The Davis-Francis meeting: Who dunnit?

by Tom Gallagher

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Everyone loves a mystery! And do we have a mystery in figuring out who initiated and secured the meeting between Pope Francis and Kim Davis, the government official from Rowan County, Kentucky, whose attempts to impose her anti-marriage equality religious views on her community by not issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples in defiance of the law landed her — rightfully — in jail. Her illegal behavior under the guise of "religious liberty" made Davis the reigning queen of far right conservative groups.

As I noted yesterday, the law firm representing Davis, Liberty Counsel, was designated by the Southern Poverty Law Center as an anti-gay hate group for spreading false information. The Southern Poverty Law Center lists 728 hate groups, e.g., Neo-Nazi groups (142 groups) and active Ku Klux Clan groups (72 groups), in the United States and has created a U.S. map identifying each group and its location, which you can view here. You can read the center's analysis of Liberty Counsel and its lawyer, Mat Staverhere.

Married lawyers Mat and Anita Staver run Liberty Counsel. In reviewing the organization’s 990 tax returns, it was a bit odd to read the disclosure about their relationship in the filing as “Anita Staver and Mat Staver have a family relationship.” For such a zealous pro-traditional marriage firm, it seems odd that they didn’t list themselves as “husband and wife.”

So for now, all we really know is that the Vatican's representative to the U.S., papal nuncio Carlo Maria Viganò, is in the center of who might have approved Davis' highly secret rendezvous with Pope Francis at the nuncio's residence in Washington, D.C., that included a Secret Service pick-up and delivery of Davis and her husband, Joe.

But did Viganò act alone?

Right now, it's hard to say. And no one's talking. Not yet anyway.

Over at the Daily Beast, Brandon Ambrosino writes: “But many journalists with connections inside the Vatican, myself included, were having difficulty figuring out exactly what transpired between Francis and Davis because the Liberty Counsel’s story was so incredibly vague. Who, for instance, initiated the meeting — and why?”

We know that Viganò participated in, and spoke at, the March for Marriage sponsored by the National Organization for Marriage in late April 2015 that included a "who's who" of the conservative culture warriors scene, including but not limited to, Josh Duggar, then-executive director of FRC Action; Davis' lawyer, Mat Staver, founder and chairman of Liberty Counsel; Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville, Kentucky, who also serves as president of the USCCBArchbishop William Lori of Baltimore, Maryland, who also serves as the chairman of the USCCB Ad-Hoc Committee on Religious Liberty; and little-known Auxiliary Bishop John McIntyre from the Philadelphia archdiocese, among others.  McIntyre could be the only bishop in the U.S. who lists his titular see in his speaker title, “Titular Bishop of Bononia.”

According to a recent New York Times story: “Mr. Staver said a conservative deacon, Keith Fournier, introduced him to Archbishop Viganò back in April before speaking at a National Organization for Marriage rally on the Washington Mall in opposition to same-sex marriage. As Mr. Staver descended from the stage, Archbishop Viganò made a point to ‘thank me for my message,’ the lawyer said.”

It’s hard to believe that a seasoned Vatican diplomat such as Viganò would, on his own initiative and in complete isolation, invite Davis to meet Pope Francis without seeking counsel and support from others. But to whom did he turn for such counsel and support? 

Two of Viganò’s fellow Catholic speakers at the traditional marriage event in April both deny any involvement in arranging the Davis-Pope Francis meeting.

I asked Lori's executive director of communications, Sean Craine, by email if Lori had directly or indirectly initiated, advocated or facilitated the Davis meeting with Pope Francis at the nunciature during the pope's visit to Washington, D.C.  

Craine promptly responded by email:  "No, he did not."

Similarly, I contacted Kurtz's chief communications officer, Cecilia Hart Price, and asked the same question, and like Craine, Price promptly responded by email:  "Archbishop Kurtz was not involved in facilitating or setting up the meeting with Kim Davis nor was the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops."

According to Davis’ lawyer, Staver of Liberty Counsel, he instructed his client to save the voicemail from the "Vatican official" who confirmed the clandestine meeting the night before and instructed her on how to wear her hair to avoid being recognized. Will Staver disclose this Vatican communication? Given the way in which the Vatican is sprinting away from Davis, Staver and Liberty Counsel, one could envision Staver releasing the voicemail and other pertinent information to further embarrass the Vatican and to defend himself, his firm and his client.

So for now Viganò stands alone and isolated as a possible person responsible for initiating, facilitating and approving of the Davis meeting with Pope Francis, which is hard to believe.

Meanwhile, a group called Faithful America organized an online petition calling for Viganò's resignation and have secured more than 35,000 signatures so far.

Huffington Post's Carol Kuruvilla reports:

Faithful America, a Christian group that organizes social justice actions online, created a petition calling for Viganò to resign from his position as Vatican ambassador to the U.S.

Inviting Kim Davis to a reception with Pope Francis undermined the pope's message to the United States and was a mean-spirited insult to the Kentucky couples whose marriage licenses she has tried to deny," the organization's petition reads. "For the good of the church, please resign immediately and allow Pope Francis to appoint a new apostolic nuncio."

The petition had collected more than 34,000 signatures by Tuesday afternoon.

Asked whether he'd like to affirm the Vatican's support for Viganò or respond to Faithful America's petition, Vatican representative Rev. Thomas Rosica declined to comment to The Huffington Post.


Viganò’s days as nuncio are numbered. On his 75th birthday, in a few months’ time, he is required to submit his resignation. The speed in which the Vatican accepts his resignation will be telling. Anything more than immediate acceptance will extend the deep pain many experienced by the Davis-Pope Francis meeting.

The depth and breadth of the hurt caused by the decision to approve of the Davis meeting with Pope Francis has negatively affected millions of people of goodwill and has left an indelible stain on the pope’s entire U.S. visit. That a senior diplomat would throw his boss under the bus is astounding in both its poor judgment and the sheer lack of pastoral sensibility. 

A junior foreign service officer could have envisioned the disastrous backlash by just glancing at the approved guest list with Davis’ name on it, which begs the question: where were the junior nunciature officials when Davis’ name began to appear in the visitors’ protocol information? Did anyone of them push back on the invitation to Davis? Or were they just following orders?

The meeting with Davis is in fact scandalous. Viganò’s continued silence and lack of an apology to those deeply hurt further exacerbates the issue and continues to undermine Pope Francis’ otherwise successful visit.

If the Vatican wants to re-cast Pope Francis’ historic U.S. visit in a more favorable, healing and pastoral light — as it deserves to be remembered — then Viganò needs to go and his replacement needs to be appointed sooner rather than later.

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