Will the Vatican step up and hold bishops accountable?

Pope Francis greets journalists aboard the flight from Tel Aviv to Rome May 26. At right is Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, Vatican press spokesman. (CNS/Paul Haring)

Pope Francis greets journalists aboard the flight from Tel Aviv to Rome May 26. At right is Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, Vatican press spokesman. (CNS/Paul Haring)

by Jason Berry

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On the flight back to Rome May 26 after his visit to Israel, Pope Francis gave another impromptu press conference. Responding to a question on the clergy abuse crisis, he said, "At the moment there are three bishops under investigation: one has already been found guilty and we are now considering the penalty to be imposed. There are no privileges.”

The pope offered no names, but according to the transcript, added a sonic boom analogy: “A priest who does this betrays the body of the Lord. This is very serious. It is like a satanic Mass.”

Francis’s escalating rhetoric came three weeks after a United Nations Committee on Torture report, citing extensive international legal findings, was critical of the Holy See for bishops’ negligence in sheltering sexual predators. “States bear international responsibility for the acts and omissions of their officials and others acting in an official capacity or acting on behalf of the state," said the U.N. report issued May 23.    

“A zero tolerance approach must be adopted,” Francis said on the airplane. He announced he would meet with a group of abuse victims.

Nevertheless, in a sign of internal divisions over transparency, the Vatican, as of June 2, had yet to identify the three bishops.

And in the sign of an intransigent mindset within Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (whose founder, attorney Barbara Blaine provided voluminous legal research to the U.N.) Southern California SNAP leader Joelle Casteix dismissed the pope’s words as “more of what we’ve seen for decades — more gestures, promises, symbolism and public relations.”

“I would challenge anyone to point to a single tangible sign of progress that has emerged from any of these meetings," David Clohessy, SNAP executive director in St. Louis, said in response to the pope’s words.

In fact, Francis is a work-in-progress on the crisis that gathered over three decades in Western countries and has spread to Latin America. The pope is also in a supremely ironic position. In response to the U.N. committee, the Holy See said that it does not control far-flung bishops, only its diplomats and officials in the 108-acre Vatican city-state, an assertion baldly contradicted by church history. Cardinals in various countries have Vatican passports. Bishops report to the pope and Vatican offices.

The papacy is a religious monarchy with an antiquated justice system, riddled with de facto immunity for bishops and cardinals.

Five months after the conclave, Francis issued a motu proprio, a decree “of his own hand” to stiffen Vatican laws in several areas with sentences aligned with Italian law for crimes against children.

The law was announced July 11, the same month Francis defrocked a Peruvian bishop, Gabino Miranda Melgarejo, 53.

Miranda’s laicization barely made news outside Peru. Dennis Coday reported in NCR on Sept. 21, 2013 that Miranda was “quietly removed from office because of allegations of sexual abuse of minors.”

Five days later, Reuters in Lima reported that the church “kicked Miranda out of the clergy for suspected pedophilia,” with no specifics on Vatican procedure, instead focusing on a prosecutor’s complaint that the archdiocese had not provided requested information.

The pope reduced Miranda to the lay state barely two months after his May 24, 2013, resignation as auxiliary bishop of Ayacucho, Peru*.

 “(Layman) Gabino Miranda Melgarejo” is his status on the website Catholic-Hierarchy.org, which lists the chronology of appointments and standing for all bishops and cardinals.

Miranda’s final line, July 2013 [no day given], says: “Laicized.”

The prospects of a state investigation in Peru may have pushed Francis to oust Miranda. According to Caretas, a news magazine, Archbishop Salvador Pineiro of Ayachucho, president of the bishops’ conference, responded to a complaint from a 14-year old altar boy that Miranda accosted him in confession and “immediately opened a case against Miranda in strictest confidence and sent the file to the Vatican.”

Miranda himself sent a letter to Fr.  Luis Ladaria, secretary at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), requesting a leave of absence to reflect on “imprudence.” Panorama, a Peruvian TV program, obtained Miranda’s letter (which suggests leaks from the Peruvian church) and quoted it: “I do not know the crimes I am accused of. I do not know where those who accuse me come from, the jurisdiction and when the crimes were supposedly committed.”

The state prosecutor had a second complaint by a 15-year old boy, according to La Republica of Lima. No arrest has been reported.

In October, Pineiro said that the ousted bishop “did many good things, but if the Holy Father has taken this decision, it must be very serious business.”

Another bishop told reporters that the action against Miranda reflected Francis’s resolve on the church abuse crisis. That, in turn, bestirred Lima Archbishop Luis Cipriani, of Opus Dei, to fume in a weekly radio address: “Let’s not make firewood out of a fallen tree.”     

Miranda was the first member of the hierarchy subjected to criminal procedure under the new Vatican law. The three unnamed bishops Francis mentioned on the airplane appear to be next in line.

Francis’s decision about Miranda was more punitive than the only known case in which Pope Benedict XVI defrocked a bishop, now listed as “(Layman) Raymond John Lahey” on Catholic-Hierarchy.org.

Lahey resigned his post as prelate of Antigonish, Nova Scotia, in 2009 after authorities arrested him with child pornography as he returned to Canada from foreign travel. Lahey pleaded guilty to one count in May 2011, then voluntarily withdrew his bail which put him immediately behind bars. He spent six months in jail. At a hearing on Jan. 7, 2012, the court sentenced him to 15 months, but allowed probation based on time served.

Two months later, Benedict defrocked him. The date given is March 16, 2012, according to Catholic-Hierarchy.org.

Benedict laicized Lahey after his release from prison. Francis laicized Miranda after a church investigation, but no indictment.

 “Laicization of bishops is extremely rare,” said Fr. Tom Doyle, who worked in the Vatican embassy in Washington, D.C. in the early 1980s. Frustrated by the bishops’ concealment of predators, Doyle became an expert witness for victims suing the church.

 “This would be done directly by the pope after an investigation,” Doyle told NCR. “I remember discussing this issue with other canonists several years ago. Laicizing a bishop would not follow the ordinary process [for priests] that goes through Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith” — though Miranda sent his resignation to the CDF.

Under Pope John Paul II, bishops accused of child abuse “stepped down,” melting out of public view with their ecclesial rank. That tolerance tracks the theology of apostolic succession, which sees bishops in a spiritual lineage from Jesus’s apostles — bishops forever. By whitewashing the memory of Judas, apostolic succession provided a huge shield for negligent bishops, and cardinals like Bernard Law, who left Boston in a financial shambles when he resigned in 2002. In 2004, as his successor now-Cardinal Sean O’Malley began widespread church closures, Law went to Rome to become pastor of a great basilica.

In one of the most extreme cases, Canadian Bishop Hubert O’Connor of Prince George, British Columbia, resigned his position in 1991, after five years as prelate, facing charges of raping two young women in First Nations, or Indian communities. One victim, a seamstress, testified that when she became pregnant, the bishop placed her in a home for unwed mothers and forced her to give their child for adoption. The bishop changed his first name on the birth certificate.

O’Connor stood trial with a top-drawer defense attorney. The judge found inconsistencies in the woman’s account, but convicted him based on a second woman’s testimony. O’Connor spent six months in prison; a parole board ordered his release. The conviction was overturned on appeal. A chief of the First Nations assembly wrote John Paul II, demanding church sanctions against O’Connor. The Vatican was silent.

But Rome considered O’Connor damaged goods and he had no other appointment as bishop. He died in 2007. Nevertheless, Catholic-Hierarchy.org lists him as deceased and his status as emeritus bishop.

Emeritus, according to the American Heritage Dictionary, means “retired but retaining an honorary title corresponding to that held immediately before retirement.”

Who should be laicized?

The CDF has laicized 848 priests between 2004 and 2013, according to testimony by Archbishop Silvano Tomasi, the papal diplomat at the U.N. panel examining the Vatican handling of abuse cases last month in Geneva.

Lahey and Miranda appear to be the only two bishops to be expelled from the clerical state because of crimes against children, according to an NCR examination of documents, news reports and interviews with researchers.      

 “The church is finally changing on this issue because of pressure to change,” BishopAccountability.org co-director Terry McKiernan told NCR.

“I think we’re seeing the beginnings of a recognition at the Vatican that they’re not going to emerge from this mess until they act on the enabling of abuse by bishops, and transferring of the criminals. These two U.N. committees [on Torture, and Rights of the Child] are raising the consciousness of the Vatican, making this a major political problem,” McKiernan said.

 “The Holy See argues that the U.N. conventions only obligate them on priests or bishops in the Vatican City State, but it’s hard for them to claim they don’t have effective control over priests in many countries, as demonstrated by the CDF handling these cases,” McKiernan continued. “It’s to SNAP’s credit that they got the U.N. to review the research they’ve done. Even though the case against the Vatican has gone nowhere in the International Criminal Court, other countries are thinking of clerical abuse of children in the context of international law — and that is important.”

SNAP’s view of Vatican intransigence is partly a reaction to brass-knuckle legal tactics used by certain American bishops. In legal moves that smack of harassment, SNAP has been hit with church lawyers’ defense subpoenas in several Midwestern cases, seeking email and correspondence with pedophilia victims, a core of SNAP’s mission.

 “They want to stop victims, whistleblowers, police and even journalists from contacting us,” Clohessy told NCR. One of the dioceses, Kansas City, Mo., is under Bishop Robert Finn, who was convicted of a criminal misdemeanor for failing to report a priest with child pornography, who subsequently went to prison. Finn received a suspended sentence.

The Milwaukee archdiocese, facing 500 victim claims, is in grinding bankruptcy litigation, trying to settle for dimes on a dollar. The pivotal issue is on appeal: $57 million that the former archbishop, Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, shifted from general funds into a cemetery trust, with approval from Cardinal Claudio Hummes, prefect of Congregation for the Clergy under Benedict.

By insisting that it only has control over the Vatican City State, the Holy See added a protective barrier for the pope from legal actions. Attorney Jeff Anderson sued the Vatican as a defendant in an Oregon case of a victim abused by a priest who moved across international borders but the court dismissed the Holy See as a defendant.

Francis’s reference to three bishops under investigation fed speculation in the media on who the prelates might be.          

The Religion News Service suggested Cardinal Keith O’Brien of Scotland, who resigned prior to the 2013 conclave and has been under Vatican scrutiny for unspecified sexual misconduct; Polish Archbishop Josef Wesolowski, who was recalled as papal nuncio to the Dominican Republic after allegations of child abuse in Santo Domingo, the capital; and Bishop Cristián Contreras Molina of San Felipe, Chile, who said in a press release that he had invited a Vatican investigation of abuse allegations against him.

The pope as a sovereign monarch under canon law has the power of a one-man supreme court to nullify, modify or abort a given proceeding. Few popes involve themselves with details of the various cases at different Vatican tribunals or canonical courts. But Francis’s agenda of mercy and solidarity with the poor has led him to react quickly on certain cases.

 “Francis had no problem dismissing the German bishop,” Nicholas Cafardi, a canon lawyer and Dean Emeritus of Duquesne University law School, told NCR, in reference to the resignation of Bishop Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst, who reportedly spent 31 million euro ($43 million) on a new residential complex in the Limburg diocese. Tebartz-van Elst is listed as Bishop Emeritus on Catholic-Hierarchy.org.   

 “We can’t have a standard in which the pope removes a bishop for financial malfeasance but not for ignoring sexual abuse,” Cafardi said. “Between the two evils of the church, one is loss of money and image, the other is a killer of the soul. And Bishop Finn is still in Kansas City despite his conviction.”

Milwaukee canonist Fr. Jim Connell, who works with abuse survivors, has filed a canonical appeal in Rome seeking Finn’s removal.

Francis has moved in spontaneous if incremental steps — rhetoric presaging action. It has not always produced the desired results.

In a March 5 interview with Corriera della Serra in Rome, his response to a question about the abuse crisis was unrealistic, if not surreal: “The Church has done so much on this path, perhaps more than anyone ... perhaps the only public institution to have acted with transparency and responsibility. No other has done more. And the Church is the only one to be attacked.”

Francis’s comments drew scorn from abuse survivors and in some corners of the media. Two months later, on the flight from Israel to Rome, he sounded like a different pope. “In Argentina we call those who receive preferential treatment ‘spoilt children,’ he said. “There will be no ‘spoilt children’ in this case. It is a very serious problem. When a priest commits abuse, he betrays the Lord’s body.”

Will the Vatican face the crisis?

John Paul avoided dealing with the clergy abuse crisis until events exploded in America in 2002, after which he responded with little effect, continuing his praise of Fr. Marcial Maciel, despite extensive allegations filed against the Legion of Christ founder in 1998 in the CDF.

Benedict, who removed Maciel from ministry in 2006, institutionalized the procedures at CDF to punish pedophiles. He met with victims as a pastoral approach, but — save for his defrocking of the Canadian Lahey — ignored the issue of complicity and negligence within the hierarchy.

The crisis bequeathed to Francis is a minefield of complexities that stretch across different legal systems of the globe, huge financial losses in countries with Western common law; a culture of angry, movement-hardened survivors connecting via the internet with groups in other countries; a critical mass of information readily available to the media; and a generation of bishops who entered the hierarchy with assumptions of public respect, trusting the pope for guidance.

The bishops’ world has changed in ways they never imagined. In America, they found themselves battered in the media, turning to high-dollar defense lawyers as victims filed suit, and a vacuum of papal leadership from John Paul.

 Francis is relying on Boston Cardinal O’Malley on the issue. O’Malley, who wears the sandals and robes of a Capuchin, has spent his career in the hierarchy cleaning up dioceses caught in these scandals — from Fall River, Mass., the diocese plundered by the notorious Fr. James Porter to Palm Beach, Fla., where O’Malley succeeded Bishop Keith Symons and Bishop Anthony O’Connell, (both resigned and were cited for clergy abuse)  then to Boston, which Law left in a state of financial hemorrhaging. O’Malley closed parishes and sold property to staunch deficits, spurring a sit-in vigil movement of parishioners fighting back.

O’Malley’s fluency in Spanish and past visits to Argentina established a rapport with Francis, who made him point man on the abuse issue. O’Malley guided the establishment of the eight-member advisory commission, which recently had its first meeting.

“I have problems with O’Malley,” said McKiernan, of the Boston-based BishopAccountability.org. “O’Malley released a list of perpetrators in 2011, and the same day admitted he left off 91 names. So there are transparency issues. We see the same thing in the pope’s statement in the book he did with Rabbi [Abraham] Skorka of Argentina [On Heaven and Earth] where he says he never encountered an abuse case. That’s not true, the media has reported on cases from Buenos Aires. But O’Malley is coming from a place where the church was pushed to the brink and I think he’s talking sense to the pope. They both know it’s a global problem.”

The evolution of a policy turns on the quality of information available to a given leader and his comfort with the use of power. Francis has moved adroitly in dealing with the Vatican Bank and disarray in the Roman Curia. The abuse crisis poses a greater challenge by virtue of geographical reach, legal, financial and moral issues.

The root problem is the power structure, a hierarchy long accustomed to immunity from punishment. Popes, in turn, assume lockstep loyalty from bishops and cardinals. Francis’s move toward a penal policy for hierarchs has cut distance from the passivity of John Paul and the halting approach by Benedict, who refused to accept the resignation letters of two Irish auxiliary bishops criticized for negligence in the government investigation of the church in Dublin.

What Francis decides about the three bishops under investigation, as yet unnamed, will be another signal on the depth, or not, of a criminal justice system so desperately needed by the Roman Catholic church.

*An earlier version of this story incorrectly named Miranda's home diocese.

[Jason Berry, a co-producer of the Frontline documentary “Secrets of the Vatican,” is a longtime NCR contributor, and author of Render unto Rome: The Secret Life of Money in the Catholic Church.]


Several bishops should be investigated

At least seven bishops, besides the three cited in the Religion News Service report, appear to qualify as “spoilt children” in Pope Francis’s metaphorical sweep.

The Vatican has not released information on whether they are subject to a proceeding on laicizations. But a review of documents from various legal cases, news reports, and church files compiled by BishopAccountability.org and Fr. Thomas Doyle, suggests that the following bishops would qualify.

  • Bishop Roger Vangheluwe of Belgium resigned in 2010 after admitting he sexually abused a boy who was later identified as his nephew. Vangheluwe was the senior Belgian bishop, appointed by John Paul in 1984. In 2011, a year later after he stepped down, Vangheluwe gave a nationally-televised interview from a secret location and admitted to sexual relations with two nephews. He also complained that that the church was being unfairly targeted. Carina Van Cauter, a member of the Belgian parliamentary committee investigating sexual abuse, said that Vangheluwe "tries to turn his victims into culprits. He throws salt in their wounds." Reuters reported that on TV the bishop “sat relaxed, sometimes had a smile dancing on his lips, a twinkle in his eye and shook his shoulders while trying to minimise his abuse. He said that despite acknowledging the abuse, he would never willingly forsake his priesthood. He said he had made his vows and he would ‘not break them.’ ” Belgian society was jolted by the spectacle of a bishop recalling how his intimacy with two young nephews began at family reunions in tight sleeping arrangements. It strains credulity to think that, had Vangheluwe shown such bombast as a priest, Rome would allow him serenity at twilight. Age 77, he is listed as Bishop Emeritus of Bruges.              
  • Another Emeritus Bishop, Thomas Dupre, resigned his post in the Springfield, Mass., diocese and immediately checked into St. Luke Institute, a Maryland church hospital specializing in treatment of clergy pedophiles. In 2008 the diocese paid undisclosed sums to two men Dupre had abused as youths, as part of a $4.5 million settlement with 59 victims of other priests. “Dupre contributed some of his own money for the payments,” the Springfield Republican reported, “but officials would not say how much. The Springfield diocese “has no information on Dupre, who has not been bishop here in years,” spokesman Mark Dupont told NCR. A priest of the diocese with detailed knowledge of Dupre and his victims told NCR on background that Dupre is still at St. Luke hospital, going on 10 years.
  • Bishop Keith Symons resigned his position in Palm Beach, Fla. in 1998, admitting to sexual relations with altar boys in his past. A year later he was leading spiritual retreats in the Lansing, Mich. diocese. The Sun-Sentinel newspaper, citing an interview with a spokeswoman for the national bishops’ conference, reported that “bishops do have to make formal requests to the Vatican Congregation for Bishops to re-enter ministry. A bishop would have to ‘explain he was seeking an assignment, why he feels he'd be ready for it, what kind of treatment he'd undergone, those kinds of things.’ ” Symons is listed as an Emeritus Bishop by the hierarchy website, with no indication of where he is. (Symons’ successor, Bishop Anthony O’Connell, resigned three and a half years later during the media firestorm of 2002 over clergy abuse, admitting to a sexual relationship with a seminarian years earlier. His victim received a settlement. O’Connell retired to a South Carolina monastery; he died in 2012, Bishop Emeritus.)
  • Emeritus Bishop Daniel Ryan, 84, stepped down as leader of Springfield, Ill., diocese in 1999 as lawyers announced the filing of lawsuits on behalf of young men Ryan sexually victimized as youths. He moved into a house purchased by the diocese, which paid settlements with its insurance carriers to several men who sued him. “Ryan’s misconduct was reported to the Vatican,” Attorney Stephen J. Rubino, who worked on the cases, told NCR. “Ryan is like Frank Rodimer — Rome just let him go into the weeds.”
  • Emeritus Bishop Frank Rodimer of Paterson, N.J., was not accused of abuse; but his negligence was arguably the most glaring of any bishop to be reported. Rodimer owned a beach house on the New Jersey shore with a Camden priest, Peter Osinski. Starting in 1984, Osinski brought a guest, a boy whose family he had befriended. For 12 summers, Osinski and the boy slept in a room down the hall from Rodimer. The boy grew up and filed charges. Osinski went to prison. Rubino sued Rodimer on behalf of the victim for failure to stop Osinski. The bishop paid a settlement of $250,000 with Paterson diocesan funds. Rodimer retired to a home provided by the church.
  • Two bishops from Chile, besides Contreras, are under a cloud. The Vatican conducted an investigation of Bishop Marcos Ordenes of Iquique, Chile, for allegedly abusing teenage boys, according to press reports. Ordenes resigned in 2012; his whereabouts are unknown.
  • Archbishop Gonzalo Duarte of Valparaiso, and several priests from the seminary, have been accused in a civil lawsuit of having sex with adolescent seminarians.
A version of this story appeared in the June 20-July 3, 2014 print issue under the headline: Will the Vatican step up and hold bishops accountable?.

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