By Crispian Balmer
ROME (Reuters) - Pope Francis should not resign over allegations he mishandled a sexual abuse scandal, said Steve Bannon, President Donald Trump's former political strategist who is close to prominent Catholic conservatives.
However, Bannon told Reuters he was working on setting up an independent, non-partisan tribunal to investigate decades of scandals within the U.S. Church, warning that dioceses across the country faced financial ruin because of the wrongdoing.
In a statement that stunned the church, Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano said last month that Pope Francis should stand down for allegedly covering up for a former U.S. cardinal who was accused of sexually molesting children and adult seminarians.
Some media saw the hands of fierce conservative critics of Francis behind the unprecedented attack on a living pope, including U.S. Cardinal Raymond Burke, who is close to Bannon.
Burke told reporters in Rome last week that he was "deeply shaken" by Vigano's accusations and called for an investigation. But Bannon, himself a Catholic, clearly distanced himself from Vigano, saying a papal resignation was not appropriate.
"This is as serious as it gets. We can't have memos and letters and accusations. The pope is from an unbroken chain the Vicar of Christ on Earth. You don't just sit there and say 'I think you should resign'," said Bannon during a visit to Rome.
Instead, he said an independent tribunal had to be created to look into every aspect of the multiplying scandals.
"Until we do that, I don't think people should be snapping to judgements. This is so serious. This is an existential threat to the heart of the institution of the Catholic Church. It is not about doctrine or dogma of the Church," he said.
Pope Francis has refused to comment on Vigano's attack, which was the latest blow to the credibility of the Church.
Last month, a grand jury in Pennsylvania released the findings of the largest-ever investigation of sex abuse in the U.S. Catholic Church, finding that 301 priests in the state had sexually abused minors over the past 70 years. Other U.S. states have also launched wide-ranging investigations of their own.
Bannon predicted the Church would have to pay millions of dollars in damages, compensation and legal fees. "You are going to see a tremendous financial liquidation of the Church over the next 10, 15 or 20 years predicated on this scandal," he said.
Since his election in 2013, conservatives have sharply criticised Francis, saying he has left many faithful confused by pronouncements that the Church should be more welcoming to homosexuals and divorced Catholics and not be obsessed by "culture war" issues such as abortion.
During his time in Rome, Bannon met the head of Dignitatis Humanae Institute (DHI) -- a conservative, Catholic-inspired group based in Italy that he supports.
He said he was in contact with "prominent people" in the United States to set up a tribunal and believed it was too important to leave the Church itself to review its failings.
"This has nothing to do with whether you are a liberal Catholic or right-wing traditionalist ... It can't be seen as a political witchhunt." he said.
(Reporting by Crispian Balmer; Editing by Keith Weir)