Why Francis and Benedict won't answer the accusations dividing their church

VATICAN CITY - One rarely leaves his monastery high on a hill in Vatican City. The other speaks freely -- too freely, critics say -- but has vowed silence on this matter, for now.

Two men, both clad in white, both called Holy Father, and now, both facing questions about a crucial facet of the Catholic Church's sexual abuse crisis: What did they know, and when?

Amid the onslaught of news about the scandal, it can be easy to overlook the historical novelty and high drama of this moment in the life of the church: For the first time in 600 years, there are two living popes, one retired and one active, whose fates may be intertwined, even as many of their followers are at odds.

It has been nearly a month since a former papal diplomat published a dramatic letter asserting a "homosexual networks" and widespread cover-ups within the highest levels of the Catholic Church.

The diplomat, Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, demanded that Pope Francis resign for allegedly lifting sanctions that his predecessor, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, had placed on an American cardinal accused of sexual misconduct.

Whether those sanctions actually existed is a question that Francis and Benedict seem uniquely qualified to answer. But neither the 91-year-old German scholar, nor the 81-year-old Argentine Jesuit has said a word about them.

Supporters of both popes cast their silence in spiritual terms, forms of discipline and faith that truth will be revealed, eventually. Others say Benedict and Francis are loath to descend into a mudslinging fight with a former employee. Some wonder if more mundane strategies may be at work, too, such as self-preservation.

Meanwhile, many Catholics are clamoring for answers, anxious that the scandal, with its many troubling questions, could irreparably mar the church's moral reputation and undermine trust in its leaders.

Since Benedict's abdication in 2013, the two popes have taken pains to avoid awkward images or public spats.

But in the United States and beyond, Benedict is held by conservatives as a life raft in a sea of moral relativism. Francis is beloved by liberals for his reform-mindedness, focus on poverty and openness to new ideas. While many American Catholics still like Francis, his popularity has plummeted in the last year, according to a recent CNN poll.

"Maybe some people ... are not very happy with Pope Francis, so they dream about" Benedict, Archbishop Christophe Pierre, the Pope's current ambassador to the United States, said at an event Wednesday in New York.

"At times our feelings are overwhelming, so instead of looking at reality as it is, you know, we judge reality from our own feelings, our resentments, our disappointments. And so, we say, 'This Pope, I don't understand him,' and we dream about the other."

The sex abuse scandal has exacerbated tensions between the two camps as both fight for high moral ground. Francis and Benedict know everything they say can be twisted and used in those skirmishes, friends and advisers say, and are mindful of mistakes they've made in the past.

So, while their factions fight online, both popes have kept their silence about Vigano.

Theories and inter-church debates have rushed into the vacuum, to many survivors' dismay. Clergy celibacy, homosexuality, seminary culture, even liturgy have been conscripted into left-right debates about the true source of the church's troubles.

Francis has spoken often about the church's clergy abuse crisis at large. He wrote an emotional letter after August's damning Pennsylvania grand jury report, repeatedly apologized in Ireland last month for that country's scandals and convened emergency meetings in Rome with American church leaders.

But many Catholics are urging him to be more forthcoming about Vigano's accusations. More than 46,000 Catholic women have signed an open letter to Francis, writing "to pose questions that need answers."

"We need leadership, truth and transparency," the women wrote. "We, your flock, deserve your answers now."

Other Catholics say Benedict is the pope who has questions to answer.

The chief accusation against Francis comes from Vigano, who served both Benedict and Pope Francis as nuncio, or papal ambassador, to the United States from 2011 to 2016.

Francis has said he fired Vigano for plotting a 2015 meeting with Kim Davis, the Kentucky clerk who became a conservative cause célèbre for refusing to sign same-sex marriage licenses.

In an 11-page letter published August 25, Vigano tore into his former Vatican colleagues, accusing them of turning a blind eye to "homosexual networks" within the church, according to the archbishop.

Vigano's chief evidence of this secret Catholic subculture comes in the person of Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, the former Archbishop of Washington, who was forced to resign this summer over accusations that he molested an altar boy and sexually abused young seminarians.

Now 88, McCarrick has denied the allegation about the altar boy and appealed his case to the Vatican after an investigation by the Archdiocese of New York found the accusation credible. He has not responded to the accusations about the seminarians.

For years, reports about McCarrick's misconduct with seminarians passed through the hands of powerful cardinals and archbishops, who apparently did nothing about them, according to Vigano. McCarrick himself was made a cardinal in 2001.

Finally, Vigano says, in 2009 or 2010 Pope Benedict XVI placed "canonical sanctions" on McCarrick, ordering him to live a life of prayer and penance away from the public eye.

But those sanctions have come under sharp questioning. Photographs and videos show McCarrick hobnobbing with church leaders, including Benedict and Vigano himself, at high-profile church events while the sanctions were supposedly in place.

The website that published Vigano's letter, National Catholic Register, now says the sanctions were not a "formal decree, just a private request" by Benedict to McCarrick.

If the sanctions were a "private request," Francis' supporters say, how was he supposed to enforce them?

Vigano's agenda has also been questioned. In addition to the Davis fiasco, he has aligned himself with conservatives opposed to aspects of Francis' papacy, including his efforts to change elements of church teachings.

But some allegations in Vigano's letter appear to be backed by documents, including a newly unearthed letter from a top Vatican official indicating that Catholic leaders had known about McCarrick's alleged misconduct with seminarians since 2000.

In the United States, conservative bishops have vouched for Vigano's character and called for an investigation of his allegations about McCarrick. The US Conference of Catholic Bishops had asked the Vatican to lead the probe, with its leadership traveling to Rome last week to make the request in person.

In a statement Wednesday, the bishops' conference said it still supports an investigation but made no mention of the Vatican.

The Vatican has not responded to requests for comment about a potential investigation into McCarrick.

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Comments (1)

So compromised in the church it no longer has a credible voice. So diluted by the world it has no comparison with the church in acts. Some of the issues being spoken about should never ever have a place in the church.

The Beautiful ones are not yet born - 4 October 2018

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