The Vatican is preparing a response to bombshell allegations made by an Italian archbishop who asked Pope Francis to step down, accusing him of covering up sexual misconduct by an American cardinal, his top advisers said Monday.
The statement came at the end of the first day of a three-day meeting of the "C-9," a group of nine cardinals from around the world who meet with the pope at the Vatican several times a year to advise him on Church matters.
In an 11-page statement published on Aug. 26, Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, the former Vatican ambassador to Washington, launched an unprecedented broadside by a Church insider against the pope and a long list of Vatican and U.S. Church officials. Francis has refused to respond to the publication.
The cardinals' statement said they had expressed their "total solidarity with the pope over events of the last few weeks" and added that the Holy See was preparing "eventual and necessary clarifications."
Vigano said he had told Francis soon after the pontiff's election in 2013 that Theodore McCarrick, the former archbishop of Washington D.C., had engaged in sexual misconduct.
Vigano, who is in hiding and communicating through the same conservative journalists who helped him prepare, edit and distribute his broadside, said the pope had done nothing and even lifted sanctions that had been imposed on McCarrick by Benedict, the previous pope.
Francis in July accepted the resignation of McCarrick, 88, who became the first cardinal in living memory to lose his red hat and title.
American Church officials had said allegations that McCarrick had sexually abused a 16-year-old boy almost 50 years ago were credible and substantiated.
McCarrick has said he has "absolutely no recollection" of the alleged abuse of the teenager.
The Vatican has known since at least 2000 that McCarrick slept with seminarians.
Critics say Vigano's statement has holes and contradictions and is his vendetta for not being made a cardinal by Francis.
They say McCarrick disregarded any sanctions, appearing in public often, even alongside Benedict, in the years after Vigano says the former pope acted against McCarrick.
Hours after Vigano's statement was printed in conservative media outlets, Francis told reporters on his plane returning from a trip to Ireland that he would "not say a word" about the statement because it "speaks for itself."
He did not, however, rule out an institutional response, such as the one the cardinals said the Vatican was preparing. The cardinals' statement gave no indication when the clarification would be issued.
Francis' refusal to immediately respond to Vigano's claims has frustrated many Catholics in the U.S., who were already outraged that McCarrick's penchant for seminarians and young priests was apparently an open secret in some Catholic circles.
That outrage has been compounded by the revelations of the Pennsylvania grand jury report, detailing the abuse of more than 1,000 children by some 300 priests over 70 years, while bishops covered up for them.
Francis' nine cardinal advisers issued the statement at the start of three days of meetings to hand in the fruit of their five years of work: a proposal to reform the Vatican bureaucracy.
With their work essentially finished and some of the cardinals themselves now implicated in sex abuse or cover-up scandals, the prelates asked Francis to reflect on the "work, structure and composition of the council, taking into account the advanced age of some members."
That could suggest Francis now has an elegant way of getting rid of prelates such as Chilean Cardinal Javier Errazuriz, accused by victims of being a key figure in Chile's wretched record on abuse and cover-up. Errazuriz, the retired archbishop of Santiago, is 85 and well over retirement age.
Another aging member of the council is Cardinal George Pell, 77, and on trial in his native Australia on historic allegations of sex abuse. He has denied wrongdoing and is on a leave of absence from his job as the Vatican's finance minister.