Why Francis Must Speak

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By Rev. Gerald E. Murray, J.C.D., First Things, 8 . 28 . 18

The crux of Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò’s indictment of Pope Francis comes toward the end of his Memorandum: “Francis is abdicating the mandate which Christ gave to Peter to confirm the brethren. Indeed, by his action he has divided them, led them into error, and encouraged the wolves to continue to tear apart the sheep of Christ’s flock.”

The remedy he proposes for this intolerable situation is drastic, but logical if his claims are true: “In this extremely dramatic moment for the universal Church, he must acknowledge his mistakes and, in keeping with the proclaimed principle of zero tolerance, Pope Francis must be the first to set a good example for cardinals and bishops who covered up McCarrick’s abuses and resign along with all of them.”

The fact that Pope Francis refused to answer questions about Viganò’s charges on the flight back from the World Meeting of Families in Ireland is telling. How likely is it that an innocent man would let these multiple serious charges of malfeasance remain unanswered? Certainly possible, but highly unlikely. Notably, just the day before at Dublin Castle, Francis said:

With regard to the most vulnerable, I cannot fail to acknowledge the grave scandal caused in Ireland by the abuse of young people by members of the Church charged with responsibility for their protection and education…The failure of ecclesiastical authorities—bishops, religious superiors, priests and others—adequately to address these repellent crimes has rightly given rise to outrage, and remains a source of pain and shame for the Catholic community. I myself share those sentiments… My predecessor, Pope Benedict, spared no words in recognizing both the gravity of the situation and in demanding that “truly evangelical, just and effective” measures be taken in response to this betrayal of trust (cf. Pastoral Letter to the Catholics of Ireland, 10). His frank and decisive intervention continues to serve as an incentive for the efforts of the Church’s leadership both to remedy past mistakes and to adopt stringent norms meant to ensure that they do not happen again. More recently, in a Letter to the People of God, I reaffirmed the commitment, and the need for an even greater commitment, to eliminating this scourge in the Church, at any cost, moral and of suffering (emphasis added).

In the letter from Pope Benedict XVI cited by Francis we read:

All of us are suffering as a result of the sins of our confreres who betrayed a sacred trust or failed to deal justly and responsibly with allegations of abuse… I know that many of you are disappointed, bewildered, and angered by the way these matters have been handled by some of your superiors. Yet, it is essential that you cooperate closely with those in authority and help to ensure that the measures adopted to respond to the crisis will be truly evangelical, just and effective.

Archbishop Viganò made plain that he too is “disappointed, bewildered and angered by the way these matters have been handled” by his superior, Pope Francis. When asked about this on the plane the pontiff replied:

I read the statement this morning, and I must tell you sincerely that, I must say this, to you and all those who are interested.  Read the statement carefully and make your own judgment.  I will not say a single word about this.  I believe the statement speaks for itself.  And you have the journalistic capacity to draw your own conclusions.  It’s an act of faith.  When some time passes and you have drawn your conclusions, I may speak.  But, I would like your professional maturity to do the work for you. It will be good for you. That’s good (emphasis added).

How is it possible for Catholics to trust the supreme authority of the Church when that authority refuses to answer a fellow bishop’s serious charges that the pope himself has done the very thing he previously condemned? How can journalists or anyone else make fully informed conclusions about the truthfulness of what Viganò says when the one man who can affirm or deny those charges refuses to say a word, at least for now?

Recall what Francis said at Dublin Castle: “The failure of ecclesiastical authorities—bishops, religious superiors, priests and others—adequately to address these repellent crimes has rightly given rise to outrage, and remains a source of pain and shame for the Catholic community. I myself share those sentiments (emphasis added).”

The stunned outrage occasioned by Viganò’s allegations of papal malfeasance regarding the moral turpitude of ex-Cardinal McCarrick is unprecedented in my lifetime. McCarrick’s gross immorality and abuse of authority is a monumental “source of pain and shame for the Catholic community.” Even more stunning is Viganò’s account that Francis removed the penitential restrictions Benedict placed on McCarrick. Only Francis can explain the truth or falsehood of Viganò’s account. Not to do so is to leave the entire Church, and especially McCarrick’s victims, with the impression that it does not matter that he was a predatory sex offender; he’s the pope’s friend, he is unaccountable, nothing and no one else matters.

One great lesson of this scandal is that inflicting private and unpublicized penalties for grave offenses against chastity on “important” clerics is a huge mistake. When Benedict found McCarrick to be guilty as charged, the rest of the Church should have been told. McCarrick would not then have been able to pretend he was under no censure. Any violation of the terms of his punishment would have been noted by everyone and thus not allowed to happen. Then Cardinal McCarrick would not have been at the 2013 conclave, just as the Scottish Cardinal Keith O’Brien was not present due to his sexual abuse of adult males under his authority.

Will the Viganò memo meet the same fate as the five Dubia on AmorisLaetitia submitted by Cardinal Burke et al.? For the good of the Church, the faithful must not let that happen. Francis should not be shown the misplaced charity of silence in response to his silence. Recall that Juan Barros would still be the bishop of Osorno, Chile, if the laity in particular had not kept insisting on the need to answer the question, “Why is this underserving man who failed to protect victims of sexual abuse by an important cleric (Fr. Fernando Karadima) still the bishop of a diocese?” This time the question is: “Did Pope Francis ignore and cover up McCarrick’s sexual abuse of seminarians, abuse made possible by McCarrick’s immoral use of his episcopal authority?” If the pope did this, by his own words he indicts himself. That question, prompted by Viganò’s eminently coherent account of his personal interactions with Francis, must be answered. Our pontiff must confirm the brethren in the truth by telling the Church what he knew and did regarding McCarrick.

The Rev. Gerald E. Murray, J.C.D. is pastor of Holy Family Church in New York.

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