Catholics, indeed everyone interested in the Church, stand in dazed awe at an audacious pyramid of lies. Broader, comprehensive lies support detailed, lesser lies, in a intricate pattern, soaring to vast heights and covering an extensive territory, something like the fortress of Sauron, in Tolkien's Lord of the Rings: wall upon wall, battlement upon battlement, black, immeasurably strong, mountain of iron, gate of steel, tower of adamant.
A small but indefatigible cadre of Catholic commentators (Austen Ivereigh, Massimo Faggioli et al.) are suggesting to us that this fortress of falsehood is to be found in Viganò's own 'testimony'. They see a pattern of deceit, motivated by frustrated ambition, and no doubt other unworthy things, being supported by a 'team' including various persons they do not like. If this were the case, the situation would be extremely worrying. This interpretation recruits as Viganò's co-conspirators prelates of far greater dignity and popularity than Archbishop Viganò himself. It is impossible to think of a public challenge to a Pope's authority as elaborately planned or supported by such senior churchmen in modern times, and coming on top of the McCarrick case and the Grand Jury report, the implications are dizzying. One could only say that, on this view, one statement at least of Viganò's memorandum is true: that the cracks perceived by Pope Paul VI as letting the smoke of Satan into the Church have become chasms.
We are facing a real crisis - on this view - not just of this Papacy, but of the Church. The Church's credibility is at hazard.
There is only one possible response, only one way of retrieving the situation. The claims must be shown to be false by a truly credible investigation. A major part of this investigation should not, fortunately, be too difficult, because Viganò himself notes that a lot of very senior Cardinals would inevitably have had access to the information he claims to be revealing. Getting them to testify under oath to affirm what they did or did not know would go a long way to resolving the issue. Publishing the relevant portions of various files in Washington and Rome would do a great deal more. In these two ways there would be some hope that the story could be brought to heel, in public relations terms, in a couple of weeks.
Austen Ivereigh is a public relations expert, but the curious thing is that he is not calling for an official investigation of any kind. He thinks that the Viganò memo would best be dealt with by ordinary journalistic means. Since there are already journalists supporting the veracity of the memo, however, this will inevitably mean a protracted and inconclusive conflict. It is even more strange that the focus of Ivereigh's attention has been not on identifying ways of demonstrating the falsehood of specific allegations, but on attempts to villify Viganò himself. Viganò has had to publish letters showing the falsehood of claims now being made that he tried to bring a particular abuse investigation to a halt. This kind of skirmish is an absurd distraction. Catholics paying attention to this escalating crisis do not care about the alleged misdeeds of Archbishop Viganò. They care about the alleged misdeeds of Cardinals and of Pope Francis himself. Those are the ones which need to be looked into and quashed: if they can be.
Pope Francis himself has weighed in on the allegations in a different, but equally puzzling way. In a press conference, he told the assembled journalists to read the memorandum and reach their own conclusions. His advisers may have imagined that this response would make the Pope look statesmanlike and confident, brushing off absurd accusations as beneath his notice. But these are not anonymous denunciations on a blog or scandal-sheet. Viganò has held some of the most senior positions in the Curia, and was intimately connected with the matters he talks about when he was Nuncio to the United States. He has now been supported by a senior Vatican diplomat he worked with in Washington, and American bishops are beginning to call for a public investigation. If Pope Francis wants to be free of these claims, he needs at least to go to the trouble of denying them. Then he should ask one of his official staff to furnish the documentary and testamentary evidence needed to disprove them.
Prelates and Popes have been accused of wrongdoing before, as have many heads of state and heads of government around the world. If the accusations are at all credible, and yet false, the sensible ones go to the necessary trouble of disproving them, using the abundant resources of personnel and documentation at their disposal. The ones who do not do this, leaving their hapless supporters to defend them without the weapons to do so effectively, do a disservice to the community which they have been called to govern.
So much, then, for the case for the defence. The Pope wants us to make up our own minds about Viganò's memo, and it is indeed difficult not to take a view. What are we to say to non-Catholics about it? What should we say to secular commentators and secular authorities? Should we be defending the Church's right to deal with this matter internally, when there is every indication that no such a thing will happen? Should we be saying that Pope Francis, and others standing accused of wrongdoing in the memo, must be given the benefit of the doubt, when they have not even denied the accusations? The world is looking to see if Catholics, ordinary Catholics, Bishops and Cardinals, and every kind of Catholic commentator and leader, are going to demand action over what appear to be serious and credible accusations, or if they are going to pretend everything is all right while the Church's moral authority is being systematically dynamited and bulldozed around them.
So here is what I, personally, say. I do not imagine that I am infallible, and nor I do not have access to any very special information, but for what it is worth my judgement, after reading the Viganò memo, is that is not just credible, but that it is, at least in broad outline, obviously true. Yes, it is obviously true.
Why? To start with the most important accusation, it is simply not credible, given what we now know about former Cardinal McCarrick's career of criminality and immorality, about the staggering number of victims, times, and places, and the number of complaints made at every level, that the problem was not perfectly well known at the Vatican by the time Pope Francis was elected in 2013. Active Catholics frustrated by stonewalling by their bishops on any issue routinely write to the Nuncio and to the relevant departments in the Curia. Scores, if not hundreds, of such letters concerning McCarrick must have arrived on official doormats over the decades of his sordid life as priest, bishop, and cardinal. When such letters arrive in Nunciatures, they are generally copied for the file and forwarded to Rome: that is the Nuncio's job.
Deny it who can: by 2013, they must have had a considerable collection of such letters in Rome, not just from the wretched ordinary victims but from senior priests and bishops. If they didn't know about the court cases leading to pay-offs to victims, it was only because they did not want to know. When Viganò says that, as Nuncio, he knew, he is simply stating the obvious. People would have been queueing up to tell him. When Viganò says that he was in touch with his superiors in Rome about it, the only rational response is say: well, of course he was. What possible motive would a Nuncio have to sit on a powder-keg like that without telling his superiors?
The next key claim of Viganò is that having been told to cease his public ministry by Pope Benedict, McCarrick resumed travelling, speaking and so on under Pope Francis, who made use of him as a trusted adviser. Of this one can say: it would be incredible, it would simply not cohere with publicly known facts, if this were not true. As Cardinal and Pope, Ratzinger tried hard to rein in abusers, but he drew back from public actions which would cause grave scandal. Thus, as Pope he finally managed to cashier the monster Maciel, but did not grasp the nettle and suppress his foundation, the Legionnaires of Christ. Against considerable opposition, Pope Benedict appointed a clean bishop to the tainted see of Brussels, to succeed Cardinal Daneels, but did not intervene further in the Belgian church, or punish Daneels, leaving his appointee, Leonard, isolated and ineffective. He accepted the resignations of four Irish bishops accused of covering up abuse, but failed to use the psychological moment to clear out the hierarchy more fully. Pope Benedict's papacy was, truly, painful to watch. The claim that Pope Benedict quietly told McCarrick, who had already lost his vote in any future conclave due to age, to live a life of penance and prayer must be true, because Benedict must have known about the problem, and we know that nothing more public happened to McCarrick at that time. That Pope Francis equally quietly brought him back into circulation as an adviser, and given little jobs to do, is equally obvious, because McCarrick did indeed come back into circulation, and Pope Francis is the only person who could have made that happen.
And just as the actions attributed to Pope Benedict are characteristic of him, so in this Pope Francis did what we already knew he did with others, such as Cardinal Daneels. An abuse victim actually made a recording of Daneels trying to hush up an abuse case and save the reputation of one of his colleagues, and this contributed to a major public row in Belgium involving the police and courts. Don't take my word for it, here it is from the BBC from 2010. Are we going to be told that Pope Francis just didn't know about this case? Because Pope Francis had Daneels next to him on the balcony when his papal election was announced just three years later.
A third major accusation of Viganò is that a number of American bishops and Curial prelates, whom he names, were well aware of the McCarrick problem, and those American bishops who have denied this must be lying. Once again, while they have as much a right to their good name as any in the Church, it is simply not possible to see how what Viganò says could be false. Of course they knew. Of course they knew. How could they possibly not have known? Do they have some preternatural gift of not hearing, or of forgetting, explosive accusations involving their senior colleagues? It would be one thing for them to say that they had heard things and not believed them. But we are being asked to believe, for example by Cardinal Farrell who worked as an auxiliary bishop under McCarrick for six years, and Cardinal Wuerl, who succeeded McCarrick as Archbishop of Washington, that they never even heard about it. I'm sorry, Your Eminences: in asking us to believe that, you ask too much.
To say that we could already have worked out these things for ourselves is not to say that Archbishop Viganò's testimony is not significant. By placing a number of facts together, through the perspective of a man well-known in the American church at the very nexus between American bishops and the policies of Pope Benedict and Pope Francis, Viganò has made inescapable certain conclusions, and we see now more and more Catholic commentators giving up the struggle to defend Pope Francis' record on the abuse issue. Michael Voris' Church Militant site, which once routinely condemned all criticisms of any Pope, has now come out in favour of Viganò. This tweet from Taylor Marshall speaks for itself.
Meanwhile, apart from the hard-core 'team Francis' members, Catholic commentators accustomed to defend Pope Francis against those they imagined were extremists, have found nothing to say. Of far greater significance, however, is the silence of the world's Cardinals and Bishops: other than those, of course, who are saying that there should be a proper investigation (such as Cardinal Burke).
If Viganò's testimony is not an extraordinary, demonic edifice of lies, then, we are forced to conclude that this dark fortress lies elsewhere, and that it's open revelation and final destruction may be nigh. The smiling faces and reassuring speeches of senior prelates and even of the Holy Father have been concealing some ugly things for a long time. We are already hearing about those ugly things from the secular press and the secular courts, and it is of the highest importance that matters are not left entirely to them, unless we want the Church to be reshaped by them alone. We must raise our voices now if we are going to retain any credibility. We must make clear our outrage and our refusal to be fobbed off with excuses and window-dressing reforms. The Church's evangelising potential in the next generation will be crucially shaped by the reaction of Catholics today to these scandals. We risk otherwise the condemnation of the Angel in the Apocalypse:
Scio opera tua, quia nomen habes quod vivas, et mortuus es.
I know thy works, and that thou hast the name of being alive. And thou art dead. (Rev 3:1)
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