refusing to confront the well-known scandalous activities of one of its most prestigious members, I am tempted to say that the Church finally received the humiliation that it deserved.” Those words are tough but true, and he follows them up with an even deeper truth: “Notwithstanding the hurts inflicted upon the Bride by the members of the Church, she still points truly and accurately to the beauty of the Bridegroom, who had hurts inflicted upon him as well.”
Our time of walking in darkness must come to an end. For eyes not accustomed to the light and ears not accustomed to the sound of a whistle, the truth may be painful for a while. But in the end, only the truth will set the Church free once again to preach the Gospel of Christ without reservation—and without shame.
(Photo credit: Pope Francis and Archbishop Viganò; Vatican Media / CNA)