A scathing letter attacking Pope Francis over claims that he covered up allegations of sexual abuse by a high-profile American cardinal has brought into focus a crisis in the Catholic Church.
The 11-page text, written by noted anti-gay conservative Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, calls for Francis to resign over his alleged negligence. Vigano accuses Francis of covering up sexual abuse allegations against ex-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick in a letter that comes as multiple sexual abuse scandals again rock the church. The letter has sown division among leaders of Catholic Church in the United States.
One longtime Vatican watcher and scholar of the Catholic Church says the open attack on Pope Francis — coming at an especially vulnerable time for him — appears to be mostly about personal animus and the Pope’s move to make the Church more accepting of gays. The Pope’s defenders have already started to dispute details in Vigano’s letter.
Francis accepted McCarrick’s resignation in July and ordered him to a “life of prayer and penance” following accusations that the cardinal sexually abused adult seminarians and minors. McCarrick, the powerful head of the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., stepped down after an investigation by the Church concluded that claims he sexually abused a teenage altar boy were credible.
Vigano’s letter contains serious allegations about Francis’ response to reports of McCarrick’s abuse. But it also includes a screed against homosexuals and it can be seen as a homophobic attack against Francis, who has worked to open up the church to people who are gay or lesbian, among others who are turned away in accordance with the church’s teaching.
Massimo Faggioli, a theology and religious studies professor at Villanova University, says the charges in Vigano’s letter are motivated by a personal vendetta on behalf of conservative American Catholics. “People are especially upset with the fact that Francis is opening the church on sexuality and homosexuality,” Faggioli tells TIME. “So, here you have a very cynical alliance with a cynical agenda that has nothing to do with the sex abuse crisis.”
Here’s a breakdown of the accusations against Francis and why they are coming up now.
Who is calling for Pope Francis’ resignation and why?
Vigano in his letter has called on Francis and all others who he says remained silent about McCarrick’s abuse of seminarians to resign. Vigano writes that he informed Francis of McCarrick’s inappropriate behavior in 2013. Francis, he alleges, “continued to cover for” McCarrick.
Conservative bishops in America have voiced their support for Vigano since the letter was published on Sunday.
Cardinal Raymond Burke, the former archbishop of St. Louis, said the “appropriate sanctions must be applied,” if Vigano’s allegations are substantiated, the New York Times reports. Bishops David Konderla and Joseph Strickland also joined the surge of conservatives standing up with Vigano.
“As your shepherd, I find them credible,” Strickland wrote in a statement about the allegations brought up by Vigano, according to the Times.
Faggioli says the letter comes from a place of “personal animus.”
“These accusations raise questions we need answers to at some point,” he says. “Any analysis of these allegations reveal that they are full of gaps and holes. The document is a start for those who want to raise questions, but it contains no answers.”
Vigano’s accusation against the Pope comes one month after McCarrick’s resignation and weeks after a damning report from a Pennsylvania grand jury that found at least 300 priests abused more than 1,000 victims — and that church leaders worked to cover up the wrongdoing.
What has Pope Fracis said about the accusations?
Pope Francis declined to confirm or deny the claims by Vigano on Sunday during a press conference. He said the text, which he had read, “speaks for itself,” and that he trusted reporters to judge the claims in it for themselves.
“It’s an act of trust,” he said. “I won’t say a word about it.”
Who Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, the man accusing the Pope?
Vigano, 77, was the Apostolic Nuncio, or papal diplomat, to the U.S. from 2011 to 2016. His tenure included a dustup with Pope Francis in 2015 over a meeting he arranged with Kim Davis, the Kentucky clerk who refused to issue marriage licenses for gay couples.
After word leaked that Francis was to meet with Davis, the Vatican issued a swift statement to distance itself from her. Francis then met with a former student of his, who is openly gay, before he met with Davis. He had Vigano replaced as nuncio in 2016.
Vigano has also been accused of covering up misconduct claims, the Associated Press reports. He has denied allegations that he attempted to stop an investigation into John Nienstedt, the former archbishop of St. Paul-Minneapolis, who was accused of sexual misconduct with adult seminarians.
Vigano was also implicated in the 2012 “Vatileaks” scandal, in which some of his letters were made public. In those letters, Vigano begged to not be transferred to Washington, claiming he the assignment was punishment for exposing corruption in the Vatican, according to the AP.
According to Faggioli, Vigano spent his time in the U.S. cultivating relationships with conservative American Catholics who form part of the faction that opposes Francis.
Why have Vigano and others criticized Pope Francis?
Vigano and other conservative Catholics are against Pope Francis’s efforts to welcome back into the church Catholics who are gay or lesbian, or divorced and remarried, the Times reports. Conservative American Catholics have also criticized Francis for his progressive politics, including his desire to protect refugees and immigrants and stop climate change.
Vigano’s letter aimed to connect the issue of sex abuse in the church with the acceptance of homosexuality by Francis, even though he has not made any definitive changes on the church’s teachings on homosexuality.
“The seriousness of homosexual behavior must be denounced,” Vigano wrote, citing work by an academic to support his claim that “homosexual networks” are the reason for rampant abuse in the church.
The criticisms against Francis mark a rare moment of Catholic leaders coming out openly against the pope.
“This is something we’ve never seen. Usually accusations are made anonymously,” Faggioli says. “They don’t reach the global mainstream media. If you start condemning people, the legal ground is unclear. The problem is a few of the people accused might think that the safest thing is to start talking about other people and that is when the whole house of cards is going to collapse.”