By Philip Pullella
VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - Pope Francis has ordered a "thorough study" of all documents in Holy See offices concerning disgraced former U.S. Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, the Vatican said on Saturday in its first response to accusations that have shaken the Catholic Church.
In a statement, the Vatican appeared to be committing itself to examine the paper trail on the McCarrick case, quoting from speech Francis made in 2015 in which he said "We will follow the path of truth wherever it may lead".
The latest crisis began in August when Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, the Vatican's former ambassador to the United States, said in a bombshell document that the pope knew for years about sexual misconduct by McCarrick with adult male seminarians but did nothing about it.
Vigano accused a long list of current and past Vatican and U.S. Church officials of covering up for 88-year-old McCarrick, the former archbishop of Washington, D.C., and called on the pope to resign.
The letter, combined with a recent spate of sexual abuse crises in several countries, has thrown the Catholic Church into turmoil.
In July, McCarrick became the first cardinal to resign in nearly 100 years after American Church officials said allegations made in a separate investigation that he had sexually abused a 16-year-old boy almost 50 years ago were credible and substantiated..
That investigation was not directly related to the accusations that McCarrick, who rose to be a key power broker in the American Church, had engaged in sexual misconduct with adult males for years.
CALLS FOR INVESTIGATION
American Church leaders have called for the Vatican to launch an investigation, known as an "apostolic visitation," into how McCarrick could have risen steadily through the ranks of the U.S. Church although many people knew about his alleged misconduct with adults.
Saturday's Vatican statement appeared to be a partial response to the U.S. bishops' request for an investigation as well as to Vigano's demands that the Vatican release documents in its archives related to McCarrick.
It said information already known about McCarrick in the United States would be combined with a "a further thorough study of the entire documentation" in Vatican archives "in order to ascertain all the relevant facts, to place them in their historical context and to evaluate them objectively."
But the Vatican statement also appeared to suggest that wrong decisions and mistakes may have been made regarding McCarrick in the past.
"The Holy See is conscious that, from the examination of the facts and of the circumstances, it may emerge that choices were taken that would not be consonant with a contemporary approach to such issues," the statement said, without elaborating.
Vigano alleged that former Pope Benedict, who resigned in 2013, had placed sanctions on McCarrick because of his sexual misconduct with adult males and had ordered him to retire to a life of prayer and penitence and refrain from public ministry.
Vigano claimed that Francis had lifted the sanctions, effectively rehabilitating McCarrick.
But Vatican officials pointed out that McCarrick continued to lead a public life even during Benedict's papacy while he was supposedly under sanctions, travelling many times to the Vatican and meeting Benedict himself.
Last week, Benedict's doctrinal chief, Cardinal Gerhard Mueller, said he knew nothing about any formal or informal sanctions against McCarrick.
McCarrick has said he had no recollection of alleged abuse of the minor, but has not commented on the allegations of misconduct with the seminarians, which allegedly took place mostly at a beach house in New Jersey when he was a bishop in that state.
(Additional reporting by Agnieszka Flak in Milan; Editing by Hugh Lawson and Ros Russell)