— Pope Francis promulgates an updated version of the Church’s norms to prevent and counter sexual abuse against minors and vulnerable adults, harmonizing various legislative reforms introduced since 2019 and extending the norms to cover lay leaders of international associations of the faithful recognized by the Holy See.
By Vatican News
Following nearly four years of experimentation and extensive consultation with bishops and the Dicasteries of the Roman Curia, Pope Francis has definitively promulgated procedures to prevent and counter sexual abuse within the Catholic Church.
The updated version of the motu proprio Vos estis lux mundi was published on Saturday, and enters into force on 30 April. It replaces the previous version published in May 2019, and confirms the Church’s desire to continue to combat crimes of sexual abuse.
Leaders of lay associations
The most significant change introduced in the new version of the normative text concerns the provisions in “Title II” which lay out the responsibilities of bishops, religious superiors, and clerics in charge of a particular Church or Prelature.
The updated text specifies that “the lay faithful who are or have been moderators of international associations of the faithful recognized or created by the Apostolic See [are responsible] for acts committed” while they were in office.
Various other modifications were introduced to harmonize the procedural text against abuse with other normative reforms introduced between 2019 and the present. These include the revision of the motu proprio Sacramentorum sanctitatis tutela (norms amended in 2021), changes made to Book VI of the Code of Canon Law (2021 reform), and the new Constitution on the Roman Curia Praedicate Evangelium (promulgated in 2022).
Vulnerable adults and abuse reporting
One notable modification regards the inclusion of “vulnerable” adults in the normative text.
The previous version referred to “sexual acts with a minor or a vulnerable person”. However, the updated text speaks of “a crime against the Sixth Commandment of the Decalogue committed with a minor, or with a person who habitually has an imperfect use of reason, or with a vulnerable adult.”
Another change concerns the protection of the person who submits a report of alleged abuse.
Whereas the earlier text stated that no constraint of silence may be imposed on the person who reports alleged abuse, this protection has now been extended to “the person who claims to have been offended and those who were witnesses.”
Additionally, the text strengthens calls to safeguard “the legitimate protection of the good name and privacy of all persons involved,” as well as the presumption of innocence for those who are under investigation during the period in which determinations of responsibility are underway.
The updated version of Vos estis lux mundi also specifies that dioceses and eparchies must operate an “organisation or office” (the earlier version spoke in general about a “stable system”) which is easily accessible to the public in order to receive reports of cases of abuse.
It also clarifies that the task of proceeding with the investigation lies under the responsibility of the bishop or Ordinary of the place where the reported events allegedly took place.
Abuse of authority
The procedures introduced in 2019 set out precise guidelines on how to deal with reports of abuse and ensure that bishops and religious superiors—who now including lay people with responsibility for international associations—are held accountable and are obliged through a universally-established legal precept to report abuse of which they have become aware.
The document includes, and continues to include, not only abuse and violence against children and vulnerable adults, but also covers sexual violence and harassment resulting from the abuse of authority.
Therefore, the obligation to report also includes cases of violence against religious women by clerics, as well as cases of harassment of adult seminarians or novices.
As Benedict XVI, Joseph Ratzinger was head of the Catholic Church from 2005 to 2013. Using archival footage and conversations with contemporary witnesses, this film provides insight into the rise and fall of the German pope.
A misconception that remains about the Indian Residential School system is the myth of its beneficial, benevolent intentions.
This myth that continues to be put forth by some settler Canadians avoids acknowledging the intergenerational trauma stemming from residential schooling. It also denies that residential schooling was part of a larger settler colonial system.
As political commentator and journalist John McGrath writes: “Residential schools were as much a part of the Canadian national project as railroads, medicare or fighting in two world wars.”
‘Restorying’ settler colonial legacies
Greater and specific understandings of who designed, administered and taught at these institutions is needed to help people understand the specific ways we can become more accountable to redress their harms.
This past September, on the front lawns of University of Ottawa’s main building, Tabaret Hall, representatives of the Algonquin First Nations and Elder Peter Decontie lit a ceremonial fire. This occasion was named Pinzibìwin | Amitié | Friendship and sought to acknowledge and renew our relations for moving forward together in a good way.
At the University of Ottawa’s faculty of education, one way we can respond to the responsibilities we inherit to uphold the spirit of Pinzibìwin is by seeking to understand interconnections between the role that the Oblate religious order had in founding the University of Ottawa and in operating residential schools. More information is needed to move towards deeper understanding and accountability, particularly as we seek to educate teachers about standing in classrooms and discussing truth and reconciliation.
The past is present
Teachers and leaders in educational institutions must continue to question and address how teacher education programs, as well as provincial curricula, continue to be largely framed by settler colonial worldviews, histories and perspectives.
The reports hit the Roman Catholic Church in rapid succession: Analyses of cellphone data obtained by a conservative Catholic blog seemed to show priests at multiple levels of the Catholic hierarchy in both the United States and the Vatican using the gay hookup app Grindr.
The first report, published late last month, led to the resignation of Msgr. Jeffrey Burrill, the former general secretary of the U.S. bishops’ conference. The second, posted online days later, made claims about the use of Grindr by unnamed people in unspecified rectories in the Archdiocese of Newark. The third, published days after that, claimed that in 2018 at least 32 mobile devices emitted dating app data signals from within areas of Vatican City that are off-limits to tourists.
The reports by the blog, The Pillar, have unnerved the leadership of the American Catholic Church and have introduced a potentially powerful new weapon into the culture war between supporters of Pope Francis and his conservative critics: cellphone data, which many users assume to be unavailable to the general public.
“When there is reporting out there that claims to expose activity like this in parishes around the country and also on Vatican grounds, that is a five-alarm fire for church officials, there is no doubt about it,” said John Gehring, the Catholic program director at Faith in Public Life, a progressive advocacy group.
The reports have put church officials in an awkward position: Priests take a vow of celibacy that is in no way flexible, and the downloading or use of dating apps by clergy members is inconsistent with that vow. But officials are also deeply uncomfortable with the use of cellphone data to publicly police priests’ behavior. Vatican officials said they met with representatives from the blog in June but would not publicly respond to its reports.
“If someone who has made promise of celibacy or a vow of chastity has a dating app on his or her phone, that is asking for trouble,” said Cardinal Joseph W. Tobin of Newark at a Zoom panel organized by Georgetown University. (He declined to be interviewed for this article.)
“I would also say that I think there are very questionable ethics around the collection of this data of people who allegedly may have broken their promises,” he said.
The only app explicitly named in the reports has been Grindr, which is used almost exclusively by gay and bisexual men, although The Pillar has made vague references to other apps it says are used by heterosexuals. Only one of the reports directly links an app to a specific person, Monsignor Burrill.
The reports have been criticized by Catholic liberals for tying the general use of Grindr to studies that show minors sometimes use the app as well. That conflation of homosexuality and pedophilia is part of a longstanding effort by Catholic conservatives to blame the church sex abuse crisis on the presence of gay men in the priesthood.
The reports have raised a host of questions: How did The Pillar obtain the cellphone data? How did it analyze the data, which is commercially available in an anonymous form, to identify individual app users? How widespread is the use of dating apps among Catholic priests, and how much has The Pillar been able to learn about specific individuals?
The editors of The Pillar, J.D. Flynn and Ed Condon, have refused to answer any of those questions and did not respond to a request seeking comment for this story. They have also declined interview requests from other news media.
In a podcast, Mr. Flynn and Mr. Condon said their work was motivated by a desire to expose a secretive culture of wrongdoing within the church.
“Immoral and illicit sexual behavior on the part of clerics who are bound to celibacy, but also on the part of other church leaders, could lead to a broad sense of tolerance for any number or kinds of sexual sins,” Mr. Flynn said on the podcast.
They said Newark was the only American diocese they wrote about because it was once led by the former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, who was defrocked in 2019 and charged last month with sexually assaulting a child in Massachusetts in 1974.
But their decision to investigate the use of a gay dating app in suburban New Jersey, instead of a city with a large gay population, has raised suspicion that their real goal may have been to undermine Cardinal Tobin, an ally of Pope Francis.
Mr. Flynn and Mr. Condon’s former employer, the conservative Catholic News Agency, published a report the day before the first post on The Pillar that said it had been approached in 2018 by “a person concerned with reforming the Catholic clergy.”
That person offered them similar cellphone data and also provided specific information about a nationally prominent priest who was not Monsignor Burrill, the executive editor of the agency, Alejandro Bermudez, said in an interview. He declined to name that priest.
At that time, Mr. Flynn and Mr. Condon were both editors at the agency, but Mr. Bermudez said he did not discuss the offer with them.
Mr. Bermudez said he thought the data was accurate but he ultimately declined to accept it because he thought it had been gathered in a “sketchy” way. He also said he thought using it to expose the private lives of priests would not be an effective or ethical way to reform the church.
The Pillar’s reports have been based on what it describes as “a very large data set” derived from data signals from multiple smartphone apps that were collected over two 26-week periods, one in 2018, and one in late 2019 and early 2020.
Until 2020, Grindr routinely provided user location data to freewheeling online ad exchanges, where it could be harvested by data brokers.
In January, Grindr was fined $11.7 million by the Norwegian Data Protection Authority for its history of providing user data, including precise locations, to advertising companies that later shared it with potentially more than 100 other entities.
In a statement, Grindr said it was trying to determine how The Pillar had acquired its user data. But it said those efforts were complicated by the writers’ “vague and incomplete descriptions of their work.”
“What is clear is that this work involved much more than just a small blog,” Grindr said in its statement.
The complexity and size of the data set makes it likely that The Pillar’s source had money and analytical skills, said Ashkan Soltani, a former technology adviser to the White House and the Federal Trade Commission.
Cellphone app data is often purchased from data brokers by corporations and political groups who analyze it to determine patterns of behavior. They can also use location filters to find users of a certain app in a certain location, like Grindr users within the compact borders of Vatican City.
Some firms specialize in de-anonymizing cellphone data, and a user’s identity can sometimes be determined by following their movements, said Mr. Soltani. That may be how The Pillar identified Monsignor Burrill, who the blog said it tracked to his home and office as well as to gay bars and a bathhouse.
“This is a cottage industry, and all of this stuff is really available out there,” said Mr. Soltani. “There is a risk for anyone who uses these apps. This could potentially happen to anyone.”
The reports have set the Catholic Church on edge.
Matteo Bruni, a Vatican spokesman, said that Vatican officials, including the powerful secretary of state, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, met with “representatives from The Pillar” on June 17.
But he said the Vatican had decided not to respond to the report and did not say whether it planned to investigate the claims. It is unclear how church officials might punish the use of a cellphone app, if The Pillar’s reports were to be confirmed.
In Newark, church officials instructed priests not to speak to journalists. Several who spoke, on condition of anonymity, expressed dismay at the use of cellphone data to track priests. Even lay leaders were reluctant to discuss the controversy on the record, although not many parishioners appear to be aware of it.
The Pillar has not said whether it plans to publish more reports using cellphone data, but priests in other dioceses have waited anxiously to see whether it would publish anything about their communities.
Father Bob Bonnot, the executive director of the Association of U.S. Catholic Priests, said the use of cellphone data to track the movement of Monsignor Burrill had deepened a sense of vulnerability many priests feel.
“It can be terribly threatening,” he said. “It can make all priests uncomfortable and worried.”
Mr. Flynn and Mr. Condon are canon lawyers well known for their work at the Catholic News Agency, which is owned by the right-leaning Eternal Word Television Network, and their ties to conservatives in the church.
The Pillar provided information about its findings to the Archdiocese of Newark after church officials spent several weeks asking for details, said Maria Margiotta, an archdiocese spokeswoman. She said church officials were reviewing the findings.
“It is not acceptable for any member of the clergy to use any app, social media or website in a way that is inconsistent with Church teachings and their own religious vows,” she said. “We are committed to protecting the faithful, and when we learn of immoral behavior or misconduct, we immediately respond appropriately to address concerns.”
It had all the hallmarks of a sensationalist tabloid sting.
On July 21, 2021, an article appeared alleging that a senior U.S. priest, Monsignor Jeffrey Burrill, had used the hook-up app Grindr, with data from the app placing him at a number of gay bars. Burrill, the now former General Secretary of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, promptly resigned.
But the report was not published by an outlet that many Americans would associated with such sex “exposés.” Indeed, most would have never have heard of it at all. It was The Pillar, a small newsletter founded in early 2021, that makes up just a tiny part of the Catholic media landscape in the U.S.
But as The Pillar’s reporting on Burrill shows, Catholic journalism can nonetheless be influential – and can split opinion in just the same way as media with a wider audience.
A newspaper for every diocese
The Catholic mediascape is made up of a series of publications at the local, national and global level. Almost every diocese has its own newspaper that covers local events like first communions – when a Catholic receives the Eucharist, the bread and wine transformed into Christ’s body and blood, for the first time – or the construction of a new school gym.
But many Catholic readers also like to be informed on the bigger picture of Catholicism, and notably the Pope. In 2014, the Boston Globe, with the help of journalist John Allen, founded Crux to report on the Vatican for an American Catholic audience.
Catholic journalists not only report on the church itself, they aim to offer a Catholic perspective on broader American stories. That was the founding premise behind important Catholic magazines like Commonweal, founded by laypeople in 1924, and America, a monthly publication run by Jesuits in New York City.
Increasingly, like the secular media, Catholic outlets have been polarized and drawn into the culture war. They too have taken positions that divide readers and win constituents with particular worldviews. National Catholic Reporter, in the spirit of the Second Vatican Council – the meeting of the world’s bishops 1962 to 1965 that introduced changes like Mass in the vernacular and a new respect for the religious liberty of members of other faiths – is a liberal outlet that cut its teeth on criticism of the Vietnam War and continues to promote social justice.
Its counterpart, the National Catholic Register, prefers the moral clarity and conservative positions offered by Popes like John Paul II and Benedict XIV, particularly on matters of gender, sexuality and politics. Its readers overlap with viewers of the Eternal Word Television Network, a network critical of the more liberal Pope Francis.
On the issue of homosexuality, Catholic media similarly expresses a variety of views. America magazine consistently features the writings of Father Jim Martin, a Jesuit priest who has encouraged the church to treat the gay community with more dignity. The periodical First Things, meanwhile, delights in offering readers searing critiques of secular modernity by Catholic conservative writers.
The ethics of The Pillar’s article aside, the reporting does tap into a tradition of Catholic media shining a light on church issues and elevating it to national attention.
A generation ago, Catholic media reporting was crucial in helping expose the sexual abuse of children by priests.
On June 7, 1985, an article by investigative journalist Jason Berry in the National Catholic Reporter exposed not only the pedophilia of priest Gilbert Gauthe, but also the church’s complicity to cover it up. Berry, a practicing Catholic who covered the case initially for a local Louisiana paper, detailed for a national readership how Gauthe had abused dozens of children in the Diocese of Lafayette starting in 1972. He charted the local hierarchy’s efforts to keep the case out of the public eye and how church officials ignored reports of the abuse. Berry’s article ran for several pages, replete with headlines like “PEDOPHILE PRIEST: STUDY IN INEPT CHURCH RESPONSE” and “MANY KNEW OF FATHER’S PROBLEM BUT NO-ONE STOPPED HIM.”
The national press picked up the story only after it appeared in National Catholic Reporter.
The publication of Berry’s writings on Gauthe marked the beginning of a new, vigorous mode of national criticism in the Catholic press of church hierarchy for allegedly covering up sex abuse scandals.
Reporting on scandals
Without journalists like Jason Berry, the exposure of the clergy abuse crisis may have played along very different lines. To put it simply, it moved the interpretation of the crisis away from a “bad apple” paradigm – it which individual priests were to blame – towards a much more systemic approach which looked at a Catholic culture that facilitates abuse.
The Pillar has tried to frame its investigation of Burrill in a similar light. It implies that Burrill’s use of hookup apps might further develop a culture of abuse in the church. The Pillar’s article quotes moral theologian Father Thomas Berg and the late psychological and clergy sex abuse expert Richard Sipe, both of who argue that there is a connection between a cleric violating his vows of celibacy with other adults and a potential abuse of adolescents. The suggestion is that it encourages “networks of protection and tolerance among sexually active clerics,” as The Pillar suggests.
But this argument requires a fine dance that risks falling into the trap of connecting the act of homosexuality with pedophilia. Not everybody is convinced that The Pillar’s article drew this line sufficiently.
Nonetheless, it has rekindled a debate over the role of Catholic media.
In his 1996 book, “Pedophiles and Priest,” historian Philip Jenkins criticizes Berry’s landmark reporting for making it appear as if everyone in Louisiana Church structure, from the bishops to fellow priests, were at fault for Gauthe’s prolific abuse. Jenkins argues that the June 1985 article provided a formula for future reporting: first a journalist details some rumors, then he or she writes about how the allegations troubled parents, then the reporter mentions a transfer of a priest to a new parish and, finally, the investigator quotes an expert who comments on the structural nature of the crisis. In this way, Jenkins suggested, journalists make abuse appear more pervasive than it is. Although Jenkins book was written in the mid-1990s, his analysis, while problematic, remains important.
On a sunny Sunday evening in May, 80 people gathered in a Berlin church for a calm Catholic revolution. At 6pm the 11 metre-high wooden doors of the modernist church of St Canisius were opened for an inclusive Mass of blessing. Spaced out in pairs around the airy church were mainly same-sex couples, all looking ahead at the lanky Jesuit priest.
With expectation in the air, Fr Jan Korditschke removed his face mask and, wearing a broad smile, spread his arms and invited all present to join him in celebrating love. His sermon drew on John’s Gospel, that love is from God, and that it is not in the purview of a priest or a pope to deny the God-given blessing of love.
“God is present in love and and loving couples are already blessed with the presence of God. I am just giving it a framework through this rite,” he said.
Afterwards, with two assistants Korditschke worked his way through the church, talked briefly to each couple before praying together. Behind medical masks many tears flowed.
“It was such a relief, like a stone was rolling away from my heart,” said one man, Georg, alongside his partner afterward.
The Berlin Mass was the last in a series of services across Germany under the banner #liebegewinnt – love wins. The services were triggered by a Vatican document from March restating Catholic teaching that homosexual acts are disordered and blessings for same-sex unions are impossible.
One attendee, Robert, said he came with his partner in protest at the document’s key sentence that “God does not and cannot bless sin”. “By posing a question no one asked, just to answer it in such cold language,” he said, “Rome tried to ram home its point but have triggered a reaction they didn’t expect.”
A few feet away 15 young men and one middle-aged woman held a large hand-written banner reading “God cannot bless sin” and recited the rosary during the Mass. One protester, who declined to give his name, said that obedience to papal teaching is what has held the Catholic Church together for two millennia.
“I worry that carry-on like this,” he said, with a nod to the emerging massgoers, “will bring us toward another schism.”
Exactly 500 years ago, the renegade Augustinian monk Martin Luther was ordered in public to submit to this absolute papal authority by recanting his claims of corrupt church practice and flawed teaching.
Luther turned the tables on Rome by demanding they prove that his scripture-based understanding of the Christian faith was false. The confrontation spiralled and his challenge became a channel for a host of political and modernising forces. Western Christianity split and the world was never the same again.
History doesn’t repeat itself; in a largely secular Europe, most people would struggle to spell schism, let alone see any relevance for their lives. Still, something is brewing in the land of the Reformation as individual protests within the church of Rome feed into each other to create a crackling, Catholic conflagration.
German bishops appear unsure like never before as to where their loyalties lie. Should they deploy the Roman fire blanket, suffocate the flames and denounce critics as arsonist apostates? Or does their survival hinge on embracing the protest and facing down Rome?
Like their Irish colleagues, the German bishops’ fumbled response to clerical sexual abuse allegations and their cover-up in the past decade has drained away credibility and public support.
Nowhere is the struggle more visible – or the stakes higher – than in the western city of Cologne. For centuries its hulking Gothic cathedral has been a touchstone of German Catholicism. For many German believers, though, Cologne is now the epicentre of institutional dysfunction and denial, in particular over the scale of clerical child abuse and the systematic nature of its cover-up.
Last year Cologne’s conservative archbishop, Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki, came under fire for suppressing a report he himself commissioned into clerical sexual abuse. A replacement report followed this year and triggered two bishops’ departure, but critics say this document was careful to avoid any analysis of whether church structures were a contributory factor to abuse. Tensions continue to build.
In January a local priest, Klaus Koltermann, wrote to Cardinal Woelki, warning of “disquiet among the greatest believers” in his parish of Dormagen, 20 minutes north of Cologne. When a local newspaper reprinted his letter, Koltermann’s superiors warned of “possibly serious breaches of your service obligations . . . that could have consequences”.
The threat was withdrawn when the priest went public with their correspondence, a stand-off he describes as a learning experience. “A new solidarity has to grow amongst us,” he told The Irish Times. “We have to become more courageous. Sadly, we priests never learned to stand up for our faith – in the church.”
Such cases of conscience-led insubordination are gaining momentum. Two weeks ago Catholics at an ecumenical gathering with Germany’s Lutherans held joint eucharistic celebrations in defiance of their bishops.
This week a parish in Düsseldorf wrote to Cardinal Woelki disinviting him as celebrant at their confirmation Mass next month. Woelki once served as a deacon in the parish, as did two abusing priests. In their letter, some 140 parishioners said they feared the cardinal would “instrumentalise” their children’s confirmation to hit back at his critics.
“You are for us, sadly, no longer credible, we have lost our trust in you as a bishop,” they wrote.
Unlike in other countries, German Catholics have a clear way to express a vote of no-confidence with the Kirchenaustritt (church departure). All Christian church members in Germany automatically pay a so-called “church tax” in a system dating back to the 19th century, calculated at 8 per cent of their income tax. Effectively a membership fee, it earns Germany’s Catholic Church some ¤6 billion annually. Revoking the payment is seen as revocation of church membership.
The number of annual departures in 2019 was 218,000, twice the number of a decade ago. Numbers for 2020 have yet to be collated but, based on anecdotal evidence, the ongoing abuse debate has prompted an unprecedented rush for the exits.
Already facing a ticking demographic time bomb, Catholic bishops announced a “synodal process” in 2019 to discuss the road ahead. With 230 members (lay and religious) discussions are under way in four groups examining the role of priests, church power, sexuality and women in ministry. The pandemic shifted discussions online but organisers hope in-person gatherings can begin from September, with the first votes on proposals by Christmas.
For Bishop Georg Bätzing, head of the German episcopate, the “synodal path” is a balancing act between church liberals and traditionalists – with Rome looking on warily.
His relief was palpable this week when Pope Francis announced plans for a worldwide synodal consultation. This, said the German bishop, was proof that “we are neither schismatic nor do we as a German national church want to loosen ourselves from Rome”.
Expectations of the process are modest, however, given two emergency brakes built into the process: any decisions from the synodal path require unanimous backing of bishops, then approval from Rome.
Rather than wait for reform from within, Lisa Kötter began a church strike two years ago, out of which has grown a grassroots movement called Maria 2.0. Two years on, with regular protests and prayer services, Maria 2.0 has gone global with its demands for the inclusion of women in all church functions, an end to mandatory celibacy, and a consequential response to clerical sexual abuse.
“We see the entire patriarchal basis of the Catholic Church as wrong and not inclusive, out of step with the teaching of Jesus,” said Kötter.
It’s a measure of the movement’s effect that it already has a conservative countermovement, Maria 1.0. And, after initial icy silence, Kötter has been invited to private meetings with bishops. But the friendly conversation always reaches a dead end, she says, when conversation turns to the main bone of contention: church privileges and power that men claim for themselves.
With calls for women priests and blessing same-sex couples, Kötter and Fr Korditschke push back against the idea that they are part of a Luther 2.0 movement. Neither wants a break with Rome but, then again, neither did the man who became the face of the Reformation.
Korditschke says Germany’s Lutheran churches, with more liberal positions on women ministers and social questions, have raised expectations among local Catholics — and tensions when change comes slowly, or not at all.
“I look to Jesus, who was respectful of religious leaders and the sabbath but not afraid of conflict when it came to prioritising the good of people,” said Korditschke, who was baptised Lutheran, converted to Catholicism aged 16 and has no plans to return.
“I don’t see myself at odds with the Catholic Church and, unlike Martin Luther, I pray every day for the pope and serve my church. This is my home.”
After lighting a fuse in Germany two years ago, Kötter sees neither the structural means nor political appetite for reform among German Catholic bishops. She dismisses the synodal path as a “simulation”.
“They haven’t heard the sign of the times, the demands for change. Their ears are trained to hear nothing except their own hymns.”
Vatican Report Cast John Paul II in Harsh New Light
The former pope was fast-tracked for canonization immediately after his death. But a tarnished legacy in dealing with the church’s sex abuse scandals has left critics to wonder whether it was too fast.
At the funeral of Pope John Paul II at St. Peter’s Square, banners rose from the sea of mourners reading “Santo Subito,” or “Saint at Once.” He was a giant of the church in the 20th century, spanning the globe, inspiring generations of believers with his youthful magnetism, then aged infirmity, and, as the Polish pope, he helped bring down Communism over his more than 26-year reign.
Days after his death in 2005, cardinals eager to uphold his conservative policies had already begun discussing putting him on a fast track to sainthood while devotees in Rome and beyond clamored for his immediate canonization, drowning out notes of caution from survivors of sexual abuse and historians that John Paul had persistently turned a blind eye to the crimes in his church.
Now, after more than a decade of doubts, his reputation has fallen under its darkest cloud yet, after the very Vatican that rushed to canonize him released an extraordinary report this week that laid at the saint’s feet the blame for the advancement of the disgraced former prelate Theodore E. McCarrick.
The investigation, commissioned by Pope Francis, who canonized John Paul in 2014, revealed how John Paul chose not to believe longstanding accusations of sexual abuse against Mr. McCarrick, including pedophilia, allowing him to climb the hierarchy’s ladder.
The findings detailed decades of bureaucratic obfuscation and lack of accountability by a host of top prelates and threatened to sully the white robes of three popes. But most of all, critics say, it provides searing proof that the church moved with reckless speed to canonize John Paul and now it is caught in its own wreckage.
“He was canonized too fast,” said Kathleen Cummings, author of “A Saint of Our Own” and the head of a center on U.S. Catholicism at the University of Notre Dame. She said that given the “really damning evidence,” in the report, had the church waited at least five years, and not mere days, to begin the canonization process “it would probably not begin for John Paul II because of his complicity in the clergy sex abuse scandal.”
A reversal of the canonization, which historians struggle to recall ever happening, is implausible. Some historians say the McCarrick report is more likely to put back some brakes on a process that John Paul II himself sped up. But the report may complicate the canonization chances of others at the top of the church hierarchy during the late 20th century and early 21st century, when the scourge of sex abuse exploded in the church.
The Vatican report shows that Pope Benedict XVI told Mr. McCarrick to keep a low profile when more allegations of abuse emerged in 2005. Pope Francis, despite hearing rumors of the abuse from his top lieutenants, trusted that his predecessors had properly vetted the case and left it alone, the report found.
Francis has acknowledged his own failures in believing bishops over victims. He removed Mr. McCarrick from the priesthood and has in recent years instituted new church policies to increase accountability.
Many church experts consider those new rules corrections to the abuses and almost willful ignorance of church leaders that occurred under John Paul II.
John Paul II’s defenders say the report only demonstrated that Mr. McCarrick deceived the pope, as he did many others over his half-century rise to the highest ranks of the Catholic Church, and that it has no bearing on the heroic Christian virtue that made the pontiff a saint.
John Paul had been “cynically deceived” by Mr. McCarrick and other American bishops, Stanislaw Gadecki, the head of the Polish bishops conference said in a statement.
“Saints make errors of judgment, this was clearly an error of judgment,” said George Weigel, a biographer of Pope John Paul II and an official witness during his beatification process. “McCarrick was a pathological liar. And pathological liars fool people including saints.”
Mr. Weigel said that if perfection were a prerequisite for sainthood, St. Peter himself would not have made the cut. Indeed, infallibility, which is sometimes attributed to popes, is not a necessary saintly attribute, and history is full of saints who were not exactly saints during their lifetimes.
There has been a satanic priest, prostitutes, thieves and much else on the road to redemption and sainthood. In 1969, Pope Paul VI removed 93 saints from the church’s universal liturgical calendar, but mostly because they might not have existed, such as St. Christopher, who carried on his shoulders an infant who with each step grew heavier with the weight of the world.
But much is known about John Paul II, and some critics are arguing that it is enough cause not to celebrate him.
Citing John Paul’s “calamitous, callous decision-making,” which it said put children around the world at risk, an editorial Friday in the National Catholic Reporter urged American bishops meeting next week for their annual conference to “discuss requesting that the Vatican formally suppress John Paul’s cult,” or cease celebrating him. “Abuse victims deserve no less.”
That is a tremendous irony for a pope who turned the church into an efficient canonization factory. John Paul knocked down the criteria for beatification from two miracles to one, and did the same for canonization. In 1983, he reduced the amount of time required between a person’s death and the start of their canonization process to five years from 50.
He produced more than 480 saints, and put enough into the pipeline that Benedict XVI was able to canonize scores more. Pope Francis has followed suit, but has chosen to canonize people closer to his more pastoral, and less doctrinaire, vision of the church, such as Pope Paul VI and the martyred Salvadoran Archbishop Óscar Romero.
All three of the popes embraced the canonization process as a tool to fortify the faithful with the notion that saints are still among us, but also as mission statements for who merits emulation. Given the ideological divisions in the church, that approach puts a premium on speed.
“A process normally begins after five years of the death of the Servant of God and not later than 30 years after his death,” the Rev. Pascual Cebollada, the postulator, or person who presents a case for canonization, for the Jesuit order, explained. “For the last condition there are, of course, many exceptions that must be justified. For the first,” he added, “there have been less exceptions.”
John Paul was one of them. Benedict XVI waived the five-year requirement, allowing his canonization case to begin only days after his death. Even before the McCarrick report’s release on Tuesday, there was a growing sense that might have been a mistake.
In May, reporters asked Msgr. Slawomir Oder, the promoter of the cause for John Paul’s sainthood, whether it would have been wiser to hold off on the canonization. Already by that time, a cloud had grown over John Paul’s relationship with Mr. McCarrick and his close ties to the Rev. Marcial Maciel Degollado, the Mexican founder of the wealthy and powerful religious order Legionaries of Christ, who was later found to have fathered several children and been a serial abuser.
“All questions were faced, even the ones you are talking about” concerning abuse, Monsignor Oder said. He added that “John Paul II did not cover up any pedophile.”
But Monsignor Oder, who did not return a request for comment after the report’s publication, also said at the time that the Vatican did not grant direct access to the archives to those investigating the case for John Paul’s canonization, and that the Secretariat of State researched their questions and provided answers.
To shield John Paul II, who was actually in power at the time of Mr. McCarrick’s promotions, Archbishop Viganò argued that the ailing pontiff was too sick with Parkinson’s in 2000 to be held accountable.
But the Vatican investigation, which Archbishop Viganò said did not interview him, says that John Paul was of sound mind when he personally made the decision to reject the accusations and appoint Mr. McCarrick.
“The record unequivocally shows that Pope John Paul II made the decision personally,” the report says, and quotes the testimony of the former prefect of the papal household, James Harvey, saying John Paul was “fully capable to make all of his own decisions in 2000.”
The more frequent defense of John Paul, expressed also in the report, is that his experience facing Communism in Poland led him to believe that false accusations against priests and bishops were a political weapon against the faith.
But the reports give a rare glimpse at other, less noble, factors that led the pope to believe Mr. McCarrick, namely that the Vatican operated like an old boys network where bishops always got the benefit of the doubt.
John Paul first met Mr. McCarrick in 1976. Mr. McCarrick, the report says, “was on a fishing trip in the Bahamas with teenagers from some of the Catholic families” when a telegram told him to come back immediately to help translate for Pope John Paul II, then known as Karol Jozef Wojtyla, a rising star in the church. Mr. McCarrick joked that Cardinal Wojtyła had ruined his vacation and they struck up a friendship.
A quarter of a century later, Mr. McCarrick urged John Paul in a letter not to believe the accusations against him.
Pope John Paul II became “convinced of the truth” of McCarrick’s denial, the report notes, adding that Stanislaw Dziwisz, now a Cardinal, recalled that Pope John Paul II also believed it would be “useful to nominate McCarrick to Washington because he has a good relationship with the White House.”
Those events, as well as others in the report, have led some historians to suggest that the church redirect its canonization energies away from the top of the hierarchy.
“You are pope,” Professor Cummings said. “That should be good enough.”
Bernard Preynat, a former Catholic Priest accused of sexually abusing dozens of boy scouts in the 1970s and 80s is on trial. In court he claimed that he himself was a victim. For Catholic activist and journalist Christine Pedotti, this trial, and that of the Bishop who covered up the abuse, reveals a systemic problem in the French Catholic Church, which has its roots in the masculine domination of the clergy.
Christine Pedotti, the editor of the weekly Catholic newspaper Témoignage Chrétien, was part of a group calling for a commission to look into the wider problem of sex abuse in the Church. The Catholic Church set up an independent commission in February 2019, and has so far collected over 2000 stories.
Q: You are active as a feminist, and have questionned how the Church approaches the issue of women, and sexuality and homosexuality. How is this current crisis of sex abuse a feminist issue?
Christine Pedotti: I see the issue of paedophilia as a symptom of an inward-focused, masculine clerical culture, in which sexuality is always seen as a sin.
What’s terrible is that deep down, some clergy consider that sexual acts with children are less serious than sexual acts with women. This shows there is a very negative view of women.
The Catholic Church doesn’t know how to talk about sexuality, because it’s incapable of seeing women as desirable. That’s where this meets feminism.
Q: How has France approached the issue of sex abuse by priests differently from elsewhere?
CP: France is France, so we think we’re exceptional. This was happening everywhere else: in Canada, in the US, in Australia, Germany, Austria, Ireland, Poland, Chile. France thought the problem would stop at our borders.
The French church had to realize it had a problem, and it wasn’t an exception. That’s a difficult realization. It’s difficult to come to terms that this happened in France just like everywhere else. That four Bishops of Lyon, one after the other, closed their eyes on this priest [Preynat], who everyone knew was a criminal.
CP: Many people ask why not become Protestant? First, I don’t think things are any better in that Church. And second, it would be like changing countries or nationalities. That’s not easy to do.
I grew up Catholic, and am imbibed by Catholic history and culture. It interests me a lot. So I stay with it, and try to change it. I created an association whose mission is: “neither leave, nor stay quiet”. And I talk, and I bother the Bishops.
A French newspaper called me a “pain in the ass for church people”. I think it’s rather a compliment!
Q: Preynat is on trial, Barbarin was convicted last year. There is a growing awareness of this problem in the French Catholic Church. Are things changing as a result?
CP: I am hopeful, but Pope Francis has pointed out the main issue, which I agree with (I love saying that the Pope and I agree!). The issue is clericalism and the isolation of the priest, as sacred, and separate. How do we fight against this feeling of exceptionalism that priests have?
This is not just a French issue, it’s an issue for the Catholic Church as a whole. Who are these men – because they are exclusively men, and celibate – who have a special rapport with the divine? It’s very strange, and rather archaic. It puts the Catholic Church in a rather uncomfortable position.
Q: Your work has often been on the margins of the mainstream approach to Catholicism. You have focused on taboos subjects. How have these sex scandals, and the reactions to them, changed the way people see your work?
CP: Today I’m invited to conferences more than before. People are starting to see that that what I’ve been saying for a long time is true. It’s almost an oxymoron to say you’re Catholic and feminist. It seems impossible. Today, some people are saying: Maybe she’s right – not just me, but a certain number of Catholics who take very disruptive positions.
Today I can say that there are points on which I agree with the Pope! Not on the issue of women, but on some issues we have a common analysis – so I’m less marginalised.
I think many people agree with me that there was a real error in what Pope John-Paul II did, to focus the church on the Priest, male, celibate, as sacred. And placing women as mothers, wives, reserved and quiet like the Virgin Mary.
Q: You speak about the lack of credibility in the French church. Will these alternative ways of thinking attract people back to Catholicism in France?
CP: That’s complicated to say. Today the French Catholic Church is fragile. It receives no public funds, and donations have gone down. It’s a complicated crisis, because it comes from inside.
So to know what will happen, is a real question. I still believe in the religion, and there are resources in faith. But we are moving towards a smaller Church. The Church and power went hand-in-hand over the centuries. This was probably an error. Now we have to unlearn what we’ve done since Constantine, which was 16 centuries ago. So there’s a ways to go.
Catholicism counts a lot on its pope. Pope Francis is not young. It will be interesting to see how those in power, across the world, will choose who will replace him. Will they decide on conservatism, to avoid change? Or will they say that in order to announce the gospel in the 21st, we need to change something?
A string of sex abuse scandals have rocked Christian communities recently: In the Roman Catholic Church, revelations related to sex abuse by priests continue to unfold across the globe. Within the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest Protestant denomination in the U.S., media reports have brought into public view allegations of sexual abuse dating back decades.
Such scandals have led to widespread doubts about church officials and institutions. And this is not for the first time. As a scholar of early Christianity, I know that in the fourth century, Christian churches in North Africa faced a similar crisis of trust in their leaders.
Known as the Donatist controversy, it caused a schism that lasted for centuries and offers a parallel for thinking about the impact of these crises on contemporary Christian communities today.
Traitors during Christian persecution
Christians in the Roman Empire occasionally experienced periods of imperial persecution. These periods were often memorialized in Christian tradition through stories of famous martyrdoms. The stories often portrayed Christians as courageous and virtuous in the face of imperial violence.
The most infamous period of persecution occurred in the early fourth century A.D. Spearheaded by the emperor Diocletian, it was also the final imperially sponsored persecution of Christian communities.
While persecutions were sporadic, local and rare, they often put difficult choices before Christian clergy and laity.
Some renounced Christianity. Others handed over sacred books or church property and outed fellow Christians to the authorities. Christians called the latter “traditores,” a Latin term meaning “those who handed over,” the root of the word “traitor.”
Whether and how to welcome such traditores back into Christian communities after the persecutions was a topic of intense debate among Christians.
Traditores were considered to have betrayed their communities to save themselves. This sense of betrayal was particularly felt with respect to clergy members who had become traditores.
The issue came to a head in A.D. 311 in North Africa when Caecilian, the bishop of Carthage, became embroiled in controversy after it was alleged that one or more of the bishops who presided at his consecration had been traditores.
In the eyes of many Christians in North Africa, Caecilian’s virtues did not matter. The presence of a traditor among those who ordained him invalidated his ordination.
The Donatist schism
Caecilian was supported politically and financially by the imperial administration. Caecilian’s opponents pressed their case in regional councils and before local magistrates.
They even appealed to the Emperor Constantine, who wrote in a letter to the Vicar of Africa in A.D. 314 that he had grown tired of receiving requests from Caecilian’s opponents.
They brought charges, which ultimately proved to be false, against Felix of Aptunga, one of the bishops that had ordained Caecilian. Charges against other bishops soon followed.
In A.D. 313, Donatus was consecrated bishop of Carthage and became the leading voice of Caecilian’s opponents. These “Donatists,” as they came to be called, created their own massive network of churches that stood in opposition to those allied with Caecilian and the Roman state.
Constantine soon grew fed up with the Donatists and the schism that they had created in the church. From A.D. 316-321, Constantine used the force of the state to coerce the Donatists back into the fold.
Constantine’s attempts to intervene led to violence that resulted in the deaths of Donatist Christians. His intervention did little to end the schism. Constantine soon gave up state-sponsored persecution of the Donatists.
In A.D. 346, the Emperor Constans, who succeeded Constantine, tried again to end the schism. His agents used imperial funds to woo clergy back, but also used violence. Macarius, one of Constans’s agents, led a campaign of suppression, in which Christians killed other fellow Christians.
Macarius became infamous among Donatist communities. The Donatists considered those who died to be martyrs. These martyrs and their memory were celebrated by Donatist communities.
Donatus was said to have questioned the very role of the emperor in the controversy, saying, “What has the emperor to do with the church?”
By the fifth century, Donatist churches were thriving and sparring with Catholics. And Donatist churches remained active in North Africa until the Islamic conquests of the seventh century.
The Donatists believed the sins of traditores risked the salvation of individual members and the health of the community.
“How,” they asked, “could sacraments administered by an offending priest be recognized by a holy God?” And if those sacraments were not effective, the salvation of the individual and the community were at risk. For the Donatists, only sacraments performed by uncompromised clergy were effective.
In their attempts to respond to Donatist critique, the Catholic Church settled on a strategy developed by Augustine, an influential fifth-century Catholic bishop in North Africa.
Augustine, who describes the sparring between Donatists and Catholics in his writings, argued that the sacraments were effective regardless of the morality of the clergy involved – a church doctrine known as “ex opere operato.” He said that as the sacraments were the work of Christ, they did not depend on the moral character of the officiating priest.
What can be learned today
Today, in the face of the sex abuse crisis, contemporary Christian communities find themselves asking questions about institutions that condoned, hid and promoted abusive clergy.
This might be a moment to revisit the Donatist critique. They created their own churches because they feared not only for the efficacy of the sacraments but also for the character of a church that made it too easy for traditores to continue to remain leaders.
Widespread sexual abuse by Christian clergy represents a very different crisis from that faced by the betrayal of the traditores.
However, I believe the Donatists offer a lesson for Christian communities about the risks to the integrity and cohesion of institutions when they shield the abuser rather than protect the victims.