— 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.”
Once, it was said that the eyes were the windows to the soul. Now the cellphone is. Consider Jeffrey Burrill, a man who regularly logged in to the gay dating app Grindr and whose cellphone emitted signals marking his visits to gay bars and a Las Vegas gay bathhouse. Hardly a story there, you might say.
Except Jeffrey Burrill was Monsignor Jeffrey Burrill, the secretary-general of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. And his July 20 resignation was forced by a newly founded Catholic online newsletter using commercially available data to trace his calls, movements, and behavior since 2018.
The outing of a top administrator of the nation’s conference of Catholic bishops was clearly a story. But what kind? A story about high-tech surveillance and invasion of privacy? About a new breach of journalistic ethics? About the Catholic Church?
Much of the national attention to this unusual episode focused on privacy issues. The basic problem is not complicated. In principle, data from mobile devices are “anonymized” by substituting a unique numerical identifier for users’ names and phone numbers. But mobile-phone location information and app usage is often recorded. A sufficiently interested party, with some additional information about residences, workplaces, and other data points, can connect the dots (or in this case the pings) to tie specific devices to specific individuals, such as Burrill.
“There’s not much to stop similar spying on politicians, celebrities and just about anyone that’s a target of another person’s curiosity—or malice,” Maggie Gile noted in Newsweek.Senator Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, recalls years of warnings that data harvested from phones could be used to track their users and “reveal the most personal details of their lives.” A “vast and largely unregulated” industry assured the public that the information it collected was anonymous, he says. “As this awful episode demonstrates, those claims were bogus.”
The difficulty of safeguarding privacy from invasive technology cries out for remedies. But as a journalist and a Catholic (who has covered and written extensively about religion), I am even more interested in the other two stories, about journalistic ethics and about the Catholic Church.
I can reasonably be ranked among those labeled liberal Catholics. I am on record arguing that the Church should thoroughly rethink its teachings on sexuality, including contraception, same-sex relationships, and priestly celibacy. But I have little patience for the thankfully few dismissals of Burrill’s “indiscretions” on the grounds that “we are all sinners.” We are indeed all sinners, but we are not all secretaries-general of the United States Conference of Catholic bishops. Those of us who make solemn promises, whether of priestly celibacy or marital fidelity, should keep them. All the more so when our vows bear directly on our public roles.
If Burrill was in fact regularly violating his public commitment and leading a double life, it does not pain me that he was forced from office. What does pain me is how that came about, setting, as it does, dangerous precedents for both journalism and Catholicism.
The Pillar, the online newsletter that outed Burrill, was founded last January by J. D. Flynn and Ed Condon, two Catholic crusaders for a purer Church. Its founding statement promised to uphold “the highest standards of journalistic independence and craftsmanship.” The newsletter’s reporting on Burrill, though, has prompted questions about whether it has lived up to that mission.
The Pillar story acknowledged that the data it had obtained contained “no evidence to suggest that Burrill was in contact with minors.” But from the opening paragraph, the story missed no opportunity to mention the Church’s sex-abuse scandal, charges that Grindr and other “hookup apps” are used to facilitate sex with minors, and unrelated cases here and abroad of such criminal behavior by priests. Responding to protests that the exposé dwelled on a homophobic stereotype of gay predators, Flynn and Condon went on Twitter the day after it was published to repeat that no evidence linked Burrill’s use of gay dating apps to minors, and that they had had no intention to “insinuate” otherwise. Fair enough, if you don’t consider devoting more than 1,100 words of a 2,900-word article to that kind of linkage an insinuation.
Criticism of The Pillar’s journalism did not end with complaints about its use of innuendo. The newsletter’s resort to an ethically disturbing, even if legal, high-tech method to expose private behavior was also clouded by unanswered questions. In their lengthy exposé, Flynn and Condon went into detail about how the hookup app’s signals indicated Burrill’s systematic violation of his vow of celibacy. But they were vague about the source of this data. “The data obtained and analyzed by The Pillar,” they wrote, “was obtained from a data vendor and authenticated by an independent data consulting firm contracted by The Pillar.”
Who was the data vendor? Were the data purchased or volunteered? How were they analyzed to pinpoint a particular individual? And who funded this possibly expensive process? To critics of The Pillar’s journalism, these are key questions. Relying on anonymous sources is legitimate, and sometimes necessary. But good journalism requires giving readers some indication of the reason for anonymity and what it might suggest about the source’s perspective or motives.
Questions about the data source are underlined by another article, published at 3 a.m. on July 19—one day before The Pillar’s July 20 exposé—by the Catholic News Agency (CNA), a similarly conservative outlet where Flynn and Condon had previously worked. Written by Alejandro Bermudez, the agency’s executive director, the story said that in 2018, CNA had been approached by someone claiming “to have access to technology capable of identifying clergy and others who download popular ‘hook-up’ apps.” The person’s aim, Bermudez wrote, was to save the Church from clergy engaged in scandalous conduct. Recognizing the potential for blackmail in such data, however, the source wanted to keep them from falling “into the wrong hands.” Bermudez met with the person, who named “high-profile Catholic personalities” that the technology identified. Nonetheless, Bermudez said, he distrusted the offer and turned it down.
This is a tantalizing story, and I phoned Bermudez about it. “Chatter” from friends, he told me, about a coming revelation of online activities by major Church figures had brought to mind the 2018 offer and moved him to rush out his account. “It was important for us to say as a news organization that from a Catholic journalists’ standpoint this was a dangerous door to open.” The 2018 offer, he explained, was not only for a “whole package” but for an ongoing relationship with a steady flow of information from the source. This was hardly an ordinary offer, I noted. Was it believable, as his story claimed, that Bermudez couldn’t recall the name of the person who made it and never mentioned it to Flynn, who was CNA’s editor in chief at the time? Bermudez did not budge from his previous explanation that “crazy” accusations against Church leaders were so commonplace that they were not a matter of conversation. Avoiding any mention of The Pillar, he was simply adamant about rejecting, in 2018 and today, this way to reform the Church.
In view of the CNA story, one naturally wonders whether its unnamed source is the same person who was anonymously peddling a pre-targeted and tailored data set, indeed a working relationship, in 2018. The Pillar won’t say. (I emailed the publication to ask for comment, but received no reply.)
There is another eyebrow-raising aspect of The Pillar’s successful identification of a single individual from a data set that might have begun with billions of signals from millions of users: It’s costly. It may require a team of researchers. Not everyone agrees, but several technical experts have estimated the cost at hundreds of thousands of dollars. One data expert, Zach Edwards, the founder of an analytics firm, even said millions.
This story has opened an entirely new, scorched-earth stage of the decades-long conflict between Catholic conservatives and liberals that began after the 1962–65 Second Vatican Council, simmered for decades, and has broken into civil war since the election of Pope Francis in 2013. The issues at stake in this struggle include changes in the liturgy authorized by the Council, questions about sexual morality that the Council never considered, and the relationship between the papacy and bishops around the globe. Should the priesthood continue to be open only to celibate males? What priority should the Church give to issues of personal, especially sexual, morality compared with those of social justice?
These debates are not new. But what was once jousting among theologians, intellectuals, and papal authorities, as the laity silently aligned themselves with one side or the other, has become a battle between Pope Francis and a phalanx of high-ranking bishops. In August 2018, the retired Vatican diplomat (and onetime Vatican ambassador to the U.S.) Archbishop Carlo Viganò even demanded that Francis resign.
When Flynn and Condon, both trained as canon lawyers—specialists in Church law—started The Pillar in January, they declared that the newsletter would be “independent of any ecclesial agenda but the holiness of the Church.” Yet their take on “the holiness of the Church” implies a definite “ecclesial agenda,” on which few concerns rank higher than sexual morality, at least as I read it. To Flynn and Condon, a major threat to that holiness is tolerance of homosexuality and homosexual conduct, particularly among the clergy and bishops.
For decades, Catholic ultraconservatives have charged that the Church’s American hierarchy was being manipulated by a gay cabal. The same note has been sounded by Archbishop Viganò, who extends this charge to include Vatican circles. In a different register, it has been sounded by gay advocates, including gay priests and ex-priests, who argue that the hidden lives compelled by the Church’s strictures against same-sex relations are responsible for grave pathologies among the clergy. Even some advocates of a married (heterosexual) priesthood have echoed something similar: The requirement of celibacy has made the Catholic priesthood a refuge for many gay men who have not come to terms with their sexuality.
Nothing in such critiques of Church teaching on homosexual relations is more inflammatory than linking them to the scandal of sexual abuse of minors by clergy, despite the fact that the most extensive study of that scandal, by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, rejects the connection.
For The Pillar, Burrill was no one-off. It had already taken its data set to the archdiocese of Newark, headed by Cardinal Joseph Tobin, a strong supporter of Pope Francis, and to the Vatican itself. The Pillar claimed that signals from both homosexual and heterosexual hookup apps going back to 2018 could be traced to “more than 10” Newark rectories and clerical residences, including “several” with a frequency indicating use by residents. (The Newark archdiocese has 212 parishes.) As for the Vatican, The Pillar reported that over six months in 2018, at least 32 mobile devices emitted signals from dating apps, including Grindr, within areas of Vatican City not accessible to the public. By The Pillar’s standards and my own very traditional ones, all these hookup efforts in Newark and Rome were regrettable, but whether their numbers should be considered extensive or whether they came from clergy or lay employees, the newsletter did not say.
One wonders if the bishops conference, like so many corporations confronting charges of sexual impropriety, might not enlist an independent investigator to shed light on the whole episode. Who, for example, promoted and vetted Burrill for his post? How did his quite extensive double life escape notice? It is an unnoted irony that Burrill was ordained in the diocese of La Crosse, Wisconsin, when its bishop was Raymond L. Burke, today an archbishop, a leading opponent to Pope Francis, and an outspoken advocate of Church teachings on homosexuality, divorce, and abortion. Nothing in Burrill’s subsequent career steps marked him as anything but a conventional doctrinal conservative.
Questions about Burrill are only the starting point. What are the implications for Catholicism if the traditional surveillance of theological ideas and pastoral practice by Church authorities is replaced by the high-tech surveillance of moral failings by freelance journalists? The implications for journalism and personal privacy are serious. Even the person peddling the surveillance technology back in 2018 recognized its potential for blackmail. Without either strong professional censure or legal regulation, tech-savvy and scoop-hungry reporters on the brawling frontiers of online journalism are likely to make this kind of personally invasive technology part of their tool kit. A thoroughgoing inquiry and report could be a service well beyond the Church.
Defenders of The Pillar’s actions have shrugged off these concerns about privacy, journalism, and the Church. Stephen P. White, of Catholic University and the Ethics and Public Policy Center, dismissed those “ticked off” by The Pillar’s reporting—including “data-security gurus, would-be gatekeepers of the journalistic guild,” and “the usual voices on Catholic social media who cry ‘homophobia’ every time it is suggested that an unnatural vice among clerics might be a problem worth addressing.” The real problem was that “ecclesially minded journalists like Flynn and Condon” were being treated as “pariahs” for exposing “inconvenient truths about clerical sins.” In the defenders’ confidence that no ominous red lines are being crossed here, they seem to be forgetting one fundamental component of the Catholic teaching to which The Pillar pledged itself at its founding: Original Sin.
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.”
A representative of the Association of Catholic Priests, Fr Tim Hazlewood, has said he would bless the union of same-sex couples despite the Vatican ruling it out this week, saying the church ‘cannot bless sin’.
“If Christ was with us now, he would do the caring, the loving thing,” Fr Hazelwood said.
Earlier this week, the Vatican decreed that the Catholic Church cannot bless same-sex unions because God “cannot bless sin”.
The Vatican’s orthodoxy office, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, issued a formal response to a question about whether Catholic clergy can bless gay unions.
The answer, approved by Pope Francis, was “negative”.
Fr Hazlewood, who ministers in a parish in East Cork, said he had been approached by families who have somebody who is in a same-sex relationship.
“Our experience is that they are lovely couples and to hear something like that, that their relationship is sinful, I wonder how many of them know and meet and interact with those families and those people,” he told RTÉ Morning Ir
Fr Hazlewood said the Pope was in a difficult position, but to listen to that statement was “so disappointing, it was appalling.”
“He’s trying to hold all the parts together, in parts of the world, including Ireland, there is a small group who are very anti-Pope Francis and anti the changes, the new breath of life that he’s bringing.”
“For a lot of people and families, it’s very disappointing. Does he want to cause a schism in the church?”
When asked if he would bless a same sex couple’s union, Fr Hazlewood replied: “Just two days ago there were pieces of weed that grow in the ground and I blessed them. I blessed shamrock, now if two people stand in front of me and they love each other and they are committing to each other for the rest of their lives and I bless shamrock and wouldn’t bless them. I don’t think there’s a doubt or a question there.”
The church’s teaching on what marriage means has not changed, he said.
“In Ireland, we’re going to have a synod in the next five years and the bishops have said they want people on the margins to be part of that, would any gay person come near a church that says things like this?”
“There’s an awful difference between somebody in Rome making a promulgation and what’s the lived experience of the church and I think a lot of priests would say ‘if Christ was here with us now, what would Christ do?’
“He would do the caring, the loving thing. He was the one who challenged all of these rules himself. Pope Francis is asking us to talk about these things, this is the way forward”
“There’s going to be an awful lot more things like this in the church which is a good thing.”
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.”