'How America wanted to change the pope'
An archbishop's claim that Francis was complicit in covering up sexual abuse within the Church amounted to an attempted coup d'état
La Croix International
From Santiago to Dublin - or how the pope's trip to Dublin in Aug. 2018 marked the beginning of an attack against him
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On Sunday morning, Aug. 26, 2018, there was great excitement at The Alex, the small hotel in central Dublin where the Vatican housed journalists following the pope on his trip to Ireland.
After rising at 4:30 a.m. to board the flight that would take Francis to the Marian shrine in Knock, in the west of the country, people at the Vatican were stunned by a bombshell dropped by a former Apostolic Nuncio in the United States, Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, and published during the night by several conservative American and Italian media.
At the heart of the accusations of the pope's former ambassador to the United States was former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, who was accused of sexual abuse and whom the pope had pushed to resign a few weeks earlier.
In a lengthy, so-called "testimony" stretching to 11 pages, Viganò questioned everything the Vatican had been responsible for since 2000. It amounted to an accusation of a cover-up of Cardinal McCarrick's actions and even implicated Francis, going on to call for his resignation.
Arriving in Dublin the day before, the pope knew that his trip, originally planned to close the World Meeting of Families, would be marked by the issue of sexual abuse.
"The pope wants to talk about the family, even if he knows that, when travelling to Ireland, it cannot be just that," admitted the Director of the Holy See's Press Room, American Greg Burke, a few days before the trip.
With that comment, Burke underlined how the pope was fully aware that he was arriving in a country still traumatized by the revelations that had followed one another since the end of the 1990s in this Church. Indeed, the pope's year has been marked by this very question.
In January, Francis went to Chile, where he was brutally confronted with the case of Juan Barros, a bishop accused of having witnessed, in his youth, repeated sexual abuse by a priest, and of having covered it up when he later became a priest and then a bishop.
This priest, Fernando Karadima, was, from 1980 to 2006, the priest of a trendy district of Santiago, where he sexually abused many young boys. But he was also at the origin, within the Santiago bourgeoisie, of many priestly vocations.
A former seminarian from Santiago, who had to leave the seminary because of the "persecution" that this group was leading against those who did not agree with his views, recalls: "At the Santiago seminary, the young people accompanied by Karadima formed a close-knit, quasi-sectarian group, which perceived itself as an 'elite' that wanted to re-form the Chilean Church by strongly pressing on the priestly identity."
Over time, these priests, sometimes themselves victims of Karadima, have become the new leaders of the Chilean Church, as leaders of seminaries, trainers, ecclesiastical judges and even bishops.
That was the case for Juan Barros, already a bishop in several places before being appointed in 2015 in Osorno where, faced with the scandal of the Karadima case, the faithful refused him. The anger was such that, on the day of his installation, he could not even cross the nave of his cathedral!
During the pope's trip, Bishop Barros' presence at all his masses created controversy, to the point that Francis himself faltered.
In Iquique, in the north of the country, he was interrogated by Chilean journalists as he left the sacristy to celebrate Mass.
"The day you bring me proof against Bishop Barros, I will talk to you," he said angrily. "There's not a single piece of evidence against him. Everything is slanderous. Is that clear?"
The effect of his comments was so catastrophic that Cardinal Seán O'Malley of Boston and President of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, one of Francis' main trusted men in the fight against sexual abuse, was forced to acknowledge that it was "understandable" that these words caused "great pain" among the victims.
"Words that send the message 'If you can't prove your accusations, then we won't believe you' abandon those who have suffered criminal and reprehensible violations of their human dignity and relegate victims to discredited exile," he said.
Discreetly, Cardinal O'Malley advised the pope who, a few days later, on the plane taking him back to Rome, made amends.
"I must apologize because the word 'evidence' hurt," he admitted, acknowledging that the victims felt as if they needed to present a 'certificate' confirming their abuse.
"I wanted to translate a legal principle and I apologize to them if I unintentionally hurt them," he said.
To hear the pope say to their faces 'bring me a letter with proof' was a slap in the face. And now I realize that the words I used were unfortunate."
On the core matter of the allegations against Bishop Barros, however, he would concede no ground, stressing that "the case of Barros has been studied and re-examined, but nothing has happened. And I can't condemn him if I don't have any evidence. If I condemned him without evidence or moral certainty, I would be committing a denial of justice."
He went on to say he was "convinced" that Bishop Barros was "innocent."
Not only did the controversy not end there, but new elements were published against Bishop Barros to the point that, on 30 January, the pope decided to send Archbishop Charles Scicluna, his best investigator on sexual abuse cases, to Chile.
The Archbishop of Malta worked for a long time with Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, later becoming the man of "zero tolerance" advocated by Benedict XVI against pedophilia.
At the end of an investigation during which he met many victims, Scicluna gave the pope a voluminous report which showed in particular the very "elitist" nature of the Chilean Church, 2,300 pages that Francis would study at length and carefully.
"I acknowledge ... that I made serious errors in the assessment and perception of the situation," Francis finally admitted in a letter sent to the Chilean bishops on April 8, when he explained his errors were due to "a lack of true and balanced information." (1)
In fact, in this Barros case, none of the institutional safeguards worked. Neither the Episcopal Conference nor the Apostolic Nuncio provided the pope with reliable information about Bishop Barros.
Nor did the Congregation for Bishops, the Roman "ministry" in charge of the appointment of bishops, which, as early as March 2015, assured that it had "carefully studied" Bishop Barros' candidacy and had not found "any objective reason that would prevent the appointment of the bishop."
As for the "C9", the council of the nine cardinals appointed by the pope to advise him on the reform of the Roman Curia and the government of the Church, one of its members, Cardinal Francisco Javier Errázuriz, was none other than the former Archbishop of Santiago de Chile, a long-time advocate of Bishop Barros.
At the end of May, the pope finally sent a long letter to the Chilean Catholics, completing his reflection on this dark story.
Recognizing once again his mistakes and those of the Church, he emphasized above all how much this case went beyond the issue of pedophilia.
Detailing how sexual abuse, abuse of power and abuse of authority were intimately linked, it challenged, within the Church itself, a "culture of abuse" as well as a "system of coverage that allows it to perpetuate itself" whenever there is an attempt "to supplant, silence, ignore or reduce to small elites the people of God in its totality and differences."
For Francis, if the "zero tolerance" advocated by his predecessor Benedict XVI in matters of pedophilia was necessary, it nonetheless was insufficient: according to him, it was necessary to move on to "never again" by fighting the "clericalism" that had plagued the Church and that he identified as the breeding ground for this culture of abuse. (2)
While Francis' letter was addressed to Chilean Catholics, it was a matter of concern for the whole Church.
The pope knew this all the more because he was perfectly aware that the transparency he advocated likely favored further revelations.
What actually happened was that, as the weeks passed, victims' voices were heard in France, Germany and the United States.
It was in this context, for example, that Cardinal McCarrick's victims would soon condemn very specific facts.
The biggest case from the United States broke out in the middle of the summer, on Aug. 14, when Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro revealed the results of a long investigation conducted by a grand jury in six dioceses in this northeastern industrial state.
At least "a thousand children" had been victims of sexual abuse, he said, perpetrated for 70 years by more than 300 "predatory priests" and concealed by their hierarchy.
"The reading of this report, punctuated by sordid anecdotes, was chilling," says Shapiro. He cites in particular the case of a priest who abused five sisters, the youngest of whom was only 18 months old at the beginning of the alleged events.
The scandal was all the greater because almost every case had by then fallen outside the statute of limitations - only two priests were charged and with recent offences alone.
"The Church's concealment has made it impossible for justice to be done for these victims," deplored Shapiro, whose inquiry portrayed a Catholic hierarchy that was very resourceful in preventing the spread of accusations and protecting the perpetrators. (3)
The Vatican reacted very quickly, expressing its "shame" and "pain."
On Aug. 20, Francis published a letter to all Catholics around the world (4). "Although it can be said that the majority of cases are in the past, the pain of many of these victims has come to us over time ... injuries are never cured," he wrote.
"With shame and repentance," he also acknowledged that the Church "did not act in a timely manner by acknowledging the magnitude and seriousness of the damage that was being inflicted on so many lives. We have neglected and abandoned the little ones.
And again: "We feel shame when we see that our lifestyle has denied and denied what our voice proclaims."
But Francis did not stop at merely voicing a new denunciation of the "atrocities committed." He went on: "The scale and gravity of the facts require that we react in a global and communitarian way."
In addition to the canonical sanction procedures and collaboration with civil justice, which clearly needed to continue, the pope also considered it "necessary that each baptized person feels committed to the ecclesial and social transformation that we so much need."
Once again, he pointed to "clericalism" as the essential cause of abuses in the Church, declaring that this "deviant way of conceiving authority in the Church ... generates a split in the ecclesial body, which encourages and helps to perpetuate many of the evils we denounce."
He therefore urged a change in mentalities, emphasizing everyone's responsibility.
"Anything that is done to eradicate the culture of abuse in our communities without the active participation of all members of the Church will not succeed in creating the dynamics necessary to achieve a healthy and effective transformation," he said.
It was in this context that Francis arrived on Aug. 25 in Ireland, one of the countries marked since the mid-1990s by the revelation of sexual abuse committed by priests.
A long-time powerful force and the guardian of the Irish soul and culture under British rule, the Irish Church was emblematic of the clerical system that Francis had constantly denounced.
In this institution, which controlled entire sections of society (orphanages, schools, hospitals, etc.), the figure of the priest was indisputable and undisputed, opening the door to all kinds of abuses.
This was shown by three independent reports since the mid-2000s - in the Dublin Archdiocese alone, on the institutions run by the Church and then in all the dioceses in the country. They listed the many abuses committed throughout the country and the guilty indulgence of Church leaders.
Those cases did not amount to sexual abuse but, more broadly, highlighted the abuses of power and blatant lack of humanity that had had such devastating effects on the victims.
This was the case in the Magdalene Laundries, nun-operated laundries where young girls accused of "wrongdoing" were relegated and exploited, while their children were taken from them to be placed for adoption against their will. (5)
Francis was confronted with these abuses as soon as he arrived at Dublin Airport, where the Minister of Children and Youth, Katherine Zappone, asked him about the terrible story of the Tuam convent in northwestern Ireland, where more than 700 deceased children, most born out of wedlock, were often buried hastily in a mass grave.
"Her words still resonate in my ears, I thank her for it," he confided with emotion a few moments later, during his speech at Dublin Castle.
In front of Prime Minister Leo Varadkar, who had just before asked him to use his "position" and "influence" to ensure that "victims and survivors obtained justice, truth and healing", the pope repeated his "shame" and "suffering."
"I can only acknowledge the serious scandal caused in Ireland over the abuse of minors by Church members responsible for protecting and educating them," he explained, acknowledging "the failure of Church authorities ... to adequately address these repugnant crimes, [which] have rightly provoked outrage."
But Francis also went to Ireland to witness the transformation of a Church that has evolved since the shock treatment initiated by Benedict XVI in 2010.
While its credibility has been largely and lastingly damaged, it is also beginning to reap the benefits of the reforms thanks to collaboration with the civil authorities and the commitment of lay people who have long been excluded from ecclesial life.
In the pope's view, the Irish model can, in a way, be a solution for other churches in crisis. As in the United States.
However, even as he wanted to salute the Church's ongoing evolution, there was no question of the pope drawing a line under the past or the suffering of the victims.
Indeed, during his Dublin visit he met eight women and men, including two priests, all victims of abuses committed by members of the clergy.
Their conversations lasted 90 minutes, during which they were able to talk freely with a pope who did not mince his words.
Two of them said that "Francis condemned corruption and the concealment of abuses as "shit - literally the dirt you see at the bottom of the toilet," according to his translator.
He also returned to the question the next day at the Marian shrine of Knock, much revered by the Irish, and then at the Mass he attended to celebrate in Dublin before returning to Rome.
Nonetheless, the accusations of Viganò would take precedence over all other considerations.
Launched in the early evening in the United States, in the middle of the night in Europe, its release had all the more time to spread on social networks as no one was then able to provide any answers.
The pope's main collaborators accompanied him to Dublin. They then had the greatest difficulty in obtaining explanations from the Vatican: Greg Burke, the Director of the Press Room, did not pick up his phone or answer SMS messages.
The next morning, on the short flight from Dublin to Knock, a multitude of small messages passed from the back of the plane, where the journalists sat, to the front, where the pope and his entourage were. No answer.
Meanwhile, Archbishop Viganò's accusations made the headlines, spread on social networks and circulated on television, eclipsing the pope's prayer for the victims in Knock, and then the totally new request for forgiveness he made at the beginning of his Mass in the pouring Dublin rain.
While the Vatican was stubbornly silent, it was the pope himself who had to get on the front line at his press conference aboard the plane taking him back from Dublin.
This was a difficult exercise for the pope, who had to express his views while avoiding "lowering himself" to answer the accusations of the one who was a former collaborator.
Rather than issue a denial that would, in some people's eyes, have put him on the same level as his opponent, he chose to remain silent and let journalists write whatever they decided to.
"I read this press release this morning and, frankly, I must tell you and all of you who are interested: read the press release carefully and make your own judgment," he said.
"I won't say a word about it. I think the press release speaks for itself and you have the journalistic capacity to draw conclusions from it. It is an act of trust. When a little time has passed and you have drawn your own conclusions, perhaps I will speak. But I would like your professional maturity to do this work."
Between the publication of Viganò's indictment and the pope's words, 24 hours finally passed, an eternity in media time.
In the following days, research by serious journalists concluded that there was no substance to most of Archbishop Viganò's statements.
By then, however, the rumor had had ample time to spread, carried out in particular by influential media and powerful pressure groups whose objective, at that time, was clearly to push Francis into resigning and to discredit most of his potential successors with a view to a new conclave.
Thus, it was indeed a real attempt at a coup d'état that Viganò and, above all, the powerful interests behind him launched, using to their advantage the legitimate emotion of the cases of abuse in the Church.
Juan Carlos Cruz, himself a victim of Karadima and one of the spokespersons for victims of abuse in the world, summed up the episode accurately. "Viganò does not care about sexual abuse," he told the Chilean press.
"They [the bishop and his co-accusers] saw a gap there to put forward their agenda and rushed into it. Viganò was a nuncio when all the abuses were committed in the United States and he never raised his voice. So, now, coming to say that he cares about these cases is absolutely contradictory." (7).
1. Letter to the Chilean Bishops following the report submitted by Archbishop Charles Scicluna, Apr. 8, 2018.
2. Letter to the People of God who are walking in Chile, May 31, 2018.
3. Malo Tresca, "More than 300 priests accused of sexual abuse in Pennsylvania", La Croix, Aug. 16, 2018.
4. Letter to the People of God, Aug. 20, 2018.
5. See Peter Mullan's film "The Magdalene Sisters," released in 2002, Golden Lion in Venice the same year.
6. Speech at the meeting with the authorities, civil society and the diplomatic corps, Aug. 25, 2018.
7. "Juan Carlos Cruz accuses Viganó of vendetta against the Pope: The former nuncio has zero credibility," El Mostrador, Aug. 29 2018.