Pope Francis sits during his weekly general audience, at the Vatican, Aug. 29, 2018.
Pope Francis sits during his weekly general audience, at the Vatican, Aug. 29, 2018.

ROME - Pope Francis was described Thursday by a top aide as ‘serene’ in the face of the unprecedented public skirmishing breaking out among Catholic prelates over an explosive charge that the pontiff knew about sexual misconduct allegations against a U.S. cardinal but chose to ignore them.

The Vatican's secretary of state said Francis is maintaining his grace despite “bitterness and concern” in the Vatican over the accusation leveled against him by a onetime top Catholic envoy, who has demanded the Pope resign.

The Pope’s accuser, Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, a former Vatican ambassador and a doctrinal opponent of Francis, has gone into hiding after making his claim last Sunday in a scathing 11-page document that was crafted with the assistance of a well-known Italian journalist and a stalwart critic of the Pope. According to Vigano, Francis ignored misconduct allegations against Cardinal Theodore McCarrick.

The incendiary document, which also warned of a homosexual culture in the church, was leaked to several conservative Catholic newspapers and blogs, all determined foes of Francis. They agreed to publish it on the second and final day of Francis’s trip to Ireland, in a coordinated effort, say Francis loyalists, to cause him maximum damage.

The publication of the letter upended the visit to Ireland, where Pope Francis had hoped to stanch the damage being done to the Holy See by the clerical sex abuse crisis that has roiled the Roman Catholic Church worldwide for decades. Just two weeks before the Ireland trip, the Church was rocked by further clerical abuse allegations with the release of a grand jury report in the U.S. which detailed the abuse of children in six Pennsylvania dioceses over the past seven decades by hundreds of “predator priests.”

In Ireland, Pope Francis met Irish abuse victims and asked for the faithful to forgive the church for its failings. “We ask forgiveness for the times that we did not show [abuse] survivors compassion or the justice they deserve in the search for truth,” he said. And he then added: “We ask forgiveness for members of the Church hierarchy who did not take care of these situations and kept quiet.”

FILE - Cardinal Theodore McCarrick speaks during a
FILE - Cardinal Theodore McCarrick speaks during a memorial service in South Bend, Indiana, March 4, 2015. McCarrick is among figures at the center of the Catholic Church's sex abuse scandal.

But Vigano says Francis is one of the church leaders who’s colluded in covering up abuse or has been too ready to overlook abuse allegations when leveled against friends and progressive allies. He has also claimed that a tolerant attitude towards homosexuality in the Vatican — even alleging a progressive gay cabal in the upper echelons of the Church — is the root cause of clerical sex abuse. Francis supporters scoff at that charge, noting that clerical sex abuse has been going on for decades and for most of that time traditionalists were in control of the Vatican.

‘Conspiracy of silence’

Midweek Vigano reemerged to give an interview to La Verità newspaper, saying he spoke up out of a sense of duty to the Catholic Church and not because the Pope had passed him over for promotion. “I have never had feelings of vendetta or rancor,” he said, adding that there is a “conspiracy of silence” in the Church “not so dissimilar from the one that prevails in the mafia.”

Vigano says Francis was aware of the grave allegations of sexual misconduct against Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, who’s been accused of abusing young priests and molesting seminarians for decades. Unlike his predecessor Pope Benedict XVI, who imposed sanctions on McCarrick, Francis and his circle of advisers chose to rehabilitate the U.S. cardinal, argues Vigano.

The claims are shaking Francis’s five-year papacy.

Amid the swirl of charge and counter-charge between church liberals and conservatives locked in a power struggle, there’s mounting anxiety in the Vatican that traditionalists, opposed to the Pope’s efforts to make the Church more inclusive and less rigid doctrinally, are determined to use the clerical sex abuse scandal to gain politically.

The pope’s supporters say Francis’ doctrinal opponents won't be satisfied until they have either forced him to resign, or so damaged him that he’s stripped of the authority needed to drive the reforms they're determined to halt. They say traditionalists have been emboldened by the resignation of Benedict, whose stepping down as leader of the Catholic Church in 2013 made him the first pope to relinquish the office since 1415, setting a modern-day precedent for pontiffs not having to stay in office until they die.

Abuse survivors are also suspicious of the motives of Vigano and the circle of traditionalists supporting him. Despite their own frustrations with Francis at what they see as a failure by his Vatican to take concrete steps to root out corrupt clergy, they worry traditionalists are enlisting homophobia in their campaign against Francis and are not truly focused on the well-being of abuse survivors.

Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, Apostolic Nuncio to
FILE - Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano listens to remarks at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops' annual fall meeting in Baltimore, Maryland, Nov. 16, 2015. Vigano went public with scathing allegations implicating Pope Francis in a coverup of the Catholic Church's sex abuse scandal.

Not a word

Cardinal Oscar Maradiaga, one of the Pope’s closest advisers, dismissed Vigano’s attacks, telling La Repubblica newspaper Thursday, “Transforming information of a private nature into a bombshell headline that explodes around the world damaging the faith of many people doesn't seem to me to be a correct action.” But Maradiaga did not engage with the details of Vigano’s central charge — that the pope ignored misconduct allegations against McCarrick, who last month resigned, becoming the first cardinal to do so since 1927.

Francis, too, has continued to remain silent about McCarrick.

The 81-year-old pope told journalists who accompanied him on his two-day visit to Ireland that he wouldn't comment. Asked in an impromptu press conference on board his plane on the return to Rome about Vigano’s accusation, the Pope said he left it up to the journalists to judge for themselves. “I won't say a word about it,” he said.

Vatican analysts say the Holy See appears to be hoping that by ignoring the substance of the claim against Francis, the storm can be ridden out.  But they warn that appears to be a forlorn hope — by shunning the charge, Francis is fueling it and prompting the question, ‘why won't the pope answer?’ If the claim is inaccurate, “why wouldn't the pope correct it, just as he has spoken so openly about so many other things?” queried commentator Tim Stanley in a commentary for the London Sunday Telegraph.

Francis’ conservative critics are gearing up to press formally for an answer. In an open letter to his diocese in Tyler, Texas, Bishop Joseph Strickland midweek said: “Let us be clear that they are still allegations, but as your shepherd I find them to be credible.” He says he will agitate for an investigation.

Other prelates are plotting to do so as well, next month in Rome at a synod of bishops to discuss young people and faith.

The Diocese of Dallas in Texas has petitioned the Pope to hold a special synod, or summit, of bishops on the clerical sex abuse scandal.

Progressives started to rally Friday around Francis with prelates from Latin America, the pope’s home continent, as well as Portugal  leading the charge.

Of the accusations, Cardinal António dos Santos Marto, of Fatima, Portugal, told the Observador newspaper, “It’s a campaign organized by ultra-conservatives to mortally wound the pope.”

Marto predicted Francis will be strengthened by the controversy, adding, however, that “in this moment it’s necessary for the entire Church to manifest her support for the pope.” He said Francis may soon switch tactics and address head-on the accusations against him.

Francis also received backing from a top aide to his predecessor, Benedict XVI. Archbishop Georg Ganswein dismissed Vigano’s claim that Benedict had informed Francis of the misconduct allegations against McCarrick. He told Italian newspapers Friday: “It’s all rubbish.”