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The Church needs transparency. These two cases show it has a long way to go

(CNS photo/Yara Nardi, Reuters)

The cases of Mgr Punderson and Bishop Zanchetta show a culture that has to change

(ROME — 25 February 2019) Even before the thing began — whatever the thing was that happened over four days last week and into Sunday here in Rome — the pieces didn’t quite fit.

At the Monday presser presenting the three days of working sessions and two liturgies that were to serve as capstones to the event, several churchmen spoke about the need for concreteness in addressing the crisis and transparency in dealing with the public.

When journalists from two different outlets asked about the ongoing case of Mgr Joseph Punderson (a priest of the Diocese of Trenton, who spent a quarter century as an official at the Apostolic Signatura — the Church’s “Supreme Court”), recently listed by his home diocese as “removed from ministry” because of a credible allegation of sexual abuse against him, the response was that the specific question was beyond the purview of the briefing. Joshua McElwee reported the exchanges for the National Catholic Reporter:

“We are not now here to discuss single cases,” said Vatican spokesman Alessandro Gisotti, responding to a question from NCR at the briefing, which also included three of the organizers of the upcoming summit: Chicago Cardinal Blase Cupich, Maltese Archbishop Charles Scicluna and Jesuit Fr. Hans Zollner.

Pressed again on the matter later in the briefing, Gisotti referred questions about Punderson’s case to the Trenton diocese. The spokesman then said the priest “is not at the Tribunal of the Signatura at this moment,” but did not specify if that response referred to the priest’s physical location or his position within the Vatican.

In fact, the question the second journalist — this one, for the Catholic Herald — asked, was whether Mgr Punderson was still an official at the Signatura. Trenton had described Punderson in an email to this journalist on Friday, February 15, as “formerly an official at the Apostolic Signatura” who had “resigned his position” in November 2018. The Press Office did not respond to our request for confirmation on Saturday. On the following Monday, the Holy See Press Office still wouldn’t say if Punderson was still in his job.

On February 20, the Diocese of Trenton issued a statement saying Mgr Punderson had been credibly accused of abusing a minor in 2003, and that he originally offered to resign his Vatican position in 2004. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith put him under restrictions, but the Vatican allowed him to continue at the Signatura. Also on February 20, Gisotti finally confirmed that Punderson had resigned.

All throughout the three days of sessions, the senior churchmen called to speak on each day’s overarching theme — Responsibility on Thursday, Accountability on Friday, Transparency on Saturday — largely interpreted or footnoted their issues into obscurity.

The two great exceptions to the trend were the women — one a Nigerian religious superior and the other a Mexican laywoman and long-time Vaticanologist — who practiced the parrhesia — frank forthrightness — for which Pope Francis has repeatedly called.

Sr Veronica Openibo of The Society of the Holy Child Jesus told participants flatly, “This storm will not pass by.”

“At the present time, we are in a state of crisis and shame. We have seriously clouded the grace of the Christ-mission.” Not rhetorically, but in earnest, she asked, “Is it possible for us to move from fear of scandal to truth? How do we remove the masks that hide our sinful neglect? What policies, programs and procedures will bring us to a new, revitalized starting point characterized by a transparency that lights up the world with God’s hope for us in building the Reign of God?”

At the end of the meeting, we are certainly no closer to answers for those questions as far as the hierarchical stewardship of the Church’s fortunes on Earth is concerned.

Valentina Alazraki gave the final presentation on Saturday afternoon, before the participants ended their working sessions and moved to the Sala Regia for a penitential liturgy. Alazraki spoke on behalf of journalists everywhere, but especially as a representative of the Vatican press corps. The Catholic Herald described her remarks as the one speech people needed to read.

“The faithful do not forgive the lack of transparency,” she told the 190 participants, “because it is a new assault on the victims. Those who fail to inform encourage a climate of suspicion and incite anger and hatred against the institution.”

The editor of South Africa’s leading Catholic weekly, The Southern Cross, Günther Simmermacher, described Alazraki’s words as, “Superb, prophetic stuff.” He said, “[E]ven if these bishops go home and fail to do anything, none of them, no bishop, can still claim to be confused or uncertain about what’s at stake.”

“They have been told,” Simmermacher said. Whether they have heard the message is another matter.

In the last question at the last briefing on the last day of the meeting, Crux’s Ines San Martin asked a question about another case of coverup — one involving Pope Francis directly. Bishop Oscar Gustavo Zanchetta, emeritus of Orán, is under investigation for misrule in the diocese he formerly led, to which Pope Francis named him in 2013. The investigation is probing complaints including alleged sexual and financial misconduct.

Pope Francis created a position for Zanchetta — with whom he had a long-standing professional relationship dating at least to their days together in the Argentinian bishops’ conference — in the Vatican, at the end of 2017, even though he had reportedly received evidence of Zanchetta’s misbehaviour as early as 2015.

“We know that there was a bishop in Argentina, Zanchetta, who had gay porn in his phone, involving young people,” San Martin said. “How can we believe that this is, in fact — you know — the last time we’re going to hear ‘No more coverup,’ when, at the end of the day, Pope Francis covered up for someone in Argentina, who had gay porn?”

Archbishop Charles Scicluna of Malta, who is adjunct secretary to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, one of the principal organisers of the meeting, and the Church’s leading expert on child protection law-enforcement, began to answer — San Martin had put the question directly to him — but the interim director of the Press Office of the Holy See, Alessandro Gisotti, interrupted him.

“[W]e have said that an investigation has been launched,” Gisotti said, “it is ongoing, so we will inform you of the results once it has been completed. This is our position. This is all I can say at the moment. As you know, we had asked you not to focus on specific cases, and I think that generally speaking the meeting has provided extraordinary answers in this regard.”

In reply, Archbishop Scicluna offered, “I don’t have information about the case you mentioned, but if it’s investigating — somebody’s investigating a case — they’re not covering it up. That’s my take.”

Shortly before 3pm Rome Time on Monday, the Press Office of the Holy See issued a statement from interim director, Alessandro Gisotti, on the first of the promised follow-up meetings involving organisers and the heads of Roman curial dicasteries.

Gisotti reported that the participants promised to work toward “greater involvement of the laity on this front,” i.e. the fight against clerical sexual abuse, “and the need to invest in training and prevention using reality with a consolidated experience in this field.”

“Lastly,” the statement reads, “it was stressed that the progress of the follow-up of the meeting should be verified with meetings of the curial department heads, in the name of synodality and synergy.” In a word: more meetings.

The “summit” on child protection in the Church ended as it began: with many pressing questions, and few answers, none of which are close to satisfactory.