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The Vatican Is Using Bill Clinton’s Playbook To Defend Pope Francis


Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò — a former apostolic nuncio to the United States — recently published a “testimony” accusing a number of top Vatican officials of having known about Cardinal Theodore McCarrick’s sexual misconduct for many years. He also claims that, despite knowing of the claims that McCarrick was a sexual predator, Pope Francis removed sanctions imposed by his predecessor, Benedict XVI, raised McCarrick’s stature and relied on his advice regarding major appointments. Viganò has called for Francis’ resignation on that basis.

Although some corroborating evidence has emerged, much territory remains to be explored. The response from the Vatican and its defenders, however, seems to emerge from the pages of Bill Clinton’s playbook for sex scandal management. And like that playbook, it seeks to use the divide between conservatives and liberals to avoid accountability.

The most ham-fisted gambits to date have come from Cardinal Blase Cupich, a Francis appointee. The cardinal told NBC’s affiliate in Chicago:

The Pope has a bigger agenda. He’s got to get on with other things, of talking about the environment and protecting migrants and carrying on the work of the church. We’re not going to go down a rabbit hole on this.

The cardinal apparently did not realize that this sort of response was much funnier in the hands of the satirical Babylon Bee than a high-ranking church prelate.

It once was effective in the roaming hands of candidate and President Clinton. When confronted with his various immoralities, the Clintonian approach typically mixed denial, attacks on the accuser (usually accusations of political motive), and the complimentary assertion that the attacks were a distraction from getting on with his work for the American people.

Cupich seemingly absorbed an additional Clintonesque lesson, insofar as he added of Francis’ critics: “Quite frankly, they also don’t like him because he’s Latino.” As it happens, the Pope’s parents were of Italian descent and lived in Argentina. But close counts. In the depths of Lewinskygate, Toni Morrison defended Clinton as “our first black president.”

The Clintonesque approach proceeds from the top. Pope Francis would say only that Viganò’s testimony “speaks for itself,” a low-key way of saying “consider the source.” The media got the message, from Yahoo to Reuters to The New York Times, framing Viganò’s claims as the ravings of a conservative Catholic seeking to derail the Francis agenda. Meanwhile, the actual denials were getting narrower and narrower. Perhaps a Jesuitical parsing of the word “is” lies in our future.

While the Pope evaded a direct answer, a robust response was published by Andrea Torinelli in the Italian newspaper La Stampa. Torinelli is a Vaticanist and helps the paper run the Vatican Insider website. His attack on Viganò’s testimony is as close as we are likely to get to an immediate rejoinder from the Vatican. And it is a piece of work.

Torinelli begins with painting Pope Francis as the victim of a vast right-wing conspiracy:

The clamorous decision of the Vatican diplomat to violate the oath of fidelity to the Pope and the official secret represents yet another attack against Francis carried out in an organized way by the same circles that a year ago had tried to arrive at a sort of doctrinal impeachment, after the publication of the exhortation ‘Amoris laetitia.’ Attempt failed. Viganò is in fact one of the signatories of the so-called ‘Professione’ in which Pope Bergoglio is defined as divorce-friendly, and well connected to the most conservative circles overseas and in the Vatican. That it is not simply the outburst of a Church man tired of the rotten things he has seen around him, but of a long and carefully planned operation, in an attempt to get the Pope to resign, is demonstrated by the timing and the involvement of the same international media network that for years has been propagating — often using anonymous ones — the requests of those who would like to overturn the result of the 2013 conclave.

That the press rushed to defend Pope Francis — as he understood they would — suggests the opposite is true, though the paranoia about a friendly media is decidedly Clintonesque. Of course, the real point is that time spent on that accusation is not spent investigating Viganò’s claims.

Torinelli continues by asking why Francis’ predecessors elevated McCarrick and failed to take public action against him if the rumors were so widespread. The implication of Benedict XVI and John Paul II is an exercise in ecclesiastical whataboutism. It is a tactic intended to polarize the issue of sexual misconduct along theological or political lines. The potential guilt of others does not necessarily absolve Francis.

Moreover, the flaw in asking why Viganò did not seek an audience with John Paul II is apparent to anyone following the news in the post-Harvey Weinstein era. Indeed, Torinelli later acknowledges the harassment, “given that it is the bishop who invites his seminarians or priests to bed, [is] actually an abuse. There is no such thing as a situation of equality, before it being a sexual abuse, it is an abuse of clerical power.” Yet he later rationalizes, “No one has ever said that to invite seminarians close to the priesthood and young priests to sleep with him, ‘Uncle Ted’ (as McCarrick called himself) used forms of violence or threats.”

Similarly, in Clintonian fashion, Torinelli often reminds the reader that some of McCarrick’s victims were over 18 years old. It was often said that Clinton and his intern Lewinsky had a consensual, adult relationship. In this century, people understand that relationship in light of the gross disparity in power that existed between them. (And neither Clinton nor Lewinsky were supposed to be bound by a vow of chastity.)

The Vatican and its defenders seem to believe they can ride out the current scandal with the Clinton playbook in a #MeToo era. Given their power — and the power of their allies — they may be right. But the revulsion of the laity in America, not only to this story, but also the Pennsylvania grand jury report detailing widespread sexual abuse of boys and girls by priests over the course of decades — and the ensuing cover-up by Catholic bishops — suggests this course would only further damage an institution already weakened by moral decrepitude in the hierarchy.