clergy sexual abuse

A Pentecost season rant channels the anger swirling out in Catholic pews

A Pentecost season rant channels the anger swirling out in Catholic pews

Elizabeth Scalia woke up furious, thinking about scandals in the Church of Rome, Pentecost and a famous courtroom rant in the movie "… And Justice for All."

"It was like Al Pacino was inside my head screaming, 'You're out of order! You're all out of order! The whole church is out of order!' … I knew I had to write something," said Scalia, long known for online epistles using the pen name "The Anchoress."

At Pentecost, she noted, the Holy Spirit descended like fire on the apostles. "I thought: Dear God, why can't some fire fall on our bishops? What's it going to take to wake up some of these guys?"

Pentecost fell on June 9 this year, following months of news about clergy sexual abuse and the drumbeat of scandals tied to the fall of former cardinal Theodore McCarrick, one of the most powerful church princes in American history.

 Then The Washington Post published a June 5 report about a lurid litany of accusations against retired West Virginia Bishop Michael Bransfield, whose career was linked to that of McCarrick. Investigators found that Bransfield -- in a poverty-wracked region -- spent millions of dollars on his own comforts, while handing financial gifts to various American members of the College of Cardinals and strategic church leaders. While there were no specific accusations of abuse, the church report cited a "consistent pattern of sexual innuendo, and overt suggestions and actions toward those over whom the former bishop exercised authority."

This was McCarrick 2.0, a sucker-punch that inspired Scalia to pound out a personal letter to Jesus that was published by America, a Jesuit publication. Scalia currently serves as editor at large for Word on Fire, a Catholic evangelism organization.

"Well, Lord, here we are again. This crap just never stops coming, and God, I'm getting so disgusted with it all, and if I could not find you in the Holy Eucharist, I wonder if I would find you anywhere else within this church," she wrote, in her fiery overture.

Painful question for Catholic bishops: Why assume that parishes will decline and die?

Painful question for Catholic bishops: Why assume that parishes will decline and die?

The headlines keep appearing in Catholic newspapers, before the news migrates into the real-estate coverage in mainstream media.

The bottom line is the bottom line. Catholic shepherds decide that they have to pull the plug and close parishes in which declining and aging flocks of believers have struggled to pay their bills. These aging sanctuaries are often located on valuable pieces of urban real estate.

Some parishes vanish. Others are merged into one facility to make efficient use of space, as well as the crowded schedules of a steadily declining number of priests.

"On one level, it makes sense. You close a parish -- I understand that many parishes are in financial trouble -- and then in a few years you get to tear it down and someone moves in and builds condos," said Philip F. Lawler, editor of Catholic World News, an independent online news service.

"The questions that I think we have to ask our bishops are, 'Why is defeat inevitable? Why do we assume that all of these parishes are going to decline and close? … What if you put someone in there who offered a brand of Catholic faith that had some evangelical zeal? What if we still believed that Catholic churches could grow?' "

Do the math, he said. Growing urban flocks would need places to worship. But once these historic Catholic sanctuaries are gone -- they're gone. The cost of building replacements would be astronomical.

All of these real-estate decisions, he said, hinge on management assumptions that are profoundly spiritual.

Once upon a time, "American cities are dotted with magnificent church structures, built with the nickels and dimes that hard-pressed immigrant families could barely afford to donate," wrote Lawler, in his new book, "The Smoke of Satan," addressing several interlinking scandals in Catholic life. "Today the affluent grandchildren of those immigrants are unwilling to keep current with the parish fuel bills and, more to the point, to encourage their sons to consider a life of priestly ministry."

Yes, there are cases in which parishes serving different ethnic groups were built within blocks of each other. But Lawler is convinced that the typical church that is being closed and sold is "located in a comfortable, populous neighborhood, with no other Catholic church particularly close at hand and no special reason why the community that supported a thriving parish in 1960 cannot maintain the same parish now. … No reason, that is, except the decline of the Catholic faith. Parishes close because Catholic families don't care enough about the faith to keep them open."

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."

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?"

Richard Sipe's journey into the long-secret hell of Catholic clergy sexual abuse

Richard Sipe's journey into the long-secret hell of Catholic clergy sexual abuse

The last thing an America bishop wanted to see was a letter from the relentless A.W. Richard Sipe, who spent more than a half-century studying the sexual secrets of Catholic clergy.

As a psychotherapist, his research files included hundreds of thousands of pages of church reports and court testimony. He estimated that he had served as an expert witness or consultant in 250 civil legal actions.

As a former Benedictine monk and priest, his private files included notes from years of work at the Seton Psychiatric Institute in Baltimore, where he counseled legions of troubled priests sent there by bishops.

"Sooner or later it will become broadly obvious that there is a systemic connection between the sexual activity by, among and between clerics in positions of authority and control, and the abuse of children," he wrote, in a 2016 letter to his local shepherd, San Diego Bishop Robert McElroy.

"When men in authority -- cardinals, bishops, rectors, abbots, confessors, professors -- are having or have had an unacknowledged secret-active-sex-life under the guise of celibacy an atmosphere of tolerance of behaviors within the system is made operative."

Sipe, 85, died on Aug. 8, even as journalists around the world produced -- often with direct links to his work -- yet another wave of news about alleged sins and crimes committed by priests and bishops. The bottom line: Sipe was a critic of the church establishment whose work was impossible for liberal or conservative Catholics to ignore.

"He was the one who -- because of his unique background -- had first-hand knowledge of the psychosexual problems in the clergy," said Leon J. Podles, a conservative Catholic scholar with years of experience as a federal investigator.


Fires raging in American church: Catholics face hard choices after McCarrick scandal

Fires raging in American church: Catholics face hard choices after McCarrick scandal

Priests know what it's like to enter the pulpit facing scriptures that appear to have been torn from the headlines.

That happened just the other day, with news that one of America's most powerful Catholics -- retired Archbishop Theodore McCarrick of Washington, D.C. -- had been accused of the sexual abuse of boys, as well as decades of seminarians.

Days later the Sunday Mass lectionary featured the Prophet Jeremiah, speaking for Jehovah: "Woe to the shepherds who mislead and scatter the flock of my pasture."

That reminded Father John Hollowell of the Archdiocese of Indianapolis of even stronger words from St. John Chrysostom, the early church's most celebrated orator: "The road to hell is paved with the skulls of erring priests, with bishops as their signposts."

Priests who took their vows during the clergy sexual abuse scandals a decade or so ago thought that they had heard it all, said Hollowell.

Now, with hellish reports about McCarrick the "wound in the church continues to be infected and it oozes with fresh pus. … Everyone says the same stuff -- that everybody knew, and nobody knew what to do about it, and nobody knew who to tell and there's a fresh trail of people discovered to have been destroyed by his crimes and his actions," he said, in a sermon posted online.

What happens now? While many powerful voices in the American church remained silent, or offered public-relations talk, several bishops in smaller dioceses wrote urgent letters to their flocks.

Bishop Michael Olson of the Diocese of Fort Worth (.pdf here) focused on this stunning fact: One of the men accusing McCarrick of years of abuse had been the first child he baptized after his ordination as a priest.


Wheels up? Flights of papal candor are now becoming the norm

After avoiding "culture wars" quotes and fiery headlines during his historic U.S. visit, Pope Francis finally offered his blunt opinion about believers being asked to abandon their faith -- or else.

When doing so, he chose to talk about an epic Medieval poem that describes Muslims being forced to choose between Christian baptism and death. Or was that really what Francis was talking about on that flight to Rome?

Terry Moran of ABC News asked if Francis supported individuals "who say they cannot in good conscience … abide by some laws or discharge their duties as government officials, for example in issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples?"

Pope Francis said he could not address all such cases, thus avoiding a reference to Kim Davis, the Kentucky county clerk who secretly met with the pope in Washington, D.C.

"If a person does not allow others to be a conscientious objector, he denies a right," said Francis. "Conscientious objection must enter into every juridical structure because it is a right, a human right. Otherwise we would end up in a situation where we select what is a right, saying 'this right has merit, this one does not.' …

"If a government official is a human person, he has that right."

Rather than discuss current events, the pope added: "It always moved me when I read, and I read it many times, … the Chancon Roland, when the people were all in line and before them was the baptismal font -- the baptismal font or the sword. And, they had to choose. They weren't permitted conscientious objection. It is a right and if we want to make peace we have to respect all rights."

Flights of papal candor are becoming a tradition for reporters with the newsroom resources to pay business-class rates for seats on Shepherd One -- whatever plane is carrying the pope.