VATICAN CITY (AP) — Email correspondence shows disgraced ex-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick was placed under Vatican restrictions in 2008 for sleeping with seminarians, but regularly flouted those travel rules with the apparent knowledge of Vatican officials under Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis.
The email excerpts, released Tuesday by a former aide, make it clear that retired Washington Cardinal Donald Wuerl knew about the restrictions, despite claims of ignorance after the McCarrick scandal exploded last year.
Francis defrocked McCarrick in February after a church investigation confirmed that McCarrick sexually abused minors and adults.
The existence of prior Vatican restrictions on McCarrick has been the subject of debate ever since a retired Vatican diplomat accused Francis of rehabilitating McCarrick from the restrictions in 2013, despite knowing of his behavior.
The accusations from the diplomat, Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, have been used by Francis' conservative critics to attack him, since they seemingly show Francis disregarded information that McCarrick preyed on seminarians.
The McCarrick scandal has created a credibility crisis in the U.S. and Vatican hierarchy since it was an open secret in some church circles that McCarrick sexually harassed seminarians and pressured them to sleep with him in the same bed at his beach house.
The emails don't address what information Francis had or whether he actually lifted the restrictions. But they do show that McCarrick regularly ignored them even during the Benedict papacy, seemingly undercutting Vigano's core attempt to place the lion's share of the cover-up blame on Francis and demand he resign as a result.
The excerpts were put online by McCarrick's one-time secretary, Monsignor Anthony Figueriredo, currently a priest in McCarrick's former diocese of Newark, New Jersey. They were first reported by the Crux website and CBS.
The emails make clear that the restrictions were imposed in writing in August 2008, requiring McCarrick to move out of his seminary residence and request permission from the Holy See for any future public appearances or talks in the U.S. or abroad. Wuerl was actively involved in helping him find a new residence, they show.
Early on, the correspondences show such travel permission was requested and granted, for a trip to Rome. But by 2012, while Benedict was still pope, McCarrick was resuming his globe-trotting travel, to Qatar, Ireland, the Mideast, Asia as well as the Holy Land and Europe. It is unclear however, if permission was sought and granted for each trip.
Under the Francis papacy, the travel continued — China, Iraq, Morocco — and the correspondence shows McCarrick writing directly to Francis and the Vatican secretariat of state with updates on his meetings, suggesting he at least saw himself as an unofficial emissary working on the Vatican's behalf.
In an unrelated interview released Tuesday, Francis denied knowing anything about McCarrick, though it's not clear if he was referring to allegations he sexually abused minors or adults.
"I didn't know anything about McCarrick, nothing naturally, nothing," he said in an interview with Valentina Alazraki, Vatican correspondent for Mexico's Televisa.
Vigano said he briefed Francis in June 2013 about McCarrick, telling the pope he "corrupted a generation of seminarians" and that there was a thick file on him in the Vatican's congregation for bishops.