Vatican officials keep asking journalists to investigate them, but do they mean it?

For all of you following the continuing drama that is the U.S. Catholic Church these days, another telling moment happened on Sunday. The networks were taping Cardinal Donald Wuerl’s sermon yesterday at Annunciation Catholic Church in the District when Wuerl asked for loyalty to Pope Francis, as "increasingly it is clear that he is the object of considerable animosity."

This was all too much for one parishioner, who stood up and yelled, “Shame on you!” The video appears atop this blog.

To dismiss all the recent ferment as “animosity” toward Francis begs the question of what happened to stoke that animosity. Despite the crisis his archdiocese has been in for two months and running, Wuerl is still tone deaf to why people are so mad.

It’s not just the laity who are upset. There's the fact that Catholic priests who are tipping off journalists. These clerics are giving them tips and sharing anecdotes and ideas on how to best investigate this crisis. They are the frontline guys in this drama who dare not say anything publicly, but can leak stuff to those of us who can. They know a lot. They’ve seen things, heard things. I’ve heard from a few and, at this stage in my career, I’m a bit player in this drama.

That’s why the religion beat is so focused on good sources: Who you know and where they stand. Because unlike government documents, church records typically are not subject to public records laws. So when you want to peer into a religion’s finance records or anything else, you rely on insiders to slip them to you. As tmatt has been saying for a week, it's really crucial for reporters to find documents, documents, documents.

But Pope Francis isn't going to hand them to us, even though he has invited journalists to investigate the Viganò allegations. But are we going to get to see all the files on former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick at the apostolic nunciature in Washington DC? Or have they already been shipped to safety in Rome?

The pope appears to give us that clearance. Remember what he said on the plane from Ireland to Italy on Aug. 26:

Read the statement carefully yourselves and make your own judgment. I am not going to say a word about this. I believe that the statement speaks for itself, and you all have sufficient journalistic ability to draw conclusions. It is an act of trust. When a little time goes by, and you have drawn conclusions, perhaps I will speak about it, but I would like your professional maturity to do this work. It will do you all good, really.

When another journalist asked him about McCarrick, he sidestepped that question. So…OK, let’s take the pope at his word. What if:

* Journalists asked for copies of the documents mentioned by Viganò so we could see whether he’s lying or telling the truth;

* The pope waived any non-disclosure penalities that up until now have prevented people from talking about any settlements for crimes. This happened recently with Cardinal Joseph Tobin when he lifted the confidentiality of the McCarrick settlements to two adult men who were abused by him. One of the men has since talked with the media; the other has yet to do so.

If the documents are forthcoming, then we know the Vatican is willing to play ball. If they are not, that’s stonewalling, my friends. Which is how First Things framed the situation:

The pope’s exchange with journalists on the plane back to Italy must rank as one of the strangest episodes of mutual avoidance in the history of journalism. An issue that journalists have prosecuted with extreme vigor for a quarter-century had finally arrived at the door of a pope: a direct and concrete accusation that, in a specific instance, he had protected a serial sexual abuser. 

Then Anna Matanga of CBS finally puts the question to Francis.

The pope’s refusal to answer the question was meekly accepted by the journalists present, who would surely have brought the plane down had the pontiff’s name been Benedict or John Paul. The Viganò story has since gained little traction in the mainstream, except for the purpose of discrediting the archbishop. It was as through the pope’s weak waffle was absorbed by some invisible padding of the plane’s walls. 

Then there were newsrooms –- such as Reuters -– that portrayed the whole thing as a conservative attack on Pope Francis.

As for other media, we’re seeing the fascinating spectacle of the majors following the stories that the alt-media (LifeSiteNews, EWTN, etc.) are breaking. There’s this story from LifeSite about what happened when the pope met with Kim Davis. Right now, it's these guys that have the right sources.

The LifeSite story includes a statement by Viganò that ends with a plea for journalists to talk with all the prelates mentioned in his statement. My goodness, so much power we have! I’ve never seen Vatican officials plead/ask/tell/invite journalists to investigate them. 

The one time I went to Rome to do some investigating, it was an exercise in sheer frustration. The folks there are masters at dodging reporters. So I'm not convinced there's a real change-of-heart at work here.

Also, I’ve been underwhelmed at the number of outlets picking up the gauntlet.

So far, the New York Times is making the most visible effort to factcheck Viganò and call every official mentioned in his 11-page testimony. In this story, the Times quoted a statement by two former Vatican spokesmen on the famous Kim Davis meeting in September 2015 while the pope was in Washington, then added that the spokesmen unwittingly confirmed at least some of Viganò’s allegations.

In this piece, they ask why McCarrick was allowed to gallivant around the world if he was supposedly under some kind of papal interdict.

What still remains unclear a week after these accusations surfaced is whether Benedict ever imposed sanctions on the cardinal. And if he was sanctioned but permitted to flout the restrictions so boldly and for so long, it raises questions of how tough the Vatican really is on bishops implicated in sexual abuse.
One explanation given by church analysts is that he had been under sanctions, but that they were not taken seriously because the accusations against him were of sexual misconduct with adults, not children. Canon lawyers said in interviews that while church law treats sexual abuse of minors as a crime, on adults the law is ambiguous.
Francis has reacted to the new revelations by refusing to discuss the matter and has neither confirmed nor denied the allegations in the Viganò letter. Instead, he challenged the news media to ferret out the truth.

So it’s back to the news media to discover the truth -- even though it certainly appears that Francis & Co. aren't going to help us unearth it. Thanks, guys. As the Times puts it:

Following the pope’s lead, the Vatican has gone on lockdown.
Cardinal Leonardo Sandri, whom Archbishop Viganò also accused in the letter of covering up sexual misconduct by Cardinal McCarrick, rushed a reporter off the phone on Thursday evening.
“Look, I’m not in my office. Good evening. Good evening,” he said. And he was the most talkative.
The Times reached out to every cardinal and bishop said by Archbishop Viganò to have known about the alleged sanctions on Cardinal McCarrick by Benedict. More than a dozen of them declined or did not answer requests for comment.
Cardinal Wuerl of Washington said in a statement that he was never informed about any sanctions on Cardinal McCarrick. Cardinal Joseph Tobin of Newark said in an interview, “I was never aware of any restrictions.”
A visit to the Vatican Embassy in Washington yielded no information.

Read that last sentence again. A reporter –- probably Elizabeth Dias -– showed up at the embassy/nunciature on Massachusetts Avenue and got nowhere. So what about the pope’s invitation to investigate this story? Methinks it was just a way of buying time until the folks at the embassy could feed incriminating documents to the shredder.

On the other end, if Viganò has these documents, he needs to release them. He could also make himself available to mainstream reporters and not solely rely on the conservative outlets. Yes, folks are beginning to wonder why he’s only dealing with sympathetic journalists.

These documents include:

* The Dec. 6, 2006, memo he wrote to Vatican officials about the McCarrick settlements.

* A similar memo on May 25, 2008.

* An April 2014 letter he wrote to his superiors asking why Benedict’s strictures against McCarrick were being ignored, for starters.

One outlet I’ve been remiss for not citing up until now has been the National Review, which is asking Wuerl to come up with answers as well. Wuerl is low-hanging fruit for journalists and he doesn't have the walls of the Vatican to protect him. 

Two sources have confirmed to the Catholic News Agency, for instance, that they were present at a meeting where McCarrick was told that, at the direct instruction of Pope Benedict, he had to move out of Redemptoris Mater Archdiocesan Seminary in Washington -- seeming to verify the existence of the sanctions Viganò cites.
It is nearly impossible to believe that such a meeting could take place -- that McCarrick, a cardinal, could be told that the pope was relocating him for his misconduct -- without the knowledge of the archbishop of the diocese where McCarrick resided. If Wuerl’s denials are to be believed, surely he is the most incurious cleric in Church history.

Another piece has similar questions for Wuerl and makes it clear there is no way he could be telling the truth. It is impossible that he could not have known that two dioceses had paid tons of money to settle sexual abuse performed by a retired cardinal in Wuerl’s own diocese.

Maybe the man who yelled “Shame on you” was onto something.

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