Pope Francis

The Vatican sexual-abuse summit: Sister Veronica of Nigeria faces the men in black

The Vatican sexual-abuse summit: Sister Veronica of Nigeria faces the men in black

At the end of the movie "Spotlight," the screen went black before a message appeared noting that The Boston Globe's investigative reporting team published nearly 600 stories, in 2002 alone, about sexual abuse by Catholic clergy.

 The next screen noted, "249 priests and brothers were publicly accused of sexual abuse within the Boston Archdiocese."

 But there was more. The first time Sister Veronica Openibo of Nigeria saw this film -- which won the Oscar for Best Picture in 2016 -- she was stunned to see four screens packed with the names of 223 American dioceses and nations in which major abuse scandals had been uncovered.

 "Tears of sorrow flowed," she said, speaking at the Vatican's global summit on clergy sexual abuse. "How could the clerical church have kept silent, covering these atrocities? The silence, the carrying of the secrets in the hearts of the perpetrators, the length of the abuses and the constant transfers of perpetrators are unimaginable."

Didn't any of these priests and bishops, she asked, go to confession? Didn't they wrestle with their sins while talking with the spiritual directors who guide their lives? Later, she went further, asking why these clergy were allowed to remain in ministry after committing these atrocities. Why weren't they defrocked?

"We proclaim the Ten Commandments and parade ourselves as being the custodians of moral standards, values and good behavior in society," said Openibo, who on several occasions turned to speak to Pope Francis, seated nearby. She is the first African to lead the Society of the Holy Child Jesus and one of three women who addressed the nearly 200 bishops at the recent summit. Openibo was the only person from Africa's booming churches chosen to speak.

"Hypocrites at times? Yes," she asked. "Why did we keep silent for so long? How can we turn this around for a time to evangelize, catechize and educate all the members of the church, including clergy and religious? Is it true that most bishops did nothing about the sexual abuse of children? Some did and some did not, out of fear or cover-up."

Child sexual abuse by priests was top 2018 story: What about McCarrick and the bishops?

Child sexual abuse by priests was top 2018 story: What about McCarrick and the bishops?

It was in 1983 that parents told leaders of the Diocese of Lafayette, west of New Orleans, that Father Gilbert Gauthe had molested their son.

Dominos started falling. The bishop offered secret settlements to nine families -- but one refused to remain silent.

The rest is a long, long story. Scandals about priests abusing children -- the vast majority of cases involve teen-aged males -- have been making news ever since, including the firestorm unleashed by The Boston Globe's "Spotlight" series that won a Pulitzer Prize in 2003.

This old, tragic story flared up again in 2018, and Religion News Association members selected the release of a sweeping Pennsylvania grand-jury report -- with 301 Catholic priests, in six dioceses, accused of abusing at least 1,000 minors over seven decades -- as the year's top religion story.

"The allegations contained in this report are horrific and there are important lessons to take away from it," said Michael Plachy, a partner at Lewis, Roca, Rothgerber, Christie, a national law firm that emphasizes religious liberty cases. However, "to be candid, much of what's in this report has been known for years. … It's important, but it's mostly old news."

The Archdiocese of Philadelphia -- a diocese not included in the grand-jury report -- requested an analysis of the 884-page document focusing on the impact of the church's 2002Charter for the Protection Children and Young People. Among the law firm's findings: Of 680 victims whose claims mentioned specific years, 23 cited abuse after the charter -- 3 percent of claims in the grand-jury report. The average year of each alleged incident was 1979.

Much of the year's crucial news about clergy sexual abuse focused on efforts to hold bishops accountable when they were accused of abuse or of hiding abuse cases -- including sexual abuse of adult victims.

Thus, this was a year in which my views clashed with the RNA poll. For me, the No. 1 story was the fall of retired Washington Archbishop Theodore McCarrick, for decades one of America's most influential Catholics. In public remarks, he even claimed to have assisted in efforts to elect Pope Francis. McCarrick was removed from ministry and exited the College of Cardinals because of evidence that he sexually assaulted a 16-year-old altar boy in 1971 and, for decades, sexually harassed and abused seminarians.

My No. 2 story -- the pope's decision to cooperate with China officials when selecting bishops -- didn't make the RNA Top 10.

The RNA Religion Newsmaker of the Year was Episcopal Church Presiding Bishop Michael Curry, after his stem-winding sermon at the royal wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. McCarrick was not included on the ballot.

Future of all those Roman (and American) churches? No need for anxiety, says pope

Future of all those Roman (and American) churches? No need for anxiety, says pope

It's a statistic tourists in Rome often hear while gazing at centuries of glorious architecture: The eternal city contains more than 900 churches.

Other statistics will affect those holy sites in the future.

For example, a record-low 458,151 births occurred last year in Italy. The fertility rate -- currently 1.32, far below a 2.1 replacement rate -- is expected to decline again this year. Meanwhile, the number of marriages fell 6 percent, between 2016 and 2017, and religious marriages plunged 10.5 percent.

"Currently we are at a roughly terminal stage. It would not be bad if the Church, the first to pay the price, would understand this and get moving," noted demographer Roberto Volpi, quoted in the newspaper Il Foglio.

Thus, lots of Rome's 900-plus churches will be empty in the next generation or so.

That was the context of remarks by Pope Francis during a recent Pontifical Council for Culture conference, a gathering with this sobering title: "Doesn't God dwell here any more? Decommissioning places of worship and integrated management of ecclesiastical cultural heritage."

Francis stressed: "The observation that many churches, which until a few years ago were necessary, are now no longer thus, due to a lack of faithful and clergy, or a different distribution of the population between cities and rural areas, should be welcomed in the Church not with anxiety, but as a sign of the times that invites us to reflection and requires us to adapt."

The church has problems, but there are "virtuous" ways to deal with them, he said. Bishops in Europe, North America and elsewhere are learning to cope.

"Decommissioning must not be first and only solution … nor must it be carried out with the scandal of the faithful. Should it become necessary, it should be inserted in the time of ordinary pastoral planning, be proceded by adequate information and be a shared decision" involving civic and church leaders, he said.

Pope Francis appears to be advising Catholics not to worry too much as "For sale" or even "Property condemned" signs appear on lots of sanctuaries in some parts of the world, said Phil Lawler, a conservative journalist with 35 years of experience in diocesan and independent Catholic publications.

"The sentence that triggered me was when the pope said we shouldn't be ANXIOUS about all of this," he said.

Way out of sight, out of mind? Follow the money in the McCarrick scandals

Way out of sight, out of mind? Follow the money in the McCarrick scandals

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. Who sent this famous Beltway powerbroker to St. Fidelis to spend his days in prayer and penance?

"The Holy See alone can make that call," said Rocco Palmo, the Philadelphia-based insider whose "Whispers in the Loggia" blog is a hot spot for Vatican news and documents.

McCarrick has become the iconic figure at the heart of the latest round of Catholic clergy sex scandals, in America and around the world.

Here in America, the key will be whether bishops find ways to hold each other accountable, especially with talk increasing of a federal investigation of cover-ups linked to sexual abuse, said Palmo. But when it comes to probing the McCarrick scandals, and finding a way to guard the guardians, "anything that doesn't have Rome's permission isn't going to fly."

McCarrick's media-friendly career as a kingmaker -- he publically claimed he helped elect Pope Francis -- began in New York and New Jersey. He became a global figure, as well as a cardinal, while serving as archbishop of Washington, D.C.

After decades of rumors, McCarrick finally faced abuse accusations after a victim contacted the Independent Reconciliation and Compensation Program of the Archdiocese of New York. Since a cardinal was involved, the Vatican had to be notified and asked to authorize the investigation.

Eventually, a settlement led to church statements and media reports linking McCarrick to the abuse of a teen-aged boy, as well as decades of harassment and abuse of seminarians directly under his authority.

Satan, the pope, bishops and a spiritual 9/11 for Catholics around the world

Satan, the pope, bishops and a spiritual 9/11 for Catholics around the world

As point man for the inner ring of cardinals advising Pope Francis, Cardinal Andres Rodriguez Maradiaga of Honduras is sure that he knows a partisan political attack when he sees one.

Take, for example, the firestorm of controversy surrounding ex-cardinal Theodore McCarrick, once the church's media-friendly voice in Washington, D.C. In press reports, and a fiery testimony by the Vatican's former U.S. ambassador, McCarrick has been accused of decades of sexual harassment and abuse of seminarians, as well as sex acts with male minors.

"It does not seem correct to me to transform something that is of the private order into bombshell headlines exploding all over the world and whose shrapnel is hurting the faith of many," said Cardinal Maradiaga, in a Religion Digital interview. "I think this case of an administrative nature should have been made public in accordance with more serene and objective criteria, not with the negative charge of deeply bitter expressions."

On another "private order," "administrative" issue in church affairs, he said the "notion of a gay lobby in the Vatican is out of proportion. It is something that exists much more in the ink of the newspapers than in reality."

Pope Francis has not directly addressed recent accusations that he helped shelter, and rehabilitate, McCarrick. But in a blunt Sept. 11 sermon, the pope -- echoing a theme in several other recent addresses -- said Satan is the villain behind these new attacks on leaders at the highest levels of the Roman church.

"In these times, it seems like the 'Great Accuser' has been unchained and is attacking bishops," said Francis. "True, we are all sinners, we bishops. He tries to uncover the sins, so they are visible in order to scandalize the people. …

"A bishop's strength against the 'Great Accuser' is prayer. … Let us pray, today, for our bishops: for me, for those who are here, and for all the bishops throughout the world."

On that same day, another symbolic Vatican voice addressed the same crisis in America, and the global church, in words that were subtle and powerful.

Letter from Catholic women: Papal silence isn't going to lessen pain, anger in the church

Letter from Catholic women: Papal silence isn't going to lessen pain, anger in the church

After a week of headlines and dissent, Pope Francis delivered a sermon that -- once again -- offered silence as his strategic response to critics.

The "father of lies, the accuser, the devil" is trying to divide Catholics, said the pope. When faced with "people who do not have good will, with people who seek only scandal, who seek only division, who seek only destruction, even within families" the proper response is "silence, and prayer."

This echoed earlier remarks when, asked about a scathing epistle by the Vatican's former U.S. ambassador, Pope Francis said, "I will not say a single word on this."

Silence isn't what the authors of a "Letter to Pope Francis from Catholic Women" want to hear, right now. They want the pope to answer Archbishop Carlo Vigano's key accusations -- especially claims that Francis ignored evidence of sexual abuse against children and seminarians by ex-cardinal Theodore McCarrick of Washington, D.C.

"Our hearts are broken, our faith tested, by the escalating crisis engulfing our beloved Church," said the online petition, with more than 30,000 signatures at midweek. "The pain and suffering of the victims never ends, as each news cycle brings more horrific revelations of sexual abuse, sexual misconduct, cover-ups, and deceit -- even at the Church's highest levels."

Several of the Vigano's charges "require neither lengthy investigations nor physical evidence. They require only YOUR direct response, Holy Father."

Tensions have worsened in recent weeks, especially after a hellish grand-jury report about the crimes of 300 priests in six Pennsylvania dioceses. Then came news coverage validating decades of rumors about McCarrick, including testimony about his seduction and abuse of seminarians. Then came Vigano's blast, including charges that Francis trumped efforts by Pope Benedict XVI to push McCarrick out of the spotlight.

The women's statement was triggered by a "wave of problems that has produced so much anguish, confusion, dismay and anger," said Mary Rice Hasson, a Catholic scholar at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington. "It's not like there has been one problem that we could solve with a few reforms. … The problems just keep coming at us, one after another."

Not a typical Sunday Mass: Listening to voices in the digital Catholic pews

Not a typical Sunday Mass: Listening to voices in the digital Catholic pews

It wasn't a normal Sunday in Catholic pulpits across America, as priests faced flocks touched by sorrow and rage after a sickening grand-jury report packed with X-rated details about decades of sexual abuse by clergy.

At St. Thomas More Catholic Church in Decatur, Ga., Father Mark Horak said he half expected empty pews, but was thankful that the faithful came to Mass. He openly addressed the crisis and urged the laity to speak out.

"We should not be afraid to demand, of our leadership, fundamental reform," he said, wrapping up his homily, which was posted online. "Don't be afraid to demand it. But do it with love. Do it with love. Maybe with some anger mixed in -- but do it with love. Please."

But something extraordinary happened in another Mass that day, according to a wrenching series of Twitter posts by Susan B. Reynolds, a Catholic studies professor at the nearby Candler School of Theology. One of her research topics: Religious rites in the context of suffering.

Something happened down front at St. Thomas More after a similar sermon, with the same appeal for the laity to act.

"A dad stood up. 'HOW?' he pleaded. 'TELL US HOW.' His voice was shaking and determined and terrified. His collared shirt was matted to his back with sweat," wrote Reynolds. "Jaws dropped. My eyes filled with tears. … This is a big, middle of the road parish in a wealthyish Southeast college town. In such contexts it's hard to imagine a more subversive act than doing what that dad just did."

One parishioner muttered, "Sit down." But the priest listened, and this unusual dialogue continued for several minutes.

"I have a son," said the dad. "He's going to make his first communion. What am I supposed to tell him?"

New ways of seeing dignity: Did pope signal a shift that helps LGBTQ Catholics?

New ways of seeing dignity: Did pope signal a shift that helps LGBTQ Catholics?

Starting in the 1970s, New Ways Ministry leaders crisscrossed America, urging Catholics to believe that somehow, someday, the Vatican would repent of what they saw as the church's dangerous doctrines on homosexuality.

During a 1989 Denver workshop, the late Father Robert Nugent stressed that there was more to the church's teachings than homophobia and heterosexism. Hopeful tensions already existed in official church statements and the Catechism.

For example, a 1986 Vatican letter said: "Although the particular inclination of the homosexual person is not a sin, it is a more or less strong tendency ordered towards an intrinsic moral evil, and thus the inclination itself must be seen as an objective disorder."

However, Nugent explained, the church also defends the dignity of all persons, including gays and lesbians. Someday, a reformer pope may argue that church teachings could evolve, because of this larger truth about human dignity.

"We hear a lot of anger about the church and what it teaches,"he said, several years before Rome ordered him to cease his New Ways Ministry work. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger -- who later became Pope Benedict XVI -- led the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith at that time. 

"We try to say (to gays and lesbians), 'Hey folks, what the church is saying isn't all bad news,' " said Nugent.

Three decades later, New Ways Ministry is still making that argument, especially in light of new language used by Pope Francis and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith's current leader, in their condemnation of the death penalty.

The updated Catholic Catechism now proclaims that there is "an increasing awareness that the dignity of the person is not lost even after the commission of very serious crimes. … Consequently, the Church teaches, in the light of the Gospel, that 'the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person,' and she works with determination for its abolition worldwide."

Pope Francis and Cardinal Sarah look at European Catholicism and do the math

Pope Francis and Cardinal Sarah look at European Catholicism and do the math

When it comes to Catholicism's future in Europe, it appears that Pope Francis has started to do the math.

In a recent speech to Italy's bishops, Francis offered a sobering sound bite: "How many seminaries, churches, monasteries and convents will be closed in the next few years? God only knows."

Europe is "hemorrhaging" priests and nuns, he added, because of a "crisis in vocations" in which few Catholics are willing to take vows and serve the church. Once, Europe was the heart of Christendom and sent waves of missionaries around the world. Now Europe is suffering from "vocational sterility," in part because of a "dictatorship of money" that is seducing the young, said the pope, in his May 21 remarks.

The demographic trends behind this anguish are familiar. In the most recent set of statistics, the number of Catholic priests continued to fall, while the worldwide Catholic population went up. Among priests, the rate of decline was greatest in Europe -- while in Africa and Asia, the number of priests is rising.

Demographic realities are clearly part of the problem, said Francis. Like what? A recent report from the National Institute of Statistics and Economic Studies noted that -- with a birth rate of 1.88 and falling, below the 2.1 replacement rate -- France is the European Union's most fertile nation, with Ireland in second place. Irish voters just voted to repeal their nation's constitutional ban on abortion.

The day after Pope Francis faced the Italian bishops, a crucial African voice in Vatican debates -- Cardinal Robert Sarah of Guinea -- addressed the current state of Catholic faith in Europe.

Like the pope, Cardinal Sarah was blunt, as he addressed pilgrims gathered at the Cathedral of Our Lady of Chartres.

"Pilgrims of France, look upon this cathedral! Your ancestors built it to proclaim their faith. Everything, in its architecture, its sculpture, its windows, proclaims the joy of being saved and loved by God," said Sarah, leader of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments.

"Your ancestors were not perfect, they were not without sins. But they wanted to let the light of faith illuminate their darkness! Today, you too, People of France, wake up! Choose the light! Renounce the darkness!"