ROME — Retaliating against a remarkable campaign from within the church to force the ouster of Pope Francis, the Vatican’s former spokesman issued a statement on Sunday night questioning the credibility of an archbishop who has accused Francis of covering up sexual misconduct.
But in seeking to defend the pope against the latest allegations, which relate not to abuse but to the pope’s own credibility, the former spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, seemed to confirm a key part of the archbishop’s claims. And the defense also offered a portrait of the pope and his top advisers as having been politically naïve.
In a letter released Friday, the archbishop, Carlo Maria Viganò, challenged the notion, put forward by Vatican officials and the pope, that he had ambushed Francis in 2015 by setting up a private meeting at the Vatican’s Washington embassy with Kim Davis, the Kentucky county clerk who became a conservative celebrity by refusing to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.
Archbishop Viganò said in the letter that he had fully briefed Francis and his top advisers, all of whom he named, about Ms. Davis and her “conscientious objection” to promoting same-sex marriage. He received approval from them all, he said.
Father Lombardi and Father Rosica nevertheless said Francis had felt “deceived” by Archbishop Viganò. Contrary to the claims of the archbishop, they said, the pope was furious over the meeting, which threatened to eclipse the entire visit to the United States by derailing his message of inclusion.
Archbishop Viganò, they assert, told them the pope had said he felt deceived about Ms. Davis. But the reason apparently had less to do with her role in the fight against gay marriage than with her own marital history.
“You never told me that she had four husbands,” the pope protested, Archbishop Viganò told them, they wrote.
Archbishop Viganò, who was the Vatican’s ambassador in the United States, or papal nuncio, declined a request for comment Sunday night.
The disagreement over what Francis did or did not know about Ms. Davis emerged after a week of turmoil in the Roman Catholic Church that began when Archbishop Viganò published a letter accusing the pope of covering up sexual abuse.
The archbishop claimed that Francis had known about accusations that an American cardinal, Theodore McCarrick had sexually abused seminarians long before they became public, but still allowed him an influential role at the Vatican.
The claim set off a rare onslaught of attacks on a sitting pope from conservative Catholics who have chafed under Francis’ reign.
In his statement Sunday, Father Lombardi argued that whether the pope knew about the meeting with Ms. Davis beforehand or not, the blame for the fiasco that followed rested with Archbishop Viganò for having put the pope in a difficult position.
The consensus about granting the meeting with Ms. Davis, Father Lombardi writes, “did not detract from the responsibility of the initiative of the meeting with Kim Davis and the consequences were mainly of Viganò himself, who had evidently desired and prepared them, and that as nuncio should have known better about this situation.”
Father Lombardi said the meeting had been “organized by the nuncio, who inserted it in the context of the pope’s many and quick greetings at his departure from the nunciature, as the Vatican Embassy in Washington is known. This certainly did not allow the pope and his collaborators to realize the significance of this meeting.”
After the publication of Archbishop Viganò’s letter describing the pope’s approval of the meeting with Ms. Davis, the Liberty Counsel, a conservative Christian litigation group that has represented elected officials who resist same-sex marriage, applauded.
“It is now clear why some officials in the Catholic Church sought to downplay or distort the truth about the private meeting between Pope Francis and Kim Davis,” Mathew Staver, the group’s chairman, said in a statement released on Saturday, “because it went against their narrative in which they sought to change the church’s teaching on homosexuality.”
Supporters of Pope Francis have argued that ultraconservatives in the American hierarchy and the Vatican have endangered the church by aligning themselves with politically motivated evangelical groups in the United States. They have seen the closing of evangelical ranks around Archbishop Viganò, who championed their causes in the United States, as proof of this alliance.
The pope has entirely different goals.
In the days after the media tempest about the meeting, the Vatican sought to distance Francis from Ms. Davis and put the blame on Archbishop Viganò.
The Vatican press office asserted that the pope had never received Ms. Davis in a private audience and said the pope had probably not been briefed. The Vatican instead highlighted Francis’ warm meeting at the Washington Embassy with a gay former student and his partner.
The pope then summoned Archbishop Viganò to Rome for what the former ambassador has said he was assured would be a serious reprimand. Instead, he claimed in his letter, “to my great surprise, during this long meeting, the pope did not mention even once the audience with Davis!”
This is the aspect of the letter that Father Lombardi, who retired in 2016, and Father Rosica took most issue with.
They say Archbishop Viganò withheld from his account their own visit to see him on Oct. 9, 2015, in his apartment in the old residence of Santa Maria in Vatican City that “both of us were surprised to see that he had maintained.” There, they say, they sat with him in his living room.
“Viganò was clearly shaken having been summoned to Rome,” they wrote. “He told the two of us that he never intended to harm the pope with his idea to have Davis at the nunciature.”
The archbishop, they said, did not answer their inquiry about whether Ms. Davis’s visit had been arranged by the president of the American bishops conference or by the Washington Archdiocese.
Speaking in Italian — “verbatim” according to Father Rosica’s notes — Archbishop Viganò said, “The Holy Father in his paternal benevolence thanked me for his visit to the U.S.A., but also said that I had deceived him” by “bringing that woman to the nunciature.” The pope complained that he had not known of her multiple marriages, the archbishop told his visitors, they said.
They say Archbishop Viganò, who was removed by Pope Francis from Washington the following year, instructed them not to make any statements to the news media without first coordinating with his office.
“When we left him, he seemed troubled and thanked us for our visit,” the statement said.
This week, an article in The New York Times quoted a Chilean abuse survivor, Juan Carlos Cruz, as recounting that Francis had told him that Archbishop Viganò sneaked Ms. Davis into the Vatican Embassy in Washington for the private meeting. The pope told him he had not known who she was or why she was a contentious figure, Mr. Cruz said.
Mr. Cruz recalled the pope saying, “I was horrified and I fired that nuncio.”
Archbishop Viganò, in the letter published on Friday by LifeSiteNews, a conservative Catholic outlet, said Mr. Cruz’s account had prompted him to set the record straight.
“One of them is lying: either Cruz or the pope?” he wrote. “What is certain is that the pope knew very well who Davis was, and he and his close collaborators had approved the private audience.”
On Sunday, the pope’s allies seemed to confirm that.