Clergy

Catholic beat memo: Ongoing questions linger on who knew what and when regarding McCarrick

Catholic beat memo: Ongoing questions linger on who knew what and when regarding McCarrick

In a world where technology has forced the news cycle to speed up, the constantly-changing developments that have engulfed the Catholic church since last summer have required readers (and those on the religion beat) to wade through large amounts of information filtering through social media feeds.

Lost in all the news barrage sometimes are pieces that make you sit up and ponder the ramifications of all these sordid revelations regarding the clerical sex abuse crisis. More importantly, what are the ramifications are for the church’s hierarchy.

The big story remains who knew what and when. Who’s implicated in potentially covering up the misdeeds of now-former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick over the years? The implication here is that the cover-up — if that’s the word you want to use — goes beyond Pope Francis, but back in time years to when Saint Pope John Paul II was the head of the Roman Catholic church.

Last August, Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano released an 11-page letter describing a series of events in which the Vatican — and specifically Francis — had been made aware of McCarrick’s immoral behavior years ago. Vigano claimed Pope Benedict XVI had placed restrictions on McCarrick, including not allowing him to say Mass in public. Vigano alleged that Francis reversed those sanctions. In the letter, Vigano, a former papal ambassador to the United States, said Francis “knew from at least June 23, 2013 that McCarrick was a serial predator who attacked young men. He knew that he was a corrupt man, he covered for him to the bitter end.”

Over the past seven months, the allegations have yielded few answers. McCarrick was recently defrocked — the church’s version of the death penalty — but little else has been made public about the timeline. A news analysis piece by veteran Vatican journalist John Allen, writing in Crux, makes some wonderful points. His piece, under the headline “Vigano may have made it harder to get to the truth on McCarrick,” has a series of wonderful strands worth the time to read. It also gives a roadmap for reporters on the beat and editors to look at and track down.

Here’s a breakdown of the piece, chopping off the various strands worthy of a deeper investigation. Right from the start, Allen gives us this thesis:

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What's wrong in Baltimore? You can't tell that story without listening to pastors and their people

What's wrong in Baltimore? You can't tell that story without listening to pastors and their people

If you lived in or near Baltimore during the spring and early summer of 2015 then you were affected, one way or another, by the waves of urban violence that shook the city.

This tragedy was impossible to ignore. It was more than images on the evening news. You could stand in your yard and see the smoke over the neighborhoods east and west of downtown. One night, the fires were so large that I could see the reddish-gold glow in the sky — fires that included a community center and senior-housing unit that was being built by Southern Baptist Church in East Baltimore.

What happened to Baltimore in those months, and the stunning violence that has gripped the city ever since, is a massive, complex story. It’s a police story. It’s a story about drugs, young men on the loose and shattered families. It’s an education story. It’s a political story. It’s a tragic story about government officials trying to find someone to blame.

But if you followed the local news during those months (and some of the national television coverage) you also knew that what happened in Baltimore was a religion story.

This is no surprise, since black churches — old and new, past and present — have always played a major role in urban life when people try to cope with danger and tragedy. No one worked harder than Baltimore pastors when it came time to respond to the violence and the bitter realities that provided fuel for the fires.

That’s why I was disappointed when I read a massive story on this subject that ran the other day, co-produced by ProPublica and The New York Times Magazine. Here’s the dramatic double-decker headline:

The Tragedy of Baltimore

Since Freddie Gray’s death in 2015, violent crime has spiked to levels unseen for a quarter century. How order collapsed in an American city.

Let me be clear. This is a must-read story for anyone who cares about urban life and issues facing the poor. I am also not arguing that it was wrong for the story to devote so much ink to police and government issues.

I am simply saying that this story needed to include some content from pastors and other church leaders — if one of the goals was to show how Baltimore people responded to the riots, or uprisings, of 2015. The story needed the voices of religious believers, if the goal was to listen to Baltimore.

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Fox News follows McCarrick into distant plains of Kansas: Is this story now 'conservative' news?

Fox News follows McCarrick into distant plains of Kansas: Is this story now 'conservative' news?

For several months now, I have wondered when a major news organization was going to send a reporter and photographer out into the vast plains of Western Kansas to visit St. Fidelis Friary, which is next door to the giant Basilica of St. Fidelis — which is better known as the “Cathedral of the Plains.

This small monastic community in Victoria, Kan., consists of five Franciscan Capuchin priests and a brother. At the moment, there is also a Catholic layman living quietly in that facility — the defrocked former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick.

If you’ve ever driven across Kansas, you have seen this church — because it’s hard to miss. I put it this way in an “On Religion” column last fall.

The Cathedral of the Plains can be seen long before Interstate 70 reaches Victoria, with its Romanesque spires rising out of the vast West Kansas horizon.

This is a strange place to put a sanctuary the size of the Basilica of St. Fidelis, but that's a testimony to the Catholic faith of generations of Volga-German farmers. This is also a strange place to house a disgraced ex-cardinal.

However, the friary near the basilica has one obvious virtue, as a home for 88-year-old Theodore McCarrick. It's located 1,315 miles from The Washington Post.

Now, we have a pretty lengthy television report from a Fox News team that made the long journey to try to knock on McCarrick’s door. (If there is a print version of this story, I have not been able to find it.)

I found myself wondering: Is it significant that it was Fox News that ventured out into the Kansas plains to cover this particular story?

Does that, in a strange way, prove that continuing to cover the McCarrick scandal is now officially “conservative” news territory — as in news that is only of interest to conservative Catholics and cultural conservatives in general? If so, why is that?

Here at GetReligion, I have argued that the heart of the latest chapter in the multi-decade Catholic clergy-abuse crisis can be summed up in three questions:

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Cardinal Pell gets sentenced, but reporters leave out some inconvenient facts -- again

Cardinal Pell gets sentenced, but reporters leave out some inconvenient facts -- again

The last shoe dropped in the Cardinal Pell case yesterday with Australia’s highest prelate getting a six-year prison sentence. Reading the New York Times piece on this, one realizes that important parts of this story haven’t been told. Again.

We hear of allegations of misconduct 20 years ago involving children in a scenario that asks you to believe that a cardinal would have taken the time to molest two boys right after a busy church service in a sacristy where anyone could have walked in at any moment. No one caught him in the act. He was wearing four layers of complex, heavy vestments that usually require the assistance of another person to remove. There is one living witness/victim. It’s a classic he said, he said.

So what did the jury hear that caused them to believe the victim?

We have not seen the accuser’s evidence and we have no access to a transcript or videotape of his testimony. Something the accuser said was awfully compelling to cause them to throw the book at Pell. It’s obvious the journalists don’t know, either. From the Times:

MELBOURNE, Australia — George Pell, an Australian cardinal who was the Vatican’s chief financial officer and an adviser to Pope Francis, was sentenced to six years in prison on Wednesday, with no chance for parole for three years and eight months, for molesting two boys after Sunday Mass in 1996.

The cardinal was convicted on five counts in December, making him the most senior Catholic official — and the first bishop — to be found guilty in a criminal court for sexually abusing minors, according to BishopAccountability.org, which tracks cases of sexual abuse by Catholic clergy.

“I would characterize these breaches and abuses as grave,” the chief judge in the case, Peter Kidd said during the sentencing. Speaking directly to Cardinal Pell, he added: “You had time to reflect on your behavior as you offended, yet you refused to desist.”

The sentence, which by law could be up to 50 years, was closely watched around the world.

I read more than once in the comments section that accusations against Pell date back several decades and that “recovered memories” may be involved.

Really? And why are they all coming out now? With former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, his doom was set in motion two years ago when the Archdiocese of New York established a “Independent Reconciliation and Compensation Program” as a new outreach to sexual abuse survivors. To the shock of the two people administering the program, a very big fish turned up in their net.

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Big trend piece to consider: Could the Catholic church in New York file for bankruptcy?

Big trend piece to consider: Could the Catholic church in New York file for bankruptcy?

The 2005 Pulitzer Prize-winning (and Tony Award-winning) play Doubt: A Parable is a fictional account that pits a progressive priest against a conservative nun. The plot involves allegations of sex abuse and a nun’s belief that he has engaged in some improper behavior after summoning the boy alone to the rectory. With no actual proof that Father Brendan Flynn is guilty of any crime, the priest’s fate is sealed and the audience is left with its own doubt about what may or may not have happened.

It was Mark Twain who famously said, “Truth is stranger than fiction.” In the case of the Catholic church these days, the takeaway from Doubt is something that can also be applied to the case of Australian Cardinal George Pell and New York’s recently-passed Child Victims Act. How are the two related? It’s something that could very well become a major story starting this summer.

Let’s start with Pell. As Julia Duin noted in this space, Pell was convicted in an Australian courtroom on charges he sexually abused two male altar boys about 20 years ago when he was archbishop of Melbourne on several occasions following Sunday Mass.

Pell’s lawyers argued their client had been surrounded by other clergy after Mass and that the sexual acts he’s accused of performing would have been impossible considering the complex layers of liturgical vestments he would have been wearing. Guilty verdict aside, the case was made even crazier when in December the judge issued a gag order — a blanket ban that said details of the trial could not be published — out of concern it could influence the jury in a second trial awaiting Pell. It was largely ignored, especially by news organizations outside Australia.

Whether Pell was found guilty because of anti-Catholic bias is one theory, but the overall takeaway here — editors and reporters take note — is that this case may serve as a bellwether of more to come.

Even in New York? In January, the New York state legislature and Gov. Andrew Cuomo, when not busy passing a law making it easier for abortions to take place in the third trimester, signed the Child Victims Act.

Under the new law, victims who survived sex abuse will be able to file civil lawsuits against abusers and institutions until they are 55 years old. The current law permits victims to sue until they are 23. The sticking point — and one the Catholic church had been fighting against for years — is a “look-back window” for victims who were previously prohibited by the statute of limitations to sue during a one-year period. This is where the Pell issue and “recovering memories” (which sometimes can trigger false memories) comes into play.

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Cardinal Pell story is an extremely tangled web, but readers need alternative media to know that

Cardinal Pell story is an extremely tangled web, but readers need alternative media to know that

I hadn’t been following the child abuse charges against Australian Cardinal Pell all that much because I assumed, based on the evidence, that they were somewhat plimsy and would never stick.

But they did — in a series of trials that are as odd as they come. At the heart of the proceedings there was a single witness and what appeared to be “recovered memories” of abuse.

The end result? A cardinal is now in jail and a bunch of journalists have been handed the Aussie equivalent of contempt-of-court charges.

This is a complex story that I’ll do my best to break down, starting with what CruxNow ran in December:

NEW YORK — In a decision that will undoubtedly create shockwaves around the globe, Cardinal George Pell, the most senior Church official to stand trial for sexual abuse, was found guilty on Tuesday by a Melbourne court.

In one of the most closely watched trials in modern Catholic Church history, after nearly four full days of deliberations, a jury rendered unanimous guilty verdicts on five charges related to the abuse of two choirboys in 1996.

The trial, which began on November 7, has been subject to a media blackout at the request of the prosecution, and follows a first trial in September ended after a jury failed to reach consensus.

Pell, who is 77 years old, is currently on a leave of absence from his post as the Vatican’s Secretary for the Economy.

In June 2017, Pell was charged by Australian police with “historical sexual assault offences,” forcing him to leave Rome and return home vowing to “clear his name.”

Technically, CruxNow wasn’t supposed to run that story because of this media blackout, aka a suppression order, that media around the world were supposed to follow. Of course, lots of news sources outside of Australia’s borders refused to go along.

The charges concern a claim that Pell sexually abused two male altar boys about 20 years ago when he was archbishop of Melbourne and that he did so on several occasions following Sunday Mass.

His lawyers have said that Pell was constantly surrounded by other clergy after Mass and there’s not a chance he could have gotten alone with some altar boys. Also, the sexual acts he’s accused of performing are impossible considering the voluminous, complex layers of liturgical vestments he would have been wearing — vestments that require the help of a second cleric to put on and remove.

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Overlooked during Vatican summit blitz: New York Times looks at sexual abuse -- in Italy

Overlooked during Vatican summit blitz: New York Times looks at sexual abuse -- in Italy

What a wild week it has been on the religion-news beat, with the Vatican sexual-abuse summit blitzi rolling over into the long-awaited United Methodist special conference on marriage, sexuality, church tradition and the Bible.

Please allow me to pause and grab something out of my GetReligion “guilt file” — as in an important story from the Vatican coverage that I didn’t have time to address at the time.

Early on in the Vatican summit, I wrote a GetReligion piece with this headline: “'Abuse of minors' — Rare chance to hear New York Times sing harmony with Vatican establishment.” I found it interesting to see the world’s most powerful newspaper sticking really close to the Catholic establishment’s media-message line that the conference was about the clergy sexual abuse of children and that’s that. What about seminarians? What about the abuse of teen-aged males? What about the nuns? I thought it was strange.

I stand by that post. However, that doesn’t mean that the Times didn’t offer other coverage that turned against the Vatican tide.

So let’s flash back to this important headline: “The Vatican Is Talking About Clerical Abuse, but Italy Isn’t. Here’s Why.” Things get interesting at the very beginning, in the anecdotal lede:

SAVONA, Italy — On camping trips, Francesco Zanardi and other boys from his local parish always dreaded being called to sleep in their priest’s tent.

“We all knew what would happen to the boy in the tent,” said Mr. Zanardi, who said he was first abused by his priest at age 11.

Speaking in Savona, a port city in northwestern Italy that gave the church two popes, Mr. Zanardi, 48, said the victimization went on for years, traumatizing him and leading to a substance abuse problem. It also led him to help found Rete L’Abuso, the first support group for clerical abuse survivors in Italy — a country that, in an added indignity, often doesn’t seem to care.

That indifference is largely due, experts say, to how tightly intertwined the Roman Catholic Church is with Italian culture and history. Even today, though the Vatican and its popes don’t wield the power they used to, parish churches and priests often play a central role in the life of a community.

Note these words — “first abused by his priest at age 11” and the “victimization went on for years.”

In other words, what we have here is a classic case of grooming a post-pubescent male as he enters the teen years.

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Big United Methodist questions: Has left embraced 'exit' plans? Do 'coexist' clauses work? (updated)

Big United Methodist questions: Has left embraced 'exit' plans? Do 'coexist' clauses work? (updated)

Reporters who have followed decades of fighting inside mainline Protestant churches over marriage and sex will remember that doctrinal conservatives have always been promised that they will be able to continue to believe and practice their church’s old doctrines at their own altars.

In practice, that can be summed up as two beliefs that go back to the early church and scripture: Marriage is the union of a man and a women and sex outside of marriage is sin. Both doctrines affect who can be ordained as clergy.

These promises usually took the form of "conscience clauses,” such as those given long ago to reassure Episcopalians who opposed the ordination of women to the priesthood.

Over time, these clauses have a way of being erased — a trend that is highly relevant to debates currently taking place among United Methodists at a special national conference in St. Louis. (Click here for the Bobby Ross, Jr., post on coverage of yesterday’s actions.)

Two of the plans to shape the future of America’s second-largest Protestant flock promised, to one degree or another, to allow believers on both sides of the marriage and sex divide to be able to coexist — protected by structures to protect their doctrinal convictions. A crucial aspect of these debates is that the doctrinal conservatives (who want to retain current United Methodist doctrines) are arguing:

(a) That these “conscience clause” structures will not work over the long haul, in part because the church’s bishops have already endorsed allowing doctrinal progressives to carry on with same-sex marriages and other LGBTQ changes, such as the ordination of women and men who are sexually active in same-sex relationships or other unions short of traditional marriage.

(b) Passing “agree to disagree” doctrinal plans of this kind can be linked to the demographic disasters that are shrinking liberal Protestantism, in general. (The left, of course, argues that doctrinal innovations are required to reach out to young people in a changing America.)

Reporters who are not covering these two themes in the debates are not, well, covering the debates.

This leads me to the top of the current Associated Press report — “United Methodist Church on edge of breakup over LGBT stand” — about the St. Louis meetings. Here is the overture.

ST. LOUIS (AP) — The United Methodist Church teetered on the brink of breakup Monday after more than half the delegates at an international conference voted to maintain bans on same-sex weddings and ordination of gay clergy.

Their favored plan, if formally approved, could drive supporters of LGBT inclusion to leave America’s second-largest Protestant denomination.

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Clergy sexual-abuse fog: Here are five crucial questions for Catholic Church going forward

Clergy sexual-abuse fog: Here are five crucial questions for Catholic Church going forward

Pope Francis, cardinals and senior bishops from around the world gathered for four days in Rome for a conference on clergy sex abuse designed to guide the church on how to best tackle the growing global crisis that has eroded Roman Catholicism’s credibility around the world in a span of three decades.

The pope vowed that there will be change going forward when the summit opened this past Thursday, while victims vented their anger at the Vatican for its inability to discipline priests and bishops who had committed heinous acts against children, teenagers, adult lay men and women, seminarians and even nuns.

Francis capped off the meeting Sunday calling for “an all-out battle against the abuse of minors” and that “no explanations suffice for these abuses involving children.” He promised, once again, that “concrete” changes were ahead.

What next for the church? A few days of speeches and prayer clearly isn’t enough to heal the deep wound that decades of abuse and inaction have caused. Nonetheless, the first-of-its-kind summit was aimed at trying to right some of those past wrongs in what can very well turn out to be a defining moment for Francis’ papacy going forward. The pope himself, it’s worth noting, had tried to lower expectations on the eve of the summit.

To recap the very busy events of the past few days, here’s a look at five questions to emerge from the Vatican’s summit and how the church hopes to handle cases of clergy sex abuse going forward:

What has changed?

This is the big question. While a meeting regarding sex abuse (or any real public addressing of this problem was both unprecedented and long overdue), the event was largely seen as a publicity stunt and to some even a farce. The overarching message was for the pope to convey sincere regret. The photo-ops and video b-roll of Pope Francis looking somber were needed to publicly show repentance for the problem and the years of cover-ups by cardinals and bishops.

“In the face of this scourge of sexual abuse perpetrated by men of the church to the detriment of minors, I thought I would summon you," the pontiff told the nearly 200 Catholic leaders last Thursday to open the summit, “so that all together we may lend an ear and listen to the Holy Spirit … and to the cry of the small ones who are asking for justice.”

In those brief comments, he added that people are “looking at us and expect from us not simple condemnations, but concrete and effective measures to put in place. We need to be concrete.”

How concrete remains the big issue.

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