Three Years Later: What Happened to the “Independent Commission?”

Mr. James Grein

In November 2018, James Grein spoke at the Church Militant rally in Baltimore, outside the annual meeting of American Catholic bishops.

James’ courage moved me and inspired me. Theodore McCarrick had done everything possible to destroy James’ life. But James stood up and fought back.

Earlier that year, the Catholic world had learned:  McCarrick systematically abused seminarians and young priests under his authority. He did this over multiple decades. Scores of Church officials knew about it.

The big problem was: We Catholics are supposed to appeal to our bishop for justice, when someone violates our sacred rights. But who do you go to, when it’s the bishop himself violating those rights? Archbishop McCarrick’s victims had no one to whom they could appeal. (Except the Vatican, of course, which ignored them.)

Theodore McCarrick’s installation as Archbishop of Newark, NJ, 1986. (Photo by D.J. Zendler.)

So the hue and cry in the fall of 2018 centered around this concept: We need an authoritative body, made up mostly of lay people–an independent commission–to which Catholics can turn for justice, when the malefactor is the local bishop.

That fall, the winner of the Canon Law Association’s annual award gave a speech endorsing this idea. Our local bishop here supported the idea, in a pastoral letter.

The establishment of just such an independent commission–to investigate the wrongdoing of bishops–sat squarely on the agenda for the Baltimore meeting that fall. Many, if not most, of the bishops arrived at the Inner Harbor expecting to vote in favor of establishing the independent commission.

That is, until the item wasn’t on the agenda anymore. James Grein gave the world a glimpse of soaring courage in the November cold. Meanwhile, inside the adjacent hotel, the American bishops gasped when the then-president of the conference announced that the Vatican had insisted they not vote to establish the independent commission.

The rationale: A few months later, the pope would host bishops-conference presidents from all over the world in Rome, to discuss the sex-abuse scandal. So the American bishops should hold off, until after that meeting.

They did. No independent commission to investigate bad bishops got established. The Vatican meeting occurred the following February. That meeting gave rise to a document published by the pope the following May, providing some temporary rules for how to deal with sex-abuse. Those temporary rules themselves gave rise to some revisions to the Code of Canon Law, set to go into effect in a week.

Things came full circle earlier this month, at the 2021 US bishops’ meeting in Baltimore. A Vatican official explained the revision of Canon Law to the American bishops. Cases of abuse involving seminarians, and other vulnerable Catholics preyed upon by Church officials, are to be handled by…

The local bishop.

Quite a way to conclude the process of “addressing” the McCarrick crisis.

Fall 2018: American Catholics urge the bishops to establish an independent commission, which would stand ready to deal with the next McCarrick.

Fall 2021: A Vatican official explains to the American bishops that the person who will handle the next McCarrick will be the next McCarrick himself.

Problem (resoundingly not) solved.

AD 1300 and Following

Pope Boniface Colonna Schiaffo di Anagni
Schiaffo di Anagni

We had a Jubilee Year in AD 2000. A group of us seminarians at Catholic University in Washington managed to get ourselves to Rome, to visit the tombs of the Apostles Peter and Paul. We met Pope John Paul II. A few years ago I wrote an essay about the effect that visit had on my Catholic-convert soul.

Pope Boniface VIII beautified Rome for the first-ever Jubilee Year there, in AD 1300. The Muslim conquest of the Holy Land meant that Christian pilgrimages to the Holy Sepulcher could no longer occur. So the pope opened Rome; he restored the ancient Christian custom of coming on pilgrimage to the tombs of Saints Peter and Paul.

Pope Boniface made a huge success with the Jubilee Year 1300. Hundreds of thousands of pilgrims came. There was, nonetheless, a foreboding absence from the ranks of those pilgrims. Among the throngs in the Roman streets that year, there was not a single European monarch. None came.

In other words, something lovely happened in Rome in 1300. But something terrible was about to happen. Five weeks ago I promised more information about the Avignon papacy and a digest of our Catholic faith in the office of pope. Seems like AD 1300 is the best place to begin…

Age of the Great Western Schism Clinton Locke

The reign of Boniface VIII marked a turning point in history, ending a period that had begun seven centuries earlier, with the pontificate of St. Gregory the Great. Gregory had filled a power vacuum in western Europe when the reach of the Byzantine emperor into western affairs waned. The Sucessor of St. Peter became the pre-eminent authority in shaping the politics of the western half of the now-crumbling Roman empire.

Seven centuries later, however, Pope Boniface found that he could not command the absolute allegiance of the grandsons of the monarchs over which his predecessors had held sway. Gregory the Great, acting out of charity towards the poor, had made the Holy See a model of administrative efficiency at the dawn of the seventh century. The latter part of the thirteenth century, however, saw an altogether dysfunctional Roman operation.

Between 1254 and 1285, the pope was absent from Rome for all but four years. (Some historians call this period the “Viterbo Papacy” because the pope was so often resident there.) During this interval, conclaves held to elect a new pope after the death of the old one often dragged on for years. The conclave that elected Pope Gregory X stretched from 1268 to 1271. Indeed, sometimes conclaves would last longer than the ensuing papacy: the conclave that elected Celestine V lasted over two years, but the poor pope reigned for only five months. Also, men who had never even been ordained to the priesthood were often elected pope.

The Cardinals, after the new pope shows total ignorance of Scripture: “Gosh, I guess we should have put ‘in Holy Orders’ in the job description!”

We mentioned last month how Pope Celestine resigned the papacy in 1294. Celestine had consulted with a learned Cardinal, Benedetto Caetani, about the legality of resigning. Caetani had advised Celestine that he could legally resign. In the subsequent conclave, Caetani became Pope Boniface VIII.

(Caetani’s role in Celestine’s resignation would later be used against Boniface in an elaborate p.r. campaign by King Philip IV of France–even though Caetani had not, in fact, pressured Celestine in any way.)

In 1303 conflict between Rome and Paris reached the breaking point. Boniface declared as solemn doctrine the practical reality that his predecessor Gregory had seized upon, that is: God had subjected all human beings to the Roman Pontiff. King Philip responded by calling for Boniface’s removal from office, and the king spread false charges against the pope. Philip arraigned Boniface for heresy and demanded that an ecumenical council sit in judgment on him.

Meanwhile, Pope Boniface, staying in his hometown of Anagni, outside Rome, prepared a document excommunicating King Philip.

Henchmen of the king’s arrived and commandeered the building, intending to arrest the pope and take him to France for trial. The historical record is not clear regarding what happened when the henchmen encountered the pope. They may have physically assaulted him. They almost certainly at least slapped him. The slap has come to be known as the Schiaffo di Anagni.

Dante refers to this outrage in Canto XX of Purgatorio. The poet calls King Philip “the new Pilate,” who “mocked and imprisoned Christ a second time, in His vicar.” Dante adds: “I see vinegar and gall renewed, and between living thieves I see them kill Him.”

After the Schiaffo, the townspeople of Anagni turned on King Philip’s henchmen, allowing Boniface to escape and return to Rome. But he did indeed die, in a month’s time, at age 73.

Benedict XI was then elected pope in a one-day conclave.

As a Cardinal, the new pope had stayed with Boniface through the ordeal in Anagni. But, by the same token, Benedict wanted no more trouble with King Philip.

Benedict tried a middle way, restoring all of King Philip’s ecclesiastical prerogatives, but meanwhile pursuing legal action against the ruffians of Anagni. And Benedict refused to put Boniface through a posthumous trial for heresy, notwithstanding King Philip’s demand for such a procedure.

Benedict died of dysentery, in Perugia, north of Rome, after only eight months in Peter’s Chair. The ensuing conclave lasted eleven months, from July 1304 to June 1305. It proved to be a highly significant event. More to come…

John XXIII, Old and New

John XXIII Vatican IIToday we keep the Memorial of Pope St. John XXIII, on the 59th anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council. [Click HERE for a little compendium of my homilies commemorating the 50th annversary.]

You may not know, dear reader, that Pope St. John was actually the second John XXIII to summon the world’s bishops to Rome for an ecumenical council. (You might not know this unless you have traveled through the cities of Tuscany and read all the historical markers in all the churches.)

Some background:

When Giuseppe Roncalli took the name John at the end of the conclave in 1958, he mentioned to a French Cardinal that he had chosen this name “in memory of France and in memory of John XXII who continued the history of the papacy in France” (We know about this private remark from Peter Hebblethwaite’s biography, John XXIII: Pope of the Council.)

The pope to which newly elected Pope John referred was: the pope who occupied the Chair of St. Peter from 1316 to 1334. John XXII did not occupy it, however, in Rome. He occupied it in the Provencal town of Avignon. John XXII was, in fact, the first pope to both get elected and die in Avignon.

Age of the Great Western Schism Clinton Locke

John XXII’s predecessor, Clement V, had moved the papacy from Rome to France. (More to come on the why and how of this, plus a thorough digest of our Catholic faith in the papacy, in a subsequent post.)

Pope John XXII gave us the prayer “Soul of Christ,” which I daily recite after Holy Communion. He also taught erroneously about the beatific vision (though not in a magisterial utterance), and he had to recant later in life. William of Ockham developed his skeptical philosophy largely because of Pope John XXII’s often wild statements.

But no one despised John XXII, and the money-grubbing papal bureaucracy in Avignon, more than the aging Dante Alighieri. In Paradiso XVIII, the poet wrote of the pope and his courtiers:

Watch, [o heaven of justice], wherefrom issues the smoke

that tarnishes thy ray, that once enkindled wrath

may come on the hucksters in the temple that was

raised and walled with miracles and martyrdom.

O host of Heaven I contemplate, be heard your prayers

to aid all those on earth, led on by bad example…

Thou who recordest but to obliterate [Pope John, who was forever excommunicating people, then lifting the excommunication],

consider that Peter and Paul, who died to save

the vineyard thou hast spoiled, are living yet.

Thou can’st well say, “So ardently do I crave

Florentine coins that I know not the Fisherman nor Paul.”

dante

More to come on the Avignon papacy. But to get to the first “John XXIII…”

You may not imagine that an old book called The Age of the Great Western Schism by a 19th-century Episcopalian churchman could be a can’t-put-it-down page-turner. But it is.

In 1376 the seventh Avignon pope, Gregory XI, finally departed France to return to the city consecrated by the blood of Saints Peter and Paul. He reached Rome in early 1377. After Gregory’s death soon thereafter, however, the Cardinals divided into two parties. (More later on why.) In 1378 two conclaves elected two popes. Urban VII reigned in Italy; Clement VII reigned in France.

Now you might thus surmise: The first John XXIII succeeded Clement; therefore not a real pope. Good guess. But the real history has more twists.

Two popes, each with a valid claim to legitimate election: the schism lasted for a generation. Finally Roman Pope Gregory XII and Avignon “Pope Benedict XIII” agreed to meet near Genoa, with both parties of Cardinals. Both popes promised to resign; then the conclave would choose one pope.

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Last month I found myself on the Ligurian coast, just south of where the meeting was supposed to have taken place. When the Roman pope did not arrive, the Avignon pope continued journeying south. He made it to La Spezia (where I changed trains). Meanwhile, Pope Gregory made it as far as Lucca (where I spent two lovely days.) Then Gregory balked. Didn’t have the heart to resign as promised.

At this point, the Christian world lost patience. Gregory’s Cardinals left him in Lucca and met up with some Avignon Cardinals in Pisa. They summoned an ecumenical council there, in the sublimely beautiful duomo with the famous leaning campanile.

Pisa duomo and tower

Yes, you read that correctly. The Cardinals, along with other churchman and reigning monarchs, summoned an ecumenical council, on their own authority. Christendom came together in 1409 (minus the two competing popes).

The Council Fathers enjoyed referring to Gregory not as Gregorius but as “Errorius” and to Benedict not as Benedictus but as “Benefictus,” in honor of his practice of selling benefices, or church offices, for cash.

The Council of Pisa condemned and deposed both. Then the Fathers chose another pope, who took the name Alexander V. (Now the world had three popes.) Alexander soon died. His successor: John XXIII.

This 15th-century Pope John attempted to hold an ecumenical council in Rome, just like the 20th-century Pope John ultimately would. But Pisan-pope John XXIII’s effort failed abysmally; hardly anyone came. Then the emperor of Germany convinced him to summon a council north of the Alps.

The Council met in Constance, accepted the resignations of both Gregory XII and “John XXIII,” deposed “Benedict XIII,” and elected Pope Martin V, who then returned the papacy to Rome. He lies now in the confessio of the papal cathedral, the Basilica of St. John Lateran.

st john lateran painting

Now, I hold unflinchingly to our Catholic faith in the papacy. (As I mentioned, I will delve into that soon.) That Catholic faith in the divinely instituted office of the Successor of St. Peter stipulates: an ecumenical council can only be convoked by the pope, or at least with the explicit permission of the pope.

We faithful Catholics have to acknowledge, however: Were it not for the Council of Pisa–manifestly not convoked by any pope–we might not know for sure who the pope is.

Yes, it’s true: the Lord in His Providence could have solved the problem of the Western Schism in some other way. Other, that is, than the Council of Pisa choosing a pope, who then had “John XXIII” for a successor, who then called the Council of Constance, which then gave us the indubitable Pope Martin V. The Lord could have saved the day by some other design, some course of events that did not include Cardinals and other senior churchmen calling a Council without a pope.

But the fact is that it happened the way it happened. Which explains why the Council of Pisa in 1409 is found neither on the list of official Catholic Ecumenical Councils nor on the list of condemned, not-real Councils.

Rome Bone Church Painting + Adventure in the Western Schism

The patron of the Catholic parish in Rocky Mount, Va: we mark the 795th anniversary of his death today.

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This Caravaggio painting hangs in the museum attached to the Capuchin Church of St. Mary of the Conception, in Rome.

I had the chance to gaze upon the painting, shortly before I flew home from Italy. It falls in my favorite category of paintings: St. Francis memento mori.

To be honest, I didn’t make a special trip to the “Bone Church” this time. I just stopped-in to kill an hour. The nondescript-looking building sits around the corner from the pharmacy where I had managed to get an appointment to have a coronavirus test. (I needed a negative, in order to board the plane the following day.)

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I had prayed in the Bone Church before, twenty years ago. It enraptured me then. It is an artistic masterpiece.

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Capuchin Crypt in Rome

This time, though, I came away with a different thought.

The graves that the anonymous 18th-century Franciscan artist disturbed, in order to decorate his unique chapels–those graves should have been left in peace. Yes, we need to remember how short life is, every day. But not by disturbing other peoples’ bones.

…Before I got to Rome, I visited a number of ancient cities in Tuscany. I encountered monuments from the 14th and 15th centuries, monuments that turned my little Italy trip into An Adventure in the Western Schism.

Dante Vergil Delacroix
The Barque of Dante by Delacroix

Back in 2013, we remembered Pope Celestine V, the last Roman pontiff to abdicate, prior to Benedict XVI.

(Do not confuse Celestine V with Celestine III, who reigned during St. Francis’ lifetime. The earlier Celestine wanted to abdicate, but the Cardinals talked him out of it.)

We have this in common with the great Florentine poet Dante: living through a period with two living popes. One reigning, one retired. Dante was 29 when Celestine renounced the throne of Peter, in 1294.

In the Divine Comedy, Dante puts Celestine V in the antechamber of hell. There dwell…

the souls unsure, whose lives earned neither honor nor bad fame…

neither rebellious to God nor faithful to Him.

[They] chose neither side, but kept themselves apart.

Now heaven expels them, not to mar its spendor,

and hell rejects them, lest the wicked of heart take glory over them.

Mercy and justice disdain them.

Benedict pallium Celestine V
Benedict lays his pallium on the coffin of Pope Celestine V, in 2009. (L’Osservatore Romano photo)

About Celestine himself, Dante writes:

I beheld the shade of him who make the Great Refusal,

impelled by cowardice, so at once I understood beyond all doubt that

[in this upper circle of hell we find]

the dreary guild repellent both to God and His enemies,

hapless ones never alive.

Anyway, Pope Boniface VIII succeeded Celestine V in late 1294. And thus began a dramatic century+ of history–history that unfolded, in part, in the cities I got to visit last month.

Ecumenical Councils were attempted in Pisa and successfully accomplished in Florence; the pope resided for a decisive week in Lucca; Rome had the first-ever jubilee year, with hundreds of thousands of visitors to the city–and shorlty thereafter the papacy moved to France, for three-quarters of a century.

More to come on all this…

Back Home + Reminder

Sorry, I forgot to include the mosaic on the facade of the Basilica of San Frediano in Lucca.

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Also the exterior of the duomo.

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And the facade of the basilica of San Michele. The church holds the tomb of St. Davino the Armenian.

San Davino of Armenia Lucca San Michele basilica

And this painting of Saints Rocco, Sebastian, Jerome, and Helen by Filippino Lippi.

Filippino Lippi San Michele Lucca

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I also had the chance to visit three of the five towns that make up the Cinque Terre, on the Ligurian coast. They each have a millennium-old church.

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Also, I got to visit Rome and the major basilicas there.

St Peters sunset

St John Lateran

St Mary Major

I happened upon the Rome marathon and tried to encourage the runners with shouts of “Bravi!”

Rome marathon

I did not stay at this particular hotel on the Via Cavour:

Rome Hotel Richmond

St Peters

I spent a long time standing in front of St. Peter’s, thinking about all that the place has meant to me, over the decades. I was here in winter 2001, when McCarrick and Bergoglio became Cardinals. And I was here just days before James Grein spoke to a New York Times reporter about McCarrick abusing him, in summer 2018.

I will have more to say about all that, and about how the city of Florence appears in Shakespeare’s All’s Well that Ends Well, not to mention the role that the Tuscan city-states played during the Western Schism in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, and Friar Girolamo Savonarola…

Becky Ianni Baltimore Sun
Baltimore Sun photo

But first let me remind you, dear reader, about the talk by Ms. Becky Ianni in our “I Survived, and I Have a Vision” speakers’ series. She will speak this Saturday, September 25, at 5:00pm, at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church on Fort Hunt Road in Alexandria VA.

Visiting St. Thomas II: Montecassino

The ancient* abbey where St. Thomas studied as a boy looms above the sweet little city of Cassino.

* That is, re-built…

…ater being destroyed completely by US bombs in February, 1944.

St. Thomas prayed at the tombs of Saints Benedict and Scholastica, which are now in a chapel below the high altar of the basilica.

The young student from nearby Aquino may have read this very biography of St. Benedict…

And this textbook of science…

He probably walked through this doorway (now preserved in the abbey museum).

And trod these floor tiles.

…In his treatise on justice in the Summa, St. Thomas considers some questions about criminal trials, including how many witnesses are required to establish a fact.

In the third objection in II-II q70 art2, St. Thomas quotes a medieval canon which decrees that, to establish a fact against a Cardinal, sixty-four witnesses are required.

This is of particular interest, considering:

St. Thomas approves of the (practically insuperable) requirement, with this argument:

The rule protects the Roman Church [that is, the College of Cardinals], on account of its dignity: and this for three reasons. First because in that Church those men ought to be promoted whose sanctity makes their evidence of more weight than that of many witnesses. Secondly, because those who have to judge other men, often have many opponents on account of their justice, wherefore those who give evidence against them should not be believed indiscriminately, unless they be very numerous. Thirdly, because the condemnation of any one of them would detract in public opinion from the dignity and authority of that Church, a result which would be more fraught with danger than if one were to tolerate a sinner in that same Church, unless he were very notorious and manifest, so that a grave scandal would arise if he were tolerated.

A lot to consider here; I promise to come back and discuss this thoroughly when I get back home.

In the meantime, though, we can say for sure that the judge in Massachusetts will not have such a high threshold, when it comes to allowing testimony. (Plus, McC is no longer a Cardinal anyway, as of summer 2018.)

In this case, I believe it will actually benefit the Holy See in the long run, that the word of one accuser–with plenty of circumstantial evidence to support what he has to say–will be allowed against this particular accused criminal.

There are a lot of facts that need to come out, and getting them out will, in the end, help the Church.

If you can hang tight until March, you will be able to read about many of those facts in Ordained by a Predator. Good Lord willing, the book will see print then.

The Cult of Secrecy

On November 21, 2019, Bishop Barry Knestout appeared unexpectedly at St. Francis of Assisi parish in Rocky Mount, Virginia. He insisted on meeting privately with me. (The bishop had the Vicar General with him.) The bishop then ordered me to turn off my cellphone.

St Francis of Assisi Rocky Mount
St. Francis of Assisi, Rocky Mount, Virginia

The bishop then read a document aloud to me, a “decree” he had written about my blog. As he read, I struggled to take it all in. The circumstances had jarred my nerves. I did not panic about missing some of what he read, however, because I assumed I would be able to read the document later at my leisure.

After reading the document aloud, the bishop rose to leave the premises. He informed me, to my great surprise, that I would not receive a printed copy. He said something about how I might be able to read it, but I didn’t catch what he said. All I remember is that under no circumstances whatsoever would I be allowed to make a copy.

It has been over a year and a-half since that visit. I have never laid eyes on the document the bishop read.

On May 5, 2020, Bishop Knestout suspended my priestly faculties. He forbade me celebrating the sacraments publicly.

In his letter to me that day, the bishop threatened me with an “interdict” if I published his correspondence to me. I’m not sure what that threat even means, to be honest. Nonetheless, he threatened it. If you publish my letters, you will be punished severely.

confessional

A penitent sinner going to confession has a right to expect secrecy from the priest.

Most sins are private. Only rarely in my priestly life has anyone confessed a sin to me that was also a crime. Under those circumstances, when the situation called for it, I told the penitent before absolution that he or she must do something to restore public justice–including submitting to the criminal justice system, in one case I remember.

Because a crime not only damages the soul of the sinner, it also disturbs public justice. A crime is not a private thing. That’s why “The People” or “The Country” or “The State of…” or “The United States” prosecutes crimes in court. Sins may be private, but crimes affect everyone.

Also not a private matter: the question of who will serve as the pastor of a parish, or whether a not a priest can celebrate the sacraments publicly.

Why would Bishop Knestout imagine that his removing me from office or suspending my faculties is a private matter? I was the pastor of two busy, medium-sized parishes. I celebrated the sacraments with people dozens of times a week. His removing me from office and suspending my faculties affected the lives of hundreds of people.

I bring all this up because Mr. Kieran Tapsell has written a helpful, concise analysis of the Vatican’s recent revision of the Code of Canon Law. Tapsell participated in the the Australian Royal Commission report on Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, which made recommendations about revising canon law.

canon law codex canoniciAs Americans we tend to take for granted that legal proceedings–especially criminal prosecutions–are public. It’s hard for Americans even to grasp how inherently secretive the Church’s canonical process actually is.

In our country, and countries like ours, trials take place in open court. Many take place in front of cameras. Reporters tell the public what happened. The general public has the right to read the final decisions, with attendant documents.

We take all this for granted because we think of court business as something that pertains to us, the body politic. We think that it pertains to us because it does.

The Australian Royal Commission recommended to the Vatican that canonical cases involving child sexual abuse be published, for the general public to read, with the identity of the victim(s) omitted.

mccarrickI made a similar plea early in 2019, regarding the McCarrick canonical case. I argued: the criminal ecclesiastical prosecution of a Cardinal Archbishop is not a private matter. The crimes involved affected the lives of thousands of Catholics.

When the pope defrocked McCarrick, the Vatican published less than one full paragraph of information about the case. To this day, we do not know on what evidence McCarrick was convicted and dismissed from the clerical state.

And the Vatican has rejected the Australian Royal Commission recommendation about child-sex abuse cases in general. The revised Code of Canon Law does not make any provision for giving the public any information about ecclesiastical criminal cases.

Tapsell laments:

The Vatican spokesman said, “Today the atmosphere is different, [when it comes to actually punishing criminal priests.]”

But it remains to be seen whether the Church’s courts actually agree with the spokesman’s claim. As the Church has not adopted the Royal Commission’s recommendation as to the publication of canonical court decisions, we will probably never know–until the next time the Church is required to hand over its records by another civil inquiry, or the United Nations.

The maintenance of secrecy over the Church’s disciplinary actions will not restore its reputation.

My friend Mark Vath has written an open letter to law enforcement officers in Louisiana. The occasion for Mark’s letter is this:

In December of last year, lawyers questioned a serial pedophile priest in a court deposition. The judge then ordered the deposition sealed, in deference to the bankruptcy proceedings of the Archdiocese of New Orleans.

Since law-enforcement agents have the right to look at the sealed deposition of Father Lawrence Hecker, Mark urges them to do so. Assess whether a felony cover-up has occurred. Make the information public.

Mark asks:

How can the public make an objective, logical, and rational decision as to the level of corruption involved, if the documents and testimonies remain sealed and locked away from public view?

Mark will speak, along with Richard Windmann, here in Virginia next month. They will speak in Martinsville on Sunday, July 25th and in Richmond on Monday, July 26th.

More details to follow, and don’t forget Chris O’Leary’s talks in Martinsville and Roanoke this coming Sunday and Monday 🙂

You’re Welcome, Your Holiness

pope francis mccarrick
September 23, 2015

In 2015, Pope Francis declared a “Year of Mercy.”

The following year, the pope published a book, The Name of God is Mercy.

On Ash Wednesday, 2016, the pope dispatched “Missionaries of Mercy.”

Shortly thereafter, the Vatican Secretary of State received a letter from then-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick.

McCarrick referred to his dealings with the Holy See over the course of the previous decade. The Vatican had attempted to get McCarrick to disappear quietly from the public stage. McCarrick had not co-operated with the cover-up scheme.

But in his March 8, 2016, letter to Cardinal Parolin, McCarrick offered to “retire to a holy place and pray for the salvation of my soul, instead of wandering around the world.”

Cardinal Parolin mentioned McCarrick’s letter to Pope Francis.

The pope already knew that McCarrick stood accused of abusing his authority to force seminarians into his bed. Archbishop Viganò, as well as Cardinal Becciu, had alerted the pope to McCarrick’s predations. The Vatican file contained testimony about McCarrick forcing a seminarian to put on a sailor suit and get into bed with him.

Pope Francis told Cardinal Parolin not to accept McCarrick’s March, 2016, offer to disappear.

“Maybe McCarrick could still do something useful,” the pope said.

[All of this is documented on pages 429-430 of the Vatican McCarrick Report.]

In September of 2018, I published an open letter to Pope Francis. (Before McCarrick was laicized through a secret procedure.)

I wrote:

Holy Father, you have spoken over and over again about the primacy of mercy. You misinterpreted what the moment demanded. For over a generation, no one has had any doubt that the Church knows how to act with mercy. The obvious problem we have is: the Church has forgotten how to act with severity. How can you not see that your former-Cardinal-Priest Theodore McCarrick has–in his brazen recklessness–exposed this colossal weakness?

What did the moment demand, when the first of McCarrick’s brother bishops learned of his predations? Mercy? Hardly. What did the moment demand, when you learned of it? Mercy? No. The moment demanded the just application of strict rules.

Do you not see how desperately the Church needs a severe father right now? A fearless and exacting enforcer of rules. A man whom sinners behold, and tremble.

Pope Francis Annuarium pontificum

Last week, the Holy Father published a decree revising the Code of Canon law.

In his letter announcing the change, the Holy Father wrote.

In the past, great damage was done by a failure to appreciate the close relationship existing in the Church between the exercise of charity and recourse — where circumstances and justice so require — to disciplinary sanctions.

This manner of thinking — as we have learned from experience — risks leading to tolerating immoral conduct, for which mere exhortations or suggestions are insufficient remedies. This situation often brings with it the danger that over time such conduct may become entrenched, making correction more difficult and in many cases creating scandal and confusion among the faithful.

For this reason, it becomes necessary for bishops and superiors to inflict penalties. Negligence on the part of a bishop in resorting to the penal system is a sign that he has failed to carry out his duties honestly and faithfully.

You’re welcome, Your Holiness. For the idea.

Allow me to point out, however, that you accuse yourself with your own words.

You were McCarrick’s bishop, his priestly father in God. From 2013 onward, only one man on earth had authority over Cardinal Theodore McCarrick.

You.

You were negligent. You failed to carry out your duties honestly and faithfully, just like Popes Benedict XVI and John Paul II failed to do, before you.

canon law codex canonici

Another person who deserves a big apology from the mitered mafia: Father Lauro Sedlmayer.

McCarrick abused his authority over Father Sedlmayer during the 1990’s, to obtain sexual gratification from the young, naive, foreign-born priest.

Sedlmayer tried to denounce McCarrick for his crimes. In response, the Diocese of Metuchen NJ and the Archdiocese of Newark proceeded to sue him in court.

On May 17, 2013, two months after Francis became our pope, the then-Bishop of Metuchen Paul Bootkoski wrote to Father Sedlmayer. The bishop insisted that Father had “violated Cardinal Theodore McCarrick’s rights.”

According to Bootkoski, Sedlmayer had “calumniated” McCarrick, because Sedlmayer publicly referred to McCarrick as a “predator.”

Bootkoski went on to stipulate in his letter: Sedlmayer could not continue in ministry as a priest unless he underwent intense supervision, therapy, and “spiritual direction.”

Meanwhile:

The Vatican knew perfectly well that calling McCarrick a “predator” did not involve calumny, or a violation of McCarrick’s rights. When Father Sedlmayer blanketed a parish parking lot with fliers calling McCarrick a predator, he spoke the truth, with justice.

The Vatican had more than enough evidence in hand to vindicate Father Sedlmayer in his accusations against McCarrick.

What did they do?

In the Vatican.

While a bishop mercilessly persecuted a priest who spoke the truth about Theodore McCarrick, the truth that they knew full well?

Nothing. Nothing at all.

In 2016, Bishop Bootkoski reached the normal retirement age, and the pope accepted his resignation, without any reference whatsoever to McCarrick, or to Father Sedlmayer’s decades of suffering at the hands of prelates who abused their authority.

Kinda makes you wonder:

Would they be doing anything at all at the Vatican, about McCarrick, now? Except that circumstances outside their control forced them to do something?

Last week’s revision to the Code of Canon Law changes canon 1395.3, which defines a crime, namely: A clergyman forcing someone to perform or submit to sexual acts by force or threat. The revised law adds the phrase “or by abuse of his authority.”

The pope first introduced that phrase into the rules in May of 2019.

I pointed out then:

I guess we could call this “The McCarrick Law.” Apparently, he clearly abused his authority to get sex. After all, the pope convicted him of breaking this law (even before it was on the books) in a summary administrative procedure, without a full trial.

But: If it was as clear as all that, why wasn’t McCarrick convicted by Pope Benedict, back in 2006? We generally regard Pope Benedict as a sober, upright man. Why didn’t he recognize a case of criminal abuse, if the matter was so crystal-clear?

McCarrick ordained me a transitional deacon 18 years ago today [May 13, 2019]. On that day, I thought of him as an amazingly talented, crushingly self-centered, charming tyrant. He gave the Archdiocese of Washington a huge amount of energy that it had not previously had. He appeared utterly uninterested in anything having to do with theology. He was a flawed man. He was no walking demon.

On May 13, 2001, many churchmen, who we then regarded as at least somewhat reasonable–including Pope John Paul II–knew something about McCarrick’s sexual life. They had not concluded that his actions amounted to crimes.

My point is: I think anyone who has ever served in the military knows: The line between criminal abuse of authority in a sexual relationship, on the one hand, and a consensual affair, on the other: by no means crystal-clear.

In Shakespeare’s Macbeth, both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth do grave evils. Who convinced whom to do them? Did Macbeth abuse his authority over his wife? Or did she seduce him into committing murder–to satisfy her ambition? The answer is: Yes.

Criminal laws on paper accomplish nothing without competent investigators, prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges–and principles of application of the laws, based on acquired experience. Pope Francis has given us: the paper. We don’t have the rest.

Denazification of the Church

Yesterday the Vatican presented to the world a three-year plan for holding Holy Meetings (Synods). The topic of the Holy Meetings? Holy Meetings.

A well-meaning Parish-Council chairman once asked me if we could hold a few council meetings–not about building plans or language barriers between parishioners, but about “the role of the Parish Council.” I replied, “Okay. But I would prefer that you beat me with rods. The ‘role’ of the Parish Council is to discuss actual problems with me.”

Geoffrey Chaucer

If Geoffrey Chaucer remained on earth with us, he could produce a fitting memorial to the three-year Vatican Synod on Synodality. It might include: “Roman Monsignor with an Outdated Laptop Tale,” and “Chancery Steubenville Grad Loses His Mind Tale,” and “Nun in a Pantsuit Tale.”

Seriously, though, I would like to propose an actual topic for universal discussion in our Church, during this “synodal journey.” I thank Mr. Chris O’Leary for giving me the idea, which he broached in one of his podcasts.

Chris has broken new ground in understanding the Catholic sex-abuse cover-up. He has uncovered evidence of a pattern that no one, to my knowledge, had identified before.

By studying priest-assignment records, Chris figured out that his parish was a “holding-tank” for criminal sex-abuser priests. The Archbishop of St. Louis regularly assigned such priests as parochial vicars there, one after another, for a quarter-century.

Sacrificed Chris O'LearyWhy?

Certainly not to protect children. Chris himself was abused by one of those parochial vicars–with the knowledge of then rectory-resident Father Timothy Dolan, now Cardinal-Archbishop of New York.

Chris speculates that the diocese used the parish as a holding-tank in order to protect the criminals from prosecution. The parish lies in a suburb that likely had policemen and judges who would not have prosecuted clergymen, or even arrested them, during the period that Chris has studied, the second half of the last century.

Chris raises the question: Was this a national, or even international, practice? Finding jurisdictions where sex-abuse arrests and prosecutions of priests wouldn’t happen, then assigning the criminals there?

We do not know. Hence, my proposal…

Hitler broken statue
(photo by Reg Speller)

Adolf Hitler presided over a criminal national government. The Nazis ruled Germany for over a decade, and they systematically violated the most-sacred laws that govern human society, the fundamental rules that protect the innocent and the weak from arbitrary violence. The Nazis did this without having to face justice, because they were in charge of all the nation’s institutions.

After the Allies finally defeated Hitler, the occupying powers faced the task of “denazifying” Germany. The Allies attempted to put on trial the Nazis who had abused their power of office during Hitler’s regime. And denazification also involved weeding-out from any position of authority anyone associated with the Nazi criminal enterprise.

The success of denazification is a matter of historical debate, but that’s not my point here.

The term that the United Nations now uses for this type of effort is: transitional justice. Recognize and account for the abuses of a criminal regime. Establish a means to keep the offenders out of power. Re-build a government based on human rights and genuine legal principles. Root out the corrosive ideology that justified the crimes of the old regime.

Don’t we need just such a process of “transitional justice” in our Church?

The Pennsylvania Grand-Jury Report of August, 2018, gave us a model of the kind of investigation we need, in every diocese, in every country in the world. We are, in fact, dealing with a kind of Holocaust. The Catholic sex-abuse crisis has cost thousands of lives, and God only knows how many souls.

And, as the Vatican’s McCarrick Report demonstrates–by its total absence of any accountability for any living prelate–the false governing ideology endures. Cover up. Cover it all up, in the name of preserving the irrational prerogatives claimed by the hierarchy: government by absolute, unchecked power.

In the Pennsylvania counties covered by the 2018 report, the grand jury uncovered a tip of a Greenland-sized iceberg.

In our diocese, the crimes and cover-ups remain hidden. One of our priests became the first bishop of Memphis, Tennessee. He was a criminal sex abuser. To this day, his victims live in the shadows. No one has been held accountable for helping the malefactor avoid justice under law. Bishop Knestout commissioned a secret “reconciliation” program which has successfully swept the whole business under the rug.

Instead of holding Holy Meetings about Holy Meetings, why not use this three-year process to discuss this problem and try to deal with it? To face the fact that our Church needs a “transitional justice” program? To conquer the culture of secrecy, weed-out cover-uppers, and re-establish the rule of law in our community?

The McCarrick of Wyoming

This is the second of the two posts I promised, proving that the current ecclesiastical hierarchy continues to operate according to this long-debunked, wrong-headed principle:

Sexual abuse is a shameful private matter that should be kept from the public eye. If people know that clergymen have committed this crime, they will lose the faith. Therefore, it should be hushed up, at any cost.

[click HERE for the first post proving the point]

BIshop Joseph Hart (Getty image)
Bishop Hart at center (Getty image)

Bishop Joseph Hart sexually abused a number of innocent young people, teenagers and pre-teens. The survivors of Hart’s crimes have tried, over the course of half a century now, to get the hierarchy of the Catholic Church to acknowledge the truth. It has led them only to disappointment and more pain.

Hart began his priestly ministry in the diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, in northwestern Missouri. (Not to be confused with the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas, a separate ecclesiastical province.) During his first assignment as a priest, Hart established a relationship with a large Catholic family, the Hunters. Father Hart became like a second father to the Hunter children.

Hart proceeded to molest three Hunter boys. He started with the eldest, Darrel, at age 12. Darrel manage to escape before anything serious happened.

Darrel’s younger brother Kevin was not so fortunate. In 1971, Hart took Kevin on a road trip through the southwest USA. Hart got Kevin drunk, forced the 14-year-old to sleep with him, and sexually abused him.

Kevin would never be the same after the trip. He became a drug addict and died at age 32, in 1989.

Michael Hunter was born between Darrel and Kevin. Hart groped Michael, beginning in 1963. Michael went on to lead the Kansas City chapter of the Survivors Network. He spent himself, trying to keep other survivors alive and healthy. Mike died of a heart attack in 2015, at age 66.

Here’s Darrel, Mike, and Kevin’s sister, Susie McClernon, in a 2019 Kansas City Star interview:

Another Hunter sister, Kathy Donegan, put it like this, in a 2019 interview:

Hart took my brother and best friend away from me. This body count is his legacy.

In 1969, Hart became the pastor of a new parish, St. John Francis Regis. He abused multiple boys there. One survivor, known as “John,” had lost his father at age six. John remembered Hart abusing him:

It occurred on the couch in the TV room of the rectory. Nobody else was there. He tickled me and rubbed against me, then he started moving his hand down. Then he unbuttoned my jeans and tried to unzip them. He was laughing the whole time.

I said, “Father, stop.” He said, “It’s OK.” After about ten minutes of fighting him off and nervous laughing, I took off. I ran through the living room and went home.

I was very confused. I didn’t tell anybody. About a week later, during class, I was walking down a hallway at school. We met, and he grabbed me. He held on to me. He said, “You’re a troublemaker. Nobody’s going to believe you. If you tell, you won’t see your dad again, because you’ll go to hell.”

Another survivor, who goes by the name John Doe E.K., volunteered at the St. John Francis Regis rectory, answering the phone. He remembers Hart groping and fondling him while they played basketball, “passing it off as mere sport.”

Mr. Gilbert Padilla also remembers Hart abusing him at St. John Francis Regis. Hart and his priest-friend Thomas O’Brien would take Padilla out of class, show him pornography, offer him drugs and alcohol, and molest him.

Thirteen-year-old Padilla tried to report the abuse to the principal in 1976. She told the boy, “That’s impossible. Priests are men of God.”

“John,” John Doe E.K., and Padilla were not the only boys at St. John Francis Regis that Hart abused. Like McCarrick and his partners in crime, Hart and Co. had a vacation house to use. This one was on Lake Viking, northeast of Kansas City.

Mr. Pat Lamb recalls O’Brien, Hart, and another priest, Thomas Reardon, taking him and other boys, including Kevin Hunter, to the lake house. The priests offered the boys whiskey-and-cokes, then fondled them.

Lamb remembers:

We were too afraid to tell anyone else, because it was just embarrassing for us. I mean, these men were well-known priests. Who was going to believe us? But we did try to warn other boys not to go to Lake Viking.

Hart became a bishop in Wyoming in 1976. He flew “John” from Kansas City to Wyoming, gave him alcohol, and abused him in a hotel room. John thought: “How do you say no to a bishop?”

Meanwhile, “Martin” was volunteering around the parish where Bishop Hart lived, in Cheyenne. Martin, too, had lost his father. The family relied on the Church for assistance. Martin’s mother worked at the school.

One day, Hart insisted on hearing Martin’s confession. Martin recalls:

Somehow when I was with the bishop, I always had to get naked. I had to show him what I did when I had my impure thoughts. I had to sleep in bed with Hart and change into a bathing suit in front of him.

Looking back, Martin reflects:

Why didn’t I say no? Because I didn’t want my mother to lose her job and everything that the church was giving us.

Hart had threatened Martin with these consequences, if the boy did not comply.

Martin was not the only Wyoming boy that Hart abused. There were at least five others.

Gilbert Padilla w David Biersmith
Gilbert Padilla (with David Biersmith) Reuters image

As I mentioned, Gilbert Padilla first reported Hart’s crimes in 1976. Another of Hart’s Missouri victims (who remains anonymous) reported Hart to the diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph in 1989.

In 1992, the Hunter family tried to tell diocesan officials how Hart had destroyed their family. They were shocked when the Vicar General arrived at the meeting with a lawyer, whose first question was, “How much do you want?”

The diocese offered the surviving Hunters free counseling. The Kansas City Star discovered that the counselors were instructed to report back to the diocese about what the Hunter sisters said in therapy.

In 1993 the diocese told the Hunters that Hart had submitted voluntarily to an “evaluation” in Arizona, which had determined that he “posed no threat to himself or others.” When the Hunters reported this information publicly, the Vicar General accused them of lying. The VG insisted that he would not pass judgment on the credibility of anything the Hunters had told him.

According to later disclosures, the diocese of KC-StJ notified the Vatican in 1993 about what the Hunters had told the Vicar General. In Wyoming, Hart apparently managed to cover the whole business up completely.

Also in 1993, “John” reported the abuse he had suffered from Hart to the diocese in Missouri. The Vicar General bought John a truck, using $12,100 of the diocese’s cash. The VG demanded that John sign a document forswearing any further financial claims against the diocese.

In September 2001, Hart retired from his position as diocesan bishop at age 70, five years early. By the following January, when the Boston Globe began publishing its Spotlight series (which had been delayed in publication several months, owing to the 9/11 attacks), Hart was conveniently on a sabbatical outside of Wyoming.

In 2002, John Doe E.K. reported his abuse to church officials in Missouri, and “Martin” reported his to the police in Wyoming. Martin says he came forward primarily to support the Hunters, who had become pariahs in the Catholic community for telling the truth about a “beloved Kansas-City priest” who became a bishop.

marc cardinal ouellet
Marc Card. Ouellet, prefect of the Vatican’s Congregation of Bishops

Hart’s successor as bishop of Wyoming, David Ricken (who now serves as bishop of Green Bay, Wisconsin) claimed in April of 2002 that he never heard anything about Hart’s crimes until that month.

Ricken promptly issued a pastoral letter, assuring the faithful that he believed in Hart completely. Ricken insisted that everything had been investigated previously by the diocese in Missouri, and Hart had been exonerated. Bishop Ricken went on:

Sometimes those who have been hurt project their memories onto someone they have known who may not actually have been the perpetrator.

Meanwhile, back in Missouri, the Vicar General of KC-StJ diocese claimed that “John” had never actually made a credible report of abuse by Hart. And in Wyoming, a state prosecutor conducted an “investigation” into Martin’s charges–by trying to blame Martin.

In August of 2008, the diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph paid $10 million to 47 survivors of abuse committed by twelve priests, including Hart. The then-bishop, Robert Finn, made a blanket public apology for the priests’ “behavior.” (Finn later had to resign from office, after having been convicted in civil court of child-abuse cover-up.)

In 2011, Padilla filed a lawsuit against the diocese, for covering-up for Hart.

Meanwhile, in Wyoming, in 2009 Bishop Paul Etienne (currently bishop of Seattle) succeeded Ricken in the bishop’s chair that Hart had occupied for the last quarter of the 20th century.

Hart continued to live the adulated life of a bishop emeritus, in spite of having been named in a $10 million sex-abuse settlement in Missouri. Martin’s family met with Etienne and insisted that something be done.

Etienne apparently did not share Ricken’s certainty that Hart was innocent. Etienne privately asked the Vatican to open an investigation. The Vatican did nothing. Etienne nonetheless quietly “restricted” Hart’s ministry, prohibiting the retired bishop from celebrating the sacraments publicly.

In 2017, Bishop Steven Biegler succeeded Etienne in Wyoming. Before he left, Etienne told Biegler about Hart. Biegler continued to “restrict” Hart’s ministry.

Biegler then hired an investigator to put together a full report. Hart declined to be interviewed. The investigator’s report went to the police and to the Vatican. The report remains secret, and there is no public record of who the investigator was.

Biegler announced his actions in 2018. He  did numerous press interviews, including this one with Wyoming public radio:

Biegler stated unequivocally that he believes Hart’s accusers. The bishop urged the police to re-open the investigation. (Wyoming has no statute of limitations on prosecuting criminal sex abuse of minors.)

Biegler released a public letter which revealed that Etienne had “previously” restricted Hart’s ministry, and that the Congregation of Bishops in Rome had now extended that restriction to include all the dioceses of the Church. Biegler also decided to remove Hart’s name from a building at the St. Joseph’s Children’s Home, northeast of Cheyenne.

Biegler declared:

I hope that our investigation will lead to a final determination by the Vatican that the sexual abuse allegations against Bishop Hart are credible and require disciplinary action.

Apparently, a few months later, in October 2018, the Vatican secretly ordered Hart to stay out of sight, just as they had done with McCarrick a decade earlier.

holy-office
The Holy Office, seen through the colonnade of St. Peter’s Square. Bishop Hart’s Vatican trial occurred there.

Last summer, the Wyoming prosecutor decided not to move forward with any charges against Hart. Then, last month, the Vatican returned its verdict. Not guilty.

Not guilty.

According to Bishop Biegler, however, the Vatican did issue a “canonical rebuke” of Bishop Hart. According to Biegler, the Vatican declared:

Hart showed flagrant lack of prudence for being alone with minors, which could have been potential occasions endangering the obligation to observe continence [ie, refrain from sex], and that would give rise to scandal among the faithful. Hart disregarded [our] urgent requests that he refrain from public engagements that would cause scandal among the faithful due to the numerous accusations against him.

Bishop Biegler has now revealed that, in October 2018, the Vatican secretly prohibited Hart from having any contact with “youth, seminarians, and vulnerable adults.”

Now, let’s acknowledge: Convicting someone of a crime requires a convincing amount of evidence. It is up to the judge or jury to determine whether or not the prosecution has proved its case.

scales_of_justiceThe Vatican judge in Hart’s case–whoever he may be; his identity is secret–he had all the evidence I have presented here, and more. That judge decided it was not enough. That judge will have to answer to God for his decision.

Perhaps we have a serious discrepancy in our Church over what constitutes abuse? As we remember, in the McCarrick case, the Vatican refused to condemn him for forcing subordinates to sleep in the same bed with him. Even though, outside the Church, pretty much everyone would see such a thing as an egregious offense worthy of swift and decisive discipline.

Maybe the same problem operates here in the Hart verdict? [WARNING Rated R] Maybe Hart has managed to escape conviction because no one presented evidence of actual anal penetration? Even though the abuses that he did commit have let a trail of broken lives a mile wide?

We do not know the answer to such questions because:

Secrecy still rules in holy mother Church. Leaving the rest of us with no idea whatsoever about how “justice” gets done. Indeed, we are left with the impression that there is no justice at all.

Hart will soon have to answer to the Lord, and the survivors of his crimes lost faith in the Church bureaucracy a long time ago.

The endless secrecy is the deeper problem. The hierarchy–with the possible exception of Bishop Steven Biegler, who has got to be pretty daggone disillusioned at this point–clearly still prefers secrecy over public accountability. Two decades of promises of “transparency” have proven to be nothing but empty words, public-relations damage control.

Shame on them when we believed them the first time. Shame on us for believing them every time since then.

The Church will declare Bishop Joseph Hart neither innocent nor guilty. The important thing is that he vanish from sight. That is the modus operandi. Still.

It is a cruel way to do things, scandalous in and of itself. That a bishop is a criminal? Not a scandal; every corner of the world has its criminals, after all. But when the hierarchy fights to the bitter end to bury the crimes of clergymen in secret files forever–that does scandalize people. It causes loss of faith.

It communicates this attitude: The suffering of the survivors does not concern us. Let them endure it, in silent, isolated agony. Let them remain estranged from the sacraments of Christ. None of that is the Vatican’s concern.

The Prefects of the Roman dicasteries involved in the Hart case, Cardinals Ladaria and Ouellet, have themselves certainly orchestrated a good number of cruel cover-ups like this one. In their benighted world, such “discretion” accrues to their credit as churchmen.

What they obtusely fail to recognize is: Their efforts to protect the precious reputation of the ecclesiastical hierarchy have succeeded only in ruining it.