Which brings us to the two letters of Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, a former papal nuncio to the United States, charging that Pope Francis had lifted sanctions on McCarrick that had been imposed on him “in private” by Pope Benedict XVI—charges that Francis has so far refused to discuss in public. The nub of Viganò’s first letter is that Francis knew of McCarrick’s history of abuse—that he had to have known because Viganò himself had documented that history for his superiors at the Vatican—but that the pope chose to ignore it and even took McCarrick’s advice about the selection of new bishops in the United States.
Viganò’s second letter, written a month later from his place of hiding, attacked the pope for not responding to his accusations, claimed that the pope had slandered him (though without mentioning his name), and—most important—demanded the release of the documentation on McCarrick that he had supplied to Vatican officials. Finally, Viganò asked Francis to tell the rest of the church how he had responded to a request by a delegation from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops for a thorough investigation into the Vatican’s handling of the McCarrick case. This is one place where liberals and conservatives can and ought to join forces, demanding release of these documents and an explanation of how the ex-cardinal’s case was handled.
Even so, I doubt we will ever really know what happened: anyone who has ever spent much time covering the Vatican knows the Curia is a honeycomb of rival factions—the Holy See, after all, is the last Renaissance court—where popes rule but do not necessarily get their way. Viganò’s letters reinforce the notion that there are no uniform procedures for dealing with misbehavior, sexual or otherwise, by high-ranking church officials. As we saw when John Paul II delivered Cardinal Bernard Law to the safety of a plush Roman sinecure, popes create cardinals and, like God, are free to do with them as they will.
Viganò did not help his cause by entrusting the publication of his letters to various American media outlets representing this country’s disgruntled Catholic right. In doing so, he made their disaffection with Francis his own, and his theirs, thereby blurring the lines between the messengers and the message. Cardinal Cupich was not alone among Francis loyalists who found it easy to dismiss Viganò’s first letter in part because of where and how it was made public. Not long before the second letter appeared, however, Cupich publicly apologized for the words he had used in dismissing the importance of some of the issues raised by Viganò’s letter.
Among those issues is one that no one in the Catholic hierarchy seems eager to investigate: the extent to which there are gay networks operating within the American priesthood, its seminaries and chanceries, and within the Vatican itself. And to what ends? Perhaps the hierarchy is afraid of giving aid and comfort to right-wing zealots who would like to use the McCarrick scandal as an excuse to out and purge all homosexual priests and bishops. There can be no excuse for such a purge. We have all met gay priests who live chaste lives and honor their vows of celibacy, just as we know there are more than a few heterosexual priests who fail to honor theirs. But it wasn’t just clericalism that allowed McCarrick to abuse seminarians and young priests for decades, even though his behavior was widely known within clerical circles. And it wasn’t just his ecclesiastical clout that provided him protection. It was networks, too.
By networks, I mean groups of gay priests, diocesan and religious, who encourage the sexual grooming of seminarians and younger priests, and who themselves lead double lives—breaking their vows of chastity while ministering to the laity and staffing the various bureaucracies of the church.
During the nearly four decades I spent writing about religion for Newsweek, I heard numerous tales of “lavender lobbies” in certain seminaries and chanceries, told mostly by straight men who had abandoned their priestly vocations after encountering them. At one time or another, the whispering centered on networks in Los Angeles, Milwaukee, Chicago, or Pittsburgh, among other dioceses. One of the few priests to complain in public was the late Andrew Greeley, who spoke of gay circles operating in the administration of Chicago’s Joseph Bernardin, a cherished friend of his. As far back as 1968, I heard similar rumors about priests serving in the Roman Curia, mostly from Italians, who are generally more relaxed about homosexuality than Americans and unsurprised when those leading double lives are outed. What concerns me, though, is not simply personal hypocrisy, but whether there are gay networks that protect members who are sexually active.
Here it is worth revisiting the career of Cardinal John J. Wright (1909–1979) who, like McCarrick, was the subject of numerous stories about his own sexuality. Again, these came mostly from former seminarians and priests of the Pittsburgh diocese, which had a reputation during Wright’s decade there as a haven for actively gay clerics. That was especially true of the Pittsburgh Oratory, which Wright founded in 1961 as a religious center ministering to Catholic students attending the city’s secular universities.
Wright was an intellectually gifted churchman whose reputation as a liberal in the Spellman era rested chiefly on his interest in literature and the arts and his voluminous essays on those subjects and others published in liberal Catholic magazines, including this one. In 1969, at the age of sixty, Pope Paul VI chose Wright to head the Congregation for Priests in Rome and elevated him to cardinal. It was there, in the frenzied initial years of the post-council era, that I first heard stories of his leading a double life rather openly with a younger lover. What interests me now is not the private details of this double life, but whether it influenced how he ran the congregation overseeing the selection, training, and formation of the clergy. Donald Wuerl, who recently resigned as archbishop of Washington D.C., would surely know the truth about Wright. Wuerl’s first assignment after ordination at the age of thirty-one was as secretary to then Bishop Wright of Pittsburgh in 1966. The younger priest was said to be closer to the cardinal than the hair on his head. He became Wright’s omnipresent full-time personal assistant when the latter moved to Rome, even sitting in for him during the papal conclave that elected John Paul II.
The question of how networks relate to cases like McCarrick’s is one that veterans in the hierarchy ought to summon the courage to air. The laity has a right to a greater degree of transparency in these matters. Total transparency is probably too much to expect. But if structural reforms are necessary to protect the young from abuse, the scandals of the summer of 2018 ought to be seen as spurs to thoughtful action, not occasions for fruitless displays of anger, shock, shame, and despair. The danger of clerical double lives—of secrets that can be used as weapons to protect other secrets—should now be clear to everyone. There will be clerical hypocrisy as long as there is a church, but we can and should do more to combat it.
A final suggestion: stop treating cardinals and bishops as royalty rather than, as Francis has preached, as servants of the church. This is a particular failing of wealthy, politically conservative Catholics favored by outmoded organizations like the Knights of Malta that are basically in the business of trading hefty donations for face time with Catholic hierarchs. It came as no surprise that Viganò’s letters were shepherded into print by wealthy right-wing Catholic funder Timothy R. Busch, cofounder and host of the Napa Institute, which—for $5,000 a pop—brings disgruntled conservative Catholics together with like-minded American bishops for Latin-language liturgies, George Weigel lectures, and “after dinner cigars” with the archbishop of San Francisco. For invited prelates, the week is free.