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A Vatican whistle-blower who has accused Pope Francis of having covered up sexually abusive behaviour by an American cardinal stepped up his attack on Wednesday, speaking from a secret location.
Archbishop Carlo Mario Vigano, a former Vatican ambassador to the US, has plunged the Catholic Church into crisis with allegations that the pope failed to act against Theodore McCarrick, a US cardinal, who was accused of sexually abusing young priests over decades.
Cardinal McCarrick, the former archbishop of Washington, resigned in disgrace last month, becoming the first cardinal to step down since 1927.
Archbishop Vigano, 77, released an 11-page document detailing the allegations at the weekend and called on Francis to resign.
He then went underground amid reports that he feared for his safety.
After days of silence he gave an interview, from an undisclosed location, to an Italian journalist, renewing his criticism of Francis’ papacy.
“I spoke out because corruption has now reached the highest levels of the Church hierarchy,” he said, claiming he had received broad support for his actions.
“I have had messages from priests and the faithful who have thanked me because my testimony was for them a glimmer of hope for the Church.”
He denied that he was pursuing a “vendetta” against Pope Francis and cardinals close to him.
Vatican analysts say the attack appears to be part of a concerted effort by conservatives to oust Pope Francis, who they dislike for his relatively liberal views on issues such as acceptance of homosexuals, allowing divorcees to take Communion and his push for a more inclusive Church.
“It really seems like an obvious move by conservatives to de-legitimise Francis," David Gibson, director of the Centre on Religion and Culture at Fordham University in New York, told Reuters.
"This whole thing was carefully coordinated with conservative Catholic media and carefully timed."
The strategy was to damage Francis’s legacy before he either dies or resigns, perhaps due to ill health, and to ensure a conservative successor.
"It's the start of the campaign for the next conclave," said Mr Gibson, referring to the secret election held in the Sistine Chapel to choose a new pope.
“Behind these attacks there are dark forces,” said Tommaso Valentinetti, 66, an Italian archbishop. The pope’s enemies were “throwing mud” to try to discredit him, he said.
The allegations against Pope Francis were first aired in the middle of his trip to Ireland, where he apologised for the Church’s decades of complicity and cover-up in the sexual abuse of children by Catholic clergy.
Archbishop Vigano claims that he told Pope Francis of the allegations about Cardinal McCarrick, whom he described as “a serial predator”, back in 2013.
He said that rather than punish McCarrick, the Argentinian pontiff had lifted sanctions imposed on him by his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI.
It was only last month that Francis removed McCarrick as a cardinal, ordering him to live a lifetime of penance and prayer, after Church officials in the US found that allegations that he sexually abused a 16-year-old boy were credible.
The Pope has not addressed the allegations directly but told journalists on board the papal plane returning from Ireland to Rome to "read the communique attentively and make your own judgement.”
In his weekly address in St Peter’s Square on Wednesday, Pope Francis spoke about the sins committed by the Church in Ireland but did not mention the accusations levelled against him by Archbishop Vigano.
The de facto leader of the conservatives who are deeply unhappy with Francis’s five-year papacy is Cardinal Raymond Burke, an American.
A traditionalist, he has accused the Pope of causing confusion with his remarks about homosexuality and giving Communion to divorcees who remarry in civil ceremonies.
Cardinal Burke said on Wednesday that the allegations levelled against the Pope by Archbishop Vigano were “very serious” and had left him “speechless”.
“I believe we now need a full response from the Pope and the Vatican,” he told La Repubblica newspaper.
Calling for the pope to resign was “legitimate” if it was proved that he had made “grave errors” but the matter needed to be properly investigated, Cardinal Burke said.
“I have nothing personal against the pope. I’m simply trying to defend the true faith and the clear presentation of the faith.”