Vatican defends pope against 'blasphemous' cover-up claims

VATICAN CITY (AP) — A top Vatican cardinal issued a scathing rebuke Sunday of the ambassador who accused Pope Francis of covering up the sexual misconduct of a prominent American cardinal, saying his claims were a "blasphemous" political hit job.

Six weeks after Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano threw the papacy into turmoil over his claims about ex-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, the head of the Vatican's bishops office said there was no evidence in his files backing Vigano's claims that Francis annulled any sanctions against McCarrick.

Cardinal Marc Ouellet's letter was issued Sunday, a day after Francis authorized a "thorough study" of all Vatican archives into how McCarrick rose through the ranks of the Catholic Church despite allegations he sexually preyed on seminarians and young priests.

The letter, addressed to Vigano but identified as an open letter to the faithful, marked an extraordinary end to the official Vatican silence about Vigano's claims. In it, Ouellet both defended the pope and excoriated Vigano, asserting that the conservative cleric had used the scandal over sexual abuse in the U.S. to score ideological points with Francis' critics on the Catholic right.

SEE ALSO: Investigation into Pennsylvania's Catholic church reveals sex abuse scandal and coverup

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Investigation into Pennsylvania's Catholic church reveals sex abuse scandal and coverup
PITTSBURGH, PA - AUGUST 15: Parishioners worship during a mass to celebrate the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary at St Paul Cathedral, the mother church of the Pittsburgh Diocese on August 15, 2018 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The Pittsburgh Diocese was rocked by revelations of abuse by priests the day before on August 14, 2018.(Photo by Jeff Swensen/Getty Images)
Victims of clergy sexual abuse, or their family members react as Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro speaks during a news conference at the Pennsylvania Capitol in Harrisburg, Pa., Tuesday, Aug. 14, 2018. A Pennsylvania grand jury says its investigation of clergy sexual abuse identified more than 1,000 child victims. The grand jury report released Tuesday says that number comes from records in six Roman Catholic dioceses. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
Storm clouds pass over a Roman Catholic church in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, U.S. August 14, 2018. REUTERS/Jason Cohn
Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro speaks during a news conference at the Pennsylvania Capitol in Harrisburg, Pa., Tuesday, Aug. 14, 2018. A Pennsylvania grand jury says its investigation of clergy sexual abuse identified more than 1,000 child victims. The grand jury report released Tuesday says that number comes from records in six Roman Catholic dioceses. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
FILE – In this June 30, 2015, file photo, Cardinal Donald Wuerl, archbishop of Washington, speaks while outlining the schedule for Pope Francis' September 2015 visit to Washington, during a news conference at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle in Washington. Wuerl wrote to priests to defend himself on the eve of the scheduled Tuesday, Aug. 14, 2018, release of a grand jury report investigating child sexual abuse in six of Pennsylvania's Roman Catholic dioceses. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh, File)
PITTSBURGH, PA - AUGUST 15: Father Kris Stubna walks to the sanctuary following a mass to celebrate the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary at St Paul Cathedral, the mother church of the Pittsburgh Diocese on August 15, 2018 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The Pittsburgh Diocese was rocked by revelations of abuse by priests the day before on August 14, 2018.(Photo by Jeff Swensen/Getty Images)
Robert Mizic, 47, watches a press conference on the grand jury report investigating sexual abuse within the Catholic Church in Pennsylvania at his home on Tuesday, Aug. 14, 2018, in Turtle Creek, Pa. Mizic says he was abused by his parish priest at a Catholic Church in suburban Philadelphia 35 years ago. (Andrew Rush/Post-Gazette via AP)
PITTSBURGH, PA - AUGUST 15: St Paul Cathedral, the mother church of the Pittsburgh Diocese on August 15, 2018 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The Pittsburgh Diocese was rocked by revelations of abuse by priests the day before on August 14, 2018.(Photo by Jeff Swensen/Getty Images)
Judy Deaven who says her son was a victim of sexual abuse by a priest as a boy reacts as Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro speaks during a news conference at the Pennsylvania Capitol in Harrisburg, Pa., Tuesday, Aug. 14, 2018. A Pennsylvania grand jury says its investigation of clergy sexual abuse identified more than 1,000 child victims. The grand jury report released Tuesday says that number comes from records in six Roman Catholic dioceses. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
PITTSBURGH, PA - AUGUST 15: Parishioners worship during a mass to celebrate the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary at St Paul Cathedral, the mother church of the Pittsburgh Diocese on August 15, 2018 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The Pittsburgh Diocese was rocked by revelations of abuse by priests the day before on August 14, 2018.(Photo by Jeff Swensen/Getty Images)
Former priest James Faluszczak, who says he was molested by a priest as a teenager, reacts as Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro speaks during a news conference at the Pennsylvania Capitol in Harrisburg, Pa., Tuesday, Aug. 14, 2018. A Pennsylvania grand jury says its investigation of clergy sexual abuse identified more than 1,000 child victims. The grand jury report released Tuesday says that number comes from records in six Roman Catholic dioceses. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
PITTSBURGH, PA - AUGUST 15: Father Kris Stubna speaks to parishioners during a mass to celebrate the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary at St Paul Cathedral, the mother church of the Pittsburgh Diocese on August 15, 2018 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The Pittsburgh Diocese was rocked by revelations of abuse by priests the day before on August 14, 2018.(Photo by Jeff Swensen/Getty Images)
In this Dec. 12, 2010, photo, Cardinal Donald Wuerl, the Archbishop of Washington, greets a woman after giving a Mass of Thanksgiving at St. Paul Cathedral in Oakland neighborhood of Pittsburgh. A landmark grand jury report released Tuesday, Aug. 14, 2018, faulted Wuerl, the former longtime bishop of Pittsburgh who now leads the Washington archdiocese, for what it said was his part in the concealment of clergy sexual abuse. Wuerl, one of the highest-profile cardinals in the United States, released a statement Tuesday that said he had "acted with diligence, with concern for the victims and to prevent future acts of abuse." (Rebecca Droke/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette via AP)
PITTSBURGH, PA - AUGUST 15: Parishioners leave St Paul Cathedral, the mother church of the Pittsburgh Diocese on August 15, 2018 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The Pittsburgh Diocese was rocked by revelations of abuse by priests the day before on August 14, 2018.(Photo by Jeff Swensen/Getty Images)
PITTSBURGH, PA - AUGUST 15: Parishioners worship during a mass to celebrate the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary at St Paul Cathedral, the mother church of the Pittsburgh Diocese on August 15, 2018 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The Pittsburgh Diocese was rocked by revelations of abuse by priests the day before on August 14, 2018.(Photo by Jeff Swensen/Getty Images)
FILE – In this Sept. 23, 2015, file photo, Cardinal Donald Wuerl, archbishop of Washington, left, looks toward the crowd with Pope Francis following a Mass outside the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington. Wuerl wrote to priests to defend himself on the eve of the scheduled Tuesday, Aug. 14, 2018, release of a grand jury report investigating child sexual abuse in six of Pennsylvania's Roman Catholic dioceses. (AP Photo/David Goldman, File)
PITTSBURGH, PA - AUGUST 15: Parishioners leave St Paul Cathedral, the mother church of the Pittsburgh Diocese on August 15, 2018 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The Pittsburgh Diocese was rocked by revelations of abuse by priests the day before on August 14, 2018.(Photo by Jeff Swensen/Getty Images)
PITTSBURGH, PA - AUGUST 15: Parishioners worship during a mass to celebrate the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary at St Paul Cathedral, the mother church of the Pittsburgh Diocese on August 15, 2018 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The Pittsburgh Diocese was rocked by revelations of abuse by priests the day before on August 14, 2018.(Photo by Jeff Swensen/Getty Images)
Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro speaks during a news conference at the Pennsylvania Capitol in Harrisburg, Pa., Tuesday, Aug. 14, 2018. A Pennsylvania grand jury says its investigation of clergy sexual abuse identified more than 1,000 child victims. The grand jury report released Tuesday says that number comes from records in six Roman Catholic dioceses. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro, at podium, speaks during a news conference at the Pennsylvania Capitol in Harrisburg, Pa., Tuesday, Aug. 14, 2018. A Pennsylvania grand jury says its investigation of clergy sexual abuse identified more than 1,000 child victims. The grand jury report released Tuesday says that number comes from records in six Roman Catholic dioceses. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
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"In response to your unjust and unjustified attack, dear Vigano, I conclude that your accusation is a political setup without any real foundation that could incriminate the pope, and I repeat that it has profoundly wounded the communion of the church," Ouellet wrote.

Ouellet said a review of his files showed there were no documents about any sanctions ever imposed on McCarrick by former popes and that it was "false" to suggest Francis had annulled any such measures.

Ouellet did acknowledge that McCarrick had been "strongly exhorted" not to travel or appear in public, and to live a discreet life of prayer given rumors against him.

The McCarrick scandal has thrown the U.S. and Vatican hierarchy into turmoil, given it was apparently an open secret in some U.S. church circles that he would invite seminarians into his bed. Two men received settlements starting in 2005 from two New Jersey dioceses after they alleged McCarrick sexually molested or harassed them.

The Vatican was informed starting in at least 2000 about the seminarian complaints.

Francis accepted McCarrick's resignation as a cardinal in July after a U.S. church investigation determined that an allegation that he groped a teenage altar boy in the 1970s was credible. Since then, another man has come forward saying McCarrick molested him when he was a young teen and other men have said they were harassed by McCarrick as adult seminarians and priests.

Ouellet's letter marked the Vatican's first direct response to Vigano's 11-page denunciation Aug. 26 in which he accused two dozen Vatican and U.S. church officials of covering up for McCarrick, and demanded Francis resign for his role in the scandal.

Vigano claimed he told Francis during a June 23, 2013 meeting that Pope Benedict XVI had sanctioned McCarrick to a lifetime of penance and prayer for having "corrupted a generation of seminarians and priests."

Vigano implied that Francis still rehabilitated McCarrick from the "canonical sanctions" and made him a trusted counselor.

Ouellet, however, noted that the June 23 meeting occurred as Francis was meeting with all his ambassadors for the first time and was gathering an "enormous quantity of verbal and written information" about the church.

"I strongly doubt that McCarrick concerned him to the degree you'd like to think, given he was an 82-year-old emeritus archbishop who had been out of a job for seven years," Ouellet wrote.

Ouellet said in all his meetings with Francis about bishop nominations, he never heard him refer once to McCarrick as a trusted counselor. He said he couldn't believe Vigano had arrived at such a "monstrous" and "blasphemous" conclusion, given that Francis had nothing to do with McCarrick's career rise.

He said he understood that Vigano might be bitter at the way his own career ended and his disagreement with Francis' policies. But he wrote:

"You cannot end your priestly life in an open and scandalous rebellion that inflicts a painful wound" on the church and divides its people.

He urged Vigano: "Come out of your hiding place, repent for your revolt and return to better sentiments toward the Holy Father.

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