Browsing News Entries

"There Is No Turning Back Now" – In Historic Abuse Summit, Vatican Says Chilean Bench to Face "Consequences"

When the Pope hosted Chile's three most prominent survivors of clergy sex-abuse (above) last month for a weekend of private talks at the Domus, an unspoken history proved even more instructive than usual: in an unwitting coincidence, April 2018 marked ten years since the first-ever papal meeting with victims, as Benedict XVI spent an hour praying and listening to a group from Boston in the chapel of the Washington Nunciature, the moment only made public after the fact.

With the encounters now a standard piece of a Pope's travel schedule – and Francis having first welcomed survivors into his home in 2014 – the long-frame speaks to an intensified firsthand management of abuse scandals to a degree that, not all that long ago, would've been unthinkable. Yet even as Papa Bergoglio's recent invitation to personally ask forgiveness from the victims of the now-laicized predator Fernando Karadima and hear them out in full marked another major step in the evolution of the response, it's merely the prelude for the most dramatic Vatican intervention on the crisis of the last decade, if not longer.

Coming to pass over three days of talks beginning Tuesday, in itself the Pope's move to summon the Chilean bishops for "reflection" on the collapse of confidence in their church – one to which he glaringly contributed – is a distinct rarity: you'd have to go back to 1980, when John Paul II convoked a Synod intended to wrest Dutch Catholicism away from its perceived post-Conciliar excesses, to find the last instance of an entire national bench being called to Rome outside of a standard ad limina visit. (At least, that's the precedent in the Latin church; amid years of turmoil and bloodshed impacting its multiple Eastern-church communities, a special Synod for Lebanon was held in 1995.)

Still, as the Dutch group numbered just seven, and the first-of-its-kind Roman assembly devoted to a particular area was a year in the making, the convoking of a far-flung bench five times as large on a month's notice underscores the fresh sense of gravity surrounding the situation at hand. In other words, while no shortage of other local emergencies have routinely been addressed by Curial or Pope-level meetings with a country's cardinals, archbishops and/or the executive officers of an episcopal conference – as has occurred three times for the US, most recently twice amid the domestic abuse eruption in 2002 – the command performance of a full episcopate is about as close as it comes to an ecclesiastical DEFCON 1, and indicates the specter of drastic action to meet an epochal state of affairs.

On another front, it bears noting that the visitors have had little to no input on the agenda for the three-day summit – if anything, in a reversal of fortunes, Francis has tipped that the 2,300-page visitation report compiled by Archbishop Charles Scicluna of Malta (a famously uninhibited investigator of abuse) would form his basis for addressing the situation, its assessment likely amplified further by his in-person findings from Karadima's victims, who were long and openly derided by Chile's top hierarchs as enemies of the church.

In a press conference following their stay at the Domus, the trio of survivors spoke of being moved by the pontiff's repentance and concern, but nonetheless reserved their final judgment of the outcome pending Francis' public efforts to rectify the damage done. Asked what most stood out from their sessions with the Pope – first at length individually, then together – one of the men, José Andrés Murillo, replied that "when [Francis] said that the abuse and the cover-up was not a sin, but corruption, I thought that maybe he will do something significant," a point echoed by another of the group, James Hamilton, who revealed the pontiff's assurance to them that "there is no turning back now, there is no turning back on this road."

(As should be obvious to anyone who's spent more than 45 seconds reading the pontiff's daily Domus homilies, being distinguished from sinners "which we all are," "the corrupt" are a frequent and uniquely loaded target in Francis' arsenal of criticism – a category of people who are essentially beyond redemption, having lost their sense of sin and thus an awareness of their need for God's mercy. Among other examples, in a 2013 homily, the Pope put it bluntly, citing St John: "The corrupt are the antichrist.")

Categorical as those statements are in a vacuum, Francis' own role in the fiasco given his heated, years-long defense of Karadima's scandal-tarred protege, Bishop Juan Barros, including his own attacks of the victims as "leftists" and guilty of "calumny" – not to mention his almost unique, lifelong familiarity with the Chilean church, most of which borders his native Argentina – merely heightens the stakes.

Historically speaking, what had been the most extensive Vatican move on a localized abuse storm came in 2011, when Benedict placed the four archdioceses of Ireland under a yearlong apostolic visitation led by senior prelates from outside. Despite its scope, however, it was repeatedly emphasized that the probe "was not intended to replace or supersede the ordinary responsibility of bishops and religious superiors," and the closing report's laundry list of recommendations – much of which focused on seminary formation – were not accompanied by any decree giving the proposals juridical force, which left the bulk of the intended resolution to effectively languish.

Among other contrasts to his predecessor, Francis is considerably less reticent about exerting the papal prerogative of "full, supreme, universal and ordinary jurisdiction" over the entire church; the emphasis added here, the latter trait empowers the Pope to govern any part of the global fold as a bishop runs his own diocese. Accordingly, while resignations are widely expected to be in the offing – among others, the cardinal-archbishop of Santiago, Ricardo Ezzati, is over a year past the retirement age – a fuller shakeup would involve a striking imposition of direct authority: a type of Roman receivership (or, it could be said, "martial law") without modern precedent.

While the Chilean conference has spoken of making the trip "with humility and hope" – and called for public prayers across the country through next week – in his April letter summoning the bishops, Francis had said he was coming into the moment "with neither prejudice nor preconceived ideas." Yet in a conspicuous U-turn from that approach, a Vatican statement issued this morning by the Holy See spokesman Greg Burke, but carrying the Pope's implied imprimatur, signaled that the findings of his subsequent meeting with Karadima's victims had sparked his notorious Latin temper, addressing "consequences" and "the conversion of all" among the gathering's imperatives.

Here, a house translation of today's curtain-raiser, which was originally released in Spanish and Italian:
Pope Francis will meet the bishops of Chile from 15-17 May in the auletta [backstage anteroom] of the Paul VI [Audience] Hall.

This encounter follows the prior summons of the Chilean episcopate last April 8th. The Holy Father, recalling the circumstances and extraordinary challenges created by the abuse of power, sex and of conscience that have been uncovered in Chile over recent decades, finds it necessary to examine deeply its causes and consequences, as well as the mechanisms that were used in some cases of the cover-up and grave omissions in interactions with the victims.

In the course of the meetings, Pope Francis wishes to share his personal conclusions in consequence of the recent special mission in Chile entrusted to Archbishop Charles Scicluna of Malta, and Fr Jordi Bertomeu of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and filled out by the numerous testimonies, written and verbal, that His Holiness has continued to receive in these last weeks.

During the encounter, at which 31 [active] diocesan and auxiliary bishops and two bishops-emeritus will participate, the Holy Father will be accompanied by the Prefect of the Congregation for Bishops, Cardinal Marc Ouellet PSS.

The objective of this long "synodal process" is to discern together, in the presence of God, the responsibility of all and of each one in these devastating wounds, as well as studying adequate and durable changes which impede the repetition of these always reprehensible acts.

It is fundamental to re-establish trust in the Church by means of good pastors who witness with their lives to having known the voice of the Good Shepherd, and who know to accompany the suffering of victims and work in a determined and tireless way in the prevention of abuse.

The Holy Father is grateful for the availability of his brother bishops in placing themselves in docile and humble listening to the Holy Spirit and renews his petition to the People of God in Chile to continue in a state of prayer, that there might be the conversion of all.

It is not foreseen that Pope Francis will release any statement neither during nor after the meetings, which will take place in absolute confidentiality.
* * *
On two final pre-event notes, while an Associated Press report earlier today sought to portray the summit's venue in the antechamber of the Nervi Hall as something of a disparagement, that depiction doesn't reflect reality – if anything, the modern, mid-sized room is Francis' preferred site for relatively intimate group audiences given the two-minute walk from the Domus; among others he's received there include Queen Elizabeth II (for what was intended to be a warmer, more personal welcome than had the Papal Library in the Apostolic Palace been employed) and the Prince of Wales; the since-abdicated king of Spain, Juan Carlos, victims of terrorist attacks, high-ranking interfaith groups, soccer players, a delegation from the NFL, the leaders of the Knights of Columbus, last year's satellite chat with the astronauts of the International Space Station, and a global group of Pentecostal pastors, who used the moment to continue their usual practice of praying over Francis in tongues (above).

In this instance, there's an added benefit to the choice – as the Audience Hall isn't shared by any offices or residents, and with no entourages milling around, it's out of everyone else's earshot.

Meanwhile, in a liturgical sense, especially given the rationale for the encounter, its timing could hardly be more conspicuous: after all, the period between Ascension and Pentecost recalls the nine-day vigil of the locked-away apostles and disciples to prepare for the coming of the Holy Spirit, and with it, the birth – in this case, rebirth – of the church.


Down Under, The Reckoning – Pope's CFO To Stand Trial for Abuse

For everything the Catholic world has seen over its decades-long horror show of abuse scandals, this May Day brings news of a rare uncharted moment – a cardinal will stand trial on sex crimes... and not just any cardinal, at that.

Capping a two-month preliminary hearing to weigh the evidence against Cardinal George Pell, a judge in Melbourne ruled early Wednesday that the first-ever Vatican CFO – likewise a member of Pope Francis' "Gang of Nine" lead advisers – would be tried on "multiple historical sexual offenses," with courtroom reports relaying that half the original charges had been dismissed on grounds of lacking witnesses or other corroboration.

Ten months since the 76 year-old's historic indictment after an investigation by police in his native state of Victoria, the number and specifics of the surviving counts remain sketchy, the entire slate having been laid out in earlier proceedings closed to the press and public. According to the state broadcaster ABC, however, at least one charge dates to Pell's time as archbishop of Melbourne in the 1990s.

An Oxford-trained historian with a devoted following among the church's conservative wing, Pell was transferred from Australian Catholicism's largest diocese to its marquee post – the archbishopric of Sydney – in 2001, made a cardinal in 2003 and brought to Rome in 2014 by Francis, who entrusted the battle-ready Aussie with a sweeping mandate to clean up the Vatican's long-troubled, multi-pronged financial behemoth and consolidate it under his control.

In that light, as Pell has been on a self-described "leave" as Prefect for the Economy to fight the charges since their announcement late last June, yet still officially holds the title – and his deputy at the new Secretariat, Msgr Alfred Xuereb, was subsequently promoted as Archbishop-Nuncio to South Korea without being replaced – the fate of what's arguably the most significant plank of the Pope's attempt at internal reform has been thrown into doubt. (And, indeed, it could be said that's just how the natives want it.)

As previously reported, the cardinal is not expected to return to the Roman post following the trial, regardless of its outcome. Pell turns 77 in June, and – at least, under current circumstances – will remain Australia's lone papal elector until his 80th birthday.

While Pell's ideological fan-base has sought to portray the scrutiny of the cardinal as a "persecution" driven by revenge for his china-busting interventions on social issues, even his most bitter critics at home have viewed the likelihood of a conviction as far-fetched. In any case, the court process has taken place against a uniquely brutal double backdrop: Pell's history as perhaps the most polarizing figure in Australian life over the last two decades, compounded by the damning fallout of a five-year national probe of sex-abuse in churches and schools, which saw the cardinal's successor in Sydney admit the church's "criminal negligence," and whose sprawling final report in December (after interviews with some 8,000 survivors) called for changes to the church's hiring and consultation practices as well as a revision to canon law that would remove the pontifical secret from internal investigations and tribunals.

Escorted into the courthouse this morning by police given the usual scrum of protestors and media outside, Pell pled not guilty to the remaining charges. Per wire reports, some spectators in the courtroom broke into applause as the hearing ended.

The date for the cardinal's trial has not been set.

The Australian ruling is but one piece of the impending news-cycle which will plunge the wider church afresh into the scandals and their enduring toll. On one front, having spent last weekend with three prominent Chilean victim-survivors to apologize and hear their stories and recommendations, the Pope will lead an extraordinary summit with all the country's bishops in mid-May after his initial response to the most prominent abuse case there caused a global debacle. In the US, meanwhile, a statewide grand jury probing six of Pennsylvania's eight Latin-church dioceses is expected to publish its final report within the coming weeks, its contents already tipped to be blistering by survivor advocates and church officials alike.

Chartered after a 2016 grand jury on the diocese of Altoona-Johnstown saw three Franciscan provincials charged, decades of cover-ups detailed and the attorney general's office "flooded" with fresh allegations, the statewide panel's mandate is set to expire this spring following two years of testimony, underpinned by the subpoena of personnel files dating back to 1947 from the Chanceries of Allentown, Erie, Greensburg, Harrisburg, Pittsburgh and Scranton – a group whose respective handling of cases has conspicuously varied through the years.