Viganò’s attempted coup d’eglise was unheard of, and ultimately unsuccessful. Yet he received an astonishing degree of support from dozens of U.S. churchmen and several major conservative Catholic media outlets, which helped orchestrate and amplify his claims. In the years since, Viganò has become an increasingly bizarre figure, embracing QAnon-level conspiracy theories about the machinations of the “deep Church” and the “children of darkness.” He has also developed a disturbing relationship of mutual support and admiration with Donald Trump, and has even begun promoting—from his hidey-hole somewhere in Europe—Trump’s spurious claims of massive voter fraud.
Viganò is still depicted by his allies as a courageous whistleblower, but the McCarrick report shows he was just blowing smoke. Viganò had already embarrassed himself when it emerged that he had tried to block investigations of Archbishop John Nienstedt of St. Paul and Minneapolis, who was eventually forced to resign in 2015 after accusations that he did not take action against priests accused of abusing children and was himself guilty of sexual misconduct with men. Nienstedt was an anti-gay culture warrior allied with Viganò, and that was enough for the homophobic nuncio. “We cannot give in to the enemies of the Church, the media, the attorneys, and others who oppose the Church,” Viganò told John Carr, a former USCCB official now at Georgetown University, when Carr complained about the lack of action against Nienstedt.
Yet at the same time as he was protecting Nienstedt, Viganò was also covering for McCarrick—the very thing he would later accuse Pope Francis of doing. The report shows that in 2012 the Vatican told Viganò to investigate a priest’s claim that McCarrick had abused him, but Viganò did not follow through. Contrary to Viganò’s claims in his 2018 manifesto, no “sanctions” were ever imposed on McCarrick by Benedict, which means there were no sanctions for Francis to lift. Viganò himself frequently appeared with McCarrick at public events while in Washington, offering fulsome praise for the cardinal and maintaining a regular communication with McCarrick on the former cardinal’s comings and goings. There was no rehabilitation of McCarrick by Francis, no evidence that McCarrick had any influence on major episcopal appointments, and no stern warning from Viganò to the pope in 2013 to do something about McCarrick. The disinformation in Viganò’s letter was aimed at deflecting suspicion from himself and at bringing down his foes. In this hierarchical house of mirrors, Viganò was a reflection of McCarrick.
There are so many double agents in this drama, and their loyalties shift between their own interests and those of the Church, between one ideological camp and another depending on who is in charge. They are traitors or heroes, depending on where you stand. The demands of the Gospel and the needs of the flock rarely come into play.
While the report has critics on both sides, the simple fact of the report is an encouraging sign. Nothing like this would have existed even a few years ago. It could have been better, sure, but it also could have been much, much worse. Some are calling it a “whitewash” and are demanding an inquisition that would publicly punish the guilty. The problem is that most of those who were most responsible are dead or infirm, and that the culpability is spread so widely, and over so many years. Those who can still be disciplined for their involvement in mishandling the allegations against McCarrick should be disciplined, while the secretive process for selecting bishops should be opened up to wider consultation. But focusing on one or two culprits, or reforms, would be a mistake. It would make things too easy for everyone else.
Conservatives wanted the McCarrick report to show that homosexuality was the problem, or that a cabal of progressives was secretly running the Church. Anything less was a cover-up in their eyes. Others have argued that focusing on anyone besides McCarrick, an evil genius of historic proportions, was a diversion. “[L]et the focus of wickedness in this tawdry affair be identified accurately as Theodore McCarrick, not John Paul II,” George Weigel wrote in a strained defense of John Paul in First Things. But fixating on McCarrick himself is what allows people like him and Nienstedt to maneuver, by allowing those who have recklessly enabled abusers to present themselves as victims of deceit, guilty of nothing worse than naïveté.
A friend of mine in Rome recently wondered whether the report would show that McCarrick “was a product of the system or a master manipulator of the system.” I suggested it was both. McCarrick has been punished by the Church as much as he can be at this point, and exile itself is the harshest sentence for a man like him. “When you are out you are out. Everybody moves on,” McCarrick is quoted as saying in the report. He was talking about his desire to remain “relevant” even after he retired. His only relevance now is as a warning about a clerical system that desperately needs an overhaul.