Former Vatican ambassador says Pope Francis, Pope Benedict knew of sexual misconduct allegations against U.S. cardinal for years

FILE - In this March 4, 2015, file photo, Cardinal Theodore McCarrick speaks during a memorial service in South Bend, Ind. Seton Hall University has begun an investigation into potential sexual abuse at two seminaries it hosts following misconduct allegations against ex-Cardinal McCarrick and other priests. (Robert Franklin/South Bend Tribune via AP, Pool, File)

Dublin • A former Vatican ambassador to the United States has alleged in an 11-page letter that Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis — among other top Catholic Church officials — had been aware of sexual misconduct allegations against former Washington, D.C., archbishop Cardinal Theodore McCarrick years before he resigned this summer.

The letter from Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, who was recalled from his D.C. post in 2016 amid allegations that he’d become embroiled in the conservative American fight against same-sex marriage, was first reported by the National Catholic Register and LifeSite News, two conservative Catholic sites. The letter offered no proof, and Viganò on Sunday told The Washington Post he wouldn’t comment further.

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

The accusations landed as Francis was wrapping up one of the most fraught trips of his papacy, coming face-to-face with the church’s damaged credibility in a country reeling from decades of abuse. In a Mass at Dublin’s Phoenix Park, Francis spoke in Spanish and asked for forgiveness for what he called “abuses of power, conscience, and sexual abuse perpetrated by members with roles of responsibility in the church,” according to a translation of his remarks by Vatican News.

“We ask forgiveness for some members of the church’s hierarchy who did not take charge of these painful situations and kept quiet,” Francis said.

Some 500,000 had been expected to attend the Mass, but the crowd was noticeably smaller, with patches of grass visible in areas that had been intended for spectators.

The sexual abuses — in Ireland, the United States, Australia, Argentina, Belgium Brazil, Canada, Chile and other countries — have fed and amplified the bitter polarization within the Catholic Church. Some of Francis' critics, including Viganò, are calling for the pope to step down.

The Vatican had no immediate comment. McCarrick’s attorney, Barry Coburn, declined to comment.

The letter was the latest dramatic development stemming from a fresh wave of allegations related to clergy sex abuse and its coverup. Rumors that had swirled for decades about McCarrick exploded in June when Pope Francis suspended the cardinal. Last month, McCarrick, facing credible allegations of abusing seminarians and minors, became the first U.S. cardinal in history to resign.

Viganò, 77, was the Holy See’s apostolic nuncio, or ambassador, in Washington from 2011 until 2016. He has been a lightning rod within the Vatican who lost a power struggle in Rome under Benedict, emerged as a Francis critic, and reportedly ordered the halt of an investigation into the alleged sexual relations between an archbishop in Minnesota and seminarians.

Jason Berry, who has written several investigative books about the Vatican, said he believes this is the first time a pope has been accused from within.

“From within the Vatican hierarchy, from within the Roman Curia, I don’t think anyone has ever publicly accused a pope of covering up for a sex abuser,” Berry said. “That’s why this is such a big deal.”

Viganò’s letter said that McCarrick had been privately sanctioned under Benedict — though only after years of warnings about his alleged behavior. The warnings that Vigano describes dealt with McCarrick’s alleged behavior toward seminarians and young priests — not toward minors. Viganò wrote that the measures, taken “in 2009 or 2010,” banned McCarrick from traveling, holding Mass, or participating in public meetings.

Yet McCarrick appears to have done essentially the opposite. He regularly appeared as a speaker and celebrant at church functions and represented the church in prominent foreign diplomatic efforts in places like China and Iran. A video from 2013 shows Benedict warmly greeting McCarrick in Rome, at the pope's resignation (and the subsequent election of the new pope), where McCarrick gave round-the-clock television interviews and stayed at a seminary.

It wasn’t immediately clear why a pope taking the dramatic step of suspending a cardinal from ministry, as Viganò said, wouldn’t monitor McCarrick in any way.

However, when the archdiocese of New York last year began its investigation into an altar boy’s allegation against McCarrick — the first accusation involving a youth — the Vatican ambassador Archbishop Christophe Pierre told McCarrick to be less public while the probe was underway, a personal familiar with McCarrick said Sunday. However McCarrick still appeared in public as he wished, the person said, including attending an ordination ceremony in May in his cardinal’s garb.

Viganò’s letter says that in 2013, he met Francis months into his papacy and told him face to face that there was “a dossier this thick” about McCarrick. He says he then told Francis about Benedict’s order that McCarrick remove himself from public life.

“He corrupted generations of seminarians and priests and Pope Benedict ordered him to withdraw to a life of prayer and penance,” Viganò says he told Francis. “The Pope did not make the slightest comment about those very grave words of mine and did not show any expression of surprise on his face, as if he had already known the matter for some time, and he immediately changed the subject.”

Viganò also alleges in that conversation that Francis told him American bishops “must not be ideologized, they must not be right-wing ... and they must not be left-wing, and when I say left-wing I mean homosexual.”

It was not possible to reach Benedict or his representatives right away. Francis has not commented previously about what he was ever told about McCarrick, and on Sunday, Vatican spokesman Greg Burke did not respond to a request seeking comment.

The American Catholic Church is deeply divided over Francis’ leadership, with fault lines similar to those seen in the political realm. Francis’s comments and teachings about everything from immigration and global warming to the death penalty are frequently adopted or refuted along partisan lines.

The Viganò document uses American culture-war language, such as “right-wing” and “left-wing,” and concludes the letter by blaming “homosexual networks” for sexual abuse and corruption.

U.S. conservative Catholics who have suspected Francis of surreptitiously opening the door for liberalizing changes around sex and marriage have in recent years focused on the increased acceptance of LGBT people. Common targets for right-wing blogs like LifeSite and ChurchMilitant are bishops and cardinals they deem too moderate or liberal. Constantly on this list is D.C.’s Donald Wuerl, Chicago’s Blasé Cupich and Joe Tobin of Newark. All are named by Viganò as being linked by “wickedness.”

In the letter, Viganò described several figures who could corroborate parts of his account. Those people could not be immediately reached.

Before moving to D.C., Viganò spent time as delegate within the secretary of state’s office, working with the Vatican’s embassies around the world. He says in his letter that his job included “the examination of delicate cases, including those regarding cardinals and bishops.”

"I can imagine Viganò wanted to unburden his conscience," said Marcello Pera, a retired professor who knows Viganò, co-authored a book with Benedict XVI, and has spoken critically about the direction of the church under Francis.

“The author is a reliable person who has suffered because of events,” Pera said. “His warnings were not listened to.”

Viganò was sent to Washington — reportedly as punishment — in 2011 and was there until May 2016. He arranged a hugely controversial meeting between Francis and an American woman, Kim Davis, who had lost her job as a municipal clerk for refusing to issue marriage licenses to same-gender couples. Allies of Francis alleged Viganò set up the pope during a high-profile U.S. visit, and that Francis didn’t intend to affirm Davis’ cause.

The letter also includes an allegation against Wuerl, D.C.’s current archbishop and McCarrick’s immediate successor. He is a close ally of Francis and is already under scrutiny following a grand jury report in Pennsylvania about clerical child sex abuse in Pennsylvania and alleged coverup. Wuerl for years led the diocese of Pittsburgh.

Viganò is vague in the allegation against Wuerl.

Wuerl’s spokesman, Ed McFadden, Saturday night denied the report.

“Cardinal Wuerl was never informed of any action taken by the Holy See, was never provided documentation of any kind. If the claim is that Cardinal Wuerl was made aware of this so-called suspension, he was never made aware of that,” McFadden said. He repeated Wuerl’s previous statements that the cardinal didn’t know of allegations against McCarrick, nor of the two legal settlements by adult accusers that came out this summer. “No, never. He knew nothing until the formal announcement (this summer) that a substantiated claim had been made.”

Victims and Catholics around the world have been demanding more transparency from Pope Francis and the church in general, and that clerics who covered up for priest-abusers be held accountable.

The letter says Francis “must honestly state when he first learned about the crimes committed by McCarrick, who abused his authority with seminarians and priests.”

Prominent Catholic commentator-priest Jonathan Morris, who works for the archdiocese of New York, tweeted that the Viganò document "will shake the Vatican and the Catholic Church in the USA like never before."

He said the Maciel case — which took place in the Legion, for which Morris was ordained — was devastating specifically because “we never found out exactly who knew what when the Vatican protected itself.” High-ranking Vatican leaders “went on for years praising the Legion in front of us.”

Now, he said, someone within the Vatican is blowing the whistle.

“There is no such thing as a real investigation if the Vatican doesn’t open its own archives (in the McCarrick case),” he said.