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by Peterr

Pope Benedict’s Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Week

8:50 pm in Uncategorized by Peterr

It’s been a bad week for Pope Benedict. From Italy to Belgium to Washington DC, courts everywhere seem to be taking a hard look at some of the activities of the Catholic church, and they’re not liking what they’re seeing.

A week ago Sunday, news broke that a high-ranking Roman Catholic cardinal was under investigation in Italy for corruption. Cardinal Crescenzio Sepe, the archbishop of Naples and former head of a major Vatican department (the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, or Propaganda Fide in Latin) was caught up in a larger probe of former Italian government officials involved in various real estate, public works, and construction scams. Word of the investigation broke last February, but Sepe’s involvement only came to light last week:

Judicial sources have told the media that [Italian infrastructure minister Pietro] Lunardi bought a building in central Rome – in Via dei Prefetti, a stone’s throw from parliament – from Sepe’s department in 2004 at a price four times lower than the estimated market value.

In an alleged swap for favours, the following year Lunardi allocated state funds for the restoration of historic church buildings, including the 16th century Congregation headquarters facing the Spanish Steps.

Sepe proclaimed his innocence, implicitly comparing himself in his Sunday sermon with martyrs who "were tortured, humiliated and disrespected" for their faithfulness to the Gospel. He also declared he had the full support of the Vatican, and pledged to cooperate with the ongoing investigation.

That kind of news would ruin any CEO’s week, religious or otherwise. Then came Thursday, when things got dramatically worse.

That’s when Belgian police raided the headquarters of the Roman Catholic Church in Belgium as part of an investigation of child abuse at the hands of priests and allegations of a coverup on the part of the Belgian bishops.

The  spokesperson for the Belgian conference of bishops (the "Episcopal Conference") put out this statement, which was released by the Vatican Secretariat of State on Friday:

The bishops of Belgium were gathered at the residence of the Archbishop of Malines-Brussels at about 10.30 this morning for the monthly meeting of the Episcopal Conference. At about 10:30, police and court officials entered and referred that there would be a search of the archdiocese, following complaints of sexual abuse within the territory of the archdiocese. No explanation was given, but all documents and mobile phones were confiscated and it was referred that nobody could leave the building. This situation lasted until approximately 19:30.

Everyone was interrogated, members of the Episcopal Conference and staff. It was not a pleasant experience, but everything was done correctly. The bishops have always affirmed their trust in justice and its work. This search was greeted with the same confidence and therefore, for the moment, the (bishops) shall refrain from making further comments.

Instead, they, along with Professor Peter Adriaensses, chairman of the committee for handling sexual abuse as part of a pastoral outreach, regret the fact that during another search, all files of this committee were seized. This goes against the privacy rights of which the victims who have chosen to turn to this committee should benefit. This action gravely affects the much needed and excellent work of this committee.

Emphasis added. I’m sure they were surprised — that’s kind of the point, with any kind of search like this — but I’m glad it was all done correctly.

On Sunday, the pope himself weighed in, releasing the message he sent to the head of the Belgian episcopal conference:

At this sad time I wish to express my special closeness and solidarity to you, dear brother in the episcopate, and to all the bishops of the Church in Belgium, for the surprising and deplorable manner in which searches were carried out at the cathedral of Mechelen and at the site where the Belgian episcopate was gathered in a plenary assembly which, among other things, also intended to consider questions associated with the abuse of minors by members of the clergy. On a number of occasions I myself have highlighted how these serious matters should be dealt with by both civil law and canon law, while respecting the specific nature and autonomy of each. In this context, I trust that justice may run its course in order to guarantee the fundamental rights of persons and of institutions, at the same time respecting victims, showing unconditional recognition for those who undertake to collaborate, and rejecting everything that obscures the noble goal with which justice is assigned.

While assuring you that I accompany the progress of your Church with my daily prayers, I willingly impart an affectionate apostolic blessing.

Emphasis added here, too. Notice the difference between the two statements? What the Belgian bishops described as unpleasant and yet "done correctly," the pope sees as "deplorable". Belgium has become what John Allen described as "a perfect storm" on the sex abuse crisis, with a painful history leading up to this raid.

When it rains, it pours. A lot.

The last bolt of judicial thunder came from the Supreme Court of the United States, who with two words made life in the Vatican even more miserable. Buried on a list of orders released this morning [pdf] was the line "09-1: Holy See v. Doe, John V.", sitting right under a very painful two word heading: "CERTIORARI DENIED".

Said the Catholic News Service:

The U.S. Supreme Court has left standing a lower court ruling that will allow an Oregon man to try to hold the Vatican financially responsible for his sexual abuse by a priest, if he can persuade the court that the priest was an employee of the Vatican.

By declining to take Holy See v. John Doe, the court June 28 left intact the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that said because of the way Oregon law defines employment, the Vatican is not protected under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act from potential liability for the actions of a priest who Doe, the unidentified plaintiff, said sexually abused him in the 1960s.

The Vatican had hoped to have this case dismissed out of hand using FSIA, but they couldn’t convince even four justices that their case was worth hearing, at least at this point. (Conspiracy theorists take note: there are six Roman Catholics on the Court, and the Vatican still couldn’t muster four votes for cert, even with an amicus brief filed by the DOJ supporting their position.)

Now the Vatican has the unenviable task of going back to the district court to try to make the case that the priest and various bishops involved are *not* Vatican employees.

Good luck with that.

I can easily envision the questioning by the lawyers for Doe of the priest, the bishops, and whatever Vatican officials are deposed in this case:

  • Are priests obligated to work under the terms and conditions laid down by the Vatican?
  • Are they subject to discipline for failure to live up to those conditions?
  • Does the Vatican establish the procedures for carrying out that discipline?
  • Isn’t it true that no priest can leave the priesthood without the permission of the Vatican, which can be obtained only by undergoing a process created and carried out by the Vatican?
  • Bishop, were you named to your post by the Pope?
  • Did the pope (or someone designated by the pope) install you in your office with a special ceremony of episcopal ordination at which he (or his designee) presided?
  • At that ceremony, did the pope or his designee give to you personally various signs, symbols, and insignia of your office?
  • Are you charged with carrying out your office in accordance with policies and procedures laid down by the Pope and the various curial offices of the Vatican?
  • Are you required to report to the Vatican regularly on your activities, including mandatory visits to Rome for in-person consultation?
  • Isn’t it true that you can be removed from your office by the Pope?

Given that the answer to every one of those questions is "yes," and that there are reams of Vatican documents like the code of canon law and papal sermons at the ordinations of bishops that can be introduced as supporting evidence, claiming that bishops are somehow "free agents" or "independent contractors" is going to be a very hard argument to make.

This case isn’t over. The Vatican may yet win the underlying lawsuit, but they’re not going to win it without a lot of discovery, public hearings, and the airing of some very dirty ecclesiastical laundry.

And if all this news wasn’t bad enough, there’s one more thing that is giving Pope Benedict nightmares: there will be plenty more weeks like this to come.

by Peterr

First They Came For the Nuns, But I Didn’t Speak Up Since I was not a Nun

8:34 am in Uncategorized by Peterr

It’s never been particularly easy for strong women to use their gifts within the Roman Catholic church’s hierarchical structure and their understanding of the separate roles prescribed for men and women. These days, though, it’s getting even harder — and the debate is not something that affects solely Roman Catholics.

Look at the ongoing health care battle.

At the height of the debate over health insurance reform last Spring, the Catholic Health Association chair, Sister Carol Keehan, came out in support of the Senate bill, much to the chagrin and anger of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, who were demanding that only the Stupak House version was morally acceptable. Back in March, I described the CHA statement defending the acceptability of the Senate bill like this:

After noting what they [the CHA] see as the positives of the Senate bill, they took a very direct swipe at the bishops:

And despite false claims to the contrary, the Senate bill will not provide taxpayer funding for elective abortions. It will uphold longstanding conscience protections and it will make historic new investments – $250 million – in support of pregnant women. This is the REAL pro-life stance, and we as Catholics are all for it.

They said it politely, but the message is clear: the bishops are either liars or dupes, neither of which is terribly attractive.

As you might imagine, telling the political world that the US Conference of Catholic Bishops is wrong about something didn’t go down well with the members of the USCCB.

The USCCB and CHA both had major meetings last week (separately), and the tensions between the two groups are clear. Despite the efforts to put on a nice public face, they are increasingly nasty behind closed doors. In a piece on Wednesday of last week in the National Catholic Reporter, John Allen noted that neither side is backing down:

"We would not have supported the legislation if it were inconsistent with our values as a ministry of the church," said Colleen Scanlon, a lay medical professional and chair of the CHA Board of Trustees, in remarks opening the [CHA] assembly. . . .

At roughly the same time, the U.S. bishops gathered in St. Petersburg, Fla., for their June 14-18 spring assembly. Though designed as a spiritual retreat, Cardinal Francis George of Chicago, president of the conference, added a discussion of health care reform at the beginning. Speaking by telephone, George told NCR on June 16 that it was an informational session, and that no decisions were made.

George, too, stuck to his guns, arguing that the dispute with the CHA involves a core ecclesiological principle "about the nature of the church itself, one that has to concern the bishops" – namely, who speaks for the church on faith and morals?

It takes a lot of guts for Catholic women religious to stand up to the USCCB under any circumstances, but the various women’s religious orders in the US are in the midst of a Vatican-ordered "visitation" — an inquiry into their theological soundness and the quality of life in each order. As Tom Fox of NCR wrote in April 2009:

The Vatican assessment has become necessary, according to [Cardinal William] Levada, because at the 2001 meeting between the women’s leadership conference and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith [headed by Levada], which took place in Rome, the women were invited “to report on the initiatives taken or planned” to promote the reception of three areas of Vatican doctrinal concern: the 1994 apostolic letter Ordinatio sacerdotalis [which reinforced the restriction of the priesthood to men only], the 2000 declaration Dominus Jesus from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith [which declares non-Catholic Christians to be "gravely deficient" and their communities to suffer "defects"], and “the problem of homosexuality.” . . .

Regarding the investigation of the women’s leadership conference, Levada informed conference leaders: “Given both the tenor and the doctrinal content of various addresses given at the annual assemblies of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious in the intervening years, this Dicastery can only conclude that the problems which had motivated its request in 2001 continue to be present.”

As a result, Levada said, the Vatican had decided “a doctrinal assessment” of the “activities and initiatives of the LCWR would be helpful.”

(There’s a long history of tension between the women religious and some in the Vatican. See more of NCR’s reporting on the visitation here.)

But back to Wednesday of last week . . .

On the same day as Allen’s story came out, the much more conservative Catholic News Agency released a story that went much farther, with some rather inflammatory quotes from USCCB chair, Cardinal Francis George of Chicago, at a closed door meeting (emphasis added):

According to the Archbishop of Chicago, when the Stupak Amendment was defeated in the Senate in December 2009, “everything went south.”

That is when “the Catholic Health Association and other so-called Catholic groups provided cover for those on the fence to support Obama and the administration.”

Cardinal George clearly remarked that “Sr. Carol and her colleagues are to blame” for the passage of the health care bill. He continued by revealing that the bishops repeatedly tried to reach out to Sr. Keehan both before and after the vote. “I personally met with her in March to no avail,” the cardinal reported.

In April, three bishops of the USCCB ad hoc Health Care Concerns Committee, Kevin Rhoades of Fort Wayne-South Bend, Kevin Vann of Fort Worth and Thomas J. Paprocki of Springfield, also met with Sr. Keehan to try to make her understand the bishop’s concerns and thus bring CHA back in line with Church teachings, however the meeting concluded with “the same frustrating results.”

The president of the USCCB reiterated the bishop’s fundamental opposition to the health care reform. “The bill which was passed is fundamentally flawed. The Executive Order is meaningless. Sr. Carol is mistaken in thinking that this is pro-life legislation,” Cardinal George emphatically said.

The cardinal also expressed disappointment with CHA “and other so-called Catholic groups” because, “in the end, they have weakened the moral voice of the bishops in the U.S.”

"So-called" Catholics? Take that, you uppity women. Note especially that last section: what matters most, George is saying, is that the power of bishops be preserved.

On Monday, Helen Osman, the media person at the USCCB, pushed back, claiming that the quotes were fabricated: "I was in the room, as a member of the USCCB staff, for the presentation. And the official audio file that recorded the session for USCCB archives confirms my memory."

What’s that? Something about "the official audio file?" Says Osman, don’t even think about it:

To honor the bishops’ privacy and confidentiality, we will not be releasing the transcript. It’s unfortunate if someone breached that confidentiality; also unfortunate if CNA tried to take an educated guess at what the cardinal might have said and cobbled together its own fabrication of the session.

But CNA stands by their story, saying that several bishops had confirmed the quotes to them, and they called on the USCCB to release not a transcript, but the actual audio recording of the session.

On Tuesday, back at NCR, John Allen noted that because NCR has gotten pulled into the story with CNA and the USCCB, he was releasing a full transcript of his interview with Cardinal George (which was not confidential) which was part of his earlier story. In that interview, the cardinal’s general viewpoint fits quite well with what CNA reported in their initial story. Cardinal George and others in the USCCB are quite put out that anyone would dare to disagree with them and have the temerity to call themselves Catholic, because it is the bishops who have the role of speaking for the church.

Had Cardinal George left it there, it would have been a pretty benign response, but he then opened himself up to charges of violating Godwin’s law by invoking Nazis. He didn’t directly call Sister Keehan and the CHA folks Nazis, but compared the US bishops today to a WWII era cardinal who was recently beafied for his martyrdom at the hands of the Nazis because of his opposition to euthanasia and the laws that allowed it, implicitly putting CNA on the side of those who made him a martyr.


For those of us on the outside, it would be easy to write this all off as an in-house spat within the Roman Catholic Church. But we’re talking about the same folks that recently strengthened the rules by which Catholic health care providers must operate [pdf here], demanding that such institutions and the medical people associated with them override the expressed wishes of a patient and/or patient’s family if those wishes conflict with what the bishops believe about end of life decisions, abortion, and other health care issues. We’re talking about the same folks who recently backed the automatic excommunication of the senior administrator at a Roman Catholic hospital in Phoenix for approving a life-saving abortion. (Just yesterday, the USCCB reiterated their position again.)

I’ll give you two guesses as to that senior administrator’s gender.

These battles in the Catholic Church affect everyone who enters an emergency room at a Catholic hospital, and everyone who deals with a medical practitioner who works at a facility that receives funds from the Catholic church. The political world got a glimpse of the force that the bishops can bring to bear in the recent health care debates, and from what I’m seeing in the Catholic media, the bishops aren’t done trying to throw their weight around.

It’s the sisters who are taking the first hit, but stay tuned, because the bishops aren’t done in DC. Not by a long shot. If the bishops have their way, they’ll be writing the rules for the entire US health care system, not simply those institution with "Catholic" in their charters. They’re coming back to fix the flaws in health care reform, and going after emergency contraception while they’re at it.

I may not be a nun, but I’m speaking up for them now, before it’s too late.