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Vatican Power Struggle Bursts Into Open as Conservatives Pounce

ROME — Since the start of his papacy, Francis has infuriated Catholic traditionalists as he tries to nurture a more welcoming church and shift it away from culture war issues, whether abortion or homosexuality. “Who am I to judge?” the pope famously said, when asked about gay priests.

Just how angry his political and doctrinal enemies are became clear this weekend, when a caustic letter published by the Vatican’s former top diplomat in the United States blamed a “homosexual current” in the Vatican hierarchy for sexual abuse. It called for Francis’ resignation, accusing him of covering up for a disgraced cardinal, Theodore E. McCarrick.

With the letter — released in the middle of the pope’s visit to Ireland — an ideologically motivated opposition has weaponized the church’s sex abuse crisis to threaten not only Francis’ agenda but his entire papacy. At the very least, it has returned the issue of homosexuality in the Roman Catholic Church, which many conservatives are convinced lies behind the abuse crisis, to the center of debate.

Vatican intrigues and power struggles are nothing new, but they usually remain within the medieval walls or fly over the heads of the Catholic faithful around the globe.

This battle, however, is being waged in an exceptionally open and brutal manner. It is fueled by a modern media age, the pope’s reluctance to silence critics, and an issue — child sexual abuse — that perhaps more than any other has prompted defections among the faithful.

The accusations in the letter remain unsubstantiated. Asked Sunday night about their validity, Francis said he would not dignify them with a response.

But they are serious, and the pope’s vague answer has only heightened public interest, particularly in the core accusation — that he was told about Mr. McCarrick’s history of sexual relations with seminarians and did nothing about it.

“It’s a serious problem,” said Sandro Magister, a veteran Vatican observer at L’Espresso magazine, who said the remarkable public broadside was indicative of enormous frustration among conservatives toward Francis. He doubted whether Francis, who has essentially ignored such salvos in the past, would be able to do so this time.

“With this issue,” Mr. Magister said, “the public impact is much stronger, and on this ground he is rather vulnerable.”

Francis’ non-answer is in keeping with his reluctance to give oxygen to a small — if influential and noisy — group of conservative prelates and writers aligned with the author of the letter, Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, the former top Vatican diplomat in the United States.

Francis has removed from office or sidelined ideological opponents in the bureaucracy of the church, but he has also been more willing than his predecessors to allow open debate and even dissent. Many have challenged him, in sometimes coarse language, for his openness to making some church practices less rigid, among them the exclusion of divorced and remarried parishioners from receiving Communion.

On Monday, Francis’ supporters shrugged off the letter as another desperate attack from frustrated conservatives still unaccustomed to not getting their way. They expressed confidence that its accusations would be disproved.

Some abuse survivors, who have been pressing Pope Francis to take concrete action about the crisis instead of just offering apologies, however heartfelt, argued that Archbishop Viganò’s letter exploited the abuse for political gain. The letter did not, they said, show particular concern about the plight of the church’s children.

The child sex abuse scandal has riveted the attention of the world’s Catholics, but the shift in the church’s direction under Francis has enlivened his enemies. They believe that the pope’s message of inclusion is undermining longstanding church rules, and that it is leading to confusion and perhaps schism.

The explosion of conservative Catholic blogs — many in the United States — in an era of lightning-fast modern media, as well as the strategically timed release of the letter combined to make a potent rear-guard action against the 81-year-old pontiff.

“Let us be clear that they are still allegations, but as your shepherd I find them to be credible,” the conservative Bishop Joseph Strickland of Tyler, Tex., wrote in an open letter to his diocese. “I will lend my voice in whatever way necessary to call for this investigation and urge that its findings demand accountability of all found to be culpable even at the highest levels of the church.”

If Francis thought that the debate over homosexuality in the church was behind him, the events of this week suggest otherwise.

“The homosexual networks present in the Church must be eradicated,” Archbishop Viganò wrote, arguing that it was the root cause of abuse.

The abuse scandal had already set off a fierce debate in Catholic journals and across churches. Some critics of the church have blamed the vows of celibacy, arguing that suppressing the human libido can lead to pedophilia and rape.

At the Conference of Catholic Families, a rival, conservative event to the Vatican’s World Meeting of Families in Dublin this past weekend, organizers found the pope’s recent condemnation of abuse unsatisfactory because he did not call out homosexuality. That, they say, has turned seminaries into “cesspits.”

Cardinal Wilfrid Napier of South Africa has also blamed homosexuality for the scandal. And Cardinal Raymond Burke, a high-ranking Vatican conservative and a leading critic of the pope, has denounced what he says is “a very grave problem of a homosexual culture in the church.” The problem, he said, is not only among the clergy “but even within the hierarchy, which needs to be purified at the root.”

In 2005, the Vatican stated that even celibate gays should not be priests, and instructed church leaders to reject seminary applications from men who “practice homosexuality, present deep-seated homosexual tendencies or support the so-called ‘gay culture.’”

Critics of Francis believe that a meeting in Rome of bishops from around the world in October on the theme of youth could become a battleground. They want to make sure the church’s opposition to homosexuality is on the radar should the issue of sex abuse come up, as it now certainly will.

In May, Francis reportedly told Italian bishops that when it came to potentially gay seminary applicants, “if there’s even the slightest doubt, better to not accept them.”

Even so, Archbishop Viganò and his allies have argued that the pope and his supporters are too accepting of gays in the church and that they willfully ignore that the vast majority of victims of sexual abuse by priests are male.

Most experts reject the conflation of homosexuality and pedophilia as a dangerous route to bigotry against gays. Outside the church, the belief has been widely discredited as retrograde.

But it still has traction in the Vatican. Many here believe that an investigation by three cardinals following the 2012 Vatileaks scandal — based on the leaked memos of the same Archbishop Viganò who wrote Sunday’s letter — revealed a gay lobby working in the Holy See and that their report contributed to the retirement of Pope Benedict XVI.

The report remains a closely held Vatican secret, but in his letter, Archbishop Viganò included a slew of names and targeted allies of Francis who share the pope’s views.

He said Cardinal Blase J. Cupich of Chicago was “blinded by his pro-gay ideology.” And he took issue with the assertion of Cardinal Cupich, a past president of the Committee on Protection of Children and Young People, “that the main problem in the crisis of sexual abuse by clergy is not homosexuality, and that affirming this is only a way of diverting attention from the real problem, which is clericalism.”

In an interview on Sunday, Cardinal Cupich said: “I think it is wrong to scapegoat gays and homosexuals as though there is a greater likelihood that gay people are going to offend children than straight people. That data doesn’t bear that out.”

The Viganò letter also lamented that the Vatican had brought on the Jesuit priest James Martin, who has written a book on how to make gay Catholics feel more welcome in the Church, as a consultor of the Secretariat for Communications.

The church under Francis, Archbishop Viganò writes, has “chosen to corrupt the young people who will soon gather in Dublin for the World Meeting of Families,” by inviting Father Martin to speak there.

In an interview, Father Martin said, “The reason it seems like all gay priests are abusers is that there are no public counterexamples of healthy celibate gay priests, because most gay priests are afraid to come out in this poisonous environment.”

He rejected the notion of gay priests as more likely to commit child abuse as scientifically wrong and “simply a stereotype.” He added, “It’s all about fear.”

Even as the controversy swirled around him, Pope Francis worked to allay that fear Sunday night.

One of the last questions on the papal plane was what a Catholic parent should say to a gay son or daughter.

“Do not condemn,” Francis said. “Dialogue. Understand. Make space for the son or daughter; make space so they express themselves.”

He suggested a conversation the parent might have with a child, offering: “You are my son. You are my daughter, as you are. I am your father, or mother. Let’s talk.”

A version of this article appears in print on , on Page A8 of the New York edition with the headline: Francis Takes High Road As Conservatives Pounce, Taking Criticisms Public. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe

Source: NYT > World

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