The controversy surrounding a letter written by Carlo Maria Viganò, formerly the Catholic Church’s chief diplomat in the United States, shows few signs—divine or otherwise—of abating. Viganò claimed Pope Francis and others in the Vatican helped cover up sexual abuse by Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, who was once the archbishop of Washington. The pope has refused to dignify Viganò’s claims with anything more than a cursory response—“I will not say a single word on this”—but the letter has sparked a huge debate between different factions within the Vatican.
Viganò, an opponent of Pope Francis who thinks homosexuality is at the root of the sex abuse crisis, is being supported by a number of conservative Catholics in America and abroad, many of them uneasy with Francis’ papacy. Meanwhile, Francis’ supporters think Viganò’s claims are more about undermining Francis than the issue of sexual abuse, the response to which has been one of the most contested—and, to many, disappointing—aspects of Francis’ tenure.
To talk about what this all means, I recently spoke by phone with John L. Allen Jr., the editor of Crux, an independent Catholic news site, and one of the leading experts on the church. During the course of our conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, we discussed the reasons to both trust and distrust Viganò, where Francis has gone wrong in his response to the crisis, and the church’s biggest blind spot when it comes to confronting sexual abuse.
Isaac Chotiner: Two-part question: Now that we’ve had a few days of reporting and follow-up, how much credence do you give the allegations that were made? And maybe more importantly, is the larger idea that Pope Francis has responded insufficiently to the abuse crisis correct regardless of what you think of the specific allegations?
John L. Allen Jr.: Well, I approach this as a reporter. What I would note is that much of the reaction to these allegations, both those who have said they find them credible and those who have said they really don’t, appear to be driven a lot more by politics than any hard evidence. The more a particular Catholic likes Pope Francis, the more inclined they are to dismiss all this, and the more they don’t like him, the more inclined they are to take it seriously. I think it is premature right now to draw hard conclusions one way or the other.
What we know is that a very serious allegation has been made from someone who, at face value, would have to be taken seriously. He was the pope’s ambassador in the United States. He certainly would have had the access to Francis and be in a position to know the things he claims he told him. I think you have to take it seriously. On the other hand, I think you also have to take it with a grain of salt because it is just patently obvious there’s a huge political agenda involved in all of this. Also, Viganò, if you look at the statement he issued, this factual claim about what he told Francis comes wrapped in a lot of other bits of character assassination at other senior figures in the church that is based largely on innuendo and supposition and just political opposition. I think there are good grounds to be skeptical, but at the end of the day I also think that the charge has to be taken seriously. There ought to be some kind of review.
Some of Francis’ defenders are saying that Viganò had already displayed a record of dishonesty by making unfounded allegations back in 2011 and that that should change our view of his credibility. Do you agree?
Yes and no. It is true that Viganò back in 2011 made a lot of allegations. Letters that he wrote to Pope Benedict and to Benedict’s No. 2 were at the heart of the first Vatican leaks affair, alleging all kinds of financial corruption and skullduggery in the Vatican. [If] you read those letters and you try to unpack them, the pattern that emerges is that some of the claims Viganò makes appear to be credible, appear to be backed by reasonable evidence. A lot of the rest of it appears to be driven more by personal considerations impossible to verify, and with a clear political edge. In that sense, this is déjà vu. What we have is a serious charge that does need to be investigated but also calls for a degree of skepticism about that charge because of everything else that comes wrapped with it.
What have you made of the way that Francis and people close to him have responded to this? I saw a video clip of an ally of Francis essentially saying we have more important things to focus on, like immigration and global warming. And the pope’s response was a nonresponse. I understand being annoyed if the accusations are untrue, but given the way that the entire church has responded to this crisis, and the seriousness of the accusations, it also feels pretty insufficient.
Yeah, certainly my read talking to people in and around the Vatican, because I’m in Rome right now, is that there are a lot of people who would agree with that assessment. It’s hard to ignore the fact that you have now several American bishops, I think the last count is maybe seven, who have come forward to say that they find Viganò to be a credible guy and that this charge needs to be thoroughly investigated. You know and I know that media organizations all over the world are gearing up to try to get to the bottom of this. It is hard to see how this just disappears on its own until there’s a more kind of thorough answer from the Vatican about what the pope knew and when he knew it.
How do you think Pope Francis on the whole has dealt with the sex abuse crisis?
I think the kind of consensus view is that Pope Francis has been a mixed bag to date. That is, he has clearly reaffirmed the church’s commitment to zero tolerance. He has met with survivors and victims. He created a new commission in the Vatican to advise him on this issue. He’s promoted reform efforts in different parts of the world. Recently, with McCarrick, he has sort of demonstrated that accountability for abuse is going to go all the way to the top because for the first time in a century a cardinal left the college of cardinals in disgrace over this. Those are all things that I think reformers would say are positive. On the other hand, there are significant pieces of unfinished business.
I think the most glaring would be the issue of accountability, not for the abuse itself but for the cover-up. The Catholic Church now has a strong system of accountability when a cleric is accused of sexually abusing a minor. That guy is removed from ministry. There’s an investigation. He’s reported to the cops. If it’s found to be credible, he usually is kicked out of the priesthood. There is no equivalent system for bishops or other leaders in the church who are accused of covering up that abuse. Nobody really knows where you report that. There’s no clear system for how it would be looked into and the facts established. There’s no clear sense of what the appropriate punishment for that would be. This has been going for, depending on where you start the clock, let’s call it two decades. It just strikes people as difficult to explain … particularly under a reforming pope.
Ross Douthat, the conservative Catholic columnist at the New York Times, wrote, “If Francis was misled, somehow, into thinking that these allegations [against McCarrick] were not serious, he should be *furious* at the cardinals who were in a position to tell him not to let McCarrick globetrot and posture as his adviser. He should be demanding the kind of investigation *at the Vatican* that has been demanded in America. He should be asking for the resignations of active members of his cabinet who should have known about McCarrick. Is he doing any of that? Will anyone who knew about McCarrick in the Vatican own up or lose their jobs?” Douthat’s questions don’t seem unfair to me.
Yeah, in the quote you just read, the questions that Ross is asking are questions a lot of people have. I think people want to know: When was the Vatican made aware of the concerns about McCarrick? If it is true—and there are indications that it probably is—that some sort of restrictions were imposed upon McCarrick under Pope Benedict, why wasn’t that made public and why did McCarrick appear to ignore them and how was he allowed to get away with that? Ultimately, who should have seen this train wreck coming and done something about it? I agree the question doesn’t just apply to Francis. It applies to anyone who was in leadership at the time.
Pope Francis is a very politically astute person, and I don’t mean that in a cynical way. I think he’s someone who’s captured the hearts and imaginations—
No, it’s definitely true. You’re definitely right.
It just seems like on this issue he’s a bit tone-deaf. How do you understand that?
I think part of it is simply the fact that he’s Latin American. Prior to Chile, which was really just in the last couple of years, the sexual abuse scandals as we know them [were] in the United States or the U.K., Australia, Ireland, Germany, Belgium, etc. The sexual abuse scandals had really never blown up [in Latin America]. That’s not to say there wasn’t sex abuse obviously. I think it’s natural that when he came into the papacy he didn’t bring the same sensitivity that bishops who had lived through that in their own backyards would.
I also think Pope Francis came into the papacy with very clear priorities, things where he wanted to move the ball, defending the poor of the world, defending immigrants, trying to act as a peacemaker. I don’t think probably in his heart of hearts, as awful as he thinks it is, he would say that the clerical sex abuse scandal is the defining issue of our time.
I think sometimes at a policy level he can be a little tone-deaf. When he’s actually with survivors and victims, or when he is in a place that has been scarred by this, and if you listen to the way he talks about it, he does have a real sensitivity to the suffering here.
I was surprised at the end of his weekend in Ireland. Even the normally very hostile Irish press [and] even some of the victims’ groups actually were softer on him than I would’ve thought because coming into that trip the mantra was deeds not words. We don’t want more apologies. We don’t want more reassurances. We don’t want more statements of regret. We want to know what you’re going to do. Well, Francis came and went, and he didn’t deliver a single new deed. He didn’t indicate some new action plan. The fact that on Sunday he introduced an impromptu rite of penance that he said was motivated by his meeting with survivors the night before and it contained all this really heartfelt and kind of strong language, a lot of people were willing to say, “We still want to believe in this guy.” As a pastor, I don’t think he’s tone-deaf at all. I think the tone-deafness just sometimes comes through more in the policy dimension of things, you know.
It seems like a lot of this debate within the church comes down to different understandings of homosexuality and how homosexuality does or does not relate to the sex abuse crisis. How much of the heatedness of this argument is fundamentally about the fact that within the church, ideas about homosexuality are still so contentious, and will it ever be resolved while that’s the case?
I think the question of whether the sex abuse crisis can be resolved without resolving the debate over homosexuality, I sure to God hope the answer to that is yes, but I agree with your instincts here. I would actually make it broader than that. I think a lot of the heatedness of the back-and-forth that we’re seeing right now has relatively little to do with the sexual abuse of minors, and it has a great deal to do with broader divisions in the church in all manner of things. To boil all this down: There is one camp of the church that thinks Pope Francis is a godsend because he’s moving in a more progressive direction. There is another camp of the church that thinks Pope Francis is dangerous because he’s moving in a more progressive direction. It’s not just the homosexuality issue. It’s about the sacraments and worship and social priorities, should abortion be the towering social issue of the church or not, etc., etc. In other words, there is a kind of culture war in Catholicism that existed well before Francis got here but has certainly been exacerbated by his papacy. I think right now it’s being fought out on the ground of the McCarrick case. A lot of the passion doesn’t really have to do with that case.