By Chico Harlan and Amanda Coletta
Three years ago, Pope Francis said the Catholic Church was committed to eradicating the “evil” of abuse. The pope and other church leaders drew up new guidelines to handle accusations. They pledged transparency. They said victims’ needs would come first.
“A change of mentality,” Francis called it.
But two recent major cases suggest that the church, for all its vows to improve, is still falling into familiar traps and extending its foremost crisis.
While the cases are markedly different — one involves a Canadian cardinal accused of inappropriately touching an intern; the other involves a Nobel-winning bishop from East Timor accused of abusing impoverished children — anti-abuse advocates say both instances reflect a pattern of secrecy and defensiveness. They say the church is still closing ranks to protect the reputations of powerful prelates.
In the case of the cardinal, Marc Ouellet, the Vatican did look into the accusations — but it delegated the investigation to a priest who knows him well, a fellow member of a small religious association. The priest determined there were no grounds to move forward — a conclusion the lawyer for the accuser says is dubious, given the possible conflict of interests.< Justin Wee, the lawyer, said Father Jacques Servais did interview his client in a 40-minute Zoom call, but rather than ascertaining the details of the allegations, appeared more interested in probing her motives and asking if she still believed in God.
“If the Vatican is handling cases like that, it means that if you’re powerful, nothing will happen,” Wee said. “No one should be above the rules.”
In the case of the bishop, Carlos Ximenes Belo, the Vatican disciplined him in 2020, one year after Holy See officials said they had became aware of accusations. But those restrictions — which included barring Belo from contact with minors — were kept secret by the church until a recently published Dutch news investigation that described abuse of multiple boys dating back to the 1980s.
Belo had attained stardom in the church by winning the 1996 Nobel Peace Prize for his work in seeking a peaceful resolution in East Timor’s long struggle for independence. But six years later, the Vatican announced he was stepping down — two decades before the usual retirement age — citing a canon law that refers to health or other “grave” reasons. The Vatican did not respond to a question about whether officials knew about abuse allegations at the time of Belo’s early retirement. He eventually wound up as an assistant parish priest in Mozambique. He said in a 2005 interview that his duties there included teaching children and leading youth retreats.
“Both cases are further indications that the whole accountability initiative is sputtering, is proving to be superficial and ineffective,” said Anne Barrett Doyle, the co-director of BishopAccountability.org, an abuse clearinghouse. “It makes you wonder: What has changed?”
The Vatican launched a drive to regain credibility against abuse after a wave of accusations not just against parish priests, but against bishops and cardinals — the power brokers of the church. Francis in 2018 called bishops to Rome for an unprecedented summit on abuse, which took place months later. And afterward, the church set out new rules and guidelines for how to handle cases, including instances when bishops are accused of coverup or abuse.
The church has shown progress on several counts. Dioceses around the world have set up reporting offices, giving alleged victims an easier way to alert the church of potential crimes. And in one instance, the church submitted itself to an act of unprecedented transparency, releasing a 449-page report into the abuse of defrocked American cardinal Theodore McCarrick, with revelations that bruised the reputation of Pope John Paul II.
But since then, the Vatican has not been transparent about any discipline against other prelates. And it has regularly ignored its own procedures, which provide specific instructions about who should be tasked to investigate bishops.
“It’s very frustrating, to be honest,” said one individual who has consulted with the Vatican on its handling of abuse, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak frankly. “When big names come out — the Vatican and the curia — the shield comes down. It’s incredible.”
Belo could not be reached for comment. The investigation by Dutch publication De Groene Amsterdammer included interviews with two adults who described abuse by Belo when they were teenagers, after which, they said, the bishop had given them money. The publication said the allegations against Belo had been known to aid workers and officials in the church. The Salesians of Don Bosco, a religious order to which Belo belonged, said in a statement it had learned about the accusations with “deep sadness and perplexity.”
The statement did not offer any timeline and referred further questions to those with “competence and knowledge.”
Ouellet, 78, has denied the accusations of inappropriate touching. He is widely regarded as one of the most important figures within the Roman Curia, the Vatican’s bureaucracy, as head of the department that oversees and vets bishops. Francis has allowed him to stay in the role well beyond the normal five-year term. He has a reputation as a moderate — a rarity in the ideologically divided church — and has served under several popes, including Francis, with whom he has near-weekly meetings.
The accusations against him surfaced publicly as part of a recent class-action lawsuit against the Archdiocese of Quebec, in which more than 100 people allege sexual misconduct against dozens of members of the Catholic clergy, lay and religious pastoral staff or volunteers. Many victims say they were minors at the time of alleged assaults.
The accusations date back to Ouellet’s time as archbishop of Quebec. A woman identified in the legal documents only as “F.” says that in the fall of 2008, when she was a 23-year-old intern, working as a pastoral agent at a diocese in Quebec, he forcefully massaged her shoulders at a dinner. When she turned around, the lawsuit alleges, she saw that it was Ouellet, who smiled and caressed her back before leaving.
In 2010, at the ordination of a colleague, F. alleges that Ouellet told her that he might as well hug her because there’s no harm “in treating oneself a bit.” He hugged her and slid his hand down her back to above her buttocks, according to the lawsuit. She says that she felt “chased” and that when she spoke to other people about her experiences, she was told that she wasn’t the only one to have that “problem” with him.
F. ended up trying to bring the case to light through official church channels, first to an independent advisory committee designed to receive church cases, and then — at the committee’s advice — in a letter to Francis himself. A month after her January 2021 letter to the pope, she was informed that Father Jacques Servais would investigate. She alleges that he appeared to have “little information and training” about sexual assault.
The Vatican did not respond to a question about why a close associate of Ouellet, who had known the cardinal since at least 1991, would have been tasked to conduct a preliminary probe. The church guidelines warn against a conflict of interests.
Wee, the alleged victim’s lawyer, said there was no follow-up from Servais or anyone else at the Vatican after the Zoom call in March 2021.
Servais did not respond to a request for comment.
Wee, who declined to make F. available for an interview, said she learned that the Vatican had determined there wasn’t enough evidence for a canonical investigation based on a Vatican news release after the allegations against Ouellet became public in August. He said she was not told privately beforehand.
Jean-Guy Nadeau, an emeritus professor of religious studies at the University of Montreal, lamented the lack of transparency in the case. He said Servais should have recused himself given the appearance of a conflict of interest.
“I don’t understand how that choice was made,” Nadeau said of Francis’s decision to appoint Servais to conduct the investigation. “I really don’t understand how such a choice could ever happen.”
Analysts said the case highlights the need for external investigators to probe misconduct allegations. David Deane, an associate professor of theology at the Atlantic School of Theology in Nova Scotia, said members of the clergy often close ranks and cannot be trusted to investigate one another.
“Having clergy handle the investigation is a real problem. It’s a real issue,” he said. “As long as that happens, it’s going to be very difficult to have both accountability and public confidence in the process.”
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