Wednesday 20 March 2019

For the Vatican, the enemy is within

The wave of clerical sex abuse allegations casts an increasing shadow over Pope Francis's Irish visit - and his pontificate, writes Paddy Agnew

"If you want to be charitable, you would say Francis is out of his comfort zone when it comes to clerical child abuse. If you want to be critical, you would conclude that, even now, he simply does not ‘get it’."

Paddy Agnew

Was last week the week when the Holy See's handling of the global clerical sex abuse crisis moved from being one of "zero tolerance" to one of "zero credibility"?

As Pope Francis prepares to visit Ireland next weekend, does the current global storm of clerical sex abuse allegations cast a heavy shadow not only over next weekend's visit but, arguably, over the entire Francis pontificate?

By now, anyone who follows the news will have understood that, in the last month or so, from Australia to Chile, from Honduras to Pennsylvania and from Kerala, India to North Yorkshire and Somerset, a global forest fire of Catholic clerical sex abuse has been raging.

At the end of a dramatic week, let me tell you two stories from Rome.

The first concerns Don Gianni Trotta, an Italian priest laicised by the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF, ex Holy Office) in 2012 for sex abuse crimes. It seems that Don Gianni was not "signalled" by the CDF or any other Vatican departments to civic authorities following his removal from the priesthood.

In the absence of any black mark against him, he was allowed to take over the training of an under-11 boys football team in the province of Foggia in Puglia, southern Italy, with disastrous results. Last May, a Foggia court sentenced Don Gianni to an 18-year prison term for the abuse of 10 boys between the ages of 11 and 13, all abused following his laicisation.

The point about Don Gianni is that the CDF document formalising his laicisation was signed by two men - the US Cardinal Joseph Levada, then Prefect of the CDF (the Vatican body that oversees child sex abuse investigations), and his number two, Spanish Jesuit, Francisco Ladaria Ferrer.

Appointed Prefect (Head) of the CDF in July of last year, Ladaria two months ago was made a Cardinal by Pope Francis.

Curious to know what he made of the Don Gianni story, I asked him about it in the week that he was being made Cardinal. For example, I pointed out that, according to the Italian Bishops Conference, Italian bishops have no obligation under Italian law to report a canon law conviction to the police or other civil authorities. Was it not time to change this norm? Had Don Gianni been signalled, 10 children could have been saved from horrific abuse, no?

Cardinal Ladaria's answer was hardly convincing:

"But I don't know exactly the [legal] article in question... I don't know exactly what this article says because I am not an expert in relations between Italy and the Holy See..."

In the March 2012 document which laicised Don Gianni, it states that "the reasons" for his "discharge" should not be revealed in order "to avoid scandal".

Sounds familiar.

Curiously, too, Cardinal Ladaria has been summoned to appear in court in Lyon next January by victims of Father Bernard Preynat, a priest who has admitted to abusing scouts 25 years ago.

The victims argue that Cardinal Ladaria, in his number two role at the CDF, advised the Archbishop of Lyon in a letter to avoid "public scandal". This letter is part of court documents in the case. The victims also claim that various priests were aware of past crimes by the abuser priest but had not signalled them to civic authorities.

Two thoughts strike one. First, this is the behaviour of the man who heads the Holy Office, charged with dealing with all cases of clerical child abuse. How come the Italian church is exempt from mandatory reporting? Who is, ultimately, in charge of the Italian church? The Bishop of Rome, one would suggest.

My second story concerns the past, and the controversial figure of US Cardinal Bernard Law, the man whose cover-up of systematic sex abuse in the Boston diocese prompted a US sex abuse emergency in 2002.

Law, of course, lived for fully 15 years in the Vatican after he had to abandon Boston in rather a hurry in December 2002.

Once in Rome, he was appointed High Priest of the Basilica of Mary Major. Your correspondent often came across Law in Rome. At the Irish College, the Canadian Embassy and the Irish Embassy, he was a regular guest of honour at the "high table", saying grace before dinner or making a little speech after it.

He was perceived by Catholics worldwide as a pariah. Yet, in Rome, he held his head high. I always had the sensation that the Holy See community secretly felt that he had been hard done by and that he was entitled to an "apostolic rehabilitation". Certainly, there was no sign of him walking around in sackcloth and ashes.

On the contrary, he sat on many Dicastery boards, including crucially the Congregation of Bishops, the body that makes church appointments. Did he use his position to influence the appointment of bishops who would prove as zealous as he had been when it came to covering up clerical sex abuse?

To some extent, that treatment of Law and the CDF's non-reporting of Don Gianni are just part of the "company culture".

So why be surprised by tales of cover-up throughout the universal church?

In the last month, we have had reports of nuns being abused by priests in their convents in Chile and India, of seminarians abused in Chile, of 1,000 victims of abuse in Pennsylvania, of sadistic abuse of young boys at the Benedictine English public schools of Ampleforth and Downside, of sexual harassment in the seminary of Tegucigalpa, Honduras, allegedly by Bishop Juan Jose Pineda, deputy to one of Francis' closest advisors, Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga.

There is a depressing, recurring, common thread that runs through all these accounts - namely Bishop Accountability, or rather the lack of same.

Not only is clerical sex abuse still ongoing in many places but so too is bishop cover-up. Last Tuesday's Pennsylvania grand jury report, outlining that the priests used "whips, violence and sadism in raping their victims" is utterly disturbing. Equally disturbing, however is this comment from Pennsylvania State Attorney, Josh Shapiro: "...Petitioners and for a time, some of the dioceses sought to prevent the entire report from ever seeing the light of day. In effect, they wanted to cover up the cover-up. They sought to do the same thing that senior church leaders in the dioceses we investigated have done for decades, bury the sexual abuse by priests of children and cover it up forever."

Last week's UK Independent Enquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) concluded that the schools "prioritised the monks and their own reputations over the protection of children… in order to avoid scandal".

Furthermore, it claims that the monks had outdated beliefs about paedophilia, while they felt so untouchable that one former headmaster at Downside in July 2012 "made several trips with a wheelbarrow with files to the edge of the estate and made a bonfire of them". The report also concludes that neither school has formally established a comprehensive redress system while no public apology has been made to victims.

Be it Chile or Downside, Honduras or Pennsylvania, Catholic Church institutions still have to be dragged, kicking and screaming, and usually by a state or semi-state authority into confronting the full horror of child sex abuse. Last month, Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull called on the Pope to sack Archbishop Philip Wilson, found guilty of a cover-up. In 2015, half of Chile's parliament urged the Pope not to appoint Bishop Juan Barros.

And there's the rub. We have been here before. After the Ryan, Ferns and Murphy reports in Ireland, after a Nolan report in England, after the summoning of the US bishops to Rome in 2002 and the summoning of the Irish bishops to Rome in 2010, Catholics might have thought that the Holy See had, if not resolved some major problems, well at least gone some long way down the road to resolving them.

And yet, here we are in 2018 with another delegation of sheepish bishops, this time from Chile, back in Rome to have their knuckles sharply rapped.

So the Catholic Church has learned nothing. Or is it that the Main Man, the Holy Father himself, has been a slow learner?

Writing on these pages last week, I suggested that by his age and by his formation, Francis would always have been someone who would find it difficult to fathom the horrors of the clerical sex abuse phenomenon.

As pontiff, his track record on sex abuse is not convincing. On the one hand, he instigated the Pontifical Council for the Protection of Minors (PCPM), taking the bold step of drafting in expert lay survivors such as Irishwoman Marie Collins and Englishman Peter Saunders. On the other hand, the PCPM has increasingly looked like a well-intentioned but toothless talking shop.

Perhaps, if we look back at the Pope's record in Argentina, we would not be so surprised by his failure on sex abuse. After all, this is the Pope who in a book called On Heaven and Earth, published in 2010, told Argentine rabbi Abraham Skorka that the clerical sex abuse problem did not exist in his archdiocese, saying: "In my diocese it never happened to me..."

No clerical sex abuse in the 15 million strong megalopolis of Buenos Aires? Give us a break.

In the first year of the Francis pontificate, we regularly read stories of Argentine abuse victims who claimed that they had never received an audience from the then Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio. One survivor, Sebastian Cuattromo, told Global Post in 2014 that the current Pope simply did not take clerical sex abuse seriously.

The Bishop Accountability lobby has pointed out that at the time Francis was Archbishop of Buenos Aires (1998 to 2013), church officials in the US and Europe began to seriously tackle child sexual abuse by clergy. Not only were there Murphy reports galore, but both Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI made statements.

In all that time, Francis was silent on the issue - no documents, no names of accused priests, no policy for handling abuse, no apology to victims. How could it have been otherwise, it "never happened to me"?

Francis also failed to ensure that a proper child protection programme, as called for by the Vatican in 2011, was put in place. (It eventually was set up in 2015, two years after his election as Pope)

If you want to be charitable, you could say that Francis is simply out of his comfort zone when it comes to clerical child abuse. If you want to be critical, you would conclude that, even now, he simply does not "get it", as illustrated by this year's total mishandling of the Chilean crisis.

Someone more sure of the terrain might well have recognised the validity of the Chilean survivors' complaints long before Francis did. Rather, he famously told one Chilean Catholic on an iPad video recorded in St Peter's Square "not to be led by the nose by the leftists who have plotted this", in a reference to the campaign to have Bishop Barros removed.

Someone with a nose more finely attuned to the bad smell of sex abuse scandals might not have appointed three "controversial" Cardinals (Honduran Maradiaga, Chilean Errazuriz and Australian Pell) all currently embroiled in sex abuse allegations to his inner C9 "Privy Council".

Worse still, when Francis has been confronted with difficult clerical sex abuse issues, he has passed back to the goalkeeper...and in this case, the goalkeeper is always a clerical fellow. For all his obvious open-armed, all embracing pastoral approach, at the end of the day, he only trusts his priests and, as we know, some of them are not trustworthy.

Many years ago, when your correspondent walked into St Patrick's Augustinian Church in Rome for the annual St Patrick's Day Mass, the late Cardinal Des Connell, who was the chief celebrant at the Mass, noticed me from the vestry as I made my way into the church.

Turning to a priest beside him and pointing to me, he said: "The enemy is without..."

He was wrong, of course. Neither the media nor the "leftists" are the "enemy". Francis should understand that this particular enemy is very much "within".

Sunday Independent

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