When Church historians look back on the early 21st century, they may focus on a middle-ranking Italian archbishop. He was unfamiliar to most contemporary Catholics, but he was at the centre of two of the great controversies of the second decade of that century, one of which led to a papal resignation and the other whose outcome is currently unknown.

Until last weekend Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò was best known for his role in the so-called VatiLeaks affair, one of the factors that prompted Benedict XVI to step down in 2013. Viganò was named secretary-general of the governorate of Vatican City State in 2009. In this role, which has been compared to that of a city mayor, he tried to introduce sweeping reforms but met resistance. He wrote to the Secretary of State to complain and these letters were later leaked by the papal butler, creating the VatiLeaks scandal.

Archbishop Viganò was unofficially exiled from Rome in 2011, when he was appointed apostolic nuncio to the United States. Five years later, when he turned 75, he submitted his resignation to Pope Francis. It was swiftly accepted and he quietly entered retirement. Until, that is, last weekend, when he released a ferocious 7,000-word letter calling for Francis’s resignation.

Vatican-watcher Marco Tosatti called the letter “one of the most dramatic and important documents which I have ever read in 40 years of covering religious news”. It alleged that Francis had lifted unpublicised sanctions placed on the disgraced former cardinal Theodore McCarrick by Benedict XVI, despite knowing that the American prelate had preyed on seminarians. It further claimed that McCarrick had advised Francis on the selection of bishops to prominent US sees. It also accused a wide array of senior Church figures of corruption.

The letter was seemingly timed to cause maximum embarrassment. Pope Francis was in the middle of a very delicate trip to Ireland, a nation devastated by clerical abuse and episcopal cover-ups. He was also due to face the media hours later on his flight home. In his airborne press conference, Francis refused to respond to Viganò‘s specific claims. “Read the document carefully and judge it for yourselves,” he said. “I will not say one word on this. I think the statement speaks for itself.” This may seem a curious response to allegations of such a grave nature. But it is in keeping with the Pope’s policy – seen clearly during the dispute over his exhortation Amoris Laetitia – of not engaging directly with critics.

The Pope’s comments will not reassure those who worry that his unconventional leadership style leads him to place trust in men who are unworthy of it. But he is right that the letter, which contains very detailed claims, should be thoroughly scrutinised.

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