News Analysis

The abuse summit begins amid turmoil in Rome

The eyes of the world were already going to be on Rome this week, where some of the most senior Church leaders have gathered for a four-day meeting on child protection. Pope Francis convoked the meeting last September after more than seven months of unremitting scandal that began with his own mishandling of a case in Chile.

Last Saturday, the Vatican announced that Pope Francis had expelled the disgraced former Archbishop of Washington, DC, Theodore McCarrick, from the clerical state after the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith found him guilty of several canonical crimes, including the sexual abuse of both minors and adults and the solicitation of sex during the Sacrament of Confession. The Vatican also said that “abuse of power” was an aggravating factor in McCarrick’s guilt.

If the idea had been to make a show of resolve and thus calm the waters ahead of the four-day gathering at the Vatican, a constellation of events dashed that hope.

The Wall Street Journal ran a story a week before the child protection meeting was scheduled to open, saying that Cardinal Seán O’Malley, the Archbishop of Boston and president of the Pontifical Council for the Protection of Minors, has been complaining for more than a year – at least – about Vatican policy being in practice at odds with Pope Francis’s repeatedly-stated position of zero-tolerance for abuse.

“If this gets out, it will cause a scandal,” the Journal piece quotes O’Malley as telling the Holy See’s Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, at a meeting O’Malley had called with senior Vatican officials. O’Malley was voicing his misgivings over an appeals panel Pope Francis had created, which had reduced the sentences against several clerics convicted of abuse. “In some cases,” the Wall Street Journal reported, “the panel cancelled their dismissal from the priesthood and gave them short suspensions instead.”

Last Friday, Le Monde reported that the long-time Apostolic Nuncio to France, 74-year-old Archbishop Luigi Ventura, was under investigation for alleged sexual assault against a young male staff member at Paris city hall on January 17, during a reception for the mayor’s New Year’s address. The interim Director of the Press Office of the Holy See issued a terse statement on Friday, saying that “The Holy See learned through the press that an investigation has been initiated by the French authorities towards Mgr Luigi Ventura, Apostolic Nuncio in Paris,” and, “The Holy See is awaiting the outcome of the investigations.” On Monday, Le Monde reported that a second complaint had been against Mgr Ventura.

Also last Friday, La Croix International reported that the name of a cleric who held a senior position at the Apostolic Signatura – often styled the “Supreme Court” of the Catholic Church – had appeared on the list of priests removed from ministry in his home diocese. The priest in question is Mgr Joseph Punderson of the Diocese of Trenton, which published its list of credibly accused clerics earlier this month.

La Croix reported that the allegations against Mgr Punderson could go back decades, and said it was unclear whether anyone at the Vatican knew of the allegations against him. A spokesperson for the Diocese of Trenton answered an email query, saying Mgr Punderson was “formerly an official at the Apostolic Signatura” and had “resigned his position” this past November. At a press conference on Monday presenting the four-day abuse summit, interim Press Office Director Alessandro Gisotti said Mgr Punderson “is not at the Tribunal of the [Apostolic] Signatura at this moment.”

As all this was unfolding, chatter was increasing in both volume and intensity around a book slated for publication on the same day the child protection meeting was scheduled to open. In the Closet of the Vatican: Power, Homosexuality, Hypocrisy is the English-language title of the explosive new book by French journalist Frédéric Martel, which hit stores on Thursday. It’s been the talk of the Catholic world – and beyond – for nearly two weeks, owing to its captivating subject matter and what it has to say about it.

The central claim of the book is that the Vatican is rife with men who fall somewhere along the spectrum of same-sex attraction – “fifty shades of gay” is Martel’s description of the spectrum – and that the Catholic Church’s inability to come to terms with the basically homosexual culture of the clerical class has turned both doctrinal and disciplinary questions into pretexts for internecine war between gay factions in the hierarchy.

Martel also maintains that the “culture of secrecy” surrounding homosexuality and homosexuals in the clergy has enabled and to some extent driven both the sexual abuse of minors and its cover-up.

The book deserves careful – and carefully critical – reading. A quick take after a cursory acquaintance suggests Martel is a man with a fairly transparent agenda. He is also a man with a reputation – by all accounts hard-earned and well-deserved – as a meticulous and ethical researcher. It will therefore be necessary to distinguish what he finds from what he says his findings mean.

The upshot of all this has been, in a word, chaos ahead of the highest-level meeting ever held on the subject of clerical sexual abuse of minors.

Heading into the week, Pope Francis at the Sunday Angelus asked prayers for the success of the meeting. “I invite [everyone] to pray for this appointment,” he said, “which I desired as an act of strong pastoral responsibility before an urgent challenge of our time.”