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.
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.”
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.