The Catholic Church is exposed. A number of wide-ranging, deeply researched reports of molestation, rape, abuse, corruption, and concealment have been released in close enough time to one another that the magnitude of the horror might actually—for the average American, anyway—sink in. It all feels monumental, if also powered in part by coincidence. The recently published Pennsylvania report, in which a grand jury details the sexual abuse of more than 1,000 children by more than 300 priests and systematically argues that church officials were complicit, was two years in the making. It didn’t need to be released two weeks before BuzzFeed published Christine Kenneally’s yearslong investigation into the abuse of children—some of whom didn’t survive—by nuns and priests at St. Joseph’s Catholic orphanage. But it was, and the effects of those stories are stacking up. These two reports came out just three months after every Chilean bishop offered to resign over a massive sex abuse scandal, and a year or so after Netflix documentary series The Keepers revisited an unsolved murder and allegations of abuse in a Baltimore Catholic school. That these are all different—but all cover the same institutional atrocity—is the kind of perfect storm that may get us to focus in ways that the abuse of tens of thousands of children worldwide has not managed to. Humans find numbers like that hard to absorb.
But we respond well to drama, and there are two competing stories right now about the Catholic Church. Call it the people vs. the palace. Alongside this tide of testimony from long-suffering victims and determined investigators, there’s the theater of ex–papal nuncio Carlo Maria Viganò’s “memo” calling for (among other things) the resignation of Pope Francis. Viganò is a hard-line conservative known for helping to arrange Pope Francis’ notorious meeting with anti-gay-marriage activist Kim Davis—which exacerbated tensions Pope Francis and Viganò. (The pope has been generally rather accepting of homosexuality; his U.S. visit included a private audience with a gay man and his partner.) Viganò timed his memo to catch the pope at a strategic weak point. Already reeling from the church scandals, Pope Francis was also visiting Ireland, which recently legalized abortion, indexing a growing distance from the faith. He was vulnerable. If this political maneuvering feels gilded and distasteful, it should. The more you read of the abuses, and of church officials shrugging it off, the less interesting the petty details of Vatican palace intrigue become. Of course the abuse of children would become yet another occasion for liberals and conservatives to plot against each other.
The story of an institution’s rot can be told in many ways: the Boston Globe’s Spotlight coverage (and fictionalized film about same), The Keepers, and the Pennsylvania report all take different, painful, sustained approaches to the problem. As an entry into this grim pantheon, Viganò’s memo constitutes the dullest. While he professes great concern for the church’s victims, his most explosive claim—that Pope Francis knew Cardinal Thomas McCarrick’s problematic record before lifting sanctions imposed on him by Pope Benedict—tellingly mentions only McCarrick’s adult, male victims. (McCarrick, who was accused of harassing seminarians, was accused of abusing two minors as well.) While this doesn’t mean that Viganò doesn’t care about children, neither does it hide his agenda or its attendant slippages: “The seriousness of homosexual behavior must be denounced. The homosexual networks present in the Church must be eradicated.”
There are no good guys here. Francis had already taken the unusual step of demoting the cardinal (who was found to have abused a teenager decades ago), ostensibly to signal how serious he was about rooting out malfeasance, but Viganò contends that he didn’t punish his ally soon enough. Viganò had his own controversy, having been accused of quashing an investigation into an archbishop’s misconduct in Minnesota. He has strongly denied this accusation, but it’s relevant (for reasons of intrigue) that after the New York Times reported the cover-up allegation in 2016, Francis asked that Viganò be investigated. As for Pope Francis, he defended Chilean prelate Juan de la Cruz Barros, naming him bishop of Osorno knowing full well that he had strong ties to Fernando Karadima, Chile’s most notorious predator-priest—this despite testimony from a victim of Karadima’s to the effect that Barros didn’t just know of the abuse but directly witnessed it. “We are used to the blows by the Chilean Catholic hierarchy, but it’s especially hurtful when the slap in the face comes from Pope Francis himself,” said one of Karadima’s accusers. “We hoped he was different.”
Three years after defending Barros despite widespread protests in Chile—and refusing the bishop’s resignation twice, saying “there is not a single proof against him, everything is slander”—Francis apologized for the wording of his statement. Only a few months later, in receipt of a damning 2,300-page report, did Francis apologize for defending Barros and casting the victims as liars.
The rampant abuse of children—spanning decades and continents and billions of dollars—is probably not going to be solved by “eradicating homosexuality” (some 20 percent of victims are, after all, girls—despite the fact that priests have much less access to them). It is not attributable to the latest pope, though he doesn’t seem to be helping much. This corruption is deep and old. Whether the culprit is clericalism, or celibacy, or simply structuring things so that certain men get to function as proxies for God on Earth, the root of the problem is so vast that the idea of either of these compromised men “fixing” it feels like a morbid joke. If your focus has been on the victims, this internal sniping isn’t just beside the point, it’s monstrous.
Take this passage from Viganò’s memo:
The Pope asked me in a deceitful way: “What is Cardinal McCarrick like?” I answered him with complete frankness and, if you want, with great naiveté: “Holy Father, I don’t know if you know Cardinal McCarrick, but if you ask the Congregation for Bishops there is a dossier this thick about him. He corrupted generations of seminarians and priests and Pope Benedict ordered him to withdraw to a life of prayer and penance.” The Pope did not make the slightest comment about those very grave words of mine and did not show any expression of surprise on his face, as if he had already known the matter for some time, and he immediately changed the subject. But then, what was the Pope’s purpose in asking me that question: “What is Cardinal McCarrick like?” He clearly wanted to find out if I was an ally of McCarrick or not.
Every part of this: That a simple question is automatically adjudged “deceitful,” and that you can imagine this plausibly being true, bespeaks a culture that’s just too far gone—poisoned by suspicion, calculation, and intrigue. These are not people who can solve the problem. They are the problem. It is as incredible as it is transparent that an ex-nuncio with this worldview would claim any sort of “naïveté.”
Compare that with the lived realities of the children in the Pennsylvania report the church was supposed to protect. The boys whose assailants gave them gold crosses to signal to other predators that they were “desensitized” and groomed. The girl raped by a priest who helped arrange her abortion. The boy whose back was so badly hurt by his rapist that he eventually died from an overdose of pills he took for the pain. The girl who, at age 7, was raped while recovering in the hospital from a tonsillectomy. The 15-year-old boy who was tricked into going to camp and getting “cancer checks” by a predator-priest and married a girl at 19, “possibly to prove his sexuality,” according to church documents. The marriage didn’t work out.
“All along,” Kenneally writes about St. Joseph’s orphanage, “the church had argued that if any abuse had taken place, it would have been the sole responsibility of the individual abuser—not the mother superior, not the order of nuns, not Vermont Catholic Charities, and not the diocese. If the victim could not offer proof that they had reported the abuse to someone in authority, then those in authority were not responsible.” In trying to create a viable case for the victimized children, attorneys generated a theory: to make St. Joseph’s a “dirty institution.”
The idea was to let the cumulative weight of the allegations do the convincing: “[Lawyer Robert Widman] believed that after hearing story after story after story,” Kenneally writes, “any reasonable person would agree. He just had to bring those stories to trial, in front of a jury of their peers, in front of ‘real people,’ as he put it.”
He didn’t get to. A federal judge ruled that the victims would have to bring their cases individually. But today’s palace intrigue narrative seems to replicate the church’s strategy in the St. Joseph’s case: focus on a choice few. The evil cardinal. The new pope. Or, if a group there must be, the “lavender mafia.” This helps to blur out the thousands of testimonies amassed across cities and continents. The worst outcome would be watching that ploy actually work: that the story of 1,000 abused children would be derailed in favor of a When Did He Know game about the Pope and a disgraced cardinal. Yes, individual consequences are badly needed. And they must amount to more than sentencing rapists to penance and prayer. But so is a sustained effort to bear witness to this extraordinary record of pain.