dotCommonweal

A blog by the magazine's editors and contributors

.

dotCommonweal Blog

The Necessary Ordinariness of 'Spotlight'

The movie Spotlight depicts how the Boston Globe in 2002 broke the story that the Boston archdiocese was covering up the abuse of children by scores of priests. Coincidently, one of the abusers portrayed in the film, former priest Ronald Paquin, was just last month released from state custody after serving a criminal sentence for repeatedly raping an altar boy over a three-year-period beginning when the victim was twelve. (Paquin also admitted to molesting fourteen other boys.) Medical specialists determined Paquin no longer met the legal criteria for “sexual dangerousness,” and so the district attorney’s office had to withdraw its bid to keep him in custody.

“The church thinks in centuries,” one character remarks in Spotlight, and in watching it I thought of all the people—if you aren’t one you probably know one—who’ve decided to take the very long view themselves. Mark Ruffalo plays Globe reporter Michael Rezendes; in one scene, after learning of the archdiocese’s systematic cover-up, he says he used to like going to Mass as a child, and that he’d always expected to go back someday. “But now…” he says, leaving the obvious unspoken: Never. 

Read more

Pope Francis to Abuse Victims: You Are Ministers of Mercy (UPDATED)

(Updates throughout.)

PHILADELPHIA—This morning Pope Francis met with five victims of sexual abuse for about an hour. He was joined by Cardinal Seán O'Malley, Archbishop of Boston and chairman of the pope's commission for the protection of minors, Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia, and Bishop Fitzgerald, head of the Philadelphia Archdiocese's commission for the protection of minors. 

"Words cannot fully express my sorrow for the abuse you suffered," Francis told the victims, three women and two men who were abused by clergy, family members or teachers. "I am profoundly sorry that your innocence was violated by those you trusted." Francis apologized for "times when you or your family spoke out to report the abuse but you were not heard or believed." He continued: "Please know that the Holy Father hears and believes you." Francis also expressed "regret that some bishops failed in their responsibility to protect children," and pledged to hold priests and bishops "accountable when they abuse or fail to protect children."

During his visit to the United States, Pope Francis has made only passing reference to the scandal. During a service with bishops in Washington on Wednesday, he praised "the courage with which you have faced difficult moments in the recent history of the church in this country without fear of self-criticism and at the cost of mortification and great sacrifice.” And on Thursday he said to priests and religious in New York that “you have suffered greatly in the recent past by having to bear the shame of some of your brothers who harmed and scandalized the church.”

Read more

Compare & contrast.

Jared Fogel, thirty-seven, former Subway pitchman, video-game star, will plead guilty to possessing and transmitting child pornography (some of which depicted children as young as six), to traveling in order to pay for sex with minors ("the younger the better," he told one of the seventeen-year-old girls he patronized, asking her to find more girls for him). In exchange, the government has agreed not to seek a sentence of longer than twelve and a half years (and Fogel won't seek one shorter than five). A judge may decide to impose a stricter sentence.

Shawn Ratigan, forty-eight, former Catholic priest, catalyst for the removal of Robert Finn, the former bishop of Kansas City-St. Joseph, admitted to creating and possessing child pornography, to taking surreptitious photos of five girls between the ages of two and twelve, to posing some of them, removing their clothing to expose their genitalia. In exchange, the prosecution sought and received a fifty-year sentence, which Ratigan has been serving since 2013.

Alice McDermott on Rules that ‘Subvert Compassion and Common Sense’

The New Yorker is currently featuring a new short story from Alice McDermott, “These Short, Dark Days.” The protagonist of the piece, set in Brooklyn in the early 1900s, is a nun named Sister St. Savior who endeavors to effect the burial in a Catholic cemetery of a young husband who has asphyxiated himself. In those days, recall, it was just as one character puts it: If word of suicide gets out, “there’s not a Catholic cemetery that will have him.”

The story exhibits a bit more in the way of traditional narrative drive than I’ve come to expect from McDermott’s short fiction, and it hits on familiar themes in the usual compelling fashion: certainty vs. uncertainty in belief (“There were moments when his faith fell out from under him like a trapdoor,” one character thinks); awareness of sin; the reality of human suffering; the limits of compassion. And, importantly, the limits placed on compassion. It’s this last that McDermott confronts in a fairly explicit way, by noting how the burdens of compassion have typically fallen to women (of the church and not), even as men (of the church and not) seem to have been bent on making its expression more difficult:

In her forty-seven years of living in this city, Sister had collected any number of acquaintances who could help surmount the many rules and regulations—Church rules and city rules and what Sister Miriam called the rules of polite society—that complicated the lives of women: Catholic women in particular, and poor women in general.

But this all takes place more than a century ago, doesn’t it? Yes, but that doesn’t make it history. Lest anyone doubt McDermott’s intent, she makes it clear in an interview that accompanies the story.

Read more

Archbishop Nienstedt resigns. (UPDATED)

This morning, ten days after the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis was criminally charged with child endangerment and five days after Pope Francis announced a new tribunal for bishops who mishandle cases of abusive priests, the Vatican announced the resignations of Archbishop John Nienstedt, along with one of his auxiliary bishops, Lee Piché. Prosecutors charged the archdiocese with failing to protect the victims of Curtis Wehmeyer, the now laicized priest who is serving a five-year sentence for molesting children and possessing child pornography. (The criminal complaint also named several other accused priests whose cases were mishandled by the archdiocese.) Nienstedt's replacement has not yet been named. In the meantime, Pope Francis has appointed Archbishop Bernard Hebda as apostolic administrator (not the Twin Cities' remaining auxiliary bishop, Andrew Cozzens)--an unusual move, given the fact that Hebda is already the coadjutor archbishop of Newark, where he lives.

Nienstedt has been buffeted by calls for his resignation ever since his former top canon lawyer, Jennifer Haselberger, provided Minnesota Public Radio with troubling information about the archdiocese's responses to cases of accused priests. As recently as last July, Nienstedt pledged not to resign. "The resignations were both prudent and necessary," Haselberger told me. "The Holy See has acted wisely by appointing an apostolic administrator."

Read more

Twin Cities archdiocese charged with child endangerment.

On Friday, a Minnesota county attorney filed criminal charges against the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, alleging that for years church leaders—including Archbishop John Nienstedt—failed to protect children from a priest who would eventually plead guilty to molesting children and possessing child pornography. Owing to its acts or omissions, according to prosecutors, the archdiocese endangered children by mishandling a series of warnings about Curtis Wehmeyer dating back to his seminary days. He applied to seminary in 1996 and was jailed in 2013. (Prosecutors also filed a civil petition alleging the same offenses.) “It is not only Curtis Wehmeyer who is criminally responsible for the harm caused [to his victims],” said Ramsey County Attorney John Choi during a press conference, “but it is the archdiocese as well.”

In a statement released late Friday, Auxiliary Bishop Andrew Cozzens apologized for the suffering of all victims of sexual abuse, and pledged to cooperate with civil authorities. Nienstedt did not make a public statement. But on Saturday, June 6, he sent a letter to Twin Cities priests commenting on the charges. “The events of the past twenty-four hours have been disturbing to me,” the archbishop wrote. While prosecutors “had not indicated their findings to us before noon this past Friday,” he continued, “my staff and I will continue to work with them closely and collaboratively to meet their concerns.” Nienstedt concluded: “As we celebrate the great feast of Corpus Christi, we acknowledge that the grace of the Holy Eucharist elevates us beyond our all too human nature so as to be united in the one Body of Christ.”

In late 2013, the archdiocese was plunged into scandal after Nienstedt’s former top canon lawyer went public with damning accounts of how the archdiocese had handled cases of accused priests—including Wehmeyer. In December of that year, Nienstedt himself was accused of groping an eighth-grader (he denies the allegation and has not been charged). Adding to the controversy, in July 2014 it came to light that Nienstedt was himself being investigated by an outside law firm—hired by the archdiocese—for multiple allegations of inappropriate sexual conduct with seminarians, priests, and other adult men. Nienstedt denies any wrongdoing. Following a series of sexual-abuse lawsuits, the archdiocese filed for bankruptcy in January. Amid calls for his resignation, Nienstedt has said that he will not step down.

The six gross misdemeanor charges—three for child endangerment and three for contributing to the delinquency of a minor (Wehmeyer gave his victims alcohol and marijuana)—were filed against the archdiocese as a corporation. A conviction would bring a small fine for the archdiocese, not jail time. At this time, there is not enough evidence to charge individual church officials, Ramsey County Attorney Choi said at Friday’s press conference. (Still, prosecutors name several diocesan leaders in the complaints, including Nienstedt, his predecessor Archbishop Harry Flynn [once seen as a leader on the issue of clerical abuse], his predecessor Archbishop John Roach; and several vicars general, including Auxiliary Bishop Lee Piché (currently responsible for overseeing the ongoing investigation of Nienstedt’s alleged sexual misconduct), Fr. Kevin McDonough, and Fr. Peter Laird.) Even though no one has been charged as an individual, Choi explained, that doesn’t mean the prosecutors’ work is done. The investigation is ongoing. “In fact,” he continued, “the investigation right now is very robust.”

The inquiry that led to Friday’s charges began twenty months ago. Investigators interviewed more than fifty witnesses—some more than once. They obtained more than one hundred seventy thousand pages of documents from “numerous sources,” Choi said. It is not clear whether the charges will hold up in court, and it seems doubtful that the archdiocese will even allow the case to go to trial. The criminal complaint has been called virtually unprecedented. Its closest analogues are the cases of Bishop Robert Finn, who was convicted of failing to report suspected abuse; and the archdiocese of Cincinnati, which was fined by a judge for failing to report abuse in the 1970s and ’80s. But even if Choi is unable to secure a conviction, he may get a settlement. The investigation has turned up a vast amount of evidence that calls into question past and current leaders of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis. “The facts that we have gathered cannot be ignored. They cannot be dismissed, and are frankly appalling,” Choi said Friday, “especially when viewed in their totality.”

Read more

Cardinal Pell's response to victims "almost sociopathic," says member of pope's sexual-abuse commission.

During the May 31 broadcast of Australia’s 60 Minutes, a member of Pope Francis’s sexual-abuse commission described Cardinal George Pell’s treatment of victims as “almost sociopathic.” The 60 Minutes segment focused on Pell’s response to abuse allegations while he ministered in Australia, including testimony alleging that the cardinal tried to buy a victim’s silence, and that he was involved in the decision to move the nation’s most notorious abuser priest, Gerald Ridsdale, between parishes—claims the cardinal denies. Pell, former archbishop of Sydney, was criticized for appearing with Ridsdale at his first trial in 1993 (Ridsdale was eventually convicted of more than one hundred counts of assault). The cardinal has a “catalogue of denials…a catalogue of denigrating people, of acting with callousness,” according to Peter Saunders, selected by Francis to serve on the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors. Saunders explained that he based his judgments on conversations with Australian victims. The cardinal’s position as prefect of the Secretariat for the Economy—the office created by Francis to oversee the Vatican’s finances—is “untenable,” Saunders said. “I would go as far to say,” he continued, “that I consider him to be quite a dangerous individual.”

Responses from Pell and from the Vatican spokesman came quickly. Before the program had even aired (after the network released promotional material), Pell issued statements calling Saunders’s comments “false” and “outrageous”—and suggested he might take legal action. (Saunders defended his remarks on June 1, saying they were “not slanderous.”)  While acknowledging “the important work Mr. Saunders has done as a survivor of abuse to assist victims, including the establishment of a victims survivors group in the United Kingdom,” the cardinal suggested that Saunders had overstepped his role as a member of the pope’s sexual-abuse commission. The statutes of that body “make it clear that the Commission's role does not include commenting on individual cases,” according to Pell, “nor does the commission have the capacity to investigate individual cases.”

Fr. Federico Lombardi, spokesman for the Holy See, made the same point in his June 1 statement. But he went further, stating that Pell’s responses to the Australian government’s investigation of child abuse have “always” been careful and thorough. The cardinal’s recent statements about 60 Minutes “must be considered reliable and worthy of respect and attention,” according to Lombardi. No doubt the cardinal’s statements about his role in the scandal deserve both respect and attention, but have they always been reliable?

Read more

New stories on the website

We've posted two new stories to the homepage.

First, Robert Mickens reports in his weekly letter from Rome that Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle of Manila will replace Honduran Cardinal Óscar Rodríguez Maradiaga as president of Caritas Internationalis,"the church’s leading advocate of Catholic social teaching and human development in the international arena."

And, provoking “volcanic enthusiasm” from leading women in Rome, Pope Francis has been confronting historical gender bias and economic discrimination against women during his Wednesday audiences.

...what is sure to surprise some, [the pope] refused to blame the crisis of marriage on the women’s liberation movement, though he didn’t use those exact words. “Many people hold that the changes these past decades were put into motion by the emancipation of women. But this argument is not valid, either. It’s an insult!” he said, again to loud applause. “It’s a form of machismo, which always tries to dominate women.”

Read the entire "Letter from Rome" here

Second, the editors comment on the pope’s ousting of Bishop Robert Finn of Kansas City-St. Joseph, who was convicted of failing to report child abuse in 2012 and how it might mean that the era of “tolerating bishops who fail to protect the most vulnerable under their care has come to an end. This pope will hold them to account.” Some have criticized Francis for taking too long to remove Finn, but:

Francis is running a church with five thousand bishops. In order to educate himself about the controversy in Kansas City, a diocese of about 133,000 in a country he’s never visited, Francis initiated an investigation last September. He allowed that process to run its course, despite increasingly strenuous calls to sack Finn. The pope’s favored methods of listening and deliberation—most evident in the Synod on the Family—are themselves instruments of justice.

Read the entire editorial, “Held to Account,” here.

Pope Francis removes Bishop Finn.

In a one-sentence bulletin released this morning, the Vatican announced that Bishop Robert Finn of Kansas City-St. Joseph, who was convicted of failing to report child abuse in 2012, has resigned. Pope Francis accepted Finn's resignation "in conformity with canon 401, paragraph 2"--the statute that covers bishops who cannot fulfill their duties because of poor health or "other grave reasons." News of the resignation follows months of speculation, which had intensified over the past week, that Pope Francis was poised to remove Finn. In September 2014, the National Catholic Reporter revealed that a Canadian bishop had been sent by the Holy See to Kansas City to investigate Finn. Just last November, Cardinal Seán O'Malley of Boston, president of the pope's new commission on child protection, told 60 Minutes that the Holy See had to "address urgently" the case of Robert Finn. Less than six months later, Pope Francis has done just that.

What might it mean?

1. Yes, Pope Francis is serious about accountability for bishops. Pope Francis's early comments on the sexual-abuse scandal were hardly encouraging. But before long he sent a message to the world's bishops asking them to get behind his new commission for the protection of minors. Over the past year, some members of that commission have suggested that they would walk if they didn't see accountability for bishops who enabled abusers. They had seen the pope move against the so-called Bishop of Bling for financial mismanagement. They knew that he had ousted Bishop Livieres in Paraguay, but the Holy See's statements about that decision curiously avoided acknowledging that it had anything to do with the fact that Livieres had promoted a priest long accused of sexual misconduct. More recently, two members of the pope's child-protection commission openly criticized his decision to appoint Chilean Bishop Juan Barros to a new diocese, despite allegations that he had covered up--and  witnessed--acts of abuse committed by his mentor. Just yesterday, one of those commission members, Marie Collins, told Crux that the pope was considering a proposal on bishop accountability. She even name-checked Finn: "I cannot understand how Bishop Finn is still in position, when anyone else with a conviction that he has could not run a Sunday school in a parish." That won't be a problem anymore.

Read more

Rock, Pope Francis, hard place.

"It's an outrage," Peter Saunders told the National Catholic Reporter, that Pope Francis appointed Juan Barros--a man accused of covering up and witnessing a priest's acts of sexual abuse--bishop of Osorno, Chile. (Barros denies both allegations.) "That man should be removed as a bishop because he has a very, very dubious history--corroborated by more than one person," according to Saunders, a member of the pope's new Commission for the Protection of Minors, and a clergy-abuse victim. Saunders went so far as to say that he would consider resigning if he doesn't get an explanation. He wasn't the only commission member who was shocked by the pope's decision. "As a survivor, I'm very surprised at the appointment in Chile because it seems to go against...what the Holy Father has been saying about not wanting anyone in positions of trust in the church who don't have an absolutely 100 percent record of child protection," said Marie Collins. On March 31 the Holy See announced that the Congregation for Bishops had found no "objective reasons to preclude the appointment."

That did not sit well with Saunders, Collins, and two other members of the commission (there are seventeen in total). So they flew to Rome last weekend for an unscheduled meeting with Cardinal Sean O'Malley, president of the body. What a difference a day makes. "The meeting went very well and the cardinal is going to take our concerns to the Holy Father," Collins told NCR on Sunday. The group issued a brief statement explaining that while they are not charged with investigating individual cases, "The process of appointing bishops who are committed to, and have an understanding of child protection is of paramount importance." The statement continued: "In the light of the fact that sexual abuse is so common, the ability of a bishop to enact effective policies, and to carefully monitor compliance is essential. Cardinal O'Malley agreed to present the concerns of the subcommittee to the Holy Father." That's quite a bit different from decrying the appointment as an outrage. Did Cardinal O'Malley bring them back from the brink simply by listening? What's going to happen after he shares their concerns with Pope Francis?

Tough to say. It's not as though the pope is left with any good options. Leave Barros in, watch the Diocese of Osorno burn, and risk blowing up the sex-abuse commission. Remove him and earn the ire of the world's bishops for giving in to the mob. (I wouldn't downplay that worry; it would be widely viewed as a dangerous precedent.) Should the appointment have been made in the first place? I don't think so. But it's been made. And now that the Congregation for Bishops has announced that there is no objective reason not to have appointed Barros, the pope's hands are pretty well tied. Do commission members appreciate that bind? I hope so. Because this already confounding case won't be clarified any time soon. This may not be the hill they want to die on.

In Chile decision, Pope Francis risks reputation as reformer.

CNS photo/Carlos Gutierrez, Reuters

Episcopal installation Masses don’t usually involve teeming protesters, shouting matches, and popping balloons. But Juan de la Cruz Barros Madrid’s did. Last Saturday, Barros was installed as bishop of Osorno, Chile, following allegations that he covered up for a sexually abusive priest who had been his mentor. “Barros, get out of the city!” chanted the demonstrators, waving black balloons. The bishop’s supporters tried to drown them out, brandishing white balloons. Some demonstrators attempted to climb the cathedral altar. The service was cut short, and Barros was escorted by police through a side door. Chile’s cardinals, along with most of its bishops, were not in attendance. Familiar with recent history, they knew it was going to be an ugly scene.

Four years ago, the Holy See found Fr. Fernando Karadima guilty of molesting minors, and ordered him to a life of “prayer and penance.” The Karadima case has been called the worst scandal ever to befall the Chilean Catholic Church. Karadima, now eighty-four, was once one of Chile’s most influential clerics. He ministered to the wealthy, and had strong ties to Chile’s elite. He developed a devoted following, molding the church’s future leaders. Four of his protégées, including Barros, later became bishops. Now, several of Karadima’s victims—once his devotees—say that Barros not only knew about the decades-old accusations and did nothing, but that he witnessed the abuse himself. Barros denies all of it, and refuses to resign.

After Barros’s appointment was announced in January, about thirteen hundred Chilean laypeople, including dozens of lawmakers, signed a petition seeking Barros’s removal. More than thirty clerics signed a letter asking the pope to reconsider his decision. Two Chilean bishops reportedly met with Francis to brief him on how difficult this has been for the local church. “The pope told me he had analyzed the situation in detail and found no reason” to remove Barros, the archbishop of Concepción, Fernando Chomalí, told the New York Times. Just before Barros’s installation service, the papal envoy to Chile announced that the bishop had his “confidence and support.”

Some had hoped that pressure brought by members of the pope’s new sexual-abuse commission—several of whom recently expressed grave reservations about the appointment—might persuade Francis to act, or Barros to resign. After all, just last month the pope said that “everything possible must be done to rid the church of the scourge of the sexual abuse of minors and to open pathways of reconciliation and healing for those who were abused.” He even seemed to chide bishops who had used the excuse of not giving scandal to avoid addressing the issue. But yesterday the Holy See released a terse, curiously worded statement responding to the growing controversy: “Prior to the recent appointment of His Excellency Msgr. Juan de la Cruz Barros Madrid as bishop of Osorno, Chile, the Congregation for Bishops carefully examined the prelate’s candidature and did not find objective reasons to preclude the appointment.” If this is Rome’s last word on Barros, then Francis should know that his decision has imperiled not only the Diocese of Osorno, but also his own reputation as a reformer.

Read more

"Come down from the cross"

In December, I wrote a post here at dotCommonweal about how Pope Francis's leadership is having an impact on the bishops of Spain. The sex abuse scandal in Granada is one of the instances in which Pope Francis's personal initiative has made a difference. The story continues today with an update in the New York Times.

As you may recall, one of the remarkable features of the case was that the Pope himself contacted the victim, identified at the time only by the name of "Daniel," and followed up with him.

Read more

Vatican presser on sexual-abuse commission.

Days after Pope Francis instructed the world's bishops to cooperate with the commission on sexual abuse he established last year, the seventeen-member group met for the first time in Rome. During a press conference at the Vatican this morning, Cardinal Sean O'Malley of Boston, president of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, spoke about the commission's work, which will include promoting education about child safety, suggesting best practices to dioceses, and developing methods for measuring compliance with those norms. The commission is "very concerned" with the question of accountability for bishops who fail to protect the vulnerable, O'Malley said, and would recommend consequences in time. He stopped short of suggesting what those consequences might be, but said that there must be a way of dealing with such cases "not in an open-ended way."

The commission is working on educational programs for church leaders--including seminars for members of the Roman Curia and for newly appointed bishops who visit Rome for episcopal orientation, according to O'Malley. The cardinal also said he is asking every bishops conference to name a person who will serve as a liason between the commission and the local church. In 2011, the Vatican asked dioceses to turn in their child-protection norms. At this point, about 96 percent of dioceses have complied, O'Malley said. The commission will be in touch with the rest. Very few dioceses have not yet developed such norms, according to the cardinal. But more than a few have guidelines that are too "weak."

Read more

Pope to world's bishops: Get behind my sexual-abuse commission.

Today the Holy See released Pope Francis's February 2 letter to the world's bishops conferences and religious communities asking for their "complete cooperation" with the sexual-abuse commission he established last March. The commission's job, the pope explains, "to improve the norms and procedures for protecting children and vulnerable adults," which--everyone knows--haven't been working out so well.

In his letter Pope Francis related his own experience meeting with abuse victims. "I was deeply moved by their witness to the depth of their sufferings and the strength of their faith," he wrote. "This experience reaffirmed my conviction that everything possible must be done to rid the Church of the scourge of the sexual abuse of minors and to open pathways of reconciliation and healing for those who were abused." Pastors and those in charge of religious communities, the pope wrote, "should be available" to meet with victims and their loved ones. "Such meetings are valuable opportunities for listening to those have greatly suffered and for asking their forgiveness."

Because families must feel confident that the church is doing all its can to protect the vulnerable from predator priests, Francis continued, "priority must not be given to any other kind of concern, whatever its nature, such as the desire to avoid scandal." To that end, the pope urges local bishops conferences to "fully implement" the sensible 2011 letter from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith recommending a series of abuse-response procedures. Francis also recommends that dioceses periodically review their policies--and make sure they are being followed.

That a pope has established a commission to determine the best ways to respond to allegations of clerical sexual abuse is all to the good. Francis recognizes what the Roman Curia and previous popes took far too long to grasp: the sexual-abuse scandal is a global phenomenon that requires decisive action at the highest levels of the church. Local bishops conferences will certainly benefit from the commission's policy recommendations. But it's 2015. Figuring out how dioceses should respond to abuse accusations requires careful attention, but it isn't rocket science.

The more difficult problem is what to do with bishops who--through acts of commission or omission--endanger the vulnerable under their care. Cardinal Sean O'Malley of Boston, who is in charge of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, says this is one of the problems the abuse commission is "urgently" exploring. We'll see just how urgently soon enough. According to Pope Francis, they meet in just a few days.

An interview with Archbishop Blase Cupich.

A few days before Christmas, I interviewed Blase Cupich, who was recently installed as Chicago's ninth archbishop. We spoke about the Synod on the Family, immigration, the sexual-abuse scandal, the bishops conference, and more. Here are some excerpts from our conversation:

GG: As you mentioned, the pope speaks often about the need to foster a culture of encounter and accompaniment. This seems key to his idea of church—a church that goes out of itself and should not fear the discomfort that entails. How is that approach changing the temperament of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops?

BC: Institutions are constitutionally prone to protecting themselves, and being conservative in that sense. There are any number of forces in our society today that erode institutional life. We can’t be naïve about that. There are those who would like to truncate the freedom of religion—especially of the Catholic Church, given its footprint in society. At the same time, we can’t let that drive our agenda. That’s what the business of “Be not afraid,” which John Paul II said, is about. We have to be mission-oriented.

In the readings for the Feast of the Assumption, Mary goes off to the hill country to visit Elizabeth, and the image that one comes away with is that this dragon—mentioned in the first reading from Revelation—is chasing Mary. But Mary is not directed by the dragon’s pursuit. In the Gospel we hear that she is directed by her desire to help Elizabeth. The church has to use that image of itself. The trajectory of our pilgrimage is not going to be determined by an escape from forces that are out to harm us. It has to be a trajectory that is determined by helping people. That’s why the pope said we can’t be a self-referential church.

GG: The ethic of accompaniment seems to have guided the pope’s design of the recent Extraordinary Synod on the Family. Some bishops expressed some confusion about that meeting—whether it was over the media’s coverage of the synod, or what actually took place.

BC: The media is not to blame at all. I think the media reported what actually took place. What really took place at the synod was that a majority of the bishops voted for all the proposals that were there in the final summary document. And I think Cardinal Timothy Dolan said that at the November bishops meeting. It’s true that three of the paragraphs [about divorce and gay people] did not get two-thirds majority support, but they got more than a majority. That’s what’s new. That’s the story. Those hot-button topics had been highlighted, and the majority of synod bishops voted for proposals that said we need to consider aspects of these issues.

The pope has a firm belief that the spirit of the risen Lord is working in our midst and is alive in the hearts of people—and we cannot squelch that voice. We have to look for ways to listen to how the Lord is working in the lives of people. That’s why the pope said to the synod fathers, “Don’t come to the synod and say ‘You can’t say that’”—because it may be the spirit of Christ who is calling us to say these things. And we have to listen to that.

Read the rest right here.

Indian priest in Florida accused of obscenity involving a minor.

Last week in Palm Beach, Florida, a Francisican priest from India was arrested for allegedly showing child pornography to a minor. The cleric, Fr. Jose Palimattom, who admitted to police that after Mass one Sunday he had a fourteen-year-old boy delete pornographic images of children from the priest's phone. Palimattom also revealed that back in India his superiors reprimanded him for becoming involved with a minor--but that the incident was not reported to law enforcement. Palimattom's province denies knowing about any such relationship. The Diocese of Palm Beach was told by Palimattom's superior in India that he was a priest in good standing--and that background checks "revealed no prior misconduct," according to a diocesan statement.

On the morning of January 4, Palimattom sent a Facebook message to the boy asking for his assistance with his phone, according to the arrest report. After Mass, Palimattom and the minor walked out the front doors of the church, where the priest handed over his device and told the boy he was having trouble getting rid of some images. What the teenager saw shocked him: about forty thumbnail images of fully exposed preteen boys including the words "little boys" and "young boys 10-18." Yet the boy didn't let on that he was scandalized by the photographs. Later he informed the parish music director, followed by his parents, who immediately phoned the police. Later that night, the boy received a Facebook message from the priest: "Goodnight, sweet dreams." He was arrested the next day.

Read more

The Curious Case of Carlos Urrutigoity (VIII)

This is the conclusion of a series of posts on the Urrutigoity case. Read the first part here, the second here, the third here, the fourth here, the fifth here, the sixth here, and the seventh here.

“I want to assure everyone,” Bishop Rogelio Ricardo Livieres Plano wrote in 2008, “that I have never hidden or protected anyone convicted of any crime.” The bishop was attempting to quell the outcry of Catholics in Ciudad del Este, Paraguay, over his decision to invite an accused priest and his followers—the Society of St. John—to establish themselves in his diocese. “My track record in these cases is very clear,” Livieres continued. “Just as I have not hesitated to convict the guilty, neither will I punish an innocent victim of slander.” The victim, according to Livieres, was Fr. Carlos Urrutigoity, an Argentine native who has been followed by allegations of sexual misconduct across three countries over three decades.

That troubling history, readily available to anyone with an internet connection, made it difficult for many Ciudad del Este Catholics to take their bishop at his word. So in 2009 they mounted a campaign against him, enlisting the support of other Paraguayan bishops and priests, who took the case to Pope Benedict XVI. But, unbeknownst to them, Livieres claimed to have the support of Benedict—in part because of their shared fondness for the Latin Mass. Livieres’s critics would not receive a satisfying response to their complaints until Benedict retired—and Pope Francis was elected.

Livieres was installed as bishop of Ciudad del Este in 2004. Before he even arrived, Livieres—a member of the conservative Catholic group Opus Dei—caused consternation among the bishops, priests, and laypeople of Paraguay. The bishops were surprised by John Paul II’s decision to appoint Livieres because his name was not on the terna—the list of three names recommended by the local bishops conference. Soon after Livieres took over in Ciudad del Este, more than one hundred fifty clerics wrote to Pope Benedict XVI to protest the bishop’s “renewal of church discipline” and “new pastoral guidelines,” as Livieres would later put it. But Benedict did not respond, according to an account Livieres wrote in 2014. Instead, Benedict told him to “form a new clergy,” according to the bishop. He took that advice, and established his own seminary. That failed to go over with other bishops, who wanted to know what was wrong with the main seminary in Asunción.

Livieres also clashed with his fellow bishops over the candidacy of former bishop Fernando Armindo Lugo Méndez, who ran for president of Paraguay in 2008—and won. Lugo had ties to the liberation-theology movement, which Livieres long opposed. But Livieres also criticized Lugo for fathering children before he left the episcopate—and his brother bishops for remaining “silent” about it. During a radio interview, the archbishop of Asunción, Pastor Cuquejo Verga, publicly called for the Vatican to investigate Livieres. In a follow-up interview, Livieres rebuffed Cuquejo’s suggestion, and called him a homosexual.

Read more

The Curious Case of Carlos Urrutigoity (VII)

This is the seventh in a series of posts on the Urrutigoity case. Read the first part here, the second here, the third here, the fourth here, the fifth here, and the sixth here.

In November 2003, Joseph Martino attended his first meeting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops after succeeding James Timlin as bishop of Scranton, Pennsylvania. During the weeks following his October 1 installation Mass, Martino had been briefed on the scandal Timlin brought to the diocese in 1997 when he allowed the Society of St. John, a band of traditionalist clerics looking for a home, to set up shop in Scranton. As Martino walked down the aisle of the USCCB convention hall, flanked by nearly all the nation’s bishops, he turned to his auxiliary bishop, John Dougherty, and said, “I think we need to suppress that group.”

But Dougherty wasn’t convinced. Canonically suppressing the Society of St. John, he worried, might put Martino “in the position of attempting to undo an administrative act of his predecessor,” he wrote to a canon lawyer in early 2003. The “administrative act” Dougherty had in mind was Bishop Timlin’s decision to approve the Society of St. John as a “public association of the faithful,” which afforded the group certain rights under canon law—including the right to appeal to the Vatican.  

Timlin’s “Decree of the Erection of the Society of St. John” was issued just a year after he met the group, then led by Fr. Carlos Urrutigoity—a native of Argentina. In the spring of 1997, Urrutigoity and his followers were ousted from the Society of St. Pius X—a schismatic organization that rejects the reforms of Vatican II—after it was discovered that they planned to establish a more spiritually rigorous group within the SSPX. Urrutigoity convinced Bishop Timlin that SSJ priests and deacons wanted to return to the Catholic Church in order to promote the old Latin Mass. Timlin was known as a friend to those who preferred the pre-Vatican II liturgy. Urrutigoity claimed that his fondest hope was to establish a seminary, a liberal-arts college, and a Catholic village. None of that would come to pass, as the Society’s efforts became mired in allegations of financial and sexual misfeasance.

Without running background checks on SSJ members, Bishop Timlin secured their reconciliation with Rome and made them priests of the Diocese of Scranton. But a year later, in 1999, Timlin learned that Urrutigoity had been accused of fondling a seminarian before arriving in Scranton. Urrutigoity denied the allegation. Even though three diocesan investigators told the bishop they found the accusation “credible,” Timlin did not sanction Urrutigoity. Later, when Society members were accused of sharing their beds with, and providing alcohol to, high-school boys, Urrutigoity promised that nothing immoral had transpired. Timlin just told SSJ members to stop such practices. The bishop did not discipline any SSJs until 2002, when a federal lawsuit alleged that Fr. Eric Ensey, a member of the Society of St. John, had sexually assaulted the plaintiff—and that Urrutigoity had fondled the young man while he slept. Timlin suspended the priests. Both of them denied the accusations under oath, and the lawsuit settled in 2005 for nearly half a million dollars. (Ensey, Urrutigoity, and Timlin could not be reached for comment.)

The canonical cover Timlin helped to provide for the Society of St. John would make it difficult for his successor to discipline the group. Adding to that difficulty was a letter of support for the SSJ that Timlin wrote in 2007, which found its way to the Vatican. Timlin’s efforts on behalf of the SSJs may have helped pave the way for their reappearance after Martino finally suppressed them in 2004. Ten years after Martino issued that decree, Urrutigoity would be named second in command of the Diocese of Ciudad del Este in Paraguay. Last September, amid public outcry over the promotion of Urrutigoity, Pope Francis removed Bishop Rogelio Ricardo Livieres Plano, the man who reestablished the SSJ in South America, where several members still reside.

Read more

The Curious Case of Carlos Urrutigoity (VI)

This is the sixth in a series of posts on the Urrutigoity case. Read the first part here, the second here, the third here, the fourth here, and the fifth here.

The day after Fr. Eric Ensey first sexually assaulted him, John Doe testified, he asked to sleep on the couch. The two were staying with Ensey’s parents in California so that John could visit Thomas Aquinas College. He was considering of attending TAC after graduating from St. Gregory’s Academy in Pennsylvania, where he had met Ensey. It was the fall of 1998. “I remember thinking that I would like to [sleep on the couch],” John would later testify as part of a federal lawsuit alleging that Ensey and Fr. Carlos Urrutigoity had molested him. Yet he was worried that asking to move from Ensey’s bedroom, where the two had spent the previous night, to the sofa “might give some sort of bad connotation.” John thought Ensey’s parents might wonder whether “something had happened, and that was the one thing that I did not want to admit.”

John was upset about what had happened at Ensey’s parents. He would later allege that the priest had sexually assaulted him while he was passed out drunk on four occasions during that trip to California. But John “was trying to put it out of my mind.” At the same time, he found it hard to believe that Fr. Ensey “could do something wrong.” By trying to banish those memories, John was able to continue spending time with Ensey when they returned to St. Gregory’s Academy. After resuming his late-night meetings with Ensey, John faced more mockery from classmates. “They made fun of me for spending time with Fr. Ensey,” John recalled, even though it was “very widely known among the students that a good portion of the students drank with Society members.” On one occasion, John returned to his dorm room well after lights out. As he was about to slip into bed, he noticed that someone had spat mucus all over his pillow. “So I didn’t really feel accepted.”

Ensey provided solace. “He made it a point to discuss how friendship should be kept between one or two [people]…and how he was a true friend and no one else was.” By this point, Ensey seemed to be “the only one who understood me...the only one I bothered to invest time in,” John testified. So he continued to participate in Ensey’s brand of alcohol-assisted spiritual direction. On several occasions between the time they returned from California and the time John graduated, Ensey fondled him, according to John’s testimony. (Under oath, Ensey denied assaulting or groping John; efforts to reach him were unsuccessful.)

Yet John still hadn’t told anyone, and he continued spending time with Ensey. That did not mean he was comfortable with the situation. Rather, Ensey had continued to insist that because John was “raised American” he had “Puritanical instincts concerning male friendship,” according to John. Ensey repeated his view “that it was natural for men to sleep in the same bed…[and] to cuddle.” The “Puritanical” aspects of American culture were something Fr. Carlos Urrutigoity was known to complain about, according to other witnesses.

But by the second semester of John’s junior year, Ensey warned John to be more careful about their visits. That was when Ensey “informed me that Mr. Hicks, the headmaster, didn’t want boys going over and having…spiritual direction or counseling meetings [with Society of St. John priests] after Compline,” according to John. That didn’t mean the two couldn’t see one another anymore. “He [Ensey] said it was fine,” John testified. The cleric just wanted John “to stay quiet about it.” Later, John recalled, Ensey woke him early one morning to tell him “to go back to my room before anyone realized I was gone.” John complied, as he had before and would again, right up through Graduation Day.

Read more

The Curious Case of Carlos Urrutigoity (V)

This is the fifth in a series of posts on the Urrutigoity case. Read the first part here, the second here, the third here, and the fourth here.

John Doe had had enough. Enough see-sawing between career paths. Enough retail work. Enough physical labor. Enough aches from such work. Enough pain pills. Enough drinking. Enough wanting to die. Enough denial. He had had enough. So he went through detox, received therapy following his suicide attempts. And now that his head was clear, he was ready to talk.

The first person John told he had been sexually assaulted by priests was his girlfriend, according to his sworn testimony. The second person he told was a friend. Following his suicide attempts, John disclosed the allegations to his counselors. And in late 2001, a few months after he left recovery—before he talked to his parents—John told another person he’d been molested by clerics: Jeffrey Bond. He may have been shocked by John’s claims, but it’s unlikely that he was surprised.

In April 2000, Bond had been hired by Fr. Carlos Urrutigoity to establish the College of St. Justin Martyr. Three years earlier, Urrutigoity—originally from Argentina—approached Bishop James Timlin of Scranton, Pennsylvania, to see about setting up a community of clerics devoted to restoring liturgical traditionalism to the Catholic Church. In addition to the college, Urrutigoity told Timlin, now retired, that he hoped to build a seminary and an entire town for traditionalist Catholics. Urrutigoity and his associates, who would call themselves the Society of St. John, had come calling because they had just been ousted from the schismatic Society of St. Pius X—which rejects the reforms of Vatican II. Leaders of the SSPX were not happy about Urrutigoity’s plan to organize a new, more spiritually rigorous group within SSPX. Bishop Bernard Fellay, head of the SSPX, was also concerned about Urrutigoity’s “strange, abnormal” influence over seminarians and other priests, according to a letter he later sent Timlin.

Misconduct allegations would follow Urrutigoity from Argentina to the United States, and eventually to Paraguay, where as early as 2012 he would be promoted to vicar general by the bishop of Ciudad del Este, Rogelio Ricardo Livieres Plano. Pope Francis removed Livieres last September.

In Bishop Timlin, long fond of the Latin Mass, Urrutigoity found a sympathetic ear. He told the bishop that his group wanted to return to the Roman Catholic fold. Timlin forwarded their request to the Vatican. After it was promptly approved, the SSJs were allowed to reside at St. Gregory’s Academy, a Catholic boarding school for boys run by the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter, a traditionalist group that exclusively celebrates the Latin Mass but remains in full communion with Rome. Urrutigoity would later testify that the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter had invited his group to St. Gregory's. It would be a temporary arrangement, until the SSJs moved to property they would purchase in Shohola, Pennsylvania, in late 1999. But in the meantime, St. Gregory’s got new chaplains and religion teachers; the SSJs got a home base from which to plan their Catholic college, seminary, and village; and Bishop Timlin got another group of priests who were devoted to the Latin Mass. Timlin didn’t realize it at the time, but by allowing the SSJs to establish themselves in Scranton he had invited the greatest scandal his diocese had ever known.

Read more