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What just happened?

On Saturday a high-ranking Vatican official, now retired, released an 11-page “testimony” claiming “corruption has reached the very top of the Church’s hierarchy.”

Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano alleges that numerous officials at the Vatican—including Pope Francis—not only were aware of sexual abuse by the American Cardinal Theodore McCarrick but also covered up his crimes and gave him a place of continued influence within the Catholic Church.

In his letter, Vigano says, “Pope Francis must be the first to set a good example for cardinals and bishops who covered up McCarrick’s abuses and resign along with all of them.”

Rod Dreher, a former Catholic who has been writing about the sex abuse scandals in the Catholic Church for two decades, says that Vigano “dropped an atomic bomb on Francis’s papacy” and “It’s clear now: in the Vatican, this is civil war.”

Who is Archbishop Vigano?

Carlo Maria Vigano, 77, is a retired priest who held several influential and important posts within the Vatican, including personnel chief at the Vatican, secretary general of the Vatican City Governatorate, and apostolic nuncio to the United States.

In his role as apostolic nuncio (a type of ambassadorship from Vatican City to a foreign nation), Vigano claims to have been privy to the Vatican’s dealings with the situation of Cardinal McCarrick, the former archbishop of Washington, D.C.

Who is Cardinal McCarrick?

Theodore McCarrick, 88, is a retired priest who served as archbishop of Washington from 2001 to 2006. He was forced to resign from his position on July 28, 2018, because of multiple accusations of sexual abuse.

According to Catholic News Agency, six priests of the Archdiocese of Newark and one priest member of a religious order who was a seminarian in New York in the early 1970s accused McCarrick of sexual harrassment and assault. A church panel also substantiated allegations that almost 50 years ago while serving as a priest in New York he sexually abused a teenage altar boy.

Between 2005 and 2007, two New Jersey dioceses secretly paid settlements to two men for allegations against the archbishop.

McCarrick is believed to be the first cardinal in history to step down from the College of Cardinals because of sexual abuse allegations.

What are Vigano’s claims?

In his letter Vigano says that in 2009 or 2010, after finding out about McCarrick’s abuses, “Pope Benedict had imposed on Cardinal McCarrick sanctions similar to those now imposed on him by Pope Francis: the Cardinal was to leave the seminary where he was living, he was forbidden to celebrate [Mass] in public, to participate in public meetings, to give lectures, to travel, with the obligation of dedicating himself to a life of prayer and penance.” (The National Catholic Register says they have “independently confirmed that the allegations against McCarrick were certainly known to Benedict, and the Pope Emeritus remembers instructing Cardinal Bertone to impose measures but cannot recall their exact nature.”)

Vigano also says he personally told Pope Francis about Cardinal McCarrick’s abuses in a meeting in 2013:

I began the conversation, asking the Pope what he intended to say to me with the words he had addressed to me when I greeted him the previous Friday. And the Pope, in a very different, friendly, almost affectionate tone, said to me: “Yes, the Bishops in the United States must not be ideologized, they must not be right-wing like the Archbishop of Philadelphia, (the Pope did not give me the name of the Archbishop) they must be shepherds; and they must not be left-wing — and he added, raising both arms — and when I say left-wing I mean homosexual.” Of course, the logic of the correlation between being left-wing and being homosexual escaped me, but I added nothing else.

Immediately after, the Pope asked me in a deceitful way: “What is Cardinal McCarrick like?” I answered him with complete frankness and, if you want, with great naiveté: “Holy Father, I don’t know if you know Cardinal McCarrick, but if you ask the Congregation for Bishops there is a dossier this thick about him. He corrupted generations of seminarians and priests and Pope Benedict ordered him to withdraw to a life of prayer and penance.”

Despite this knowledge, Vigano says, Pope Francis continued to cover for McCarrick:

[Francis] knew from at least June 23, 2013 that McCarrick was a serial predator. Although he knew that he was a corrupt man, he covered for him to the bitter end; indeed, he made McCarrick’s advice his own, which was certainly not inspired by sound intentions and for love of the Church. It was only when he was forced by the report of the abuse of a minor, again on the basis of media attention, that he took action [regarding McCarrick] to save his image in the media.

How has Pope Francis responded to the allegations?

On Sunday Francis declined to confirm or deny claims he knew in 2013 about sexual misconduct allegations against McCarrick. Francis says he had read Vigano’s document and trusted journalists to judge for themselves. “It’s an act of trust,” the pope told reporters. “I won’t say a word about it.”

What is a seminarian?

In order to become Catholic priest, a man must fulfill three basic education requirements: obtain a college degree, attend two years of philosophy study, and attend four years of theology study.

The purpose of seminary is to foster the formation of future priests by “attending specifically to their human, spiritual, intellectual, and pastoral formation, the four pillars of priestly formation developed in St. John Paul II’s Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Pastores dabo vobis (I Will Give You Shepherds).”

Every seminarian has five people responsible for his formation: his bishop, his vocations director, the rector of the seminary he is attending, and his formation adviser and spiritual director.

What are an archbishop and cardinal?

A bishop belongs to the college of bishops and serves as the visible head or pastor of a diocese. As a college, the bishops oversee all the churches in union with and under the authority of the pope—the head of the college of bishops and the bishop of Rome. Only the pope has authority to discipline or remove bishops from their ministry. An archbishop administers an archdiocese, which is just a large diocese.

Within the Catholic Church, the cardinals are the “Princes of the Church,” the “Sacred College” and the “Senate of the Church.” The College of Cardinals is tasked with helping the pope deal both with “questions of greater moment” and with the ordinary “daily administration” of the church. Cardinals are selected by the pope, and he has complete authority to choose whom he wishes.

What is a Catholic diocese?

The Catholic Church considers itself, as a whole, to be the “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church of Christ” which is spread across various local churches, or parishes. These local branches in a particular geographic area—sometimes called “particular churches” or dioceses—are a “full expression of Roman Catholic Christianity in a given area.”

Dioceses usually follow local boundaries such as counties, and are usually centered on metropolitan area or prominent city within that territory. An ecclesiastical leader called a bishop oversees each individual diocese.

Dioceses are autonomous churches that cooperate through national conferences of bishops and are limited only to the authority of the pope or ecumenical council.

What are the potential ramifications of these charges for the Catholic Church?

Many observers have noted that, if they are confirmed to be true, the charges made by Vigano could be of historical importance to the Catholic Church.

On Twitter, The New York Times columnist Ross Douthat said, “This is either an extraordinary and vicious slander or an act of revelation that should be the undoing of just about every figure mentioned in its pages. It has an apocalyptic feel either way.”

Matthew Schmitz, a senior editor at First Things, adds in an op-ed for The New York Times:

No matter what Francis does now, the Catholic Church has been plunged into all-out civil war. On one side are the traditionalists, who insist that abuse can be prevented only by tighter adherence to church doctrine. On the other side are the liberals, who demand that the church cease condemning homosexual acts and allow gay priests to step out of the closet.

See also: The FAQs: The Pennsylvania Report on Child Sexual Abuse by Catholic Clergy