Then-Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick attends a reception for new cardinals in Paul VI hall at the Vatican Nov. 20, 2010. Among the new cardinals was Cardinal Donald W. Wuerl of Washington, successor to Cardinal McCarrick as archbishop of Washington. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

Gerard O’Connell
May 28, 2019

Pope Francis has again denied that he knew anything about the sexual misconduct against seminarians perpetrated by former-cardinal Theodore McCarrick as alleged by Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò. The former nuncio to the United States claimed that he told Pope Francis about allegations against Mr. McCarrick in a private audience in June 2013.

But Pope Francis said he “does not remember” Archbishop Viganò ever telling him this. The pope also explained in a recent interview with Mexican television why he has kept silent for eight months on the letter written by Archbishop Viganò and said he received “with humor” the accusation of heresy recently made against him.

Pope Francis spoke about Mexico, China, the February summit on sex abuse at the Vatican on the protection of children, migrants and the building of walls, the need to get rid of the papal court and much more in a wide-ranging one hour and 40 minute interview with Mexico’s Televisa’s reporter, Valentina Alazaraki, the text of which the Vatican has just released in Spanish. In the interview, Ms. Alzaraki asked the pope why he has remained silent for eight months regarding the accusations raised by Archbishop Viganò. She recalled that instead of speaking, he instead had asked journalists to scrutinize what Archbishop Viganò had said and draw their own conclusions and then he would speak.

Referring to his silence, Francis responded saying, “Those who made the Roman law said that silence was a way of speaking.” He revealed that before he spoke to reporters on the plane, “I had not read all the letter; I saw some of it and already knew what it is,” and so he decided to invite the journalists to study it and draw their own conclusions. He said he refrained from saying then what a judge in Milan later said regarding Archbishop Viganò’s contestation by his family over money, when he convicted him.

A second reason for the silence, Pope Francis said, was “the silences of Jesus” when he refused to answer in “the climate of fury” created by his attackers. Francis said, “This letter was [written] in fury as you [reporters] noted from the results,” and he recalled that one or more journalists had written that [Archbishop Viganò] was paid for his letter, but Francis added: “I don’t know this, I don’t have evidence.”

Asked whether he knew about the abuse by former cardinal McCarrick, Pope Francis replied: “I knew nothing about McCarrick, obviously, nothing, nothing. I said this several times; I knew nothing, [I had] no idea. And when [Archbishop Viganò] said that he spoke to me about this on that day when he came…I do not remember if he spoke to me about that. Is it true or not? I have no idea! But [you reporters] know that about McCarrick. I knew nothing. If not, I would not have remained silent.”

Francis went onto summarize the reasons for his silence: “First, the evidence was there, judge for yourselves. It was an act of trust in you. Secondly, because of Jesus, who in moments of fury he could not speak because it would have made it worse. Everyone would have gone against the one. The Lord teaches us this path and I follow it.”

The pope’s dialogue with Mexican television came to light as new reporting from Crux raised new questions about what church officials knew about measures taken to sideline then Cardinal McCarrick under Pope Benedict. Msgr. Anthony J. Figueiredo, who was the former cardinal’s secretary for nine months in 1994 and 1995, but continued to assist him from Rome after that, released extracts from his correspondence with McCarrick on May 28. The monsignor said he had evidence that recently retired Cardinal Donald W. Wuerl of Washington knew about the restrictions, as did Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re, then-prefect of the Congregation for Bishops, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, then-Vatican secretary of state, and Archbishop Pietro Sambi, who was nuncio to the United States at the time.

In his Mexico television interview the pope was asked how he reacted to the accusation of heresy made against him in a letter to the world’s bishops on April 30 by a small group of clergy and Catholic academics, Pope Francis said, “with a sense of humor.”

“I pray for them because they are wrong,” he said. “I saw [them as] poor people [who are] manipulated by some. I saw who signed it…. Seriously, I looked at it with a sense of humor and, I would say, tenderness, paternal tenderness. That is to say, it did not hurt me at all. What hurts me is the hypocrisy, the lie. That hurts me. But a mistake like that, in which there are people whose heads have been filled…. No please. We have to care for them also, we have to take care for them.”

In the interview, Pope Francis admitted that the information he receives, like his predecessors, often comes through the “filters” of cardinals, bishops and Vatican officials, and he is not always as fully briefed as he should be, as happened with the Chile situation and the case of Bishop Juan Barros. He attributed much of this to “the Curial style” of operating rather than to “corruption” and said, “clearly this is something that has to be corrected and I am making efforts to correct it.”

He noted that in some situations, referring to cases of abuse in Chile, Peru and the United States, not even his closest collaborators in the Vatican had all the relevant information. But now, “with the help of God” and from personal encounters with victims of abuse, things are working better, and he prays to God constantly “not to make mistakes in this nomination or that one.”

Asked how he chose his council of nine cardinal advisors given the accusations that have emerged against several of them regarding sexual abuse or its cover-up, as is the case with Cardinals George Pell of Australia and Francisco Javier Erazzuritz of Chile, the pope said he had chosen “one from each continent” as well as “a coordinator” (Cardinal Óscar Maradiaga from Honduras) and one from the Governatorate of the Vatican City State. He said he “was asked” to bring Cardinal Pell from Australia to work in the Curia. He noted that three of the council members are now retired: Cardinals Pell, Errazuritz and Laurent Monsengwo Pasinya from the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

He acknowledged that there have been all kinds of allegations against Cardinal Óscar Rodríguez Maradiaga, but he said Cardinal Maradiaga “is honest” and “nothing has been proven.” He denounced these allegations as “calumnies.”

He was also asked about the case of the Argentinean bishop, the Most Rev. Gustavo Zanchetta, who is now accused of abuse. Pope Francis had removed Bishop Zanchetta from his diocese and created a post for him in the Vatican—before, the pope has said, he knew of the accusation of the abuse against him. The pope explained how he had brought Bishop Zanchetta to Rome and confronted him with his accuser and said Bishop Zanchetta defended himself well.

Pope Francis said he then sent Bishop Zanchetta to Spain for psychiatric tests and later ordered a formal investigation in Argentina, carried out by a bishop in that country. Once he received the report of that investigation, he decided that Bishop Zanchetta should be sent for trial by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. That trial is underway.

Asked why he refused to accept the resignation of the French cardinal, Philippe Barbarian, whom a court in Lyon found guilty of cover-up of abuse, Pope Francis confirmed that he had done so on the principle of “the presumption of innocence” until the judicial process—including the appeal—had concluded.

The cardinal has appealed the conviction in the first instance. Francis emphasized that “it is necessary to explain to the people” the reason for his decision. But he noted too that when the situation was very clear he acted decisively, as in the case of Mr. McCarrick, whom he removed from the clerical state and the college of cardinals.

The pope also addressed the reality of femicide and other forms of violence against women, which is a problem not only in Mexico but across the globe. Pope Francis said he could not offer “a sociological explanation,” instead he highlighted the fact that “women are still in second place” and this often means they can be “the object of slavery.” He cited the example of women being prostitutes in Rome and what he has seen when he visited a rescue shelter recently.

He then went on to praise the indispensable role of women in society. “The world without women doesn’t function. Not just because she bears children, let us leave aside procreation…. A home without a woman does not function.” He described “tenderness” as “the patrimony of woman. But from there to femicide to slavery, there is some step…. What is this hate? I don’t know how to explain it.”