CLERICAL SEXUAL ABUSE REACHES THE TOP
McCarrick and Pell – two Cardinals who climbed to the peak of power within the Catholic Church are now reaping the results of sexual abuse of minors and will live for the rest of their days in shame and humility.
The 89-year-old McCarrick is in a friary in Kansas. Pell, 77, is incarcerated in Melbourne, Australia.
These two powerful men – both of whom I have interviewed and seen on many occasions as I covered the Vatican in the past – are the bookends on a heartbreaking couple of weeks covering the Vatican Sexual Abuse of Minors summit of Bishops at the Vatican.
Pope Francis called 190 bishops to Rome last week for a four-day summit to discuss the sexual abuse of minors by the clergy as he struggles to defend his papacy and the credibility of the Catholic Church around the globe under the steady drip of reports of abuse.
Days before the summit was to open, a short Vatican bulletin announced what journalists in Rome had been waiting for all week, the defrocking of the once powerful Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of Washington for “solicitation in the Sacrament of Confession, and sins against the Sixth Commandment with minors and with adults, with the aggravating factor of the abuse of power.”
For decades McCarrick was a dominant figure in the Catholic Church in the United States where he was Archbishop of Washington, rubbing elbows with Presidents and Popes. I had interviewed him several times on his visits to Rome and was struck by his apparent decency and sincerity. He was the leader on the “zero-tolerance” front at the time. Appearances can be deceiving, and I was not the only one to be fooled.
This week we have the news the Cardinal Pell of Australia has been convicted of molesting two choirboys in Australia in the 1990s. Pope Francis asked the apparently confident and capable Australian to head the Vatican’s Financial office and to clean it up after years of corruption and mismanagement, now he is in prison.
Summit organizers promised that listening to the victims of clerical abuse would be central to the summit and several were invited to tell their stories to the bishops gathered inside the Vatican.
Outside the Vatican walls there were hundreds of journalists and dozens of survivors who descended on Rome to protest, demand answers from the Church and to share their stories. I will begin with some of those.
The survivors of clergy sexual abuse are young and old, male and female. Dozens of them came to Rome this during the summit in the hopes that by repeating again their painful stories to journalists, to bishops, to anyone who would listen, that somehow they could change the church and save other children from going through similar pain and anguish.
“…when I was 11 years old, a priest from my parish destroyed my life. Since then I, who loved coloring books and doing somersaults on the grass, have not existed. Instead, engraved in my eyes, ears, nose, body and soul, are all the times he immobilized me, the child, with superhuman strength: I desensitized myself, I held my breath, I came out of my body, I searched desperately for a window to look out of, waiting for it all to end. I thought: “If I don’t move, maybe I won’t feel anything: if I don’t breathe, maybe I could die.”
When it did end, I would take back what was my wounded and humiliated body, and I would leave, even believing I had imagined it all. But how could I, a child, understand what had happened? I thought: “It must have been my fault!” or “Maybe I deserved this bad thing?” These thoughts are worse wounds than the abuse, and the abuse, insinuates into your heart, more than the wounds that lacerate your body. I felt I wasn’t worth anything anymore. I felt I didn’t even exist. I just wanted to die: I tried to…but I couldn’t. The abuse went on for five years. No one noticed.”
While this story was being told to bishops inside the Vatican, outside in the square, I was speaking to Denise Buchanan, a victim and founding member of Ending Clergy Abuse. She told me that she was born in Jamaica and when she was 17, she was raped and assaulted by a priest and it resulted in a pregnancy. The priest arranged for her abortion.
I listened to the painful story of Mary Dispenza who was repeatedly sexually abused by her parish priest as a little girl.
At a press conference I covered at the Italian parliament, Pennsylvania State representative Mark Rozzi told us he could not take a shower without remembering how he was raped by a priest in the rectory shower. Rozzi’s friend who suffered similar abuse killed himself.
I interviewed Chilean abuse victim Juan Carlos Cruz at an Airbnb apartment in the Borgo, the small Roman neighborhood next to the Vatican. Cruz was among those victims who forced the Pope into an about-face on abuse by church leaders in Chile and he has become a leader among abuse victims. After at first refusing to accept all the allegations surrounding the abuse in Chile, Pope Francis invited Cruz to the Vatican and spent time listening to him and seeking his advice.
Cruz, like many of the victims I spoke to, had a fragility about him and at several points seemed on the point of tears and then pulled back.
One morning a group of victims gathered in Rome’s Piazza del Popolo, among them survivors of abuse from the Antonio Provolo Institute in Verona.
From 1954 to 1984 about 60 children living in the Provolo Institute for the deaf in Verona were sexually abused in horrific ways by 25 priests who were convinced the children’s disability would prevent them from being reported. An investigative journalist from the Italian magazine “Espresso” eventually revealed all and the Institute was closed down with only two priests being reprimanded for their behavior. One of them was sent to Argentina where he founded an institute of the same name and where he continued to abuse the deaf children who attended the school.
A HISTORY OF SECRECY, COVER-UP AND RESISTANCE AT THE VATICAN
The Church has for decades made its priority protecting the image of the institution by covering up abusers, moving them from one place to another and maintaining a code of silence.
The most notorious case in recent memory was that of Marcial Marciel, the Mexican founder of the Legion of Christ, a Catholic religious institute with hundreds of priests and seminarians around the world. Starting in 1941, Marciel, a magnetic leader with a talent for fund-raising, built it into a cult-like order with seminaries in 21 countries and hundreds of young men training to become priests. Among the order’s vows included one that would not allow legionaries to comment or criticize the behavior of their superiors.
This came in handy for Marciel who sexually abused seminarians, and fathered children from several different women.
Marcel flourished under the papacy of John Paul II.
In 2004, then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who was running the office of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, began an investigation into the Legion and then in 2006 Pope Benedict XVI forced him to retire to a “life of prayer and repentance.”
Mexican journalist Valentina Alazraki, who has covered the Vatican since the 1970s, from the end of the Papacy of Pope Paul VI to today, was invited to speak at the Vatican abuse summit about transparency. During her speech she reminded the bishops of the Marcel case.
Here is what she said:
“I witnessed this grim case from beginning to end. Aside from the moral justice over the crimes committed by that man, who according to some was mentally ill and to others an evil genius, I assure you that at the basis of that scandal, which did so much harm to thousands of people, to the point of tarnishing the memory of one who is now a saint, there was unhealthy communication.
One need not forget that in the Legion there was a fourth vow according to which if a Legionaire saw something he was uncertain of regarding a superior, he could neither criticize much less comment about it.
Without this censure, without this total concealment, had there been transparency, Marcial Maciel would not have been able, for decades, to abuse seminarians and to have three or four lives, wives and children, who came to accuse him of having abused his own children.
For me this is the most emblematic case of unhealthy, corrupt communication, from which various lessons can and must be learned.
Pope Francis told the Curia that in other eras, in addressing these subjects, there was ignorance, lack of preparation, and disbelief. I dare say that there was also corruption.
Behind the silence, the lack of healthy, transparent communication, quite often there is not only the fear of scandal, concern for the institution’s good name, but also money, compensation, gifts, construction permits for schools and universities perhaps in areas where construction was not permitted. I am speaking of what I have seen and thoroughly investigated.
Pope Francis always reminds us that the devil enters through the pockets, and he is absolutely right. Transparency will help you to fight economic corruption.”
The Church has not just been protecting its reputation, it’s protecting its purse.
In Boston we first got a glimpse at the Church’s code of silence in 2002 with “The Boston Globe” investigation that showed Cardinal Bernard Law quietly covering up the abuses and moving pedophile priests to new parishes.
When asked about the “code of silence” at a press conference just days before the summit, Archbishop Charles Scicluna, one of the summit organizers and the Vatican’s main investigator of abuses, insisted that those days are gone….“we have to face the facts because only truth, the truth of the matter and confronting the facts will make us free.”
Valentina Alazraki warned the bishops that it is useless trying to remain silent and to attempt to cover a scandal saying: “it is like covering the sky with a finger.”
Pope Francis has vowed that this will now change. He is demanding transparency that the church turns over abusers to civil authorities to pursue justice. No more covering up. It isn’t exactly clear though how the Pope and the Vatican intends to enforce this around the globe. Last week they said the right things, but everyone is still waiting for precise rules.
But what we journalists were hearing from the summit organizers and the press office is not the whole picture. There is a lot of resistance within the Vatican. I met a couple times during the summit with Marco Politi, a senior Vatican analyst and most recently author of “Francis Among the Wolves.” He said there is a strong opposition to Francis’ efforts within the Vatican with both “sabotage” and “passivity” from bishops and clergy who do not want transparency.
I asked Peter Isely, a victim and Board Member of “Ending Clergy Abuse” what he thought about resistance to the Pope’s efforts as we stood near St. Peter’s. “He is facing resistance? Let me tell you what is was like to try and have to resist that priest when I was a boy who was sexually assaulting me,” Peter snapped, then turning to point to the basilica behind him he added, “So whatever difficulty for him or discomfort this is for anybody in the papal palace, it is nothing compared to what survivors have had to undergo.”
Over and over again the question of homosexuality in the Church came up this week. Across the board, survivors and Vatican officials agreed there is no link between homosexuality and pedophilia despite the insistent claims by Francis’ conservative critics, led by the retired Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano’, the Vatican’s retired ambassador to Washington. Vigano’, the most vocal enemy of Pope Francis, and a strident homophobe has been crystal clear on the topic (the letter he released last August while the Pope was visiting Ireland makes some interesting reading.)
But last week it was Federic Martel, a gay rights activist and author, who dragged the issue again into the limelight with the release of his new book “In the Closet of the Vatican: Power Homosexuality, Hypocrisy.” Martel then showed up in Rome for a packed press conference to promote it.
Martel spent four years researching his book and proudly said he collaborated with 27 gay priests who live and work in the Vatican. He said he spent extensive time inside the Vatican even spending weeks sleeping inside the walls as he interviewed dozens of cardinals, bishops, monsignors, ambassadors and 11 Swiss Guards, eight retired, three in service.
In a packed and testy press conference at the Foreign Press Association in Rome, Martel, oozing confidence and charisma, repeatedly fended off attacks from Vatican correspondents who questioned his accuracy. At one point a Vatican correspondent insisted that Martel could not have spoken with an on duty Swiss Guards, that he had invented the contact. Martel coolly picked up his phone and held up a number. “Here is his cell, want to call him?”
Another questioned his claim to have been in the apartment of Cardinal Raymond Burke. Martel reeled off the address and described the apartment.
Martel explained that as a gay man and a non-Italian, a journalist who does not normally cover the Vatican, he was the only one who could write this book, “as a homosexual, I know the codes,” adding that he used “flirtation” and “seduction,” without actually sleeping with anyone.
Martel made the link between sexual abuse of minors and homosexuality explaining:
“The link is about the coverup and we cannot discuss sexual abuse if we are not discussing the cover-up….since Paul VI, the Church has created an extremely strong culture of secrecy to protect the homosexuality of a large, extremely large number of Cardinals, Bishops and priests within the Vatican. This secret is extremely protected, extremely deep…. It is a closet, but not a big closet, hundreds of little closets with everybody in his own closet. The problem is that some abusers that commit crimes within the church were protected by this culture of secrecy that was mainly to protect homosexuality and it was used to protect them even though the culture was not created to protect abuse. And the two things are intrinsically mixed up. And this is why it is extremely difficult to find a solution and to go out of this confusion.”
That there are a lot of homosexuals in the closet in the Vatican is no secret to anyone, that this is a reason to cover up abuse is an interesting theory to think about.
There was a lot of discussion in the weeks prior to the summit about the abuse of nuns by priests and bishops partly thanks to reporting by AP’s Nicole Winfield. The Pope himself acknowledged to the press on his return flight from Abu Dhabi that is it a huge problem that needs to be addressed. There is even a new hashtag for it: #nunstoo
Interestingly, I remember being sent out with a cameraman to run after any African nuns I could find around St. Peter’s Square back in 2001 when a scathing report came out about Cardinals, Bishops and priests in abusing nuns, taking them as lovers and forcing them to have abortions. But somehow that report was ignored by the Vatican and then we all forgot about it.
I interviewed a nun named Sister Bernadine Pemii a few days before the summit. She had just finished a training course on how to handle cases of sexual abuse at the Gregorian University in Rome. She told me how she had to talk her bishop back in Ghana through one case, telling him that he must meet with and listen to the person who had been abused. She said without her guidance from Rome “It would have been covered. There would have been complete silence.” She also told me about a woman who wanted to become a nun but then was harassed by a priest. She said she was going to go back and change things but she had already received text messages from priests in her diocese saying “some of us don’t want to see you come back.”
It is certainly an uphill battle, but nuns are next.
Alazraki, in concluding her remarks to the bishops warned them about the abuse of nuns telling them that they are on the “threshold of another scandal” and suggested the “Church play offense and not defense” and “take the initiative and be on the forefront of denouncing these abuses, which are not only sexual but also abuses of power.”
DIVERSITY OF OUTLOOKS
The problem with the issue of sexual abuse or abuse of power whether it is minors, nuns or seminarians who are the victims, is that it is seen very differently depending on whether you are in Ghana, India, France, the US, Ireland or somewhere else on the globe. And that is what is complicated about the Catholic Church where you have 1.3 billion Catholics in the world in nearly 3,000 dioceses (Vatican statistics).
I stopped Bishop Samuel Kleda from Cameroon as he was coming out of the summit meetings one day, his black robes with fuchsia piping blowing about in the wind. Tall and with a commanding presence, he spoke at length about how these problems are different in Cameroon, that problems like this are discussed in the community and, if necessary, a chief can help resolve them. He seemed slightly perplexed by the need in western nations for seeking justice through civil authorities.
Moments later Bishop Eamon Martin from Armagh, Ireland came out trailed by his press aide and was surrounded by a group of reporters near the Colonnade. Martin also pointed out the differences, “ Some cultures have not yet experienced the amount of revelations that we have say in Ireland and in other parts of the West. But we have been trying to communicate to them: listen, just because it hasn’t come forward doesn’t mean it is not there and, therefore, we need to be working on prevention, on education and we need to have very clear guidelines.”
The last evening of the conference, I covered a briefing by French Bishop Georges Pointier, Archbishop of Marseille. He explained that after the speeches, the bishops broke up into working groups based on language. The French-language group had a lot of French speaking countries from West Africa and Vietnam. Pontier noted that the bishops from those countries seemed to feel sincerely uncomfortable discussing questions of sexuality and abuse so openly.
On several occasions during the conference individuals mentioned the context. If a priest is working in a war zone, or an area of extreme poverty where there is lack of sufficient food, or running water addressing questions of abuse slide down the priority list.
Italians certainly have no problem talking about sexual abuse, but this week I learned that there is a huge problem when it comes to investigations of sexual abuse by clergy in Italy. In a press conference with Francesco Zanardi, a survivor of sexual abuse and head of the Italian Abuse Network, I learned that the Lateran Pacts, an agreement made between Benito Mussolini and the Vatican in 1929 separating the Italian State from the Vatican State, includes a requirement from an investigating magistrate to notify a bishop of any priest being investigated by Italian authorities. Zanardi said this law has allowed bishops to transfer problem priests, and give hush money to victims and witnesses.
All this to say that even if Pope Francis makes all the right moves regarding sexual abuse, he still has a huge challenge trying to impose rules in far-flung dioceses with different cultures, customs and priorities and even close at home in Italy where a decades-old treaty impairs justice.
CELIBACY AND WOMEN’S ORDINATION
Celibacy is one of the issues that many believe is linked to the problem of clerical sexual abuse. In my humble opinion, it seems obvious that repressed sexuality can create some depraved behavior, particularly in lonely or unstable individuals. But the topic was not on the table at this summit. Vatican officials deny that celibacy has anything to do with pedophilia saying that there is ample evidence of pedophile behavior among people who are not celibate.
Another issue that did not make it to the conference table was women’s ordination. The Vatican is not going to even think about that, but some bishops are willing to accept that more women in positions of power in the church would help.
POPE FRANCIS WEIGHS IN
The extraordinary summit ended with a penitential mass in the magnificent Sala Regia at the Vatican. After days of speeches and group discussions, the bishops, dressed in green cloaks, finally got to hear the Pope’s closing speech.
Vatican correspondents receive the Pope’s embargoed speeches shortly before delivery and I quickly printed out the speech so I could scan it for soundbites. I was surprised to see the entire first page was dedicated to the wider issue of sexual abuse in our society. He spoke about sexual tourism, sex trafficking, abusers who are “parents, relatives, husbands of child brides, coaches and teachers.”
He should not go there, I thought. That is a no-go. He needs to stay on point: Clerical Sexual Abuse.
We all know boy scout leaders, gymnastic coaches and uncles can be pedophiles, but that is not what the conference was about. It always looks bad when Vatican officials defend themselves saying others are worse.
The rest of his speech was hard-hitting.
“The brutality of this worldwide phenomenon becomes all the more grave and scandalous in the Church, for it is utterly incompatible with her moral authority and ethical credibility. Consecrated persons, chosen by God to guide souls to salvation, let themselves be dominated by their human frailty or sickness and thus become tools of Satan. In abuse we see the hand of the evil that does not spare even the innocence of children,”
…the Church has now become increasingly aware of the need not only to curb the gravest cases of abuse by disciplinary measure and civil and canonical processes, but also to decisively confront the phenomenon both inside and outside the Church. She feels called to combat this evil that strikes at the very heart of her mission, which is to preach the Gospel to the little ones and to protect them from ravenous wolves.”
And that was that until the next day when Cardinal Pell was sent to prison in Australia.
While McCarrick and Pell are my bookends on this period of intense media attention to the Vatican handling and involvement in sexual abuse by minors, sadly the book shelf is already weighed down with stories of abuse and is sure to be filled up with more.
A final quote from one of the more powerful speakers at the summit, Sister Veronica Openibo, the Superior General of the Society of the Holy Child Jesus, was compelling. She told the gathering of 190 men before her “Too often we want to keep silent until the storm has passed. This storm will not pass. Our credibility is at stake.”
She is right.