What Francis Knew

By Mark Heminway
Weekly Standard
September 08, 2018

Pope Francis at St. Peter's basilica at the Vatican.
Photo by Vincenzo Pinto

Conservatives pounce, the media fiddles.

In 2016, after the film Spotlight—which portrayed a group of Boston Globe reporters who uncover a sex-abuse scandal covered-up by the Catholic Church—won the Academy Award for best picture, a cultural commentator praised the movie on the Vatican website. The Globe reporters, wrote Luca Pellegrini, “made themselves examples of their most pure vocation, that of finding the facts, verifying sources, and making themselves—for the good of the community and of a city—paladins of the need for justice.”

Two years later, as a far worse abuse scandal unfolds in the church—a scandal that may involve the pope himself—the Vatican is silent and the paladins of the news media seem eager to ignore the whole thing.

Theodore McCarrick, a former archbishop of Washington, D.C., is alleged to have been for decades a serial sexual abuser of teenage seminarians. On August 25, Carlo Maria Viganò, the former apostolic nuncio (or Vatican ambassador) to the United States, published an 11-page letter alleging that McCarrick’s abuse was known by church authorities from Donald Wuerl, the present archbishop of Washington D.C., to the highest reaches of the Vatican, and, further, that Pope Benedict XVI made attempts to sanction McCarrick by restricting his travel and forbidding him to say Mass in public. Viganò wrote that, after succeeding Benedict, Francis not only overturned this punishment but elevated McCarrick in the church hierarchy.

There is as yet no evidence for Viganò’s most dramatic allegations, and it’s probably not irrelevant that disagreements between the theologically orthodox Viganò and the more liberal Francis go far beyond the McCarrick controversy. But significant details of Viganò’s account have been confirmed. Despite the seriousness of the allegations, many media outlets appear far more interested in protecting Francis’s reputation than getting at the truth of why McCarrick was protected for so long.

A typical New York Times headline: “ Francis Takes High Road As Conservatives Pounce.” Or this, from Reuters on August 30: “ Conservative Media Move to Front Line of Battle to Undermine Pope Francis.” Or this, from the Washington Post, the same day: “ Former Vatican Ambassador’s Explosive Letter Reveals Influence of Conservative Catholic Media Network.”

That phrase “conservatives pounce” is an in-joke on the right, suggesting as it does that what’s important about a story isn’t the story itself but the perverse reaction to it by conservatives. The story in this instance—that of a widespread cover-up of decades of sexual abuse that runs to the highest levels of the Vatican—isn’t important because the church’s conservatives are upset about it. It’s important because innocent young men were preyed upon.

Francis’s defenders in the church are similarly trying to make the story about the pope’s critics and not about Viganò’s assertions. “The pope has a bigger agenda,” Cardinal Cupich told NBC 5 Chicago. “He’s got to get on with other things—of talking about the environment and protecting migrants and carrying on the work of the church. We’re not going to go down a rabbit hole on this.” Cupich then went on to slander Francis’s critics: “Quite frankly, they also don’t like him because he’s a Latino.” (Francis, though born in Argentina, is the child of Italian immigrants and is not Latino.)

Lurking beneath the surface of all this disingenuous rhetoric are the rather obvious ideological commitments of the paladins reporting on it. While the mainline Protestant churches in America were long ago taken over by left-leaning or socially progressive clergy, the orthodox teaching of the Catholic church on sexual ethics has remained largely conservative. Francis is perceived as liberalizing the church and tolerant of gay priests, so he must be defended. Put more bluntly: To attack McCarrick, whose crimes involve homosexual abuse, is to put oneself on the side of those who oppose same-sex marriage and the ordination of openly gay men, and the media’s truth-seekers would rather play dumb and feign surprise at conservative reactions than categorize themselves as anti-gay. That scores of young men were abused is just too bad.

There’s much we don’t know about the extent of the efforts to hush up McCarrick’s abuse. Catholic authorities from Wuerl to the pope deserve to be heard on the topic without prejudice. Yet the pope’s airy dismissal of Viganò’s allegations is clearly unsatisfactory: “I will not say a single word about this,” he remarked in a Dublin press conference. “I believe the statement speaks for itself. And you have the journalistic capacity to draw your own conclusions. It’s an act of faith.”

Imagine tough-minded American journalists for the Times or the Post or Reuters accepting such a nonchalant brush-off from some other official on a different subject. If Benedict had answered in that way—or if the subject involved a man’s abuse of women rather than boys—they would rightly pounce. They should commence pouncing.


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