ROME -- An explosive document from a disgruntled Archbishop has sent the Vatican into an uproar this week —- just as Pope Francis has been trying to win back trust for the Catholic Church amid the ongoing sexual abuse scandal.
That might not be an accident.
"Archbishop Viganò is part of a sizable, but minority, conservative traditionalist Catholic group who disagree with the direction this pope is taking the church," said Gerard O’Connell, Vatican correspondent for America Magazine.
Viganò's "j’accuse" manifesto weaponizes the sexual abuse scandal and pins it directly on Pope Francis.
He claimed Pope Francis turned a blind eye for years to the sexual misconduct of a prominent American cleric, former Washington, D.C. Cardinal Theodore McCarrick. The archbishop accused Pope Francis of indulging "a serial predator" and called on him to resign.
The document dropped with the sort of timing seen in bruising South Carolina political primaries, kneecapping the pope on the highly charged issue just as he’d have to face TV cameras and tough questions from the Vatican press corps on his flight home.
"They wanted to put him on the spot," said O’Connell, who was on the papal plane.
Viganò is not a lone gunman. He’s an Archbishop and a former papal nuncio, or ambassador, to Washington with close ties to influential U.S. conservatives in the church. The segment thrived under Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI, but has been frustrated by Pope Francis' more tolerant tone on divorce, homosexuality and immigration.
Viganò made news once before, during the pope’s 2015 trip to the U.S. He arranged a controversial photo opportunity for Pope Francis with Kim Davis, a Kentucky clerk who refused marriage licenses to same sex couples, causing one of the few big controversies of the trip.
He did not last long in the job after that and retired a year later.
Vigano’s ideological allies have leapt to his defense, even as supporters of Pope Francis have been sharply critical of this public swipe at the pontiff from inside the church, which is unprecedented in modern times.
"If true, Vigano’s charges will exhaust the energy of the remainder of this pontificate," wrote Fr Raymond de Souza in the Catholic Herald. "He is a long-serving, respected Vatican official, therefore his claims merit proper investigation."
"They want Francis to backpedal, to admit he's made mistakes, that he's changing doctrine, that he is abandoning the true faith of the church," O'Connell said.
Viganò drafted the manifesto with the help of Italian journalist Marco Tossati, a longtime critic of Pope Francis. He leaked it via conservative Catholic media outlets, including the National Catholic Register and the Eternal Word Television Network.
"There's no question that the release of this statement by archbishop Viganò was carefully orchestrated," said Fr. John Wauck, a priest of Opus Dei and a professor at the University of the Holy Cross in Rome.
"I don't think that there's any conspiracy involved here," he said. "I think that Archbishop Viganò has been a critic of Pope Francis and he's concerned about the life of the church."
Wauck believes the document has laid bare a deep division that already existed in the Catholic Church.
"There are people who disagree with Pope Francis's theological and pastoral decisions," Wauck said. "They think that he is leading the church in a wrong direction."
Pope Francis’ refusal to address the issue has given more fodder to his critics.
Fr Gerald Murray, a New York priest and commentator blogged: "How is it possible for Catholics to trust the supreme authority of the Church when that authority refuses to answer a fellow bishop's serious charges that the pope himself has done the very thing he previously condemned?"
A frenzy of comments, pro and con, have played out in real time on social media.
"It’s as if the Borgias and the Medicis has Twitter accounts," quipped Christopher Bellitto, a professor of church history at Kean University to the National Catholic Reporter.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has said the allegations made by Archbishop Viganò merit an investigation.
"The questions raised deserve answers that are conclusive and based on evidence,” said a statement from Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Houston, the president of the bishops’ conference. “Without those answers, innocent men may be tainted by false accusation and the guilty may be left to repeat the sins of the past.”