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At a Philadelphia church, Catholics are also questioning the pope

A former Vatican ambassador has called for the pope to resign. Some of the faithful in Philadelphia agreed with him.

Pope Francis at the Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul in September 2015.
Pope Francis at the Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul in September 2015.Read moreSTEVEN M. FALK

In most of the obvious ways, the 11 a.m. Mass at the Cathedral Basilica of SS. Peter and Paul seemed unremarkable Sunday.  The pews were reasonably full for a late August weekend. People prayed and sang. They gave at the offering. The line for communion was long. Children fidgeted.

But later, as Catholics left the soaring building just off the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, it quickly became apparent that faith in a religion is quite different from faith in its leaders.

Word had spread about new accusations from a former Vatican ambassador that Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis had been aware for years of sexual misconduct allegations against Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, then archbishop of Washington; he resigned this summer. The former ambassador, Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, called for the pope's resignation.

The pope also was not popular Sunday among those who had time to speak with a reporter.

"I believe he should [resign]. Yes, I do," said Stan Lignowski, 64, of Philadelphia.  He attended two Masses Sunday morning, his cane propped beside him on the pew. "My faith is sustained," he added. "I'm really worried about the church."

Even the Rev. Dennis Gill, the basilica parish priest who led the 11 a.m. Mass, called the new reports "distressing" and had concerns about church leadership.  "If it's true, I think the Holy Father has lost the capacity to lead, and that calls for severe consequences," he said.

Gill said the recent upheaval in the church has made his faith stronger "because I know that the power of God will prevail."

As they left the basilica, churchgoers could see a small demonstration organized by Catholics for Action and Catholics for Change across the street, involving about 35 protesters seeking an increase in the statute of limitations in child abuse cases.  Gill invited four women, all practicing Catholics, to talk with him briefly.  He mostly listened as they told him why they had come.

Kelly Fitzgerald, a protester from Philadelphia, said she was molested by a priest while she was a high school student. She also said she'd like to see resignations among top church leaders.  "I think that the entire clergy, the entire archaic feudal society that they're living in, needs to go," she said. "We need to start again. It's been done before."

Marilyn Legato, a Gillette, N.J., woman who attended the service, said she thinks it's time for the church to welcome married and female priests.  She, too, thought the pope should step down, though her Catholic faith remains strong.  "I think it's horrific," she said of recent allegations.  "I don't have bad enough words.  It's enough to shake your faith, if you don't realize they're just men."

John Kearney, 71, a former trial lawyer who lives in Riverton, said he'd like to write a letter. "Dear Church," it would say. "The truth will set you free, signed, An Anxious Member."

He is reserving judgment on Viganò's letter because of the politics involved, but said the church needs to "clean house," both of priests directly involved in misconduct and of those who covered it up.  He feels for the good people who have been tainted by the bad.

"I think there are so many priests and nuns who follow the rules, follow their vocations, do nothing but good for people, and they get tarred with this brush, too, and that's not right," he said.

He wants the church to solve its problems, but his faith remains strong.  "Regardless of what comes to the fore, it's my faith.  It's not their faith."

In his 11-page letter, Viganò mentioned what he said were the pope's disparaging comments regarding Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia.

"The archbishop enjoyed working with Archbishop Viganò during his tenure as Apostolic Nuncio to the United States and found his service to be marked by integrity to the church," said Ken Gavin, spokesperson for the archdiocese of Philadelphia. "However he can't comment on Archbishop Vigano's recent testimonial as it is beyond his personal experience."

At Mass on Sunday evening at the basilica, Chaput told parishioners that the sex-abuse scandal had led many Catholics to question whether they should leave the church.

But, he said, the church is not about the men who make up its hierarchy – the church is about Jesus Christ.

"And we can't leave him," Chaput said, "because there's nowhere else to go."

In his letter, Viganò described a gathering of papal ambassadors in Rome on June 21, 2013, where he had just enough time to greet the pontiff with "I am the Nuncio to the United States." The pope immediately "assailed me with a tone of reproach, using these words: 'The bishops in the United States must not be ideologized! They must be shepherds!'"

Two days later, Viganò wrote, he asked to see the pope, to try to clarify those remarks. At that meeting, he said, the pope spoke in a friendly, almost affectionate tone.

Viganò wrote that the pope said: "Yes, the bishops in the United States must not be ideologized, they must not be right-wing like the archbishop of Philadelphia, (the pope did not give me the name of the Archbishop) they must be shepherds; and they must not be left-wing' – and he added, raising both arms – 'when I say left-wing I mean homosexual.'"

He wrote that the pope asked, "in a deceitful way," what Cardinal McCarrick was like. Viganò said he answered frankly, that there was a thick dossier, that he "corrupted generations of seminarians and priests."

Once back in Washington, Viganò wrote, events became clear to him.

Monsignor John-Francois Lantheaume told him that at a Texas gathering in July, he had met Cardinal McCarrick, who, taking him aside, used almost the same words as had the pope, saying, "The bishops in the United States must not be ideologized, they must not be right-wing, they must be shepherds … "

"I was astounded!" Viganò wrote in his letter. "It was therefore clear that the words of reproach that Pope Francis had addressed to me on June 21, 2013, had been put into his mouth the day before by Cardinal McCarrick. Also the pope's mention 'not like the archbishop of Philadelphia' could be traced to McCarrick, because there had been a strong disagreement between the two of them about the admission to communion of pro-abortion politicians."