Pope Francis prevails in Vatican abuse row – POLITICO
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ROME — In the civil war that is raging inside the Catholic church, Pope Francis has won an important battle.
In 2018, Monsignor Carlo Viganò, a former Vatican ambassador to the U.S., accused Francis of covering up clerical sex abuse at the highest level, alleging that he had ignored sexual misconduct allegations against former Cardinal and Archbishop of Washington Theodore McCarrick. Viganò then called for the Pope to resign.
But two years on, following the publication of a forensic and ground-breaking report into the case last week, the conservative assault seems to have backfired, with Francis emerging stronger than ever.
The Archbishop of Chicago, Cardinal Blase Cupich, who was also attacked by Viganò for having “a pro-gay ideology,” called Francis “fearless” in admitting church leaders’ failings. The report represented a “watershed moment” that demonstrated Francis’ “commitment to responsibility, accountability and transparency to all victim-survivors,” he said.
The attack by Viganò was widely seen as the latest skirmish in the conflict between progressives and mainly U.S.-based conservatives who oppose Francis for his more liberal stances on issues including homosexuality and migrants.
But the inquiry into the Vatican decision-making that permitted McCarrick’s rise to power largely exonerated Francis, pointing the finger instead at his predecessors John Paul II, who promoted McCarrick despite multiple warnings, and Benedict XVI, who failed to enforce the limited measures against him.
Given that the report was not independent, but authored by lawyers representing the Holy See, it is perhaps unsurprising that Francis should be let off the hook. But the report did not spare the whip in blaming a saint in John Paul II, nor in its depiction of a culture of secrecy and clericalism that enabled an abuser to reach the second-highest rank in the church.
By addressing these institutional failures, Francis has positioned himself as the pope of transparency and accountability, says papal biographer Marco Politi, author of “Francis, the Covid plague and the rebirth.”
“Francis emerges as the only pope with the courage to address the issue,” he told POLITICO.
Catholic in White House
Conservatives ended up damaging their own interests “as the blame fell on the two popes they favor and use as a weapon against Francis on theological issues,” said Politi. “The evidence shows that John Paul and Benedict decided to shelve the issue. They didn’t want to explore the truth.” The report found that Viganò himself had ignored orders to investigate allegations into McCarrick while a nuncio to the U.S., a position equivalent to ambassador.
With Joe Biden’s victory heralding a new era in U.S. politics, the publication of the report could set the tone for Francis’ future relations with the American administration.
Trump clashed with Francis on issues including the environment, migrants and the wall on the Mexican border. In the run-up to the election, the Trump campaign attempted to translate anti-Francis sentiment among conservative U.S. Catholics into votes, but Trump ended up losing support from Catholics compared to 2016.
By putting the concerns of U.S. Catholics first and confronting the McCarrick case head on, despite the risk of creating a scandal in the Vatican, Francis has pushed the right buttons.
The timing of the report, published after the U.S. elections, was helpful to Biden as the historic collaboration between the Obama administration and McCarrick on diplomatic peace missions such as the Cuba peace deal could have been used against him.
The Biden-Francis axis may now start working together on shared issues such as the environment and poverty. While Biden, who is a Catholic, has a pro-life stance on abortion which could be problematic, Francis is less hung up on abortion than previous popes.
While Francis may have won over moderates, the report is unlikely to convert all Catholic conservatives into fans.
George Weigel for instance, a conservative Catholic, author and theologian at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington D.C., doubts that it will have much effect. “Opinions are already rather fixed, across the spectrum.”
“But if it helps demonstrate that the Vatican is serious about addressing sexual abuse issues, it will reassure people.”
Abuse survivors, too, are skeptical. Italian clerical abuse campaigner Francesco Zanardi called the report “a piece of theater,” pointing out that the church still hasn’t ordered mandatory reporting of abuse to civil authorities. “It was a very orchestrated report.”
In future, survivors of abuse could demand the same level of transparency in their cases. But Zanardi is pessimistic that the McCarrick case has set a meaningful precedent. Despite requesting the documents on his own case months ago, after strict papal secrecy laws were relaxed, he says he has received no answer.
Despite the pope’s undaunted fillip from the McCarrick report, it will require all his navigational skills to coax the Vatican supertanker to continue to move in the direction he wants.
The report itself “shows what a great burden Francis has to bear to reshape the church, how long and difficult a process it is,” said Politi, “But he is going in the right direction.”