Sexual assault and reproductive coercion share similar dynamics: Both are forms of violence that intimately violate another person’s body. The Catholic Church’s clergy sexual abuse scandals, combined with its efforts to control women’s reproductive choices by banning abortion and attacking contraception, expose a troubling pattern of sexual sociopathology. This conduct fundamentally undermines the Church’s claims to moral authority on issues of sexuality.
By now, the stories are familiar and well documented.
The 2006 documentary Deliver Us From Evil chillingly reveals how Catholic bishops repeatedly relocated a priest named Oliver O’Grady from parish to parish in an attempt to cover up his rape of dozens of children.
The 2015 Academy Award-winning film, Spotlight, dramatizes the true story of the Boston Globe investigative reporting team that exposed widespread sexual abuse of children by Catholic priests in the 1970s and the cover up by the Boston archdiocese.
In 2018, a Pennsylvania grand jury published a 1,356-page report documenting decades of sexual abuse by more than 300 Catholic priests who victimized thousands of children in six dioceses. The report found a “systemic coverup by senior church officials in Pennsylvania and at the Vatican.”
But incidents of sexual abuse by priests are not confined to the past. On Dec. 14, a federal court sentenced 68-year-old Providence-based Catholic priest James W. Jackson to six years in a federal prison for downloading and storing thousands of files containing child pornography on his computer in the church rectory. Authorities found 12,000 images and 1,300 videos of child pornography, including videos of prepubescent females portrayed in acts of bestiality and sadomasochism.
The Catholic Church also keeps sexually abusive clergy in positions of authority. A Massachusetts newspaper recently reported on a case where a priest had sex with a parishioner in the 1990s after leading her to believe he could cure her lesbianism by having sex with her. He remains in active ministry at a university, working with vulnerable young people.
In a recent case in New Orleans, an archbishop worked to free a Catholic priest convicted of raping an altar boy by attempting to get the victim to support the release. According to The Guardian, “representatives of the church that he had been raised to believe in approached him at his home, at his job and at a relative’s funeral to ask him to lend his support to efforts to secure an early release for his rapist.”
To avoid accountability, the Catholic Church opposes laws designed to help survivors of sexual abuse. Between 2011 and 2019, the Catholic Church spent $10.6 million in eight Northeastern states to lobby against such laws.
In Massachusetts, for example, the Catholic Church spent $537,551 in this period. Massachusetts law limits liability of nonprofit charities to $20,000, a figure so minimal it often deters attorneys from suing the Catholic Church. State lawmakers are now working to eliminate this immunity in cases of child sex abuse. They are also working to remove time limits for civil liability for child sex abuse, which the Boston Archdiocese has opposed.
Another strategy the Catholic Church uses to avoid accountability is to file for bankruptcy so they do not have to pay court-ordered penalties to compensate the victims of clergy sex abuse, as they recently did in California and Baltimore.
The all-male Catholic leadership’s long history of perpetuating sexual assault and reproductive coercion grows out of a toxic masculinity that devalues women’s lives, rights and dignity.
To fight back, survivors formed an organization in 1989 called the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests (SNAP), which has documented widespread sexual abuse by priests, and the repeated attempts by bishops and other church leaders to cover up and excuse this abuse. Today, SNAP has over 25,000 members with support groups in over 60 cities across the U.S. and the world.
The Catholic Church positions itself as a moral authority on sexual matters, yet it has been responsible for the widespread sexual abuse of numerous children and vulnerable adults in its care while refusing to take responsibility for the resulting harm. Meanwhile, the Catholic Church has led the charge to overturn Roe v. Wade and bankrolled the movement to ban abortion nationwide, endangering the lives of millions of women and pregnant people. They are also fighting to grant zygotes, embryos, and fetuses full constitutional rights that women no longer have.
In the many hospitals they control, the Catholic Church blocks access to reproductive healthcare, including emergency contraception for rape victims, medically necessary sterilization, and abortion care. Due in part to hospital consolidations, the Catholic Church now controls one in every six acute care hospital beds in the United States. The first woman to die because she was not offered a life-saving abortion due to a Catholic-backed abortion ban enacted in 2021 was Yeniifer Alvarez-Estrada Glick. She died in July 2022 in Luling, Texas.
Catholic priests and bishops perpetrate and tolerate astounding levels of sexual violence, and then deny their victims the right to prevent or end life-threatening pregnancies.
The all-male Catholic leadership’s long history of perpetuating sexual assault and reproductive coercion grows out of a toxic masculinity that devalues women’s lives, rights and dignity. Both are forms of intimate assault that deny the bodily autonomy of women in particular.
Given the Catholic Church’s history of clergy sexual abuse, and their callous disregard for the reproductive health and safety of women, why are priests and bishops considered to have any moral authority on issues of sexuality?
How is it that supposedly-celibate men, who know nothing about women’s bodies and who tolerate, cover up and excuse widespread sexual abuse in the church, have the right to speak about anything related to women’s sexuality? Is the unnatural suppression of their own sexuality perhaps fueling their frantic attempts to suppress the sexuality of others? Are their actions, at some level, due to a jealous rage that others are experiencing the natural sexual pleasure they deny themselves?
The essence of rape is taking control of another person’s body against their will. In the same way, compelling another person to carry a pregnancy to term is taking control of another person’s body against their will. Rape and reproductive coercion are two sides of one coin: misogynist violence. The emperor has no clothes. Why can’t people recognize this?
It can take decades for an adult who survived sexual abuse as a child to bring a lawsuit. That’s the case for many who were abused by trusted members of the community, like Catholic priests. But in Massachusetts, even if a survivor of clergy abuse decides to sue, state laws can stand in the way of justice.
The first hurdle is the statute of limitations. If a victim is older than 53 and it’s been more than 7 years since they realized the abuse harmed them, the statute of limitations applies — meaning it’s likely too late to bring a lawsuit.
The second obstacle is known as the charitable immunity law, which applies to nonprofit charities. It generally limits the liability of charitable organizations, including Catholic dioceses, to $20,000. (Medical malpractice lawsuits against a nonprofit provider are capped at $100,000.)
Eric MacLeish has been one of the lead attorneys on clergy abuse cases against the Archdiocese of Boston and has sued all the dioceses in the state.
“This law artificially caps the liability of religious organizations and other charitable organizations, making it far more difficult to obtain a just and fair result for survivors of sexual abuse or people who are bringing any type of cause of action against a nonprofit corporation in Massachusetts,” he said.
MacLeish called it an illegitimate law.
“You’re looking really at not only an anachronistic law, that is not supported by any consideration of public policy, but one that cuts off arbitrarily the rights of survivors to hold religious organizations accountable for their misconduct,” MacLeish said.
‘Worst’ charitable immunity law ‘in the country’
Kathryn Robb is the executive director of Child USAdvocacy, which lobbies lawmakers to pass legislation that protects children. Robb said most states have abolished charitable immunity or limited it to what an insurer would cover.
“Massachusetts has the worst charitable immunity statute in the country,” she said.
Robb said her group is working with state lawmakers to eliminate the $20,000 cap for child sexual abuse claims.
“It’s time for Massachusetts to come out of the dark ages,” she said.
Massachusetts used to give nonprofits complete immunity from all liability, based on the idea that charities get their money from public donations and those funds should be used only for charitable work. In 1971, lawmakers took away this blanket immunity, but capped damages.
“When the charitable immunity law was enacted, most charities were shoestring operations. And it was to protect these do-gooders from having a slip-and-fall case that would would prevent them from continuing their good deeds,” said John Stobierski, a lawyer who has represented survivors in Springfield.
“That purpose has long passed,” he said, “because most charities — I shouldn’t say all — but a charity like the Catholic Church is a very wealthy, powerful organization, just like a hospital. They’re not little Podunk entities that would wither if they had a significant lawsuit.”
For years, Massachusetts lawmakers have filed bills to do away with the charitable immunity cap or change it. This session, a set of House and Senate bills would eliminate it. Another set of proposals would amend it so it does not apply to child sexual abuse cases.
The Massachusetts Nonprofit Network said in a statement the current law balances the charitable purposes of a nonprofit and donor intent with an ability for plaintiffs to be compensated.
“The bills proposed to change charitable liability law would disrupt this balance, and run contrary to the long held standard that charitable assets be dedicated to advancement of the missions of nonprofit organizations,” the organization said in a statement. “Therefore we do not support those bills.”
The nonprofit network also noted that the charitable cap does not apply if the claims are about activities “outside or incidental to a nonprofit’s charitable mission and other non-tort claims.”
Catholic leaders also support keeping the cap in place, to ensure the church spends donations on services identified by its donors.
“[S]uch as [on] tuition assistance, charitable operations such as food pantries and homeless prevention, and individual parish support, to name but a few,” Raymond Delisle, chancellor and director of communications for the Diocese of Worcester, said in a statement. “The charitable immunity cap on lawsuit damages is critical to allow all charities, including the diocese, to make an impact for the public good in our communities.”
‘I cannot take your case’
Robb said because of the $20,000 cap, most attorneys won’t take child abuse cases against dioceses or any nonprofits.
“So it essentially stops all of these claims from coming forward, exposing bad actors, exposing bad practices and institutions,” she said. “It creates another level of coverup, which is really dangerous for our children and for our communities.”
Lynne Pottle said she was abused by a priest for more than four years starting when she was 12, in 1975, at Our Lady of Lourdes Church in the Worcester Diocese. She had gone to the priest for help because her own father was drinking and had abused her.
Decades later, she caught a TV news story showing survivors standing with their lawyer. The memories of abuse flooded back — and she contacted an attorney in Framingham about taking legal action against the Diocese of Worcester.
Skip Shea stands inside a building that was once known as the House of Affirmation, a treatment center in Whitinsville, Massachusetts, for pedophile priests. It was run by the Diocese of Worcester. The state’s charitable immunity cap got in the way of a lawsuit Shea filed against the diocese. The suit alleged a priest in the diocese sexually abused him when he was a minor.
“He said, ‘I cannot take your case,'” Pottle said.
She can’t remember the attorney’s name, but she remembers what he said.
“The lawyer actually said to me that $20,000 is not enough for him to be doing so much work,” Pottle said.“I felt just devastated. And I said, ‘No one cares. I can’t get any help for this. I can’t get any validation for it.'”
Skip Shea, now 63 years old, also tried to sue the Worcester Diocese.
“They started the deposition process and then I got a call from the lawyer saying, ‘There’s a charitable immunity cap, so we can’t continue to work,'” Shea said.
Shea said he was sexually abused by more than three priests in the diocese, starting at age 11 until he was over 16. He said the diocese offered him some money — even less than the cap.
They offered “$10,000 and I said, ‘I’ll take it if I can have a private meeting with the bishop,’ which I got,” Shea said.
Shea met with Bishop Robert Joseph McManus, who still leads the Worcester Diocese today.
“Told him everything that happened. Made him sit there and listen. I named the priest, everything I went through,” Shea said. “He had to hear it. It was a very uncomfortable meeting for him. However my battles with the church go, I have to give him credit for sitting there and taking it — because I know it wasn’t easy.”
The diocese said meetings with the bishop last as long as the survivor wants and can involve multiple meetings.
Pottle also met with McManus, in November 2016.
“I met with him just for a few minutes. And It was somewhat helpful, but not really,” she said. “What I said to the bishop was that it’s not what happened to us back then — it’s how we are managing our lives now as a result of what happened, people who are on medication, people who can’t work. Myself included.”
People who are addicted to alcohol or drugs — or who try to end their own lives.
The bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Worcester, Robert J. McManus, speaks at a news conference in Worcester, Massachusetts, March 9, 2004, when he was bishop-elect. McManus has met with those who were sexually abused by clergy at the diocese when they were minors. The diocese says meetings with the bishop last as long as the survivor wants and can involve multiple meetings.
The spokesperson for the Worcester Diocese, Ray Delisle, said in email that the diocese does not answer questions about specific survivors.
“A focus on the charitable immunity cap on damages in a lawsuit is far too simplistic for the response that our diocese has made for more than two decades to those who have been abused,” he said.
Delisle said the diocese’s response to people who have been abused can go well beyond the cap on legal damages. It has a licensed social worker who meets with victims and can authorize therapeutic support. He said the diocese has helped victims pay for medical and dental bills, housing and utilities — for years.
According to a Feb. 2023 report, Delisle said, only about a third of people who go to the diocese about abuse are seeking legal recourse.
The ‘worst of the four dioceses’
Attorney Carmen Durso represents people who are victims of child sexual abuse. He has had, and still has, cases in Worcester.
“In Massachusetts, they’re the worst of the four dioceses. There’s no two ways about it,” Durso said.
There’s nothing stopping a diocese from paying more than the cap.Durso said most do if they feel it’s a legitimate claim. But in his experience, he said, the Diocese of Worcester won’t pay more than $20,000 — and sometimes they pay less.
Lawyers’ fees take a third of what’s awarded, plus filing fees, the cost of a deposition and a report from a mental health professional, as Durso explains to his clients.
“‘It’ll take a year and a half to two years,'” he said he tells potential clients. “‘You will have to be deposed. It will be an unpleasant experience for you. At the end, you may or may not get a judgment. No one can guarantee what a jury will do. And if and when that happens, the net sum available to you will be $10,000 or less.'”
Even if a jury awards much more, a diocese can legally invoke the cap, so that’s all that can be collected.
Delisle, the Worcester Diocese spokesperson, pushed back on the criticism.
“While it is easy to view the institution as complicit when named as a defendant in a suit, the diocese is often caught in the middle between the alleged perpetrator of the abuse and the survivor,” Delisle said. “The diocese does not defend the priest who is represented by his own attorney. At times we will agree to a settlement, either with or without our insurer’s participation.”
There is a legal strategy Durso and other attorneys have used to get around the cap.
Trial lawyer Laura Mangini, who has about five cases against the Springfield Diocese, said this strategy involves suing an individualfor negligence — someone who worked for the diocese and who superviseda pedophile priest.
“Say there was a priest that knew another priest was abusing [a] child but didn’t do anything, didn’t tell anyone, and just kind of brush[ed] it under the rug. If you get a judgment against that priest, then they are not subject to the cap,” Mangini said.
That claim could be covered by the diocese’s insurance.
Some lawyers will also sue the abuser directly, though many priests don’t have any assets. And because the victims were abused as children, often the alleged pedophile priest and supervisor have died.
“Right now, the charitable immunity cap in Massachusetts still covers the intentional torts of priests,” Mangini said, noting a recent case before the state’s Supreme Judicial Court indicates the justices may limit the cap’s application so it does not apply to child sexual abuse cases. “So there there is a growing sense that that might be changing in the next couple of years.”
The office of the bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese in Springfield, Massachusetts, in a file photo.
Mangini recommends clients first report the abuse to the Springfield Diocese, which is required to report it to prosecutors. If there are no criminal charges, the case would go before a diocesan review board.
The case could be settled at that point or the survivor might file a lawsuit. If that happens, she said, the diocese will sometimes use the cap as leverage in negotiations.
Mangini said Springfield has paid more than $20,000 in some cases as part of a settlement. But, for a lot of survivors, she said, a lawsuit is not about the money.
“It’s about finally standing up for themselves and taking back their own control in the situation,” she said. “And for the jury and a community to say, ‘Yes, we acknowledge what happened to you. It was wrong.'”
The Diocese of Springfield said it does not assert charitable immunity for any case its review board finds credible unless a victim files a lawsuit. Then it said it’s “required by its insurers” to assert all legal defenses, including charitable immunity.
The diocese said it would not comment on the amount it pays without permission of survivors.
“The [Springfield] diocese negotiates in good faith in all its dealings with survivors,” a spokesperson said. “Evidence of that exists in the diocese’s granting reimbursement for health and mental health services to survivors regardless of whether or not he or she participates in the settlement program and even if he or she sues the diocese.”
‘A degree of validation’ or just ‘insulting’?
The Boston Archdiocese has its own compensation program. According to victims’ attorneys, an arbitrator, like a former judge, hears a complaint, decides if it’s valid, and how much money to award.
Attorney Mitchell Garabedian said Boston pays about $75,000, plus the cost of therapy and medication that insurance doesn’t cover.
“To some victims it helps them gain a degree of validation to move on,” Garabedian said. “To other victims it’s insulting, thinking that, ‘Well, my being sexually abused 30 times or 20 times was only worth this amount of money in the eyes of the diocese, which allowed the sexual abuse to happen.’”
The archdiocese has not provided answers to questions — sent more than a month ago — about its compensation program. In early January, a spokesperson acknowledged receipt of the questions and said the archdiocese was working on a statement.
“It’s a private process,” Durso, a victims’ attorney, said. “It’s not appealable. You waive any court rights. But if you have a case, in which the likelihood is, if you go to court you can’t recover more than $20,000, it’s an appealing process for people who don’t have other options.”
Similarly, the Fall River Diocese has a mediation program.
Dan Martin, 60, said he was abused by a priest in Taunton starting when he was about 12. He said the $20,000 cap minimizes the damage caused by the abuse.
“When I think about the cap, I think that it’s laughable. To me, it’s a joke. The crime and the punishment don’t match,” Martin said.
Martin’s lawyer, Paula Bliss, said he brought his case to a mediation program at the Diocese of Fall River. She said that was really the only option due to the charitable cap. Bliss said it would have cost more than $20,000 in expenses just to bring a lawsuit.
“What this actually does, it keeps litigants out of a courtroom and it forecloses their ability to have their case heard by a jury of their peers,” Bliss said.
She said the Fall River program used the $20,000 cap as leverage when it offered an award. She wouldn’t say how much it was, but called it “peanuts.”
The Diocese of Fall River issued a statement saying it’s “resolved to do all it can to help survivors heal and make certain the diocese is accountable.”
“We have a process in place to evaluate claims and encourage survivors to come forward, even if those claims are from many decades ago,” the statement said. “If a claim is found to be credible, we routinely work to resolve claims above the charitable cap.”
In addition, the diocese said it offers supportive services to survivors of clergy sexual abuse and their families, including therapy.
‘You feel like you’re shot’
Pottle, who survived sexual assault in a Worcester church in the 1970s, said she deserves money, validation and a big apology. She said when the lawyer told her he could not take her case because of the cap, it robbed her of all hope.
“It was one of the moments in my life you feel like you’re shot,” she said. “You feel like you have a hole. And then you start to go on and search and search for help to heal that hole.”
Pottle hasn’t found a legal recourse for healing. She said when she met with a support group of other survivors, that helped. But she still suffers.
A cenotaph paying tribute to Father Junipero Serra is seen at the Carmel Mission in Carmel, California May 5, 2015. Pope Francis intends to declare Serra a saint at a Mass celebrated at the National Shrine in Washington on Sept 23 during his U.S. visit. The Franciscan friar built a series of missions along the Pacific coast in the latter 18th century, in what is now California, to spread the faith among Native Americans.
The Franciscan Friars of California, a Roman Catholic organization devoted to serving the poor, has filed for bankruptcy after facing nearly 100 lawsuits related to decades-old sex abuse claims.
The Oakland, California-based organization said in a Tuesday statement that it was driven to bankruptcy by a change in California state law that allowed sex abuse survivors to file decades-old complaints that were otherwise time-barred under the state’s statute of limitations.
Most of the 94 lawsuits filed against the Franciscan Friars were filed in California, where a 2019 law revived older sex abuse claims and led to the bankruptcies of the Catholic dioceses of San Francisco, Oakland and Santa Rosa.
All of the recent lawsuits against the Franciscan Friars of California are based on abuse that allegedly occurred at least 27 years ago, the group said in a Tuesday statement. Most of the friars accused of abuse are deceased, and the organization has long since cut ties with the six who are still alive, the group said.
Provincial minister Father David Gaa said that bankruptcy would allow the organization to equitably compensate survivors of abuse, even if “no apology or any amount of financial compensation can reverse the harm.”
“I am deeply saddened by the sinful acts committed and the damage caused to abuse survivors — then only children — who put their trust in friars,” Gaa said in a statement.
The Franciscan order is known for operating the St. Anthony Foundation in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district, providing food, clothing and addiction counseling to those in need. The work of the St. Anthony Foundation, and the organization’s other operations in California and Arizona, will not be impacted by the bankruptcy filing, a spokesman said.
The Franciscan organization has between $1 million and $10 million in assets, and between $10 million and $50 million in liabilities, according to a petition filed Dec. 31 in the U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Oakland, California.
The case is: In re: Franciscan Friars of California Inc, U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Northern District of California, No. 23-41723
Inside the high walls of the Holy See, Cardinal Giovanni Angelo Becciu — former head of the office of “miracles” that minted saints — was considered papabile, a possible next pope.
Then his career collided with church prosecutors, who charged the 75-year-old Italian and nine other officials with corruption, setting up the Vatican’s trial of the century.
On Saturday, Becciu — the first cardinal tried by the Vatican’s little-known criminal court — was found guilty of several counts of embezzlement after a trial of marred by allegations of witness tampering and papal interference. Becciu was sentenced to five years and six months in a verdict read out in a converted quarter of the museum that houses the Sistine Chapel.
Becciu’s lawyers said the decision would be appealed, but it put the cardinal closer to one of Vatican City’s handful of jail cells — a result that amounts to both a sign of accountability and embarrassment for an institution that has long struggled to root out corruption. He was also barred from holding any Vatican office.
The case, a marathon of 86 courtroom hearings that mixed a hodgepodge of various charges, further exposed the murky world of Vatican finances, as well as the pope’s crusade for accountability, even, critics argued, at the cost of the rule of law. The star defendant was always Becciu, once a papal confident who renounced his senior post after a surprise 2020 meeting in which Pope Francis dramatically confronted him with the accusations against him. Francis stripped him of his privileges as cardinal before any finding of guilt. Later, some of those rights were unofficially reinstated.
The Vatican, meanwhile, emerges worse for wear, with new questions raised about the effectiveness and fairness of its legal system. Portrayed as an exercise in transparency under a crusading pope, the case nevertheless appeared to backfire in key ways, opening an unwanted window into the intrigue, infighting and ineptitude at heart of the world’s smallest sovereign state.
“The pope ended up kicking a hornets’ nest,” said Giovanni Maria Vian, a former editor of the Vatican newspaper.
A bad Vatican investment in a tony London property that ultimately led to massive losses prompted the sweeping investigation, including unprecedented raids of Vatican offices. As prosecutors dug, they claimed Becciu had wrongly funneled 125,000euros to a Sardinian charity run by his brother and another 575,000 euros to Cecilia Marogna, a Sardinian woman with a humanitarian organization in Slovenia who, Becciu said, was supposed to help free a kidnapped nun. Other senior Vatican officials who signed off on the London deal were never indicted, and the pope had been previously apprised of the transaction.
Before the trial began, Francis appeared to use his powers in ways that supporters saw as a quest for transparency, but critics called overreach by a man who serves as Vatican City’s absolute monarch. He approved a series of secret edicts aimed at empowering prosecutors, including one allowing investigators to engage in wiretapping.
Pope Francis makes the sign of the cross during the weekly general audience at the Vatican on Wednesday.
As prosecutors sought to prove their case,they were plagued by setbacks, including questions about the credibility of their star witness and revelations that he had been coached by a Becciu enemy.
The trial came as a pope elected with a mandate to reform the Roman Curia — the opaque bureaucracy that runs Vatican City — was seen as having made strides, if still not enough, to improve financial transparency. The Vatican bank — long tainted by secretive accounting and money laundering scandals — underwent a cleanup during the past decade, a process begun under Pope Benedict XVI and accelerated under Francis.
Francis has also banned gifts to Vatican employees worth more than $50, and forced Holy See officials to sign a pledge that they have no assets in tax havens.
The Becciu case “says a lot about the pope’s will — theatrical and spectacular — to clean house,” said Emiliano Fittipaldi, an Italian journalist and noted Vatican watcher. He added, “Becciu became a sort of symbol, or a scapegoat, even if he didn’t commit any crime, of a system that had to be dealt with at last.”
Prosecutor Alessandro Diddi sought prison sentences between four and 13 years for the defendants, as well as nearly 500 million euros in restitution. Becciu maintained his “absolute innocence” and contended he did not steal “a single euro.” During the case, Becciu appeared to suggest the pope had turned on him even as he was forced to deny reports that he funded an international smear campaign against one of Francis’s fiercest conservative critics.
Some observers wondered why the Vatican sought to prosecute the complicated case that ran from Britain to Slovenia to Italy in the first place, rather than turn it over to better equipped Italian authorities.
After Francis became pope, Becciu, who formerly served as de facto chief of staff at the Vatican’s secretariat of state — its diplomatic arm — would frequently travel with him and was seen as one of the few men within the Holy See who could freely knock on the pope’s door.
During his time in that post, the secretariat invested in a luxury building on London’s fashionable Sloane Avenue through an Italian financier, Raffaele Mincione. The property had once served as warehouses for the Harrods department store. With upgrades, the Vatican was supposed to make a mint.
Instead, it turned out that the property had been radically overvalued. It was sold last year at a $175-million loss. But before that, attempts by the secretariat to refinance a loan through the Vatican bank set off alarm bells that got back to the pope and triggered the broader investigation.
A view, on Feb. 18, 2021, of 60 Sloane Avenue, a period building in West London owned by the Vatican.
On the stand, Becciu decried his transformation from pious cleric to “monster.” Behind the scenes, he set out to prove his innocence. In 2021, before the trial started, he wrote a series of letters to Francis, urging the pope to confirm he had knowledge of, and even supported, the London deal.
Becciu additionally asked Francis to admit he had prior knowledge of the agreement with Marogna, the woman with the charity in Slovenia who was paid an exorbitant fee for unclear services. Becciu has said he believed the money was going to assist the liberation of Sister Gloria Cecilia Narváez, a Colombian nun kidnapped in 2017 in Mali.
In a subsequent call to Francis, made the day after the pope was released from a Rome hospital for colon surgery, Becciu secretly recorded the pontiff, who appeared sympathetic to his plight. But a follow-up letter to the pope requesting his written support against the charges resulted in a frosty letter in legalese, in which Francis expressed his “surprise” at Becciu’s request and said he could not help him.
The prosecutors’ case in part rested on the testimony of Monsignor Alberto Perlasca, the Vatican official who had signed contracts related to a London property in 2018. Initially a target of the investigation, he altered his testimony and became a witness for the prosecution against Becciu. Former Vatican diplomat Francesca Chaouqui — jailed for 10 months in connection to the Vatileaks scandal which was seen as helping to prompt Pope Benedict XVI’s resignation — later testified that she had sought to influence Perlasca after blaming Becciu for playing a role in her downfall.
— New Orleans archdiocese ignored woman’s claims before priest’s abrupt dismissal
Anthony Odiong delivering a homily in which he refers to members of the LGBTQ+ community as ‘monkeys and animals and chimpanzees’, in November 2023. Photograph: YouTube page of St Anthony of Padua church of Luling, Louisiana
Anthony Odiong – who gave anti-LGBTQ+ sermons – had detailed allegations abuse filed against him before his removal
A Louisiana Catholic priest’s sudden dismissal from the church where he had been a popular pastor for the last several years has set off a fresh scandal in the embattled New Orleans archdiocese, the second-oldest in the US.
As they tell it, local church leaders rescinded Anthony Odiong’s invitation to serve as a cleric in the region due to unspecified “concerns … about [his] ministry prior” to his arrival in the archdiocese – “and quite possibly during his time” there. As a result, the New Orleans archbishop, Gregory Aymond, told Odiong’s bishop in Nigeria to recall him to his home diocese “as soon as possible to address these concerns”, officials said in a statement.
The statement did not mention whether those concerns stemmed from Aymond’s receipt in 2019 of a detailed complaint against Odiong of years-long sexual and financial abuse from a woman who viewed the clergyman as her spiritual adviser – and who says the church brushed her off.
“These concerns do not include the abuse of minors nor to our knowledge involve anyone in this [church],” is all the archdiocese’s statement said.
The statement added that the archdiocese had reported Odiong to law enforcement authorities, and the organization had ordered him to soon leave the rectory where he had been residing.
Meanwhile, Odiong has offered up a starkly different counter-narrative. He has publicly suggested that Aymond booted him out from serving the archdiocese with about a half-million Catholics after likening members of the LGBTQ+ community to “monkeys and animals and chimpanzees” in a recent sermon that warned of a purported liberal takeover of the church.
The archdiocese’s statement did not deny that it found Odiong’s remarks to be problematic. And it suggested that the comments may have expedited a departure originally scheduled for January.
“Unfortunately,” the statement said, “[Father] Anthony’s words and actions since being informed of this decision have led to us taking action to relieve him as pastor now.”
Whatever the case, the circumstances of Odiong’s departure from the St Anthony of Padua church highlight the layered predicament Aymond and his archdiocese find themselves in.
The archdiocese has racked up nearly $34m in legal and other professional services fees since filing for federal bankruptcy protection in 2020 in the face of a mountain of local clergy abuse litigation. To cope with the bankruptcy court expenses, the church recently announced a plan to close several of its churches.
St Anthony of Padua was not one of the churches affected by the downsizing. Yet Odiong’s dismissal has stirred unrest among his parishioners and their community of Luling, Louisiana, whose population of about 14,500 people resides about 25 miles (40km) south-west of New Orleans.
Masses held by Odiong in which parishioners came to be healed both physically and spiritually proved to be particularly popular and helped attendance for weekend services surge from fewer than 390 to more than 500, according to reporting in the local St Charles Herald Guide newspaper.
Odiong and at least some in his former congregation now feel as though they have been thrust into the split brewing between those who support and those who oppose Pope Francis’s attempts to make the Catholic church more welcoming to the LGBTQ+ community, a prominent agenda item during a recent synod of bishops at the Vatican.
Francis in November dismissed Joseph Strickland, at that time the bishop of Tyler, Texas, for his criticism of the pope’s goals to be more inclusive of LGBTQ+ people and to give the laity more responsibilities within a church that does not allow gay marriage.
Gregory Aymond after his installation mass held in the St Louis Cathedral in New Orleans on 20 August 2009.
The outpouring of support for Odiong from some of his followers has generally echoed the support among conservative circles that met Strickland after his ouster.
“You have your flock’s unwavering love,” read one of numerous recent Facebook posts from Luling residents. Another read: “I [shudder] to think what my spiritual life would be like without his guidance … My friends and I stand WITH [Father] Anthony Odiong, NOT against him.”
However, what the controversy surrounding Odiong’s departure also seems to highlight is how few – if any – of his most fervent believers realized that he stands among more than 300 clergymen, religious personnel or lay church employees who are accused of abusing vulnerable parishioners – mostly children but also adults – in claims filed as part of the archdiocese’s pending bankruptcy.
Most of the records associated with the bankruptcy are under a court seal. But the Guardian managed to obtain a copy of the claim against Odiong, which was prepared by his accuser’s attorney, Kristi Schubert.
A review of the document – filed under oath – raises questions about whether Aymond could have acted against Odiong long before his abrupt dismissal and the anti-LGBTQ+ remarks that he insisted cost him his position.
When asked about his response to the accusations in the bankruptcy, Odiong said: “We have discussed the allegations, and I have a lawyer taking care of that.”
He said he could not elaborate but maintained that Aymond had rescinded his invitation for Odiong to minister in the New Orleans archdiocese because the Nigerian “went against the pope and the synod”.
Schubert, who represents numerous clergy abuse survivors, said: “I am not surprised at all that it took a public scandal for [Father] Odiong to finally see even minimal consequences. In my experience, credible abuse allegations alone have not been enough to motivate the church to remove a priest.”
‘Dismissed my claim’
Odiong underwent his clerical training in Nigeria and was ordained in 1993, according to his biography on the St Anthony of Padua webpage. For more than a decade, he served in Nigeria.
But the country has historically been convulsed by sectarian violence against Catholics. In 2006, Odiong moved to Austin, the capital of Texas, to minister there on the invitation of the city’s bishop at the time: Aymond.
Odiong later worked in campus ministry at Baylor University in Waco, Texas. He obtained a master’s degree in theology from Franciscan University in Steubenville, Ohio.
Meanwhile, Aymond became New Orleans’s archbishop in 2009. In about 2016, Aymond invited Odiong to serve as the pastor of St Anthony.
Odiong’s healing masses helped improve church attendance. Their popularity led to the construction of a new healing chapel dedicated to the Virgin Mary, which opened in 2020.
He took parishioners with him to Medjugorje, the site in Bosnia which has attracted a million pilgrims annually since 1981, when six children and teenagers there said they had witnessed the appearance of the Virgin.
But the year before the healing chapel at St Anthony opened, a woman who described meeting Odiong at Franciscan University in 2007 contacted the archdiocese of New Orleans with detailed abuse accusations against Odiong.
The abuse claim that the woman later filed in bankruptcy court described how Odiong positioned himself to be her spiritual director.
“From May 2007 until December 2018, Father Odiong and I spoke daily,” said the woman, who recalled being 37 when she met the clergyman. As her personal spiritual adviser, she said Odiong “came to control nearly every aspect of my life, including my financial and relationship decisions”.
Among numerous other alleged misdeeds, she accused Odiong of forcing her to perform sexual acts – including oral intercourse – with him during the sacrament of confession, at private masses in her home and in at least one motel room. She described the acts occurring in New Orleans, in west Texas, in Pennsylvania and in Alabama, in her car while stopped in a church parking lot – despite the vow of celibacy that Catholic clergyman make.
The woman said Odiong told her she would earn forgiveness for her sins through her sexual service. She accused him of threatening to “place a curse on her head” if she ever refused, of insinuating that she was mentally ill by calling her a “troubled woman”, and of stealing money, including thousands of dollars from her.
At one point, needing the floors of her home redone, she alleged that Odiong forced her to hire a man who she learned was “a rapist”. Her floors did not end up getting redone, and she was drawn into a legal dispute that cost her nearly $50,000, she said.
Gregory Aymond walks through St Louis Cathedral to celebrate Good Friday services, without any congregants, in New Orleans, on 10 April 2020.
The woman said she mostly stopped engaging with Odiong in late 2018. That was weeks after Aymond had released the first version of a list naming several New Orleans Catholic clergymen whom the church considered to be credibly accused of molesting children or vulnerable adult parishioners, igniting a wave of additional claims of church molestation that eventually thrust the archdiocese into bankruptcy.
Odiong was not on the list, which was one piece of the broad fallout from a 2018 Pennsylvania grand jury report that found Catholic clerical sex abuse in that state was much more widely spread than the church had acknowledged.
And in early 2019, the woman – whose home is in Pennsylvania – contacted a religious brother serving as the New Orleans archdiocese’s point of contact for abuse claimants, and reported Odiong.
She said the archdiocese’s victims assistance coordinator told her: “I do not think you are remembering things correctly.” Then, toward the middle of July that year, she said, she reported Odiong directly to Aymond.
The woman said she sought to boost her credibility by saying she had ghostwritten some of the letters Odiong sent to Aymond over the years, including ones that successfully asked for financial assistance to complete his education while also requesting an invitation to work in New Orleans.
Nonetheless, “I felt like he dismissed my claim as well,” the woman said of Aymond.
The woman cited copies of text messages and phone call logs to establish the volume of contact that she had with Odiong and to support her assertion that she had conversed with Aymond. She captured telephone recordings that showed she contacted detectives in Luling and her Pennsylvania home town about Odiong, though it is unclear if those agencies pursued investigations.
After the woman reported him to the archdiocese, Odiong wrote to her saying that the victims assistance coordinator had contacted him, according to an email her lawyer provided. It is unclear what else the archdiocese may have done in response to her claims.
Information produced during the bankruptcy’s discovery process and reported on by the Guardian has established that the archdiocese over the last several decades has gone to extreme lengths to shield abusive clergymen – including the handful of ones convicted of or charged with crimes by subpoena-wielding authorities despite the church’s protection.
Odiong did serve as the pastor of St Anthony of Padua through most of 2023, presiding over weddings, baptisms, weekly masses and services at the healing chapel.
As recently as August, Odiong, Aymond and a third clergyman hosted a three-day series of masses at a church in the New Orleans suburb of Metairie. Odiong presided over a healing service following the mass, according to an archdiocesan bulletin.
It was not until a Saturday service on 18 November at St Anthony of Padua that Odiong informed his congregation that their time together was coming to an end. He said his plan was to move by January to Florida, where he intended to build a chapel like one whose construction he was overseeing in Texas.
At Sunday mass on 26 November, he elaborated with remarks that took aim at the LGBTQ+ community.
“The church is dividing already,” Odiong said during his homily that day, according to a video available on YouTube. “Now the gays have taken over the church. The LGBTQI – whatever you call them – have a stranglehold on the church now. We’re going to begin to bless all kinds of monkeys and animals and chimpanzees, and priests who will not do it will be persecuted.”
Odiong went on to suggest that he was “not safe” because of his beliefs on that topic. “Yet, I’m not afraid – I’m excited,” he said. “I like a good fight.”
As Odiong tells it, Aymond told him that he had until the next several days to move out of St Anthony of Padua’s rectory. The archbishop had rescinded Odiong’s invitation to minister in the New Orleans archdiocese, the ousted clergyman said.
Archbishop Gregory Aymond greets parishioners after Good Friday mass in front of St Louis Cathedral in New Orleans, on 29 March 2013.
Before St Anthony’s Sunday mass on 3 December, the church announced it would not livestream video of the service as usual.
At mass, the archdiocese said, parishioners were read a statement telling them that Odiong’s removal was being expedited over various but unspecified concerns. The archdiocese’s statement asked Odiong’s congregation to respect his privacy and keep him in their prayers “during this time of transition”.
The statement triggered a wave of Facebook comments in support of Odiong. One accused the archdiocese of having “besmirched a holy man’s character to his congregation” with no substantial specifics.
The woman who has accused Odiong of abuse is demanding damages from the archdiocese’s bankruptcy case, which remains unresolved. She argues that she lost at least $150,000 in wages after her mental anguish over Odiong’s alleged domination interrupted her ability to work as a licensed clinical social worker.
The woman’s lawyer, Schubert, said it was disturbing but unsurprising that the archdiocese “allowed Odiong to continue to hold a position of trust and authority” for years despite her client’s complaint.
Schubert said her client’s case was only the latest to illustrate how “abuse allegations will typically be ignored or covered up as long as possible” by institutions like the archdiocese.
“The only thing I’ve really ever seen the church respond to quickly is the fear of bad publicity,” Schubert added. “They don’t fix things that are bad. They fix things that make them look bad.”
As for Odiong, he said he plans to continue in ministry as long as he has the permission of his supervising bishop in the diocese of Uyo, Nigeria.
“You have to let this play out,” Odiong said. “This is just the beginning.”