Tuesday 26 March 2019

Paddy Agnew: 'Is Dan Brown writing the script at Vatican?'

Defrocked cardinals and the rape of nuns - what will the response of the Curia be, wonders Paddy Agnew

DISGRACED: Former US cardinal Theodore McCarrick who was defrocked by Pope Francis
yesterday over accusations he sexually abused minors 50 years ago. Picture: AFP/Getty
DISGRACED: Former US cardinal Theodore McCarrick who was defrocked by Pope Francis yesterday over accusations he sexually abused minors 50 years ago. Picture: AFP/Getty

Paddy Agnew

The only question to be asked around the Vatican this week is who is writing the script - Dan Brown or Robert Harris?

With a spectacularly ill-timed bulletin yesterday, the Holy See confirmed that the former Archbishop of Washington, Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, has been laicised or "defrocked", having found him guilty of "solicitation in the Sacrament of Confession" and of "sins against the Sixth Commandment with minors and with adults, with the aggravating factor of the abuse of power".

Cardinal McCarrick's laicisation was widely expected but its timing, on the eve of this week's unprecedented Vatican summit "On The Protection Of Minors" (this Thursday to Sunday), could see the implications of his case overshadow the entire summit. McCarrick is the highest profile Catholic figure to be defrocked in modern times.

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Once a powerful Church figure both in Rome and the US, Cardinal McCarrick had been accused not only of abusing a 17-year-old boy in the 1970s but also of systematically sexually harassing seminary students. Many reports last summer, when the McCarrick story broke, suggested that his sexual proclivities were an open secret in church circles.

It was alleged that Archbishop McCarrick invited seminarians to his Jersey shore beach house where, strangely, there were never enough beds. To solve that problem, one of the young seminarians would be invited to share a bed with the Archbishop.

Yesterday's Vatican announcement came 24 hours after another sex abuse "shock" hit the Holy See. On Friday, media reports claimed that the Papal Nuncio in France, Archbishop Luigi Ventura, is under investigation for sexual assault. The Paris deputy mayor Patrick Klugman confirmed to reporters that Archbishop Ventura is alleged to have inappropriately touched a junior male official during a ceremony last month at the Paris City Hall.

Interim Vatican spokesman Alessandro Gisotti told reporters that the Holy See had learned about the matter "via the media" and, for the time being, is "awaiting the outcome of the investigation".

Both these events ask an important question: what will the summit focus on?

We were assured just this week by summit moderator, former Papal spokesman Father Federico Lombardi, that this summit will be focused exclusively on clerical child abuse. Yet, the McCarrick case, the Doris Wagner case (reported in the Sunday Independent two weeks ago) and the seminary or convent cases that exploded in Argentina, Chile and Honduras (to name but some) last summer concerned "vulnerable adults".

Seminarians were sexually harassed and nuns were raped while both were taken advantage of by prelates abusing their power. Is it not ridiculous that this much hyped summit will now meet for three and a half days and not talk about the Church's "vulnerable adults", male and female, nun or seminarian?

On a separate front, Catholic Church teaching that the practise of homosexuality is a sin was strongly challenged last week by a new book In The Closet Of The Vatican, published to coincide with the summit. Written by gay French intellectual Frederic Martel, and based on four years of research, this book claims that 80pc of clerics working in the Holy See are gay - even if not sexually active. Publishers Bloomsbury claim the book provides a "startling account of corruption and hypocrisy at the heart of the Vatican".

As it stands, it looks like this summit will be a sort of course in global sex abuse, a refresher course for some and a learning experience for others.

For the record, this meeting will comprise about 150 delegates, including the presidents of 100-plus local Bishops' Conferences, a number of Curia Cardinals, heads of religious orders, with in all 10 women delegates. The conference will work around three themes - responsibility, accountability and transparency. Pope Francis will attend every day and will close proceedings with a final statement next weekend.

Even on the issue of child abuse, one is tempted to question the format of the summit. Child abuse is the subject of Church, Free Yourself Of Evil, yet another new book released this week, dedicated to Irish abuse survivor and longtime lobbyist, Marie Collins and written by Vatican reporter Gian Franco Svidercoshi.

From an Irish viewpoint, the strange thing is that Marie Collins is one of two important Irish protagonists in the global clerical sex abuse debate who will not be in Rome this week. The other figure is the Archbishop of Dublin, Diarmuid Martin, a priest whose handling of the Irish Church's sex abuse crisis has earned him widespread respect and approval, from believers and non-believers alike.

The sad thing about the last 25 years of unremitting Irish Catholic Church sex abuse "scandals" is that the crisis has made Ireland a world leader when it comes to confronting and attempting to handle the clerical child abuse issue. Like it or not, Marie Collins and Diarmuid Martin are world experts on the subject.

At two separate summit press conferences in Rome this week, the Sunday Independent asked the organisers why the Holy See had not invited either Archbishop Martin (a driving factor behind the groundbreaking Murphy Report), or Marie Collins (who served for two years on the Vatican's Council For The Protection of Minors).

Fr Lombardi put it simply, saying that the Pope did not want to convene "a conference of experts", but rather the conference will be a "moment of synodality, a meeting with all the Bishops' Conferences worldwide". This will hardly reassure the survivor/victims lobby.

German Jesuit Hans Zollner, head of the organising committee, stressed that the Pope had been keen for the summit to have a particular focus on Africa and Asia. As for local church invitations, they were issued only to the presidents of the Bishops' Conferences (in Ireland's case, Archbishop of Armagh Eamon Martin).

However, if this is not an "experts' convention", what is it? One thing that is certain is that ever since Francis announced this event last September in the wake of the Argentine, Chilean, Australian and other scandals, it has generated huge expectations. So much so that even the Pope himself tried to play it down on the plane on the way back from Panama last month.

On that occasion, he stressed the educational aspect of the summit for his Bishops, saying: "We saw that some of the Bishops didn't understand (the problem) well or didn't know what to do. It is a human tragedy that we must be made aware of"

Such an event sounds much more like one which will review current rules and regulations rather than come up with radical new reforms.

As for "awareness", Marie Collins has already said that "You'd have to be living under a rock not to be aware of this by now, in any part of the world".

Both Lombardi and Zollner stress that this meeting is but one step on a long, long path. No one could reasonably expect the summit to come up with a splendid new reform/magic wand that will solve an ongoing, chronic crisis.

Yet, if it comes up with nothing, especially in the light of this weekend's events, it will look like just another session of Vatican hot air.

Why then did the Vatican dramatically intervene with the US Bishops Conference last November, asking them not to vote on their own sex abuse proposals, introduced in the wake of last summer's Pennsylvania Grand Jury report on Catholic Church sex abuse.

What, if anything, will the meeting conclude on "mandatory reporting" to state authorities or on the idea of a Bishop Accountability Tribunal?

Will they conclude that, as Marie Collins says: "Child abuse is child abuse, no matter what part of the world you are in...Cultural differences don't come into it, the church should have a consistent and universal policy on it, it shouldn't be weaker or stronger just because of 'cultural' differences..."

The delegations coming to Rome this week were asked to respond to a questionnaire on the abuse issue, answers which will contribute to the debate, while they were also encouraged to seek out the views of survivor/victims. Ninety per cent of Bishops' Conferences have reportedly responded even if one signficant Conference, that of the Italian church, reportedly could not "find the time" to consult with the survivors.

Incidentally, Irishman Cardinal Kevin Farrell, who served as an auxiliary Bishop under Cardinal McCarrick in Washington, was this week nominated as the new papal camerlengo. (In layman's terms, the "camerlengo" is the cardinal regent who "manages" the Holy See in the sede vacante period between the death of a Pope and the election of his successor.)

Farrell lived in a parish building with McCarrick for six years. He has always denied having any knowledge of accusations of sexual abuse or harassment against McCarrick.

So will this week's meeting achieve much? Marie Collins, for one, has her doubts, telling the Sunday Independent: "They - the Vatican figures - have the answers, they don't listen to anybody, don't learn and they have no real will to change."

Sunday Independent

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