NEW YORK: The controversy over an alleged high-level cover-up of Church sex abuse in America has revealed a deep rift among US bishops that reflects both the damage done by the paedophilia scandals rocking the Vatican - and the country's current political divisiveness.
Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, who was the Vatican envoy in Washington between 2011 and 2016, sparked a firestorm when he claimed last week that Pope Francis ignored his warnings in 2013 about alleged abuse by then prominent US cardinal Theodore McCarrick.
In July, the pontiff accepted the resignation of McCarrick, now 88. He has been accused of "gravely immoral" behaviour with seminarians and priests.
Vigano's claims have raised speculation of a campaign against the pontiff by Church conservatives in the United States, which is home to the fourth largest Catholic population in the world, according to US government data.
"It is a time of turmoil for all of us," says Paul Elie, a senior fellow at the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs at Georgetown University, a Catholic university in the nation's capital.
In one camp, cardinals including progressive Joseph Tobin of Newark, Chicago's Blase Cupich and Robert McElroy of San Diego have rushed to the pontiff's defense, denouncing Vigano as a conservative "ideological warrior."
But other Church figures, such as bishops Joseph Strickland of Texas and Oklahoma's David Konderla are joining Cardinal Raymond Burke, a conservative American figurehead in the Vatican, in backing Vigano's claims.
For Elie, these dissenting voices are a direct result of Francis's tolerance of differing views.
"Because Francis is not inclined to an authoritarian style, he has allowed a much greater degree of dissent to be expressed openly than his predecessors," Elie told AFP.
"People are now speaking for themselves much more than they were used to."
CHURCH IN THE AGE OF TRUMP
Some experts say the public airing of Vatican intrigue usually kept behind closed doors reflects a polarized America, and the highly divisive politics that has followed the election of President Donald Trump.
"These are extreme positions - these are not authentic Catholic positions that I think most of us want to hold on to," said Frank Clooney of the Harvard Divinity School, referring to calls for the pope's resignation.
"It's a characteristic of our time, in the 21st century, given American politics and European politics, that now everything is now in the open and bitter," Clooney added.
"It's part of the era of Trump that we are in - nobody is holding back and saying this is not appropriate."
With America's Catholic population decreasing - from 23.9 percent in 2007 to 20.8 percent in 2014, according to the latest Pew Research Centre survey - Church leadership is growing increasingly conservative, said Dennis Doyle of the University of Dayton.
"People on the left say the leadership of the Catholic Church (in the US) has become the 'Republican Party at prayer,'" added Doyle, a theologian who is himself a practicing Catholic.
Some high-ranking clergy have notably focused on religious liberties, the fight against abortion and insurance reimbursement for contraception - cherished hot-button issues of American conservatives.
"Their most unifying theme is their attack against homosexuality," said Doyle.
"You have seen this massive cultural shift in the US about the status of LGBT people and many people in the Church have tried to say this is a new reality, and Pope Francis is one who is trying to move the Church towards grappling with a new perspective, new facts," he added.
"But there is a group of people who see this as this great heresy ... We really are experiencing the polarisation in a way that mirrors what's happening in the larger culture."
Traditionalist Church leaders are making their views known now because with his recent cardinal appointments, Francis is close to reaching a majority who favor his progressive approach, which could lead to his eventual successor espousing similar views, Doyle noted.
But Elie says the starkly differing views also stem from Church upheaval over recent revelations of a massive pedophilia scandal in Pennsylvania involving more than 300 priests who are said to have abused more than 1,000 children.
"We are all concerned - the most left wing, the most right wing and everybody in the middle - we are all trying to figure out what's next," said Elie.