What Could Popes Have Known?

Image result for viganoArchbishop Viganò’s central premise is that two popes knew about Archbishop McCarrick’s abuse of seminarians and its cover-up among American prelates.

Granted, Richard Sipe’s letters and other efforts are pretty damning. Even the ex-nuncio’s testimony has the ring of truth about much of it.

Supposedly, Pope Benedict XVI imposed sanctions on the disgraced cardinal. For some reason, these never took. And some countercritics have suggested they never existed. I wonder: is there a paper trail in it? Would these sanctions be recorded in some file? Archbishop Viganò testifies that he “learned with certainty, through Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re, then-Prefect of the Congregation for Bishops, that Richard Sipe’s courageous and meritorious Statement had had the desired result.” What does that mean? Was he shown that “thick” file? Was he told? If the latter, does that amount to gossip? To be sure, gossip can be true. But word-of-mouth isn’t quite the same as a paper trail, which I assume someone might have–maybe Georg Gänswein?

Speaking of gossip, think about it from Pope Benedict’s viewpoint. Richard Sipe was a laicized priest with non-orthodox views on homosexuality. You or I might listen to a respected professional in psychology. But my experience is that the institutional church tends to distrust people outside a safe circle of trusty clergy. Still, what could a pope do in such a situation? Mr Sipe was not a victim of abuse. Neither was the nuncio-to-be. Perhaps no victims were coming forward.

As for Pope Francis, he was in a similar situation. Presented with disturbing news about an eighty-something cleric well beyond his main career, would he take Archbishop Viganò’s insistence at face value? If a few cardinals weighed in on the other side, maybe he goes with the people he knew.

Pope Francis certainly knew of the allegations against Archbishop McCarrick. The question is: did he believe them? If he believed them, did he figure the guy was safe being an airport bishop? That’s not much different from how bishops in the US conducted themselves in the 80s and 90s. One bishop of whom I thought well assigned an accused priest to the chancery to work in canon law. Another priest I knew was housed in a parish and assigned to hospital work. A third accused cleric I knew was assigned to a high school.

In example one, the guy was pretty safe in his work life, but maybe not in social circles. In example two, he celebrated Mass and reconciliation with children. For three … well, you can judge.

In my opinion, I’d say the dossier from the Congregation of Bishops needs review. If the pope emeritus imposed “private” sanctions in “2009 or 2010,” then we might well question why these were hushed up and the later ones against Keith O’Brien were made public. It would seem to me that on the first flouting of these supposed sanctions, Pope Benedict and/or his curia would go public and clamp down on the whole show. But he didn’t. And Pope Francis doesn’t seem to have been told about them. Remember, this was about the time Cardinal O’Brien withdrew from the conclave and by June of that year was living in seclusion, away from the trappings of office.

My sense is that both of the last two popes were working with incomplete information. Their conduct might be attributed to some mixture of ignorance, stubbornness, or malice. The latter I would tend to discount. The former seems believable, given how much information is screened through advisors, assistants, and others in their close circle.

Stubborn, I can see in a lot of people. It’s a flaw. Not usually a crime.

Each of these popes, plus the one before them, were flawed men. Just like anyone else. When flaws blossom into crimes, then we can be rightly talking about resignation from office and removal of status. Where popes are concerned, I don’t think we’re there yet.

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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