AILSA CHANG, HOST:
Pope Francis is now squarely in the center of this still unfolding clergy sex abuse crisis in the Catholic Church. A former Vatican ambassador to the U.S., Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, says the pope covered up sexual misconduct by former Washington, D.C., Archbishop Theodore McCarrick. Vigano called on the pope to resign. Here with us now to talk about these developments is NPR religion correspondent Tom Gjelten. Hey, Tom.
TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: Hi, Ailsa.
CHANG: So this charge came in a pretty extraordinary 11-page letter from Vigano released this weekend. What information does he claim to have?
GJELTEN: Well, Vigano is a longtime Vatican insider. He was, as you say, the Vatican ambassador to the United States from 2011 to 2016. So he has certainly had access to information. Most of his allegations concern former Archbishop McCarrick - Cardinal McCarrick until he was forced to give up that title this summer. Vigano says there was knowledge of McCarrick's misconduct years ago - that it was brought to the attention of the Vatican.
Now, we should point out that he does not claim there was knowledge of McCarrick abusing a minor - well, that was the charge that actually led to his resignation. Vigano is talking largely about sexual misconduct with seminarians. He says then-Pope Benedict forbid McCarrick from celebrating Mass or giving lectures. He claims that Francis then reversed those punishments, which is why he should resign. Now, there are two problems with this, Ailsa. One, we haven't yet seen any evidence of those sanctions being imposed on McCarrick.
GJELTEN: Two, we also know that McCarrick continued to do those things he was supposedly forbidden to do even when Benedict was still pope.
CHANG: And how has Pope Francis reacted to this letter claiming there was this cover-up?
GJELTEN: Well, on the plane this weekend, coming back from Ireland, he basically refused to talk about it. He said, read the statement and make your own judgment. It's not clear what he meant by that. He...
CHANG: He's not exactly denying.
GJELTEN: No, but he may be saying consider the source. We know that Archbishop Vigano is a longtime critic of Pope Francis. His letter is very strident, inflammatory - phrased very much in culture-war terms. There is actually - some people in the Vatican say he has a reputation for being a troublemaker. So maybe the pope was just saying take this with a grain of salt.
CHANG: Now, these charges Vigano makes go back several years. But he released this letter while the pope was on this high-profile trip to Ireland. How do you think the timing was significant here? Was it deliberate?
GJELTEN: Well, the reason that that trip was so high-profile is because, of course, it came in the midst of this clergy abuse crisis. Now, Vigano's critics suspect that he was using this crisis to leverage his longstanding anti-Francis campaign. On the other hand, it is important to note that his charges are directly related to the sex abuse crisis. Within the Catholic leadership, there are basically two theories of the root cause of this crisis.
Francis and his allies say it's clericalism, by which they mean too much deference to the clergy, putting the clergy on a pedestal - vis-a-vis the laity. They say that tendency has led to impunity for priests and bishops. The other argument, which is one subscribed to by Vigano, is that this has everything to do with homosexuality. There's been too much accommodation of homosexuals within the church. We should also point out that researchers have really challenged that idea that there's any connection between child abuse and sexual orientation.
CHANG: And how unprecedented was this letter in the first place - or really this whole moment right now for the Catholic Church?
GJELTEN: The entire moment is unprecedented. I mean, we have an ex-Pope Benedict who resigned - first time in 600 years. We have Francis being elected - the first pope from the south. Some people say there's a civil war going on in the Catholic Church. There have been civil wars before. But this is a big one.
CHANG: NPR religion correspondent Tom Gjelten. Thanks, Tom.
GJELTEN: Of course. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.