jason berry author

Papal princes immune to censure


ANALYSIS: The Catholic Church’s hypocrisy starts right at the top of the organisation, writes JASON BERRY

THE DUBLIN diocesan report spotlights the crisis tearing at the Catholic Church's central nervous system. At issue is the Vatican's pathological obsession with protecting guilty church officials.

Since the 1990s, the Vatican has forced at least 15 bishops and one cardinal (the late Hans Hermann Groer of Austria) to step down for sexual abuse of youngsters. The Vatican has defrocked dozens of priests but not one bishop has been so punished – they have been removed from office but not from the priesthood.

Irish-born Anthony O’Connell, who abused three seminarians, resigned as bishop of Palm Beach, Florida in spring 2002. A titular bishop still, he lives in a South Carolina monastery.

Rome's double standard cloaks prelates guilty of covering up too. Cardinal Bernard Law, whose duplicity in Boston ignited the 2002 scandal, resigned in "disgrace". But after 16 months in a Maryland convent, Law became pastor of a great basilica in Rome.

The Vatican ignores justice to protect bishops in their role as regents to the pope.

The Roman curia's injustice is embedded in the youth protection charter that US bishops adopted at their June 2002 convention. The charter pledged to remove any priest who abused a youth; it called for lay review boards to monitor allegations. But the Vatican insisted that bishops be removed from the scope of those boards.

In 1989, as the first wave of abuse survivors’ lawsuits hit America, the bishops sent canon lawyers to Rome, seeking permission to defrock paedophiles. Pope John Paul II said no. After years in Poland leading the opposition to communism, John Paul wanted clerics who might sin given every chance to repent. No bishop should usurp his supreme authority over canon law.

In 2002, I interviewed a Vatican canon lawyer. He explained that US bishops had failed to hold canonical trials of priests. Moreover, he said with exasperation that diocesan tribunals "violated grandly – terribly – the annulments of marriage".

I asked what marriage annulments had to do with paedophiles? "Laxity on annulments set up a resistance to special norms [ie, laws] for paedophiles," he simmered. "The attitude here in 1989, at the Holy See, was that you have legal provisions. Use them."

Clergy personnel files were being disgorged in discovery proceedings as lawyers for the survivors won six-figure settlements.

Subpoenas would yield documents of canonical trials. If a jury knew the bishop had convicted a priest, but Rome had yet to laicise him, imagine the impact.

The crisis grew in Ireland, Canada, Australia and America – countries that share a base in British common law which allows surgical discovery for lawyers and governments seeking documents.

Italy's politicised legal system invests such power with magistrates who are famously uninterested in crimes of the church. The Italian press has comparatively few cases to report – hence, "an American problem".

John Paul's long myopia on the crisis complicates his case for sainthood. Why did the pope, so brilliant a force against communism, stand passive before the worst Catholic scandal in centuries? Under pope John Paul, several Vatican congregations processed such complaints. It was a diffuse system, with justice an afterthought.

In 1998, Fr Marcial Maciel Degollado, founder of the Legion of Christ order, was accused of paedophilia by eight former seminarians at the tribunal of then cardinal Joseph Ratzinger's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

Pope John Paul revered Maciel and the ultra-orthodox legionaries. So did Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the secretary of state.

Scion of a wealthy Mexican family, Maciel built a basilica in Rome while wooing Vatican officials with money, wines, lavish gifts (a new car for one lucky prelate), cementing a power base in Rome. Cardinal Sodano pressured cardinal Ratzinger to halt the Maciel case. The legion website mounted an attack on Maciel’s accusers.

That caused Dublin native Paul Lennon, an ex-legion priest and therapist in Alexandria, Virginia, to launch Regain, a website showing how Maciel’s psychological tyranny shaped the legion, whose priests abused young men at the order's novitiates in Dublin and Ontaneda, Spain. In 2001, cardinal Ratzinger persuaded the pope to give his office central authority for handling paedophiles.

When the Boston scandal erupted in 2002, pope John Paul called clergy abuse "an appalling sin" yet he absolved bishops for "lack of knowledge" and scorned “the advice of the clinical experts".

In late 2004, with the pope dying, cardinal Ratzinger ordered an investigation of Maciel. In May 2006, as Pope Benedict XVI, Ratzinger dismissed Maciel from active ministry after at least 30 men testified to their abuse.

The Vatican communiqué ordered Maciel to "a life of prayer and penitence" while praising the legion. The legionaries' statement compared Maciel to Jesus, accepting his new cross in "tranquility of conscience". Nothing was admitted.

Maciel, the greatest fundraiser of the modern church, oversaw a $650 million budget. When he died last year, the legion announced that he went to heaven. There was not a word from the Vatican.

In February, the legion revealed that Maciel had a grown daughter out of wedlock. Journalists in Spain and Mexico have since reported Maciel had six children by two women.

A Mexican attorney has demanded compensation for Maciel’s progeny, arguing that legion officials have long known of Maciel’s double life. How could they not?

The Vatican is now investigating the legion. If Pope Benedict fails to deal with this organisation, his papacy will go down as a “dictatorship of relativism” for its own betrayal of justice.