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Trust In The Church

Chicago Cardinal Blase Cupich, tapped by Pope Francis as one of four organizers of the upcoming Vatican meeting on sex abuse (PBS.org screengrab)

A Catholic friend asks me what expectations I have for the big Vatican meeting in February about the sex abuse scandal. The answer? None.

The fact that Pope Francis made Chicago’s Cardinal Blase Cupich one of the four organizers was a tipoff that this is more likely to be window dressing than anything substantive. I could be wrong.

Why does Cupich’s involvement send such a bad signal? For a couple of related reasons.

First, Catholic News Agency reported on December 21:

The Diocese of Spokane said Thursday it was unacceptable that Jesuit priests credibly accused of sexual abuse were unsupervised on the campus of Gonzaga University. While Spokane’s current bishop had no knowledge the priests had been living at the university, the diocese said its prior bishop was informed of their presence in 2011.

“The Diocese of Spokane shares the concern of those who are angry and saddened to learn that the Oregon Province of Jesuits — now part of the Jesuits West Province — placed Jesuits credibly accused of sexual abuse at the Cardinal Bea House on Gonzaga University’s campus without informing the Gonzaga community,” a Dec. 20 statement from the diocese read.

In June 2011, “the Jesuit provincial, Father Patrick Lee, informed then-Bishop Blase Cupich that seven priests with safety plans in place were living at Bea House,” the diocesan statement added. [Emphasis mine — RD]

“Bishop Thomas Daly — who was installed in 2015 — was not informed by the Jesuits or Gonzaga University that these men were living at Cardinal Bea House.”

More:

The house is a residence owned by the Oregon Province of the Society of Jesus and not overseen by the university. The credibly accused priests living there were reportedly subject to “safety plans” that forbade them from engaging with students.

According to the media reports, at least some credibly accused priests had regular unsupervised access to the university campus and unsupervised visits with students and were permitted to lead prayer services in other settings, including on Native-American reservations.

Cupich was bishop of Spokane from 2010 through 2014, when he was named by Pope Francis to be cardinal archbishop of Chicago. Why was he protecting those Jesuits, and not the safety of the Gonzaga community? You want to know how bad these Jesuits were (the last accused abuser was moved out of the house in 2016)? From the Spokane Spokesman-Review:

The Rev. James Poole seemed like the cool priest in Nome, Alaska. He founded a Catholic mission radio station that broadcast his Jesuit sermons alongside contemporary pop hits. A 1978 story in People magazine called Poole “Western Alaska’s Hippest DJ. Comin’ at Ya with Rock’n’Roll ’n’ Religion.”

Behind the radio station’s closed doors, Poole was a serial sexual predator. He abused at least 20 women and girls, according to court documents. At least one was 6 years old. One Alaska Native woman says he impregnated her when she was 16, then forced her to get an abortion and blamed her father for raping her. Her father went to prison.

Like many other Catholic priests around the country, Poole’s conduct with young girls was well-known to his superiors. A Jesuit supervisor once warned a church official that Poole “has a fixation on sex; an obsession; some sort of mental aberration that makes him see sex everywhere.”

But the last chapter in his story reveals a twist in the Catholic abuse scandal: Poole was sent to live out his retirement years on Gonzaga University’s campus in Spokane.

For more than three decades, Cardinal Bea House near Gonzaga’s campus served as a retirement repository for at least 20 Jesuit priests accused of sexual misconduct that predominantly took place in small, isolated Alaska Native villages and on Indian reservations across the Northwest, an investigation by the Northwest News Network and Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting has found.

Read the whole story. These alleged abusers had free rein of the Gonzaga campus. Bishop Cupich knew about them.

This wasn’t in 2002 or before; this was seven years ago. People are supposed to believe that now-Cardinal Cupich can be trusted to clean up this mess? Really? Of all the cardinals Francis could have chosen to help organize this meeting, he made Cupich one of the four?

The other reason I have zero expectations for the February meeting is this new piece by Ed Condon at Catholic News Agency, about how the Archdiocese of New York deceived another diocese about the status of a priest. Excerpts:

The Archdiocese of New York told a California college this month that a local priest had never been accused of sexual abuse, even while the priest was being investigated by the archdiocese for several abuse charges. An administrator at the college called the letter “a lie,” and said she can no longer trust assurances from the archdiocese.

On Dec. 4, the New York archdiocese issued a letter stating “without qualification” that Fr. Donald Timone had “never been accused of any act of sexual abuse or misconduct involving a minor.”

In fact the archdiocese first received in 2003 an allegation that the priest had sexually abused minors, and it reached settlements with alleged victims in 2017.

The archdiocesan letter was received Dec. 13 by John Paul the Great University in Escondido, California, where Timone served. According to the university, the letter was not rescinded until after university officials contacted the Archdiocese of New York, following a Dec. 20 New York Times report on the history of allegations against Timone.

In 2017, the Archdiocese paid settlements in the cases of two boys it concluded that Father Timone had abused — one of whom committed suicide! According to a December 20 report in the NYT:

“I have been unsuccessful at this thing called life,” he wrote in his suicide note to his wife on Jan. 8, 2015. “I need to go home to Jesus, if He’ll have me.”

Why was Timone still in ministry? More:

The New York archdiocese is essentially allowing Father Timone to continue serving as a priest because of a bureaucratic technicality — a position that seems to fly in the face of the pledge by Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan, the archbishop of the New York Archdiocese, to aggressively handle sexual abuse accusations.

The archdiocese maintains that Father Timone has been allowed to remain because the church itself did not rule on his fitness; that judgment was made by a separate, church-sponsored panel, the Independent Reconciliation and Compensation Program.

The settlements were paid in 2017 through that program, which Cardinal Dolan established the previous year to provide closure and a measure of justice to victims of sexual abuse by priests.

Please read the entire Times report. And notice this part of the f0llow-up CNA story:

[University official Lidy] Connolly told CNA that John Paul the Great University had received letters attesting to Timone’s suitability for more than a decade. She expressed shock and outrage on behalf of the university.

“I’d defend the Church come hell or high water,” Connolly told CNA, “but there is no defending this – the [Dec. 4] letter is a lie.”

Connolly said she contacted the Archdiocese of New York after reading media reports about Timone, to ask why he had been given a clean bill of health.

“They totally evaded my questions,” Connolly told CNA.

Ed Condon, the CNA correspondent, is also a canon lawyer. He explains one reason this matters so much:

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Why on earth was Cardinal Dolan protecting Father Timone? Why take the risk? Why destroy the archdiocese’s credibility with other dioceses for the sake of this guy? Did he have something on somebody in the archdiocesan bureaucracy? There has to be a reason.

On September 13, Cardinal Dolan said on CNN:  “If I don’t have the trust of my people, I have nothing.”

True, so riddle me this: Why should anybody should believe a thing that Cardinal Dolan and the Archdiocese of New York has to say about clergy sex abuse, given that the Archdiocese has now been caught lying to another diocese about an abusive priest?

For that matter, why anybody should believe a thing Cardinal Cupich has to say about it? Why should anybody expect that the Roman Catholic hierarchy can now, at last, be trusted to fix this at a February meeting called by a pontiff whose idea of dealing with specific, damning accusations about Church corruption, particularly in the Cardinal McCarrick case, is to repeatedly insinuate that the retired papal diplomat making the accusations is a servant of the Devil?

You will recall that Archbishop Vigano, the retired diplomat, said that Cardinal Cupich’s rise in the Church is because he was a favorite of McCarrick’s, and McCarrick boosted him to Francis. You will also recall that in response to the Vigano bombshell, Cupich told the media that the pope will not be distracted by such silliness, because he has bigger things to worry about, like immigration and climate change.

Catholic journalist Phil Lawler has the correct read on the Cupich appointment:

If the February conference is intended as an exercise in damage control, the Cupich appointment makes sense. If the conference is intended to prompt reform, the appointment makes no sense at all. So I conclude that this meeting—which one scarred veteran of the Vatican battles has described as the “last chance” for Vatican credibility—will produce nothing more than “enthusiastic words” about the fight against sexual abuse.

Lawler explains why he thinks the Cupich appointment by Francis was in part to make sure that the world’s bishops do not talk about either McCarrick or the homosexual aspect of the scandal. And then:

Cardinal Cupich knows the Pope’s thinking. And Pope Francis knows full well what Cardinal Cupich will contribute to the task of organizing the February meeting. The sex-abuse scandal as seen through American eyes—the scandal that includes McCarrick and homosexual influence and Vatican complicity—is “not on the Pope’s plate to fix.” Look for more headlines on this issue in February, but do not expect any substantial movement. Help is not on the way.

Read the whole thing. 

One more thing, for those interested in Church history and ecclesiology. Princeton’s Bronwen McShea, writing in First Things, explains how changes in Church governance in the late modern era concentrated even more power in the hands of an unaccountable episcopate.  In the deeply informative piece, McShea writes that the evolution in the Church’s governing structure since the 19th century has made it “almost impossible for concerned laypersons and rank-and-file clergy­men to hold Church leaders to account for wounds they inflict on the Church’s body.” More:

In our so-called Age of the Laity, many laypersons—Mass-going stalwarts who volunteer time and resources; parents of boys who might become priests; even prominent lawyers, businessmen, intellectuals, and media professionals with connections in the hierarchy—are powerless before churchmen’s stonewalling, tone-deafness, and worse. Efforts toward accountability face jurisdictional and canonical hurdles to their timely realization. And in the rare instances when barriers can be overcome, many faithful men and women scrupulously hesitate to act, because they have been formed by the Church of the last century to view popes and bishops alone as the divinely ordained authorities over the Christian people’s corporate existence.

She calls on fellow Catholics not to confuse”filial deference to bishops and popes with uncritical, docile acceptance of all the forms of power the hierarchy currently wields.

Some of these powers are new in the history of the Church and are concentrated by happenstance in the hands of the hierarchy, due to the historical conditions of the Church’s self-preserving self-extrication from modern political regimes. …

Today, the safety and well-being of the Christian people’s children and young clergymen are in question. Laypersons may be called at this hour to assert their traditional rights within the Church as a whole, in order to secure the common good of our spiritual communion. We will need to pursue that duty in ­creative ways suited to present-day conditions. And we should anticipate—with the sober realism that the Church’s messy history engenders—that more than one exalted churchman will oppose worthy reforms with this or that implement from his modern stockpile of ecclesial power.

Read the whole thing.

Who knows, maybe there will be a Roman miracle in February. But if not, and if the meeting concludes with the same old toothless bureaucratic assurances, the Catholic laity are going to be faced with a series of painful decisions. In order to save their Church, they are going to have to fight their bishops. This is going to be especially hard for the orthodox Catholic laity, because they are, by temperament and custom, used to defending the institution and its leadership. But these men are piloting the Barque of Peter into a whirlpool. They can’t change the system because they are products of the system.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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