VATICAN CITY — With the Catholic Church in crisis once again over clerical sex abuse and cover-up, Pope Francis will meet Thursday with U.S. cardinals and bishops who are demanding to know how one of their own was able to climb the clerical ranks despite allegations that he slept with seminarians.
The Vatican said Tuesday that the U.S. delegation would be headed by Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, head of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, and also include Francis' top sex abuse adviser, Cardinal Sean O'Malley.
Di Nardo has said he wants Francis to authorize a full-fledged Vatican investigation into ex-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, who was removed as cardinal in July after a credible accusation that he groped a teenager.
The Vatican has known since at least 2000 that McCarrick would invite seminarians to his New Jersey beach house and into his bed.
And yet St. John Paul II made him archbishop of Washington and a cardinal in 2001, presumably because Vatican officials impressed by his fundraising prowess considered his past homosexual activity a mere "moral lapse" and not a gross abuse of power.
DiNardo has also said recent accusations that top Vatican officials - including the current pope - covered up for McCarrick since 2000 deserve answers.
Vatican spokesman Greg Burke said DiNardo and O'Malley would meet with Francis on Thursday in the Apostolic Palace. Also involved are two officials from the U.S. conference, Los Angeles Archbishop Jose Gomez and Monsignor Brian Bransfield, according to a Vatican statement.
The summit recalls the April 2002 meeting John Paul called with the senior U.S. church leadership after the sex abuse scandal first exploded publicly in Boston. At the time, McCarrick served as the front-man for the U.S. delegation, acting as their spokesman, and then went on to serve prominently when U.S. bishops drafted their tough abuse norms the summer of 2002 in Dallas.
In July, Francis ordered McCarrick, 88, to observe a lifetime of penance and prayer pending the outcome of a canonical trial into the groping allegation involving a teenage altar boy in the 1970s. After the allegation was publicized in June, it emerged that it was apparently an open secret - including at the Vatican - that McCarrick routinely molested seminarians and young priests and harassed them.
The McCarrick scandal took on crisis proportions two weeks ago after the Vatican's former U.S. ambassador, Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, accused two dozen Vatican and U.S. cardinals and bishops by name of covering up for McCarrick.
Specifically, Vigano accused Francis of rehabilitating McCarrick from canonical sanctions imposed on him by Pope Benedict XVI in 2009 or 2010. The Vatican hasn't responded to the accusations, but presumably the "clarifications" it has promised will come sometime after Francis meets with the top U.S. church leadership this week.
Francis has refused to comment directly about Vigano's claims, but nearly every day over the past two weeks his homily at morning Mass has seemed somewhat related to the scandal.
On Tuesday, he drew Satan into the fray, suggesting that the devil was behind Vigano's revelations.
"In these times, it seems like the 'Great Accuser' has been unchained and has it in for bishops," he said. "True, we are all sinners, we bishops. He tries to uncover the sins, so they are visible in order to scandalize the people."
Bishops, he said, should be men of prayer, and should know they were chosen by God and keep close to their flock.
In other eyebrow-raising comments Tuesday, a top aide to both Francis and Benedict said the sex abuse scandal was such a game-changing catastrophe for the church that it amounted to its "own 9/11."
Archbishop Georg Gaenswein told a book presentation that he by no means was comparing the scandal to the nearly 3,000 people killed in the U.S. 17 years ago Tuesday, on Sept. 11, 2001.
But he said the years-long scandal, and recent revelations in the Pennsylvania grand jury report, showed just "how many souls have been wounded irrevocably and mortally by priests from the Catholic Church."
"Today, even the Catholic Church looks full of confusion at its own 9/11, at its own Sept. 11, even though this catastrophe isn't associated with a single date but rather at so many days and years, and innumerable victims," he said.
While no one has attacked churches with airplanes full of passengers, Gaenswein said, recent news from the U.S. "sends a message that is even more terrible than the sudden collapse of all the churches of Pennsylvania together with the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington."
Gaenswein, who serves as secretary to Benedict and prefect of Francis' papal household, was speaking at a presentation of a book by conservative American author Rod Dreher, who has been at the forefront in reporting on the McCarrick and Vigano scandals.Comment on this story
Gaenswein recalled that during a 2008 trip to the U.S., Benedict spoke from the National Shrine to denounce the "profound shame" and pain that abuse had caused the Catholic community. Benedict is credited with having turned around the Vatican on the issue of sex abuse while he was cardinal, forcing bishops around the world to send all their cases to him for review because they weren't sanctioning abusers.
Gaenswein's said Benedict's admonition was "apparently in vain, as we see today."
"Neither the lament of the Holy Father nor the formal assurances and commitments pledged by a large part of the hierarchy has been able to contain the evil," he said.