The big story of the past seven days

Federal abuse investigation launched

What happened?
Federal prosecutors in the United States have launched an investigation into the handling of clerical abuse in the state of Pennsylvania. It is the first investigation of its kind.

High-ranking Church officials have been summoned to testify. Seven dioceses have been asked to give up files. The news of the investigation came after a Pennsylvania-wide grand jury report found 301 “predator priests” had abused more than 1,000 children over recent decades.

What commentators are saying
‘‘This is going to be hell for the Church” – that was what one source told Rocco Palmo, who writes the Whispers in the Loggia blog. Until now, dioceses have had to deal only with local or state-wide investigations into their handling of abuse. A federal investigation was a “different ball game”, Palmo told Philadelphia’s KYW News. “The feds have unlimited time, unlimited resources” – the recent grand jury report in Pennsylvania, by contrast, had a time limit of two years.

Palmo said he had heard it would be a “Rico investigation” – that is, dioceses may be pursued under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organisations (Rico) Act, originally passed to bring down the mafia.

The Pennsylvania grand jury produced a lengthy report on the mishandling of abuse. But the federal investigation, Palmo said, may end without any such public reckoning if no criminal charges are brought.

Emma Green, writing at the Atlantic, said the investigation would be a “test of how far the bishops are willing to go to reclaim their moral authority”. While reforms have long been in place regarding clerical abuse, “the bishops’ commitment to transparency – and their openness to being investigated by potentially aggressive prosecutors­ – is being pushed in a new way”.

Carl Tobias, a law professor at the University of Richmond, told NPR that federal law had a longer statute of limitations, allowing for more time to carry out prosecutions. If the investigation was successful, he added, it could provide a road map to pursue abusers and diocesan officials in other states.

Bishop at synod is member of China’s parliament

What happened?
Bishop Joseph Guo Jincai of Chengde, China, who attended the Vatican synod this month, has served for three terms in China’s parliament, the National People’s Congress, it has emerged. He supported the abolition of presidential time limits, extending Xi Jinping’s rule indefinitely, according to the Catholic News Agency.

Why was it under-reported
Pope Francis’s China deal is no longer a focus for the media, having been edged out by the youth synod and abuse scandals. And, while the 3,000 or so members of the National People’s Congress do have influence, they are not quite the equivalent of MPs: they merely rubber-stamp proposed laws.

But Bishop Guo’s membership clearly violates canon law, as clergy are forbidden from “sharing in the exercise of civil power”. Even more extraordinary is the fact that he holds public office in a communist regime that represses Catholicism.

What will happen next?
Bishop Guo has experienced quite a turnaround. In 2010 he was ordained as bishop without papal approval – the Vatican described it as a “painful wound”. Last month his excommunication was lifted. His attendance at the youth synod, along with Bishop Yang Xiaoting, was a first for any Chinese bishop.

It is uncertain, given the sensitivities involved, whether the Vatican will push very hard for him to give up his office. His latest five-year term ends in 2022 – it may be that he will decide not to seek re-election.

The week ahead

Bishops and priests at the youth synod will vote on its final document tomorrow. Each section will be voted on separately and require a two-thirds majority to pass. Approved sections will become part of a post-synodal exhortation. The 12 men drafting the document include Archbishop Bruno Forte of Chieti-Vasto, Italy, and Mexico’s Cardinal Carlo Aguiar Retes.

Brazil chooses its next president on Sunday. The final run-off is between populist Jair Bolsonaro and the leader of the left-wing Workers’ Party, Fernando Haddad. Bolsonaro is the favourite, winning 47 per cent in the first round.

Pilgrims are leaving Westminster Cathedral for the Suffolk town of Bury St Edmunds tomorrow. The pilgrimage is organised by the cathedral’s Guild of the Blessed Sacrament. For centuries before the Reformation, pilgrims flocked to the town to venerate the relics of St Edmund, a 9th-century king who was martyred by invading Danes after refusing to renounce Christ.