Be Careful About Lionizing Viganò
The former nuncio became a trad hero after accusing Pope Francis of inaction on McCarrick. But there may be a beam in the accuser's eye.
Back in 2018, I got into such a bust-up with a fellow Catholic journalist on Twitter that I had to delete my account and take her to lunch by way of apology. We were arguing about the newly-published “testimony” of Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, the former Apostolic Nuncio (papal ambassador) to the United States. Archbishop Viganò claimed to have repeatedly warned the Holy See about then-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick. He accused Pope Francis of complicity in McCarrick’s sexual misconduct and called on the pontiff to resign.
My correspondent—a staunch Francis apologist—didn’t believe Viganò for a second. I, on the other hand, hold fast to that most sacred principle of journalism: trust no one except God and your mum. I could readily entertain the idea that Francis had let McCarrick fly under the radar, until he caused a scandal too large for the Pope to ignore. I believed Viganò, and I still do.
In fact, the Vatican’s brand-new McCarrick Report corroborates every single one of the Archbishop’s claims. But it carries one very interesting qualifier.
According to the Report, Rome did receive several warnings from the nuncio, but never acted because they had no hard evidence of McCarrick’s misconduct. That might have changed (they posit) in 2012, when a reliable witness finally came forward. This witness, named “Priest 3” in the Report, was a priest of the Diocese of Metuchen, where McCarrick served as bishop from 1981 to 1986.
Cardinal Marc Ouellet, Prefect of the Congregation for Bishops, asked Archbishop Viganò to investigate Priest 3’s allegations. Specifically, he directed Viganò to personally interview Priest 3, along with Metuchen’s Vicar-General and Vicar for Clergy. According to the Report, Viganò never followed through. In fact, the Vatican quotes Priest 3 as saying he was “disappointed” by the Archbishop’s silence and “felt that the Nuncio was not paying attention to something that to me was very important.”
In essence, Rome is saying, “Yes, we got Viganò’s warnings. And we asked him, as our senior representative in the United States, to determine the truth of those claims. He didn’t. How were we supposed to take action against McCarrick without proof—proof that he, as nuncio, was responsible for collecting?”
Now, of course, one must bear in mind that the McCarrick Report is a heavily biased document. Maybe the Vatican was killing two birds with one stone: exonerating Francis while tarring his most outspoken critic.
Still, I thought it only fair to raise these concerns in my analysis of the Report. Serious journalists don’t play favorites, after all. Besides, any Catholic who seriously wants to purge the Church of abusers and their enablers must be willing to scrutinize every single prelate, whatever their factional allegiances.
Three days after the McCarrick Report was published, Archbishop Viganò gave his first substantial response to the Vatican’s charges. I expected them to reassure me of His Excellency’s innocence, but it wasn’t much comfort. Let me take some of Archbishop Viganò’s replies one by one.
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1) “In the Report I am accused of not having followed up on the request for information regarding the accusations made by ‘Priest 3’ against McCarrick.”
Well, yes and no. Viganò was specifically accused of not having contacted Priest 3, his Vicar-General, and his Vicar for Priests. That’s a crucial distinction.
2) “I informed [Ouellet] that the civil case of ‘Priest 3’ had been dismissed without the possibility of appeal.”
Again, his task wasn’t to report on the results of a civil suit. This is the reason he was tasked with launching a brand-new investigation. The Vatican had heard plenty of rumors about McCarrick; what they lacked was hard evidence and credible witnesses.
3) “Bishop Bootkoski, of Metuchen, characterized the accusations of Priest 3 as false and slanderous.”
As well he might. Bishop Bootkoski is a McCarrick protégé with his own history of sexual malfeasance. Surely, anyone as knowledgeable as Viganò would know that McCarrick’s right-hand man couldn’t provide a reliable character witness.
Besides, McCarrick wasn’t even the named defendant in the civil suit filed by Priest 3. The suit wasn’t filed against any individual, but against the institution that allowed that abuse to proceed. The institution is the Diocese of Metuchen, which made Bootkoski himself the defendant.
Why on earth would Viganò take Bootkoski at his word?
4) “Those who accuse me of not having sent a written communication to Bishop Bootkoski, the Ordinary of ‘Priest 3’ and Bishop of Metuchen, know very well that this depends on the precise directions of the Secretariat of State.”
But that’s not what anyone is saying. They’re wondering why Viganò didn’t speak to Priest 3, his Vicar-General, and his Vicar for Priests, as the Vatican ordered him to do. Hence, the McCarrick Report claims:
Viganò still had not taken any further steps to ascertain the truth of the most recent allegation against McCarrick—which had been made by Priest 3 in 2012—and therefore did not provide the Secretariat of State with Priest 3’s sworn certification, which was the first signed statement by an individual who claimed to be the victim of sexual misconduct by McCarrick.
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Add these to the pile of dubious quotes the McCarrick report attributes to the former nuncio—none of which he has disputed.
For instance, in his 2018 testimony, Archbishop Viganò claimed that Pope Francis, upon being elected pope, lifted all of the restrictions placed on McCarrick by his predecessor, Benedict XVI. (Benedict ordered him to leave public life and lead a life of “prayer and penance.”) Yet the Report claims that, in a 2012 memo, he was already describing those restrictions as a “dead letter.” If the restrictions were no longer in place at least a year before Francis’s election, how could the new pope lift them?
The Report also shows that, after Viganò allegedly failed to investigate McCarrick, the two enjoyed a warm relationship.
In February of 2014, the latter met with John Boehner to discuss the U.S.–Mexico border. Viganò later wrote to McCarrick, “I am truly grateful for your efforts in promoting immigration reform, as well as for your availability to someone like Speaker Boehner. Likewise, know that it was a pleasure for me to speak with [you] on the telephone earlier this month.”
A few months later, he wrote another letter to McCarrick. “Your Eminence,” said Viganò, “thank you also for apprising me about your recent trip to the Central African Republic and for the excellent report you provided for the U.S. State Department and the Secretariat of State for the Holy See. It is my fervent prayer that your praiseworthy efforts on behalf of peace and stability in the CAR will bear abundant fruit.”
Pope Benedict’s restrictions had summarily banned McCarrick from travelling outside of the United States. Why was Archbishop Viganò egging him on? Is it because he took for granted that the restrictions were a “dead letter”?
I raised these concerns with one of the Archbishop’s intermediaries and asked if he would forward some follow-up questions to Viganò. I won’t give the intermediary’s name, but I will say that he was extremely irritated by my doubting the archbishop’s rebuttal. He didn’t address any of my concerns, either, but told me to trust Viganò and drop the matter. Again, as a matter of professional ethics, I don’t trust anyone.
So, from where I stand, we can draw one of three conclusions.
One is that the Holy See lied about asking Viganò to interview Priest 3, the Vicar-General, and the Vicar for Clergy. The Archbishop simply forgot to mention this fact in his rebuttal to the McCarrick Report. This seems unlikely.
The second is that, upon hearing that Priest 3’s civil case was dismissed, he decided not to waste his time pursuing a dead end. The whole reason McCarrick wasn’t punished until 2018, despite ubiquitous rumors about “Uncle Ted’s beach house,” was that no hard evidence existed.
Yet this, too, seems dubious. Viganò surely knew that the Vatican doesn’t require the same standard of evidence as an American civil court. A credible witness willing to provide a sworn certification about McCarrick’s abuse may have satisfied Rome’s threshold for evidence. The testimony of Priest 3 may well have led to McCarrick’s being defrocked in 2012.
The third is that Viganò, as a senior Vatican diplomat, was afraid to take on McCarrick directly. He declined to investigate the powerful prelate because he feared professional reprisals from the Cardinal’s allies in Rome. Instead, he continued ingratiating himself to McCarrick for the sake of his career, occasionally reminding the Vatican of McCarrick’s perverse behavior in the hopes that a more senior official would take action directly. Given what we know so far, this is the only conclusion that makes any real sense.
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Now, if Archbishop Viganò was just another prelate who declined to prosecute McCarrick, we could simply chalk that up as another blow to Catholic morale and move on. But if Viganò was derelict in his duties as nuncio, then there are huge implications for the Church going forward.
Firstly, far from taking a passive stance towards McCarrick, as many of Benedict XVI’s critics accuse him of doing, the Pope Emeritus and his lieutenants actively sought to nail McCarrick for his malfeasance. Nothing came of those efforts because the Vatican’s most senior official in the United States declined to investigate the charges. Instead, he simply considered the result of the civil suit, consulted McCarrick’s protégé Bishop Bootkoski, and informed Rome that there was no proof of guilt.
Secondly, when Francis succeeded Benedict as pontiff, he inherited a dossier on McCarrick that said an investigation into the Cardinal’s sexual misconduct had been opened and closed without finding any evidence. Perhaps Viganò then, too, quoted Bootkoski’s conclusion that the charges were “false and slanderous.”
Francis may or may not have believed the rumors about McCarrick. But if the nunciature in Washington had officially concluded that the cardinal was innocent—or, at least, that they couldn’t prove his guilt—that may explain (if not excuse) Francis’s decision not to pursue the matter further until a new charge was brought publicly against McCarrick in July of 2018: child molestation. Nine months later, in February of 2019, the Vatican defrocked him. Clearly, Francis leapt at the first opportunity to give McCarrick the sack.
Why would Archbishop Viganò then come out in 2018 with his “testimony”? The only explanation I can muster is this: when the McCarrick scandal became public, His Excellency knew that he would be implicated for not following through with the Vatican. He publicly accused Francis of failing to discipline McCarrick, hoping to endear himself to the Pope’s traditionalist critics. Those traditionalists would then give him cover in the event that the Vatican fingered him for complicity.
Now, sources in the traditionalist movement tell me that Viganò didn’t celebrate the Latin Mass before he became a trad rock-star. He was also apparently on board with the U.S. bishops’ ridiculous social-justice agenda, including “immigration reform” (read: open borders). But now he’s “our guy,” and few conservative Catholics are willing to countenance the idea that he deceived us.
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It would certainly be embarrassing to many in the traditionalist movement. I don’t use the phrase “rock star” lightly. Many traditionalists have made the archbishop’s testimony the cornerstone of their campaign against Pope Francis. T-shirts, mugs, and other swag bearing the archbishop’s likeness—along with slogans like “Team Viganò” and “V is for Viganò”—are hugely popular with traditionalists.
But here’s the thing. We tried that with John Paul II. Very good, holy men refused to believe that John Paul had turned a blind eye to the super-predator Father Marcial Maciel. A number of old-school journalists who rose to prominence during the John Paul papacy are again refusing to accept that John Paul is responsible in any meaningful way for McCarrick’s rise—this, despite the fact that JPII appointed him to the Archdiocese of Washington and made him a cardinal, against the warnings of high-ranking American prelates.
If traditionalist Catholics go down the same road—if we persist in defending a man who’s manifestly unworthy of our efforts—then our credibility will also suffer. And we’ll have nobody to blame but ourselves.
Traditional Catholicism is undergoing a sort of renaissance these days. Membership at parishes that offer the Traditional Latin Mass are exploding, and Catholic seminaries are full of orthodox young men eager to celebrate the TLM. Days before the election, traditionalist Dr. Taylor Marshall offered a prayer at a massive Trump rally in the swing state of Pennsylvania. That all bodes well for the movement.
This may be our first real test as a mainstream force in American culture. Is traditionalist Catholicism a mature movement, capable of scrutinizing its own leaders? Or is it a series of interlocking personality cults? If one of its champions falls, will he drag down all the others?
I’ve attended the Latin Mass since the day I entered the Church. I don’t like to call myself a traditionalist, for the same reason Cardinal Robert Sarah (himself a “trad”) laid out in 2017:
You are called by God, as is every baptized person, to take your full place in the life and mission of the Church in the world of today, not to be shut up in—or worse, to retreat into—a ghetto in which defensiveness and introspection reign and stifle the Christian witness and mission to the world you too are called to give.
The Viganò case will test whether trads are ready to come out of our ghetto and offer our witness as Christians—Christians who happen to prefer the Tridentine Mass. If not, I suppose we’ll just keep to our own Twitter feeds and YouTube channels, arguing amongst ourselves about Balthasarian soteriology and quoting the Council of Trent, occasionally dragging Father James Martin and reminding each other that Joe Biden isn’t really Catholic.
That’s not such a bad life, after all. Young families will continue making their way to TLM parishes, as they have been over the last few decades, slowly but surely growing our ranks. Still, I think we have more to give the Church—and the world. Much more. And, for what it’s worth, I think God does, too.
Michael Warren Davis is the editor of Crisis Magazine. He is the author of The Reactionary Mind (Regnery, 2021).