More than 44,000 Catholic women have signed a letter pressing Pope Francis to explain exactly when and how he found out about sexual abuse and misconduct allegations against a high-ranking former cardinal.
“Our hearts are broken, our faith tested, by the escalating crisis engulfing our beloved Church,” states the passionately worded letter organized by the Catholic Women’s Forum. “We are angry, betrayed and disillusioned.”
“We, your flock, deserve your answers now.”
For the past two weeks, Francis’ papacy has been thrown into crisis by claims that U.S. cardinals and Vatican officials covered up for then-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick. Even though the Vatican has known about his allegedly abusive behavior with seminarians since at least 2000, McCarrick received clerical promotions and continued publicly representing the church, The Associated Press reports.
The accusations against Francis himself were brought up by the Vatican’s former U.S. ambassador, Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano. The archbishop, who has long been a critic of the Argentine pontiff, claims Francis rehabilitated McCarrick, lifting canonical sanctions imposed by his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI.
Francis officially removed McCarrick from ministry in June after a church investigation determined that he had sexually abused an altar boy in 1971. McCarrick resigned from the College of Cardinals the following month.
Soon after Vigano’s allegations came to light, Francis told reporters that he would “not say a single word” on the subject and suggested that journalists read Vigano’s claims and make up their own minds.
The archbishop’s accusations and Francis’ silence have roiled the U.S. Catholic Church, with some in the hierarchy coming to the pope’s defense while others demand a thorough investigation. On Tuesday, the Vatican said Francis will meet with a delegation of U.S. cardinals and bishops about the issue on Thursday.
The thousands of signatures on the letter to Pope Francis are evidence of how deeply this crisis has affected Catholic women, who see themselves as the backbone of the church.
The letter from the Catholic Women’s Forum, an international network that seeks to amplify the voices of faithful Catholic women, has continued to gather signatures since it was first published on Aug. 30. Signers include prominent female American Catholic theologians, professors, business executives, writers and speakers.
Mary Rice Hasson, the forum’s director, told HuffPost that the group’s web team is working hard to delete duplicate signatures. They are also deleting any signatures from men, who are being asked to sign a separate online letter.
The women’s letter has already been sent to the pope twice ― through personal channels and through the apostolic nuncio in Washington, D.C. Hasson said via email that as long as the number of signatures continues to swell, the organization will continue to send it to Francis weekly.
Hasson added that she’s not surprised by the surge of signatures, given the “depth of feeling” around this issue. Although the number of abuse cases involving priests dropped sharply after the Catholic Church adopted reforms in 2002, she said the church is still falling short in holding the hierarchy accountable and acknowledging sexual misconduct by bishops and cardinals.
“These women love our Church, and they are heartbroken and appalled, not only at the underlying abuse, but also by an ecclesial culture that looked the other way in the face of egregious sexual abuse and misconduct,” Hasson wrote.
The letter to the pope specifically states that the women want to know when Francis learned about McCarrick’s alleged sexual misconduct and abuse, and whether Francis released the former cardinal from any restrictions imposed by Benedict.
In the letter, the Catholic Women’s Forum also takes the opportunity to remind Francis how important women are to the church.
Fifty-four percent of American Catholics are women, according to the Pew Research Center. Catholic women are more likely than men to say they attend Mass at least once a week (43 percent vs. 35 percent) and more likely to say they pray every day (67 percent vs. 49 percent).
“We are not second-class Catholics to be brushed off while bishops and cardinals handle matters privately,” the letter states. “We are the hands, the feet, and the heart of the Church. In short, we are the Church, every bit as much as the cardinals and bishops around you.”
Hasson said she was heartened by reports that the Vatican is preparing a response to Vigano’s allegations, describing it as simply “the right thing to do.”
“Our Church leaders need to realize that we cannot go back to ‘business as usual,’ absent significant efforts to address the situation,” Hasson said.
This article originally appeared on HuffPost.