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Pope Francis faces accusation of ignoring sexual abuse

Another accusation has emerged in the Catholic Church's ongoing sexual abuse scandal. A former senior Vatican diplomat to the U.S., Carlo Maria Vigano claims that Pope Francis knew about, and ignored, allegations of wrongdoing by Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, previously archbishop of Washington, D.C. William Brangham turns to Dennis Coday, an editor for the National Catholic Reporter, to discuss.

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  • John Yang:

    Pope Francis was in Ireland this weekend. And as a part of his visit, he met with survivors of that country's sex — church sex abuse scandal.

    It's part of his effort to show that the church takes the matter seriously.

    But, as William Brangham, Francis is now facing an accusation that he himself turned a blind eye to a case of misconduct involving a prominent cardinal.

  • William Brangham:

    The accusation comes from Carlo Maria Vigano, the former senior Vatican diplomat to the U.S. In an 11-page letter released this weekend, Vigano claims Pope Francis knew several years ago, and ignored allegations against the former Washington, D.C., archbishop, Cardinal Theodore McCarrick.

    McCarrick was accused of sexually harassing and abusing young adult seminarians, as well as sexually abusing two boys decades ago. McCarrick resigned last month.

    In his letter, which offered no evidence for the accusation about the pontiff, Vigano urged Pope Francis to step down.

    Yesterday, in response, Francis told reporters to read the document carefully and judge it for themselves.

    Joining me now is Dennis Coday, an editor for The National Catholic Reporter.

    Dennis, thank you for being here.

    I wonder if we could just start with, this is a very serious allegation made by the former ambassador from the Vatican. How seriously should we take this?

  • Dennis Coday:

    Well, I think the pope is correct on this, on the point that he made on the plane yesterday, is that we need to look at this very closely, but we also need to scrutinize it.

    Like any good source, when you're — a journalist is going to look at who the source is, where this information is coming from, and what other motives might be involved in someone coming forward with these kind of allegations.

    And so that's — I'm not sure all that due diligence was done before this statement was released. But that is what we are in the process of doing ourselves right now.

  • William Brangham:

    Before we get to those questions about the source, can you just tell us a little bit more about what Vigano alleges that Pope Francis did or didn't do?

  • Dennis Coday:

    I guess the main claim is that, in 2013, shortly after Francis was pope, that he relayed to Francis, reported to Francis allegations of sexual abuse and assault by then Cardinal McCarrick.

    And he also so said that, previously, Pope Benedict had imposed some kind of sanctions, some restricted ministry on McCarrick, and that those were never enforced. And he also says that Francis didn't enforce them and didn't act upon those charges.

  • William Brangham:

    And as you — as you touched upon, Pope Francis' response seems to be, why don't you look at the substance of these allegations?

    He clearly believes that, under scrutiny, they will fall apart. Can you tell us a little bit more about Vigano, the accuser here?

  • Dennis Coday:

    Yes, he was ambassador to the United States from the Vatican from about 2011 until 2016.

    He — before that, he was a member of the Curia, the Roman Vatican bureaucracy. And coming to the United States wasn't his first choice. He really didn't want to do that. But he had troubles in the Curia before that. He was criticized for being a stern manager. He was also involved in the uncovering of some financial scandals there in the Vatican.

    And so he was — we have reported in the past it was kind of a case of him being kicked upstairs into this ambassadorship to the United States.

  • William Brangham:

    Isn't Vigano got himself accused of having several years ago overlooked some other allegations about another cardinal?

  • Dennis Coday:

    Not a cardinal, but an archbishop, Nienstedt from St. Paul, Minneapolis.

    There were charges against him that he was engaged in inappropriate relationship with men. There was some allegations there. There was also charges of mishandling of sex abuse cases of other priests under his charge. He eventually resigned.

    But there was also an investigation that was done by an outside investigator in Minneapolis-St.Paul. All of that was delivered to Vigano in his office as ambassador. And he had suggested at one point that an auxiliary bishop who was leading the investigation destroy some of those documents. That didn't happen. But that report has never surfaced against Archbishop Nienstedt.

  • William Brangham:

    My understanding is that, within the political spectrum of the Vatican, Vigano is considered quite a conservative, and the allegations, he's making against Pope Francis, who many consider to be more on the liberal side.

    Do you see this as more of a demonstration of the schism within the Catholic Church right now?

  • Dennis Coday:

    Schism is a technical word. I don't want to use that word. I would say that there is definite infighting going on, and there's a power struggle going on.

    Francis has met a lot of resistance since his election because of his reform agenda and what he represents from some of the hard-liners that don't want to see reform come, especially the Vatican bureaucracy.

    Vigano has been associated with some of those groups. I know recently he was — a year ago, Francis released an apostolic exhortation about family life that seemed to indicate a softer line towards divorce and remarried Catholics. And Vigano has been opposed to that.

    He joined groups that have been opposed to that kind of teaching. He's also made appearances in recent months with groups that are very hard-line against any kind of abortion legislation or same-sex marriage legislation, those kind of things.

    Those are always cultural issues of discussion in the Catholic Church.

  • William Brangham:

    All right. Dennis Coday of The National Catholic Reporter, thank you very much.

  • Dennis Coday:

    Glad to do it. Thank you.

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