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ROME, Italy, May 8, 2020 (LifeSiteNews) – An historic appeal of Catholic prelates and lay leaders decrying the crackdown on basic freedoms over coronavirus is embroiled in controversy after one of four Cardinals who was listed as signatory has claimed he did not sign the appeal. 

Cardinal Robert Sarah, the head of the Vatican dicastery dealing with liturgy, tweeted after the release of the appeal that he had not signed it. However, the appeal’s organizer, Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, has released a timeline of their communications, with quotes from the cardinal which indicate that the Cardinal did sign on to the appeal before reaching Archbishop Viganò to say that he withdrew his signature after the statement had already gone out. Viganò also says he has a recording of the conversation with Sarah that verifies that the Cardinal did agree to sign the appeal. 

The appeal “for the Church and the world” warned that the coronavirus pandemic is being used as a “pretext” by world leaders to “control” people and strip them of their fundamental rights, while providing a “disturbing prelude to the realization of a world government beyond all control.” It also asserts that the Church has “the right to decide autonomously on the celebration of Mass and the Sacraments, just as we claim absolute autonomy in matters falling within our immediate jurisdiction, such as liturgical norms and ways of administering Communion and the Sacraments.”

In a tweet on Thursday evening Eastern time, a few hours after the appeal’s release, Cardinal Sarah indicated that he “may personally share some of the questions or concerns that are raised about restrictions on fundamental freedoms.” But he said, in his view, a high-ranking member of the Roman Curia “has to observe a certain restriction on political matters. He shouldn’t sign appeals in such areas.” He added that he had asked the appeal authors “not to mention my name” that morning, Rome time. 

According to Archbishop Viganò’s timeline, the Cardinal had agreed to sign the appeal on Monday, May 4, several days before its release on Thursday, May 7 at 7:30pm Rome time, and he only attempted to remove his name via text message on Thursday at 5:48pm Rome time. Viganò says the appeal had gone out to media hours earlier, at 3:00pm Rome time. The archbishop says he missed Cardinal Sarah’s message in the midst of the busyness of the last hours before the appeal’s release.

However, the cardinal telephoned him at 7:37pm Rome time, after the embargo was lifted, to make sure he saw his withdrawal, according to Viganò. 

The appeal is signed by three cardinals – Gerhard Ludwig Mueller, Joseph Zen, and Janis Pujats – as well as 8 bishops, 3 priests, 21 journalists, 11 medical doctors, 13 lawyers, 18 teachers and professionals, and 12 various groups and associations. The organizers have since been collecting additional signatures at a special website. According to the website, the appeal had garnered an additional 8,300 signatures as of 1:30pm EST.

According to the quotes in Vigano’s timeline, Sarah had expressed a different view when he agreed to sign on Monday.

During that call, Sarah said of the appeal, “It seems to me a very serious matter. I think that this Appeal will do much good, because it will make us reflect and take a position: I agree that it should be published as soon as possible.”

Asked if he would sign the document, according to Viganò, Sarah replied, “Yes, I agree to put my name to it, because this is a fight that we must engage in together, not only for the Catholic Church but for all mankind.”

The timeline indicates that Sarah’s decision to withdraw his name was influenced by advice from friends. According to Vigano, the text message that the Cardinal sent on Thursday stated: “Dearest Excellency, as I am still working in the Roman Curia, some friends of mine advised me not to sign your proposed Appeal. Perhaps it would be better to remove my name this time. I am very sorry. You know my friendship and my closeness to you. Thank you for your understanding.”

At the beginning of his statement, Viganò said he “immediately forgave” Sarah for the Twitter statements “that cause serious harm to the truth and to my person.”

“It is my wish to abide by an attitude of deep charity towards my brother in Christ, Cardinal Robert Sarah,” he wrote. “Genuine charity, however, cannot disregard the truth, since it has its foundation in it,” he continued. “I therefore have the duty, also for the sake of fraternal correction, to make known the series of events as they occurred, with regard to Cardinal Sarah’s signing of the Appeal.”

“The cardinal informed me in his telephone call [on Thursday at 7:37pm Rome time] that he intended to remove his name from the list of signatories,” Viganò recounted in his statement. “I was terribly sorry and pointed out to His Eminence that the Appeal and the signatures had already been circulated ‘universally’ for more than four hours.”

“The conversation ended without His Eminence requesting or suggesting any solution,” the archbishop stressed.

“Faced with this de facto situation, to which neither he nor I were able to find a solution, I took the liberty of encouraging His Eminence, pointing out to him how much his support of the Appeal would be of comfort and encouragement to a great many faithful.”

Only later, Viganò found out with “surprise and deep regret …  that His Eminence had used his twitter account, without giving me any notice, to make statements that cause serious harm to the truth and to my person.”

The former Apostolic Nuncio said he was “very sorry that this matter, which is due to human weakness, and for which I bear no resentment towards the person who caused it, has distracted our attention from what must seriously concern us at this dramatic moment.”

In the afternoon of May 8, Sarah tweeted, “I will not speak to this petition, which today seems to occupy a lot of people. I leave to their conscience those who want to exploit it in one way or another. I decided not to sign this text. I fully accept my choice.”

LifeSite asked Archbishop Viganò for the recordings of his conversations with Cardinal Sarah. The archbishop declined, saying that he does not wish to address the controversy further, especially since it detracts from the importance of the appeal.