Christopher R. Altieri: Put Viganò on Trial?

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By Christopher R. Altieri, The Catholic Thing, Monday, October 8, 2018

The thoroughly distasteful melodrama-in-letters playing out before our eyes must stop. Pope Francis has the power to stop it. He should order Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò to stand trial in open ecclesiastical court, for the crimes of slander and violation of the pontifical secret.

The factual basis of the case against him is prima facie: he published [1] accusations of heresy, conspiracy, and moral turpitude against several high-ranking prelates. That he did so knowing full well that it would damage their reputations is not capable of doubt. Indeed, it was part of his design.

Archbishop Viganò created difficulties for himself with several intemperate charges he levelled in his first “testimony,” and he compounded those difficulties when he released a second letter [2] last weekend. In that second letter, he not only admitted to violating the pontifical secret, but also repeated a charge first published in a Life Site News report [3], that Pope Francis quashed an investigation into sexual misconduct allegations against the late English cardinal, Cormac Murphy-O’Connor.

Subsequent reportage by The Catholic Herald [4] and The Tablet [5] suggests a sequence of events much different – and perhaps less nefarious – than what the Life Site report initially indicated.

Repeating what you read in the papers is not a crime, but adding a piece of breaking – and unconfirmed – news did not help dispel concerns regarding the purity of Archbishop Viganò’s motives or the credibility of his “testimony.”

In addition, the news outlet in question had the story from another reporter, Marco Tosatti, who was involved in the coordinated release of Viganò’s original letter.

To be sure, the Murphy-O’Connor story is developing simultaneous with all this, and further details could emerge that may corroborate any of the various versions in play, or none of them.

The Holy See could put an end to all the speculation, by releasing the pertinent documentation, which the pope might do in the interests of the very transparency for which he has repeatedly called – often quite eloquently – as an integral part of the remedy to the gangrene in clerical and hierarchical culture.

And in any case, truth is a defense against slander – and is desperately needed, given the gravity of the allegations Viganò has made and of the crisis besetting the Church up to the highest levels of governance. If he could establish that his allegations are correct, the truth of his testimony would likewise be established, and the reasonableness of his violations of the pontifical secret would be put beyond cavil. That is reason enough for him to want a trial.

It is also reason enough that some may wish not to try him.

A public criminal trial would give Archbishop Viganò access to the means – compelling the release of documents, direct confrontation of witnesses, a fair and orderly process — with which to make his case. Canonical trials, however, are usually documentary affairs, conducted in secret. That practice is inadequate now – if it ever was – and must change if transparency is really one of the pope’s goals.

The administration of justice is a principal task of government. Any government’s legitimacy is measured to a large degree by its discharge of this responsibility. Such proceedings must be meaningfully public. Put simply, justice must be seen to be done.

In this case, the “interested party” is, first, the whole body of the Catholic faithful. In truth, everyone with a right to the Gospel, hence to the Church as Christ intends her, has an interest in the Church’s administration of justice. One would expect this to be what the kids call a “no-brainer.”

The most egregious recent example of justice not being seen to be done is, arguably, the case of Archbishop Anthony Apuron, the disgraced former leader of the Church in the U.S. territory of Guam. In 2017, after years of complaints, a Vatican judicial commission investigated him and tried him. The tribunal, led by Cardinal Raymond Burke, found Apuron guilty of two counts out of the six with which he had been charged.

We know that Apuron’s nephew claims he suffered sexual abuse at the hands of his uncle. That would have been either in 1989 or 1990, at a family gathering. Apuron was also allegedly involved in several other scandals: real estate deals done in the shade; influence peddling; abuse of office; financial mismanagement and underhandedness – all against a backdrop of “family tensions” on an island where everyone is somehow related to pretty much everyone else.

Most of the rest is guesswork, though, since the Vatican never published the list of charges, and waited more than a year to announce the verdict. He was acquitted of some charges, found guilty of others. Then, not two months after the announcement of the split verdict, Apuron was on a stage with Pope Francis for a major international gathering at Rome’s Tor Vergata park.

Needless to say, the stakes here are much, much higher.

The Vatican cannot convene another star chamber to try Archbishop Viganò. The longer he is left to languish, the more intense will be the scrutiny of the pope and the Vatican by the press. And then there are the secular authorities conducting their own investigations. Something will give, eventually. The truth will out. The window of opportunity for the pope and the Vatican to get out in front of this growing crisis – and not only in the United States – is rapidly closing.


*Image: Benedict XIII Presiding over a Provincial Roman Synod at the Basilica of St. John Lateran by Pier Leone Ghezzi, c. 1725 [North Carolina Museum of Art]

Christopher R. Altieri is a journalist, writer and editor based in Rome, Italy. He spent more than a dozen years on the news desk at Vatican Radio. He holds the PhD from the Pontifical Gregorian University, and is the author of The Soul of a Nation: America as a Tradition of Inquiry and Nationhood.