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Bishop Thomas weighs in on Vatican controversy

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Bishop Daniel Thomas speaks during an interview at the Diocese of Toledo in Toledo on Monday.

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Toledo Bishop Daniel Thomas weighed in Friday on a sex abuse scandal gripping the Vatican, standing with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in calling for a thorough investigation into allegations that top church officials knew about accusations against a former cardinal.

Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, a former apostolic nuncio to the United States, this week published a letter claiming that Pope Francis joined top Vatican officials in covering up a history of harassment and sexual abuse on the part of Theodore McCarrick, a former archbishop of Washington, D.C., who resigned from the College of Cardinals late last month.

Archbishop Viganò called for Pope Francis’ resignation in the same letter.

In a prepared statement, Bishop Thomas said pursuing the truth is the only way the church can begin to alleviate the suffering of abuse victims and initiate reforms.

“It is not only a critical, but a moral obligation, to get to the truth surrounding who in the Church knew of Archbishop McCarrick's behavior and whether there was a concerted effort to protect him,” Bishop Thomas said, in part, in the statement. “Endorsing a thorough investigation is not about a political or ecclesial agenda, but about committing ourselves to allowing the truth to come to light for the sake of the protection of children, for the sake of restoring the integrity of the episcopate and for the sake of the purification of the Church.”

The allegations raised by Archbishop Viganò sent shockwaves through a global faith community already reeling — especially in the United States — from the revelation of the scope and scale of sex abuse in six of eight dioceses in Pennsylvania. A grand jury there earlier this month identified more than 300 priests who victimized more than 1,000 children over 70-plus years.

RELATED: Bishop Daniel Thomas talks about Pennsylvania abuse reports, time in Philadelphia

Allegations of sexual abuse erupted around Archbishop McCarrick prior to the release of that report. The Vatican removed him from ministry in June after an investigation found credible allegations that he had sexually abused a minor in the 1970s. A more extensive history of sexual transgressions with adult seminarians also came to light around this time.

Archbishop Viganò’s testimony intensifies the scandal surrounding the ex-cardinal in alleging that top church officials had long known about his behavior. Specifically, Archbishop Viganò alleges that Pope Francis effectively lifted sanctions that his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, imposed on the former cardinal in 2009 or 2010; he also claims that he himself informed Pope Francis of the former cardinal’s misdeeds in 2013.

Adding a layer of fog to allegations that directly finger the church’s highest office is a contentious relationship between Pope Francis and Archbishop Viganò, who as apostolic nuncio served as an ambassador to the United States between 2011 and 2016.

The Rev. James Bacik, a well-known theologian and former diocesan pastor, pointed out that Pope Francis oversaw Archbishop Viganò’s career in such a away that effectively removed the possibility that he would ever rise to the College of Cardinals.

Archbishop Viganò upset the Vatican in 2015, when he arranged a controversial meeting between Pope Francis and Kim Davis, the court clerk who became a prominent name in the fight against same-sex marriage. Father Bacik said Archbishop Viganò has been critical of Pope Francis’ openness to the LGBT community.

“Those who are suspicious of Viganò’s motives would certainly include me,” said Prof. Peter Feldmeier, the Murray/Bacik Professor of Catholic Studies at the University of Toledo, characterizing Viganò’s statements as an “odd public challenge” of a pontiff who has apparently responded more robustly to allegations against Archbishop McCarrick than either of his predecessors.

But that skepticism doesn’t mean the allegations should not be investigated, Mr. Feldmeier said.

Evidence suggests that Pope Benedict did not actually sanction Archbishop McCarrick, as Archbishop Viganò alleges in his testimony and as Father Bacik and others have pointed out.

Archbishop McCarrick remained in visible ministry, at times alongside Benedict, in that period that Archbishop Viganò identifies after 2009 or 2010.

Father Bacik does, however, count himself among the many theologians who believe Pope Francis must answer to the second charge that Archbishop Viganò makes in his testimony — that he was directly informed of the former cardinal’s misdeeds in 2013.

Pope Francis declined comment on Sunday, telling reporters “the text speaks for itself.”

“He told the journalists that they should be able to figure it out themselves, in other words, that they would discover the holes in Vigano’s statements,” Father Bacik said. “But there is the question: Did Viganò tell Pope Francis in June, 2013, that McCarrick had misdeeds in his past?”

The U.S. Council of Catholic Bishops, which previously called for investigation into questions surrounding Archbishop McCarrick, released a statement on Monday in response to Archbishop Viganò’s additional allegations. The council reaffirmed its call for “a prompt and thorough examination into how the grave moral failings of a brother bishop could have been tolerated for so long and proven no impediment to his advancement.”

“The questions raised deserve answers that are conclusive and based on evidence,” the president of the conference, Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, said in a portion of the statement cited by Bishop Thomas. “Without those answers, innocent men may be tainted by false accusation and the guilty may be left to repeat sins of the past.”

Blade news services contributed to this report.

Contact Nicki Gorny at ngorny@theblade.com or 419-724-6133.

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