DUBLIN — On the final day of Pope Francis’ mission to Ireland, as he issued candid apologies for devastating clerical sex abuse scandals, a former top Vatican diplomat alleged in a letter published on Sunday that the pope himself had joined top Vatican officials in covering up the abuses and called for his resignation.
The letter, a bombshell written by Carlo Maria Viganò, the former top Vatican diplomat in the United States and a staunch critic of Francis, seemed timed to do more than simply derail the pope’s uphill efforts to win back the Irish faithful, who have turned away from the church in large numbers.
Its unsubstantiated allegations and personal attacks amounted to an extraordinary public declaration of war against Francis’ own papacy at perhaps its most vulnerable moment, intended to unseat a pope whose predecessor, Benedict XVI, was the first to resign in nearly 600 years.
Mr. Viganò claimed that the Vatican hierarchy was complicit in covering up accusations that Cardinal Theodore McCarrick had sexually abused seminarians and that Pope Francis knew about the abuses by the now-disgraced American prelate years before they became public.
The 7,000-word attack on Francis’ allies in the Vatican, published early Sunday Dublin time by several conservative Catholic outlets antagonistic to Francis, marked a steep escalation in the longstanding, and increasingly caustic, rivalries within the church.
Factions have battled over the direction the church has gone under Francis, with conservatives warning that his pastoral and inclusive approach and emphasis of social issues dilute church doctrine and pose a mortal threat to the future of the faith.
Already on Sunday afternoon, the battle was being joined.
Archbishop Charles J. Chaput of Philadelphia, a leading conservative voice in the Catholic Church, who according to the letter was disparaged by Francis, cited Archbishop Viganò’s integrity in a statement to The New York Times from his spokesman.
“The Archbishop enjoyed working with Archbishop Viganò during his tenure as Apostolic Nuncio to the United States and found his service to be marked by integrity to the church,” said Ken Gavin, spokesman for the archdiocese of Philadelphia. “However, he can’t comment on Archbishop Viganò’s recent testimonial as it is beyond his personal experience.”
The willingness of the pope and his allies to reach out to gay Catholics has infuriated conservatives, who, like Archbishop Viganò, blame homosexuals for the sex abuse crisis. The pope has argued that the abuse is a symptom of a culture of privilege and elitism and imperviousness among priests who value the church’s traditions over its parishioners.
John Carr, the director of the Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life at Georgetown University, stressed that the clerical sexual abuse is a “personal, professional and institutional tragedy.”
“We need to find out who knew what when, and what they did or did not do to protect young people,” Mr. Carr said. “The weaponization of the sexual abuse scandal uses the suffering of the vulnerable to advance ideological agendas and makes a horrible situation worse.”
Last month, Francis accepted the resignation of Cardinal McCarrick, the first such resignation in living memory, after The New York Times and other news outlets published accounts of the alleged abuse and an internal investigation by the American church deemed credible an accusation that he had sexually abused a minor.
But Archbishop Viganò alleges that Benedict had already punished Cardinal McCarrick for his abuse of seminarians and priests. The archbishop writes that Benedict banned the American cardinal from publicly celebrating Mass, from living in a seminary and from traveling to give lectures.
There is no public record of such a sanction and the allegation has not been confirmed.
But Archbishop Viganò accused Francis of failing to apply the sanctions on Cardinal McCarrick and instead rehabilitating and empowering him to help choose powerful American bishops.
Archbishop Viganò despises those bishops, who now wield influence and promote Francis’ pastoral approach, and he complained in the letter of being deprived the voice typically given to a papal nuncio in choosing them. He targeted those bishops and cardinals by name, but saved his most ambitious fire for the head of his church.
“He knew from at least June 23, 2013, that McCarrick was a serial predator,” Archbishop Viganò writes of Francis, calling for the pope to resign.
“In this extremely dramatic moment for the universal Church, he must acknowledge his mistakes and, in keeping with the proclaimed principle of zero tolerance, Pope Francis must be the first to set a good example for cardinals and bishops who covered up McCarrick’s abuses and resign along with all of them.”
At a 2013 reception in the library of the Apostolic Palace in the Vatican shortly after Francis was elected pope, Archbishop Viganò was effusive with praise for Francis, calling him “a man you may talk to with an open heart” and saying his audience was “extremely nice, extremely warm.”
But in the letter, he said he had received an icy reception from Pope Francis. And he said the pope had told him on June 23, 2013: “The bishops in the United States must not be ideologized, they must not be right-wing.” Francis then added, according to Archbishop Viganò, that they must not be left-wing, “and when I say left-wing, I mean homosexual.”
It was then that Francis asked his opinion of Cardinal McCarrick, to which Archbishop Viganò said he had replied: “Holy Father, I don’t know if you know Cardinal McCarrick, but if you ask the Congregation for Bishops there is a dossier this thick about him. He corrupted generations of seminarians and priests, and Pope Benedict ordered him to withdraw to a life of prayer and penance.”
Archbishop Viganò, who blames homosexuals for the child abuse crisis that has destroyed the church’s standing in many countries, dedicates entire sections of the letter to outing cardinals who he claims belong to what he characterizes as a pernicious “homosexual current” within the Vatican.
“These homosexual networks,” he wrote, “which are now widespread in many dioceses, seminaries, religious orders, etc., act under the concealment of secrecy and lies with the power of octopus tentacles, and strangle innocent victims and priestly vocations, and are strangling the entire church.”
Archbishop Viganò is no stranger to stirring trouble in the Vatican.
A cultural conservative born into a wealthy family in Varese, Italy, he received the title of archbishop from Pope John Paul II in 1992. He later joined the church’s diplomatic corps, which is one of the traditional sources of power in the Vatican, and which gave him access to much of the information he alleges in the letter. In 2009, he was installed by Pope Benedict XVI as secretary of the governorate of Vatican City State, a position not unlike the mayor of Vatican City.
Benedict wanted the ambitious Italian with a taste for good red wine to enact government overhauls, but Archbishop Viganò’s efforts in pursuit of that goal earned him powerful enemies.
In early 2011, hostile anonymous articles attacking Archbishop Viganò began appearing in the Italian news media, the bulletin board of Vatican power politics. Archbishop Viganò appealed to Benedict’s second in command, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, who instead echoed the articles’ complaints about his rough management style and removed Archbishop Viganò from his post.
Those appeals and protests, later leaked by the pope’s butler, became the heart of the church scandal known as VatiLeaks, which many church observers say contributed to the resignation of Benedict XVI.
Francis removed Archbishop Viganò from his job as nuncio to the United States in 2016, in part for nearly ruining the pope’s trip to the United States by giving papal face time to Kim Davis, the Kentucky clerk who refused to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.
Soon after his departure, a criminal investigation into an archbishop in Minneapolis-St. Paul revealed a memo that Archbishop Viganò had written in 2014 in an effort to suppress a church investigation into alleged homosexual activity by the Minnesota prelate.
Since his return to Rome, Archbishop Viganò has associated with traditionalist Catholics deeply critical of Pope Francis, and he recently attended a raucous meeting of anti-Francis prelates and faithful in the basement of a Rome hotel.
Archbishop Viganò’s extensive letter, while especially inconvenient for the pope, who spent Sunday morning praying for abuse victims at a shrine in Knock, Ireland, where he begged “the Lord’s forgiveness,” also goes after a broad array of current and past Vatican officials and American prelates. He names all of them.
He said his predecessors in the Vatican’s embassy in Washington, now all deceased, knew about Cardinal McCarrick’s alleged relationships with seminarians and priests and had reported it to the Vatican but that successive secretaries of state — Angelo Sodano, Cardinal Bertone and Pietro Parolin — did nothing.
He said he wrote another memo in 2006 about new allegations against Cardinal McCarrick and delivered it in December of that year to his superior, with recommendations to strip the cardinal of his rank and defrock him before he brought scandal to the church.
He alleges that he delivered another memo in May 2008 that also went nowhere, but then writes that he learned through another cardinal that Pope Benedict had at a certain point imposed sanctions on Cardinal McCarrick.
He blamed Cardinal Bertone, his old rival, for the delay.
Archbishop Viganò said that he had personally met with then-Cardinal McCarrick to remind him that he was under sanction during their first meeting after he arrived in the United States.
“The cardinal, muttering in a barely comprehensible way, admitted that he had perhaps made the mistake of sleeping in the same bed with some seminarians at his beach house,” he writes.
After bumping into Cardinal McCarrick at the pope’s residence in the Vatican, and listening to the American boast about his freedom to travel, Archbishop Viganò wrote he contacted Cardinal Parolin, the secretary of state and top adviser to Francis, in April 2014 inquiring if the sanctions were still in force.
He said neither Cardinal Parolin nor a host of other Vatican officials had replied, but that when he had brought up the subject with Cardinal McCarrick’s replacement in Washington, Cardinal Donald Wuerl, “it was immediately clear to me that he was fully aware of it.”
“In spite of what Archbishop Viganó’s memo indicates, Cardinal Wuerl did not receive any documentation or information during his time in Washington regarding any actions taken against Archbishop McCarrick,” Ed McFadden, a spokesman for Cardinal Wuerl, said Sunday.
Some survivors of clerical abuse called the allegations a distraction.
“This is infighting between curia factions that are exploiting the abuse crisis and victims of clergy sexual abuse as leverage in the struggle for church power,” said Peter Isely, a survivor. “The sexual abuse crisis is not about whether a bishop is a liberal or a conservative. It is about protecting children.”
The controversy over the letter is expected to grow in coming days, and it is likely to require a response from Francis, who was set to return to the Vatican on Sunday evening after celebrating Mass at Phoenix Park in Dublin.
At the beginning of that Mass, in front of hundreds of thousands of faithful, the pope explicitly asked forgiveness for the church’s sins and abuse. “Some members of the hierarchy didn’t own up to these painful situations,” he said. “And kept silent.”