The Vatican Soap Opera Continues

The Vatican Soap Opera Continues August 27, 2018

John Allen is usually a pretty good guy to turn to for sorting wheat from chaff.  Here’s his take on The Story So Far:

Here’s my bottom line response: Take it seriously, but with a large grain of salt.

One certainly can’t dismiss the charge out of hand, if for no other reason than never before has a former papal ambassador accused a sitting pope of complicity in what would amount, if true, to a criminal cover-up.

To be clear, this isn’t some anonymous figure claiming to have sent the pope a letter. Viganò was the pope’s man in America for five years, and over that time he certainly had the means and opportunity to inform the pope of things if he wanted to.

Further, there’s a symbolic dimension to the situation. Francis has been charged with mishandling an abuse allegation, and if there isn’t a credible and transparent effort to get to the bottom of things, then the pontiff’s rhetoric in Ireland about being “firm and decisive in the pursuit of truth and justice” might ring hollow.

On the other hand, there are at least four reasons why a large grain of salt is warranted.

To begin with, the 11-page statement Viganò released to reporters probably undercut his own credibility in key respects. The letter contains charges of some form of wrongdoing or questionable behavior against no fewer than 32 senior churchmen, and in most cases Viagnò himself acknowledges that his comments are based on no more than supposition and/or connecting the dots.

When anyone hurls around accusations quite so lightly, it’s difficult to know how seriously any one ought to be taken.

Second, Viganò has a history.

He was a key player in the “Vatileaks” scandal under Pope emeritus Benedict XVI, which pivoted on confidential documents being stolen and leaked to the press by a papal butler. Among them were two letters by Viganò to Benedict and Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the Vatican’s then-Secretary of State, protesting his impending appointment as ambassador in the U.S. on the grounds that he wanted to remain in the Government of the Vatican City State and continue battling financial corruption.

Then as now, the letters contained a mix of factual detail with innuendo and conspiracy theories, and it proved arduous – in some cases, basically impossible – to separate the wheat from the chaff.

Third, Viganò arguably undercut his credibility by not dealing with his own record on the abuse issue.

According to a 2014 memo, first made public in 2016, Viganò as nuncio quashed an investigation – going as far as demanding that evidence be destroyed – into then-Archbishop John Nienstedt of St. Paul and Minneapolis, who was being investigated for misconduct with seminarians as well as cover-up of sexual abuse. In 2015, Nienstedt stepped down as head of the archdiocese.

By not at least trying to explain his actions in the Nienstedt case, Viganò left open some serious question marks.

Fourth, it may be difficult for many observers to escape the impression that all this was orchestrated with a political agenda in mind.

In the statement on McCarrick, Viganò clearly betrays a generally conservative political bias, among other things in his frequently derisive commentary on prelates and clerics he finds to be excessively “pro-gay” – such as an offhand claim that Italian Cardinal Francesco Coccopalmerio and Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia (both former or current Vatican officials) “belong to the homosexual current in favor of subverting Catholic doctrine on homosexuality.”

There’s also the question of why Viganò’s statement appeared today, on the very day Francis was struggling to address the abuse scandals in Ireland.  Adding all that up, the release of the statement can’t help but strike some as an orchestrated maneuver.

(As a footnote, if this was indeed orchestrated, it had to be a pretty off-key orchestra. Had Viganò restricted himself to releasing a crisp, one-page statement focusing solely on the charge against Francis, a former nuncio’s standing would have guaranteed a wide echo. As things stand, it’s understandably difficult for many people to know quite what to make of it.)

“I believe the statement speaks for itself, and you have enough journalistic capacity to reach the conclusions,” Pope Francis told reporters on Sunday.

Time will tell what conclusions are indeed reached, but a sober point of departure right now probably would blend genuine curiosity with healthy skepticism.

What we have at present is The Word of Vigano that some kind of vague Double Secret Probation was imposed on McCarrick by Benedict somewhere around 2009-2010.  When pressed by the WaPo to, you know, verify this woolly claim, Vigano

“offered no proof and Viganò on Sunday told the Post he wouldn’t comment further.

‘Silence and prayer are the only things that are befitting,’ he said.”

Meanwhile, there is a ton of evidence that, if such sanctions on McCarrick existed, he seems to have either not known or not cared about them, given that he kept on making lots of public appearances, celebrating Masses, and even getting awards presented to him at dinners:

The missionary spirit was evident as Pontifical Mission Societies honored three people at the gala. Each in his or her own way has been a missionary of the Gospel of Christ. Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, retired Archbishop of Washington; best-selling author Mary Higgins Clark; and television commentator Larry Kudlow were each named 2012 Pontifical Ambassadors for Mission. Each was presented with a medallion featuring a representation of the Papal Keys.

Funny story: one of the attendees at that dinner in May 2012 was Vigano who, instead of calling the cops or protesting giving the award decorated with Papal Keys to a man he himself says he knew to be a criminal, enjoyed his dinner and said nothing.

Indeed, he seems to have said nothing till this past weekend, when he suddenly decided to contact, not real journalists, but the hard right Catholic organs of propaganda that have been attacking Francis for years.

That would be Francis, the one pope who has been documented to have actually punished McCarrick.  The same Francis against whom Vigano has a documented history of reasons to begrudge Francis for firing him.

The standard reply is that just because Vigano is shady does not mean Francis is innocent.

Mhm. Just a quick reminder: In both Christian ethics and American jurisprudence, the rule of thumb is that the accused is innocent till proven guilty.  Imagine for one second that Michael Cohen had announced he totally had the goods on Trump and, when pressed to provide documentation, offered no proof, said he would comment no further and piously cooed, “Silence and prayer are the only things that are befitting”.  Would anybody in their right mind see that guy as anything but a lying underling getting back at the boss?

Here are the three words you need to memorize: “Documentation. Evidence. Proof.”

The accuser himself (who faciliated coverups himself and who has a “history” with Francis) has made assertions, nothing more.

The only thing beyond that is the response from various sources (one a bishop) saying, in various ways, “This list of baseless assertions seems credible to me.” That tells you everything about the standards of evidence those sources have. It tells you absolutely nothing about the truth or falsehood of the allegations.

Oh, and we now also have the (again undocumented and unverified) word of another functionary who claims to have been in on the Double Secret Probation thingie. What this supports, at most, is that Benedict’s vague Double Secret Probation restrictions were imposed–and ignored–by McCarrick. What it does not confirm in the slightest is that Francis knew about McCarrick and lifted the Secret Sanctions.

What it also supports is that Vigano knew he had a criminal on his hands but did not call the cops.

“Oh yeah? Well speaking of silence, what about the Pope’s silence? We all know what that means!”

Yes. It means that people project on to silence what they already want to hear. In short, it shows that people who want to believe Francis guilty, assume his silence means he cannot refute the charges, while people who want to believe him innocent take his silence as that of the lamb who opens not his mouth.

Me: I reject the claim that he has been silent. Here is what he in fact said:

“I will not say one word on this. I think the statement speaks for itself.”

The timing of the letter, released as the Pope addressed sexual abuse by priests during his visit to Ireland, has raised questions about whether Pope Francis is facing a coordinated attack from traditionalists within the Catholic hierarchy.

“You have sufficient journalistic capacity to draw conclusions,” Pope Francis told the reporters on board his plane.

“When a little time has passed and you have the conclusions, perhaps I will talk.”

That seems to me to obviously be the reply of somebody who believes the accusations are groundless, that Vigano’s story does not bear up under scrutiny, and will be shown to be highly problematic when subjected to real examination by actual journalists who are not hacks for Liesite, 1Peter5, Crisis or similar vendors of loathing for this papacy.

Me: I’m agnostic. Could be true. It would not be the first time a Pope has been a coward or behaved corruptly or been a clericalist. And *if* it is true that Francis assisted in covering up McCarrick’s crimes, I agree he should resign. However, since Vigano has already confessed to covering up McCarrick’s crimes the more pressing point is that he should be stripped of his titles and perks.

For when the accuser has a grudge against the accused and a history of his own complicity in the evil of which he accuses another, and only waits till the last second to attack the one guy who actually acted to get rid of the perp, Occam’s Razor suggests that suspicion should fall on the guy who confesses to protecting the perp rather than the guy who got rid of the perp.

If Vigano can come up to the dizzying moral heights of Michael Cohen and produce some documentation, then I will start to take him seriously. But at present, the eagerness of the Greatest Catholics of All Time and the very worst and most unreliable Catholic sites on the web to believe and repeat everything their itching ears want to hear about this Pope whose living guts they have hated from the moment of his election only tells in his favor, not against it.

We’ll see.

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