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Vatican City — The archbishop of Washington on Monday “categorically denied” ever being informed that his predecessor had been sanctioned for sexual misconduct, undercutting a key element of a bombshell allegation that Pope Francis covered up clergy abuse.

Cardinal Donald Wuerl issued a statement after the Vatican’s former ambassador to the United States accused Pope Francis of effectively freeing ex-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick from the sanctions in 2013 despite knowing of McCarrick’s sexual predations against seminarians.

Wuerl’s denial corresponds with the public record, which provides ample evidence that McCarrick lived a life completely devoid of ecclesiastic restriction after the sanctions were said to have been imposed in 2009 or 2010.

That suggests that Pope Benedict XVI either didn’t impose sanctions or never conveyed them in any official way to the people who could enforce them — or that McCarrick simply flouted them and Benedict’s Vatican was unwilling or unable to stop him.

The claims of the former Vatican ambassador, Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, have thrown Francis’ papacy into crisis, undermining once again his insistence that he is intent on ridding the church of sex abuse and cover-up.

His record has taken several hits of late, including his extraordinary misjudgment involving a Chilean bishop, for which he has apologized and taken measures to address.

But the McCarrick case is something else entirely, implicating the powerful U.S. hierarchy and the Vatican itself.

The core of Vigano’s cover-up charge against Francis rests on what sanctions, if any, Benedict imposed on McCarrick and what if anything Francis did to alter them, when armed with the same knowledge of McCarrick’s misdeeds that Benedict had.

Vigano, who was Vatican ambassador from 2011-16, said he had been told that Benedict imposed sanctions on McCarrick starting in 2009 or 2010, after a decade’s worth of allegations of misconduct involving adult seminarians had reached the Vatican.

By that time, two New Jersey dioceses had settled complaints of sexual harassment and misconduct against McCarrick lodged by two former seminarians. It was apparently common knowledge that McCarrick would invite seminarians to his New Jersey beach house, and into his bed.

“The cardinal was to leave the seminary where he was living, he was forbidden to celebrate Mass in public, to participate in public meetings, to give lectures, to travel, with the obligation of dedicating himself to a life of prayer and penance,” Vigano wrote of the Benedict sanctions.

Vigano said he informed Francis of the sanctions in a meeting June 23, 2013.

“Holy Father, I don’t know if you know Cardinal McCarrick, but if you ask the Congregation of Bishops, there is a dossier this thick about him. He corrupted generations of seminarians and priests, and Pope Benedict ordered him to withdraw to a life of prayer and penance,” Vigano said.

His version of events was corroborated Monday by a former official in the Vatican embassy in Washington, Monsignor Jean-Francois Lantheaume, who told Catholic News Agency: “Vigano said the truth. That is all.”

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