News Analysis

Week in review

The big story of the past seven days

✣ Cardinal Wuerl: I was ‘imprecise’ on McCarrick

What happened?
Cardinal Donald Wuerl relayed an allegation of abuse against Cardinal Theodore McCarrick to the nuncio in 2004, the Archdiocese of Washington confirmed.

The revelation appears to contradict Wuerl’s statements last year that he had not even heard rumours of abuse before 2018.

The archdiocese said the cardinal had “not intended to be imprecise” and that his previous statements referred only to child abuse. The 2004 allegation related to sexual misconduct with a seminarian.

What the media are saying
The Washington Post denounced the cardinal in an editorial. “Cardinal Wuerl knew about Theodore McCarrick. And he lied about it,” ran the headline. His earlier statements were not “imprecise”, the Post argued, but “unequivocal”: he was asked a broad question about “long-standing rumours” and replied that he had “not heard them”. The revelation, the Post said, encapsulates key characteristics of the abuse crisis: “callousness directed at victims; an insistence on denial and hairsplitting; and the hierarchy’s preference for treating allegations as internal matters”.

Sohrab Ahmari, writing at the New York Post, called the cardinal’s latest clarification “lame” and “legalistic”. It was especially galling, he wrote, given that he had earlier been “berated” by an archdiocesan spokesman for asserting in his columns that Wuerl’s denials did not pass “the smell test”.

Ahmari said he did not relish the cardinal’s downfall. “Donald Cardinal Wuerl is 78. Whatever his shortcomings, he has dedicated a lifetime to serving the Church. I don’t relish joining the chorus of media detractors jeering: ‘Aha! Aha!’ But his troubles today should spur American bishops to come clean, once and for all, about the McCarrick episode.”

The Washington Post’s Michelle Boorstein reported that Wuerl had defended his earlier statements in a letter to priests, saying “one may interpret” them “in another context”, and that he was “trusting in your understanding”. Edward Peters, the canon lawyer, said the developments made the Vatican’s appointment of Wuerl as apostolic administrator “all the more inexplicable”.

The most overlooked story of the week

✣ Latin American statesmen criticise Pope

What happened?
Twenty Latin American statesmen have written an open letter to Pope Francis criticising his remarks on the region. In his Christmas blessing, the Pope urged Nicaraguans to “promote reconciliation” and Venezuelans to “recover social harmony”. The letter, signed by 20 former heads of government, said this language was too gentle.

Why was it under-reported?
The letter was, inevitably, of most interest in the Spanish-speaking world – where the signatories, such as Nobel Peace laureate Óscar Arias and former Mexico president Felipe Calderón, are household names. It was also a subtle critique, perhaps too complex for easy headlines. The leaders did not argue that Francis was wrong, exactly, in his calls for harmony and peace. But they suggested that his emphasis was mistaken: he might be seeming to tell “the victimised nations that they should come to agreement with their victimisers”.

What will happen next?
there is no sign of the unrest dying down in either country. Last month Nicaraguan president Daniel Ortega banned several NGOs and seized the offices of a leading media outlet.

A Human Rights Watch representative said Ortega was ruling “by terror and intimidation”. Venezuela’s crisis is even worse, with prices doubling every 20 days. The Holy See generally urges dialogue with oppressive regimes; this public criticism may prompt a rethink.

✣ The week ahead

Pope Francis arrives in Panama on Wednesday. During his six-day visit he will meet inmates at a youth detention centre, visit a centre for people with HIV and Aids, dedicate the altar at Panama’s newly renovated 400-year-old cathedral and, on Sunday, celebrate the closing Mass for World Youth Day. Francis is the first pope to visit the country since St John Paul II in 1983.

The Pope will preside at Vespers at the Basilica of St Paul Outside the Walls to open the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity today. The service, traditionally held at the end of the week, was brought forward because of the Pope’s Panama trip.

The March for Life takes place in Washington DC today. Among the speakers is Abby Johnson, a former Planned Parenthood clinic director. The theme is “Unique from Day One: Pro-Life is Pro-Science”. Jeanne Mancini, March for Life president, said that science and technology “are on the side of life because they show the humanity of the child at a very young age”.

The best of the web

✣ Highlights from the week online

Pennsylvania grand jury report debunked
The Pennsylvania grand jury report, which last August declared that hundreds of priests had abused children over decades in the state, has had an enormous impact, leading to at least a dozen states announcing their own, similar investigations. But according to Peter Steinfels in Commonweal, the report was grossly unfair.

In particular, its key claim that victims were “brushed aside, in every part of the state, by Church leaders who preferred to protect the abusers and their institutions above all” is contradicted by the material in the report itself, wrote Steinfels, who noted that media coverage was nearly entirely based on the report’s incendiary 12-page introduction (it runs to 1,356 pages).

Looking at the Diocese of Erie, Steinfels noted only four cases, all before 1982, where priests were shuffled between parishes without concern for the dangers to children. Instead of documenting the Church’s evolution, the report treats the seven decades from 1945 “as a block”, Steinfels wrote, ignoring any sense of history.

The “critical point”, he wrote, was that the report was “designed to be a weapon in the debate”, to “mobilise public opinion behind legislation suspending the statute of limitations”.

But in its evidence, if not its rhetoric, it showed that the 2002 Dallas Charter worked, and had ended a practice of keeping priests credibly accused of abuse in some form of ministry, he wrote. “American bishops should go to the Vatican’s February summit … confident that the measures they’ve already adopted have made an important difference,” Steinfels concluded.

The medieval nun with paint in her teeth
Anita Radini, an archaeologist at the University of York, spends a lot of time looking at the dental plaque of long-dead individuals, Steph Yin wrote at the New York Times.

When looking at the tartar of a nun from medieval Germany, Radini was shocked to find particles of brilliant blue, and a team later discovered it was dust from ultramarine pigment, the “finest and most expensive of blue colourings, made of lapis lazuli stone from Afghanistan”, meaning the nun was likely a “highly skilled” painter and scribe of religious texts.

“The pigment likely ended up on the woman’s teeth as she used her mouth to shape her paintbrush,” Yin wrote. The finding, she said, “upends the conventional assumption that medieval European women were not much involved in producing religious texts.”

Why home-schooling is illegal in Germany
Last week the European Court of Human Rights rejected a claim by German parents who argued their rights were violated when their children were taken into care simply because they were being home-schooled.

At Rod Dreher’s blog, German Catholic Tobias Klein explained there was “practically no political debate about compulsory schooling in Germany … Home-schooling, they think, is something only Young Earth creationists and shotgun-wielding rednecks would do, so most Germans consider it appropriate and reasonable that it is unlawful”.

✣ Meanwhile…

✣ A Catholic actress has described an encounter with St John Paul II during his 1998 visit to the US. Ellie Kemper, star of America’s The Office and The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, attended a papal Mass at the cathedral basilica in St Louis, Missouri, in 1998, when she was 18 and her brother was nine.

She wrote in her book My Squirrel Days that after Mass ended, “hysteria quickly took over. People were jumping all over one another to try to touch the Pope.” She tried to lift her brother, Billy, on to her shoulders, but he resisted. As she thrust him towards the aisle, an elderly woman stood in the way. “‘Excuse me,’ I barked at her, foam forming at the corners of my mouth. ‘Please make way for the child.’ “Just then, the pope glanced up at us. Those clear blue eyes, the colour of an Edenic pond, washed over me and I swear, I have never felt more at peace.”

✣ The Vatican has launched an athletics team – and its sights are set on the Olympics. The Holy See has signed an agreement with the Italian Olympic Committee, which could allow Vatican athletes to compete in events such as the Games of the Small States of Europe. Mgr Melchor Jose Sánchez de Toca y Alameda, the team president, admits that the Olympics is very much a long-term ambition.

The week in quotations

Do it when they do not hear it
Pope Francis urges parents not to quarrel in front of children

If some of us weren’t upset, we’d all be Martians
Unnamed Chilean prelate about bishops’ treatment by Rome

My fear is we will see little in the way of concrete action plans
Abuse campaigner Marie Collins on the February summit

Time is running out … Your eternal salvation is at stake
Archbishop Viganò urges Archbishop McCarrick to repent

Statistic of the week

The number of Catholic adult baptisms in Austria in 2017, a rise from 433 in 2016