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Over the last couple decades countless horrific crimes have been uncovered of sexual abuse of children at the hands of Catholic priests worldwide. The world has been both shocked and disgusted. As a result, a multitude of the Catholic faithful have now sincerely called into question their allegiance to the church in Rome and the papacy.

One would think that the Catholic Church has learned from its prior grievous mistakes. Not so.

A former Vatican ambassador to the United States has alleged in an 11-page letter that Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis — among other top Catholic Church officials — had been aware of sexual misconduct allegations against former D.C. archbishop Cardinal Theodore McCarrick years before he resigned this summer.

The letter from Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, who was recalled from his D.C. post in 2016 amid allegations that he’d become embroiled in the conservative American fight against same-sex marriage, was first reported by the National Catholic Register and LifeSite News, two conservative Catholic sites.

The accusations sent a shock wave across the reeling Roman Catholic Church, but the letter offered no proof of its claims, and Viganò on Sunday told The Washington Post that he wouldn’t comment further, beyond confirming that he was the letter’s author.

The accusations came as Francis wrapped up one of the most challenged trips of his papacy, where in Ireland he came face to face with the national anger and grief caused by decades of abuse. In a Mass at Dublin’s Phoenix Park, Francis spoke in Spanish and asked for forgiveness for what he called “abuses of power, conscience, and sexual abuse perpetrated by members with roles of responsibility in the church,” according to a Vatican News translation of his remarks.

“We ask forgiveness for some members of the church’s hierarchy who did not take charge of these painful situations and kept quiet,” Francis said.

Speaking to reporters on the papal plane while returning to Rome, Francis declined to address the claims but said the letter “speaks for itself.”

“I read the statement this morning and, sincerely, I must say this to you and anyone interested: Read that statement attentively and make your own judgment,” Francis told reporters, according to the Catholic News Service.

Asked when he first learned of allegations about McCarrick, Francis declined to comment.

“This is a part of the statement on McCarrick. Study it, and then I’ll speak,” the pope said, according to Crux, another Catholic outlet.

The reformist pontiff is divisive within the ranks of the Vatican, and Viganò’s letter provided dramatic evidence of how rivalries are being amplified as the church struggles to deal with abuse cases in Ireland, the United States, Australia and Chile.

Some of Francis’s critics, including Viganò, are calling for the pope to step down.

The Vatican had no comment.

The letter was the latest development stemming from a fresh wave of allegations related to clergy sex abuse and its cover-up. Rumors that had swirled for decades about McCarrick exploded in June when Francis suspended the cardinal. Last month, McCarrick, facing credible allegations of abusing seminarians and minors, became the first U.S. cardinal in history to resign.

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