When the former Vatican nuncio to the US leveled an unprecedented accusation of cover-up against Pope Francis and demanded his resignation, it sent shockwaves around the world. When Francis declined to directly refute or corroborate Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò’s accusation, it outraged many inside and outside the Catholic Church, especially in the US where decades of abusive behavior by the clergy continue to be revealed all too slowly. Voices like those of veteran Vaticanistas like John L. Allen of Crux advising the use of a “large grain of salt” over Viganò’s motives had been left largely unheeded.

Today, La Stampa’s Andrea Tornielli poked serious holes in Viganò’s timeline of events, although the rebuttal raises questions of its own. First off, contra to what the former nuncio alleges, McCarrick wasn’t sanctioned into hermitage during Benedict XVI’s pontificate. In his open letter, Viganò alleges that the now-Pope Emeritus had restricted Cardinal McCarrick into a life of private penance and stripped him of all faculties for public ministry. In fact, McCarrick played a public role in the US church all through those years, Tornielli reminds readers — including at events with Viganò:

The Viganò dossier suggests that in the last three or four years of Ratzinger’s pontificate McCarrick lived as a hermit or a cloistered monk and that only after the election of Francis was his cage opened. Once again, we must stick to the documented facts, and that is not the case at all. The reality is different, documented and documentable. At everyone’s fingertips, just a click on the web away. During Ratzinger’s last years of pontificate, McCarrick’s did not change his way of life: it is true that he left the seminary where he resided, but he celebrated diaconal and priestly ordinations alongside important cardinals of the Roman Curia close collaborators of Pope Ratzinger, he gave lectures. On 16 January 2012, he participated together with other US bishops in an audience with Benedict XVI in the Vatican and his name among the participants was indicated in the bulletin of the Holy See’s Press Office. On 16 April 2012, he met Benedict again at the audience of the Papal Foundation and celebrated the Pontiff’s birthday together with all those present. He traveled and returned to Rome in February 2013 to bid farewell to the Pope who had resigned and shook his hand with a smile (all immortalized by the cameras of Vatican TV). It is clear that his position was not considered so serious, that the indications of guilt were not considered so obvious and that the sanctions should not be so restrictive.

And even Viganò himself, in the meantime removed from the Vatican by decision of Benedict XVI who “promotes him nuncio to Washington, does not appear at all worried about the situation. His participation in public events with the harassing cardinal is documented, such as concelebrations in the United States or the attribution of an award to McCarrick (on 2 May 2012, Pierre Hotel in Manhattan), a ceremony during which Viganò appears anything but indignant or embarrassed to be photographed alongside the old cardinal harasser. Why now that he had the power to reach Benedict XVI directly, as his representative in one of the most important diplomatic seats in the world, does Nuncio Viganò not rise up, not act, not ask for an audience, not enforce the restrictive provisions?

Thus Francis did not let McCarrick loose, as Viganò alleges, as McCarrick was never caged in the first place. Benedict might have sanctioned McCarrick, but those sanctions were apparently never made public and never imposed publicly. As nuncio to the US, Viganò would have been responsible for making sure any such sanctions were enforced:

Let’s remember: McCarrick, over eighty, did not take part in the conclave, is a retired but hyperactive cardinal. He continues to travel around the world, to give lectures, to preside over celebrations. Viganò goes to an audience with Francis. It was the Pope who asked him a question about McCarrick and Viganò reminded him that the cardinal “corrupted generations of seminarians and priests” and that in the Vatican there is a dossier that attests to this. Beware: it is not Viganò who speaks in a worried way of the cardinal. It is the Pope who asks for a judgment. The nuncio does not say that he has given Bergoglio a note on the matter nor that he has asked him to intervene. Today, outraged, Viganò writes about the sanctions of Benedict XVI that no one knows, but – if they exist – he as nuncio does not seem to have acted to enforce such measures.

So are these issues all “fake news,” or whatever the Vatican equivalent might be? Of course not. The issues surrounding McCarrick are very real, as are the issues of just how he went for so long and so far while abusing young men in the seminaries. The questions of who knew and who covered up are just as pertinent as ever. It’s part of a long, sordid, and enraging history within the church that keeps unfolding, in large part because the episcopacy has refused to deal honestly with the issue until courts hold their feet to the fire. We’ve had a years-long ringside seat to that problem in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, culminating in a $213 million settlement that bankrupted the organization and forced it to sell off its office real estate.

Speaking of which, John Allen reminded everyone of the role Viganò played in that debacle — which was far from the whistleblowing hero painted by the media now:

According to a 2014 memo, first made public in 2016, Viganò as nuncio quashed an investigation – going as far as demanding that evidence be destroyed – into then-Archbishop John Nienstedt of St. Paul and Minneapolis, who was being investigated for misconduct with seminarians as well as cover-up of sexual abuse. In 2015, Nienstedt stepped down as head of the archdiocese.

By not at least trying to explain his actions in the Nienstedt case, Viganò left open some serious question marks.

Remember that Francis became pope in 2013, the same year that Viganò accuses him of opening the cage that Benedict supposedly had placed McCarrick. If one accepts the Viganò dossier at face value, Viganò was so offended at McCarrick’s alleged release that he, er, covered up for Nienstedt the very next year. Huh?

As the secular media is slowly beginning to figure out, this may be less about whistleblowing and more about score-settling:

Especially in recent months, Viganò — who was denied by Francis a traditional elevation to cardinal after his time as U.S. ambassador — has openly aligned himself with the pope’s fiercest critics. Those conservative prelates have decried the first Latin American pontiff’s outreach to gay and divorced Catholics, pointedly questioning his positions.

During his time in Washington, Viganò emerged as a conservative darling who arranged a surprise meeting between Francis and Kim Davis, the Kentucky county clerk who spent six days in jail for refusing to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Yet during his U.S. tenure, Viganò was not above reproach on the issue of sexual abuse. According to documents from a church-sponsored investigation, Viganò tried to cover up a case against the former archbishop of St. Paul, Minn., John Nienstedt, who faced allegations of misconduct with men. …

Intrigue followed him to the United States, where Viganò fast became known as the unyielding conservative lion who, apparently unbeknown to Francis, arranged the 2015 meeting with Davis. The Vatican later distanced itself from the meeting, bluntly saying the pope’s encounter with Davis should not be “seen as endorsement.”

Although senior church officials often retire at age 75, many do stay on. Viganò wasn’t one of them. In 2016 — only a few months after the Davis meeting — he was replaced.

But if that’s the case, why didn’t the pope point all this out? That same reluctance to deal honestly with the issue and hide behind obfuscatory remarks is what rightly enraged Catholics after Francis’ bizarre response to questions last week over McCarrick. Tornielli did a good job of pointing out the obvious discrepancies, which Francis could have easily pointed out as well. Instead, the pontiff appeared to hide behind the kind of public dodge one expects from a politician rather than an honest response becoming a man of God, especially one following in the footsteps of Peter.

And that’s the problem with simply dismissing Viganò as a sore loser. Sore losers might have their axes to grind and may manipulate information to make themselves look good, but it doesn’t mean they’re entirely wrong, either. The cold, hard fact remains that the church has sheltered serial abusers for decades, and that McCarrick was allowed to reach the highest levels within the church despite being suspected of abuse for a long period of time. Palace intrigue might explain Viganò’s motives, but it doesn’t explain away the abuse, the systemic cover-ups, and especially the reluctance of the Catholic Church’s leadership to address it openly and forthrightly more than two decades into its exposure. That problem starts at the top, with Pope Francis, and cascades down through the entire organization.

If the Vatican wants to restore its credibility, it had better change its tactics. They can start by unveiling their records of abuse reporting within the church here in the US … rather than wait for 48 more grand juries to finish the job.