Sunday, September 24, 2023

On recent abuse scandals, Vatican talk is both too much and too little (Opinion)

“This business will get out of control,” intoned the inimitable Fred Thompson as Rear Admiral Joshua Painter in the film adaptation of Tom Clancy’s The Hunt for Red October, after an F-14 had crashed on the deck of his aircraft carrier that was also carrying CIA analyst Jack Ryan, hero of that story and several others.

“This business will get out of control,” Thompson’s Painter repeats, “and we’ll be lucky to live through it.”

I thought of that scene this week, after the largely self-inflicted double whammy that hit Pope Francis and the Vatican in the form of developments in two gruesome abuse and cover-up stories. 

Both set in relief the ironic reality of the Vatican’s addiction to talk, which is at once too much and too little to control the spiraling narrative of disastrous failure to deal effectively with entrenched problems.

The first was the frankly bizarre statement that came on Monday from the Diocese of Rome regarding its “investigation” into Rome’s Centro Aletti – better known as the base of operations for the disgraced former celebrity Jesuit, Marko Rupnik, credibly accused of serial sexual, psychological, and spiritual abuse perpetrated against nearly twenty women over three decades – which drew a clean bill of health from the probe.

The Centro Aletti has been a “public association of the faithful” under the aegis of the Rome vicariate since 2019. Cardinal Angelo De Donatis – the Cardinal Vicar of Rome – has gone out of his way to make it clear that neither he nor the pope’s diocesan governing apparatus had knowledge until “very recent times” of the allegations against Rupnik, and never had any authority to do anything about Rupnik or the allegations against him.

That’s tough to credit, quite frankly, not least since the churchman who first brought victims’ testimony to Rome was none other than Bishop Daniele Libanori, an auxiliary of the Rome diocese under De Donatis and a Jesuit, who conducted a fact-finding mission to the Loyola Community of women religious that Rupnik had helped to start in his native Slovenia several decades ago.

De Donatis’s own investigator, Monsignor Giacomo Incitti of the Pontifical Urban University, found that “within the Centro Aletti, a healthy community life free of any particular critical issues is present.” 

He also found that Rupnik – who has never faced trial for his alleged abuse – was nevertheless subjected to “gravely anomalous procedures” in connection with an excommunication he incurred for giving sacramental absolution to an illicit sex partner, a serious crime in Church law.

Incitti apparently had some sort of access to secret documents no one at the Rome diocese was supposed to be able to see, which allowed him to reach his conclusion and also raise “well-founded doubts about the request for excommunication itself.”

Predictably, alleged victims were incensed.

No fewer than five of Rupnik’s accusers published an open letter saying the vicariate’s statement “ridicules not only the pain of the victims, but also that of the entire Church, which is mortally wounded by such obstinate arrogance.”

The second story involves an Australian prelate, Christopher Saunders, the former bishop of Broome – a sprawling diocese in the Australian outback that covers an area roughly the size of France and is home to only 50,000 people – who led the diocese from 1996 until 2020, and who resigned in 2021 after police investigations into alleged sex crimes and intense media scrutiny.

Prosecutors declined to bring charges against Saunders then, but police in Western Australia have reportedly asked to see a new dossier detailing the findings of an independent probe conducted at the behest of the Church in Australia after Pope Francis ordered an investigation under Vos estis lux mundi, his 2019 apostolic letter outlining an accountability mechanism for prelates accused of abuse or cover-up.

Mandated by Pope Francis a year ago this month, and directed by Archbishop Mark Coleridge of Brisbane, the Church-ordered probe reportedly found that Saunders likely abused at least four boys from Aboriginal communities. 

The investigation concluded that Saunders likely groomed nearly seventy other Aboriginal boys and men, and may have abused at least some of them.

News reports quote from a 200-page dossier that has apparently been with Pope Francis and the Vatican for some six months, which describes Saunders as “a sexual predator that seeks to prey upon vulnerable Aboriginal men and boys,” plying them with alcohol he sometimes allegedly smuggled into dry Aboriginal districts.

Saunders is alleged to have used Church funds to support his activities.

In a statement issued after Australia’s 7News broadcast a report of the story, the president of the Australian bishops’ conference, Timothy Costelloe, said that a church process against Saunders had to wait until the police investigation was concluded, but expressed hope something will happen soon.

“In due time, the Holy See will make its determinations,” Costelloe said. “It is hoped,” he added, “that this will not be unduly delayed.”

“It is important that a just and authoritative finding be made,” Costelloe also said. “Only then,” he said, “can the process of rebuilding the Church community in Broome … continue to make progress and bring healing.”

Costelloe isn’t wrong, but there’s a strong case for the idea that “due time” has long since passed. 

Also, it appears that Australian Church leaders were not going to say anything until the story broke in the press. 

Vatican News had a small item two days after the story broke, but it was buried on the English-language page, contained scant detail, and quoted very sparingly from Costelloe’s statement.

In the Rupnik case, the vicar protests too much. In the Saunders case, Church leaders are saying far too little. In both cases, observers may be readily forgiven the impression that interests other than justice are being served.

“Justice,” the saying goes, “must not only be done, but must be seen to be done.”

The bitter irony is that the complete transparency for which Pope Francis has repeatedly called, if not always practiced, would be the best way – indeed, the only way – to regain control of the narrative.

Come clean about the Rupnik business. 

Give Saunders a meaningful public trial. 

Let people see justice being done. 

Let them – let us – at least see you trying.

Stop talking about it, and just do it.