At Vatican, empty tombs add new twist to missing girl mystery

Tombs in a cemetery on the Vatican's grounds are seen before being opened to test the DNA of bones to help solve the 36-year-old disappearance of a teenage daughter of a clerk in the Holy See, in the Vatican July 11, 2019. Vatican Media/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY.

By Philip Pullella

VATICAN CITY (Reuters) – The Vatican opened two tombs on Thursday to see if the body of a girl missing since 1983 was hidden there and ran into a new mystery when nothing was found, not even the bones of two 19th century princesses supposed to be buried there.

Experts were looking for the remains of Emanuela Orlandi, the daughter of a Vatican clerk who failed to return home following a music lesson in Rome. Her disappearance has been the subject of wild speculation in the Italian media for years.

Exhumation work began after a morning prayer in the Teutonic Cemetery, a burial ground just inside the Vatican walls used over the centuries mainly for Church figures or members of noble families of German or Austrian origin.

Officials were expecting to find at least the bones of Princess Sophie von Hohenlohe, who died in 1836, and Princess Carlotta Federica of Mecklenburg, who died in 1840, but there was no trace of either.

“The result of the search was negative. No human remains or funeral urns were found,” Vatican spokesman Alessandro Gisotti said.

Gisotti said the Vatican would now examine records structural work done in the cemetery at the end of the 19th century and again about 60 years ago to see if they could shed any light on the new mystery.

Princess Sophie’s tomb led to a large empty underground room and no human remains were found in Princess Carlotta’s tomb, he said.

“They went down and found a room measuring 4 meters by 3 meters (13 feet by 10 feet), which was the first surprise …There was absolutely nothing inside,” Emanuela’s brother, Pietro Orlandi, told reporters outside the Vatican.

The two tombs were opened in the presence of the Orlandi family and descendants of the princesses.

The Orlandi family had received an anonymous letter saying Emanuela’s body might be hidden among the dead in the Teutonic Cemetery where a statue of an angel holding a book reads “Requiescat in Pace,” Latin for “Rest in Peace”.

Theories about Orlandi’s disappearance have run the gamut from an attempt to secure freedom for Mehmet Ali Agca, the Turk jailed in 1981 for trying to assassinate Pope John Paul II, to a connection to the grave of Enrico De Pedis, a mobster buried in a Rome basilica. His tomb was opened in 2012 but nothing was revealed.

Last year, bones found during groundwork at the Vatican embassy in Rome sparked a media frenzy suggesting they might belong to Orlandi or to Mirella Gregori, another teenager who disappeared the same year. DNA tests turned out negative.

Police in 1983 did not exclude the possibility that Orlandi may have been abducted and killed for reasons with no connection to the Vatican or been a victim of human trafficking.

(Reporting by Philip Pullella; editing by Jason Neely)

Pope decrees bishops must be directly accountable for sex abuse or cover-ups

Pope Francis holds the weekly general audience at the Vatican, May 8, 2019. Vatican Media/Handout via REUTERS THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY.

By Philip Pullella

VATICAN CITY (Reuters) – Pope Francis issued a landmark decree on Thursday making bishops directly accountable for sexual abuse or covering it up, requiring clerics to report any cases to Church superiors and allowing anyone to complain directly to the Vatican if needed.

Tackling sexual abuses that have battered the Catholic Church’s reputation has been a major challenge for Francis since his 2013 election, with victims demanding a crackdown on bishops at the diocese level accused of concealing or mismanaging cases.

The papal change in Church law, covering abuse of children and adults alike, also obliges every diocese worldwide to set up simple, accessible reporting systems within a year and spurs local churches to involve lay experts in investigations.

Although such systems are already in place in some countries including the United States, they are lacking in many others.

Francis’s edict obliges the world’s one million priests and nuns to report all suspicion of sexual abuse by clerics of any level. Before, it was just a matter of individual conscience as to whether to report cases.

It calls for whistleblower protection, saying bishops with conflicts of interest in cases of cover-up should recuse themselves from investigations and that bishops can also be held accountable for abuse of power in sexual relations with adults.

Former U.S. Cardinal Theodore McCarrick was expelled from the Roman Catholic priesthood last February after he was found guilty of sexual crimes against minors and adults, including forcing seminarians to sleep with him.

“We have said for years that priests should follow certain strict rules, so why should bishops and other members of the Church hierarchy be exempt?” said Cardinal Marc Ouellet, head of the Vatican’s Congregation for Bishops.

The decree also allows victims or their representatives to report alleged abuses by bishops directly to the Vatican or a Vatican ambassador, bypassing diocesan procedures that have been discredited by multiple instances of cover-ups.

But the decree does not alter Vatican policy that clerics should follow local law as to whether they are mandated to report alleged sexual abuse to civil authorities.

REPORTING LAWS VARY

Victim’s groups and their advocates have called for the Vatican to make reporting of suspected abuse to police mandatory but the Holy See says Church law cannot override local civil law because the latter varies around the world.

“There is such a variety of domestic laws that we cannot tell states what their citizens should be doing,” said Maltese Archbishop Charles Scicluna, the Vatican’s senior abuse investigator.

Asked if countries where reporting is not obligatory should change their laws, he said: “The prudential thing I would tell every government is empower people to react and denounce crime.”

He said priests and nuns would now have to report abuse to their superiors even in countries – including several in Latin America – where they are not obliged by civil law to do so.

“The law is important because it makes disclosure the main policy of the Church,” said Scicluna, who has won the respect of many victims for his investigations of high-profile abusers.

The 19-article decree, called “Vos Estis Lux Mundi” (You Are the Light of the World), raises to 18 from 16 the age of adulthood in cases of sexual abuse. It also covers possession of child pornography.

“It’s significant that the new law protects whistleblowers, requires a systemized information flow, forbids the imposition of secrecy on victims, and spells out a specific procedure for reporting bishops and religious superiors who abuse or cover up,” said Anne Barrett-Doyle of the abuse tracking group BishopAccountability.org.

“Yet it’s not nearly enough. The new law does nothing to enact zero tolerance for child sexual abuse or for cover-up.”

A spate of abuse scandals has battered Church credibility around the world and forced some dioceses to declare bankruptcy because of billions of dollars paid in settlements with victims.

The decree, whose preparation was reported first by Reuters in April, also sets time limits for local investigations and the Vatican’s response to them and allows for retroactive reporting.

Many local Catholic Churches have been hit by sex abuse scandals since they erupted on a large scale in Boston in 2002 with revelations that Church leaders there had moved sexual abusers from parish to parish instead of defrocking them.

(Reporting by Philip Pullella; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

Pope: Church should admit history of abuse of women, male domination

Pope Francis looks on as he addresses reporters aboard the plane bringing him back following a two-day trip to Morocco March 31, 2019. Alberto Pizzoli/Pool via REUTERS

By Philip Pullella

VATICAN CITY (Reuters) – Pope Francis said on Tuesday the Catholic Church had to acknowledge a history of male domination and sexual abuse of women and children and repair its reputation among young people or risk becoming “a museum”.

But, in a major document in which he mentioned an array of scandals and again admitted significant failings by clergy, he also said the Church “could not agree with everything some feminist groups propose,” a clear reference to the Church’s ban on a female priesthood.

The pope is grappling with criticism over the Church’s response to a decades-long clerical sexual abuse crisis that has gravely damaged its standing around the globe and seen it pay out billions of dollars in compensation.

Francis made his comment in a 50-page “Apostolic Exhortation” about a month-long meeting of bishops in October on the role of young people in the 1.3 billion-member Church.

Francis, 82, urged young people not to be disillusioned by the sexual abuse scandal, but to work with the overwhelming majority of priests and other clergy faithful to their vocation.

He said clergy sexual abuse was “a tragedy” and asked young people to help the Church in “this dark moment”.

“A living Church can look back on history and acknowledge a fair share of male authoritarianism, domination, various forms of enslavement, abuse and sexist violence,” the pontiff said.

“With this outlook, she can support the call to respect women’s rights, and offer convinced support for greater reciprocity between males and females, while not agreeing with everything some feminist groups propose,” he said.

Some women’s groups seek a female priesthood. The Church has ruled this out, arguing Jesus chose only men as his apostles.

WINNING BACK TRUST

In the final document of their synod last year, bishops recommended “that everyone be made more aware of the urgency of an inevitable change” in the role of women in the Church, but the pope did not directly address that on Tuesday.

His document also did not address demands by women participants at the synod that they be allowed to vote during such meetings in the future.

Francis acknowledged the Church had to win back many young people who see it as insignificant in their lives or a nuisance.

He said such a view of the Church can “have serious and understandable reasons: sexual and financial scandals; a clergy ill-prepared to engage effectively with the sensitivities of the young.”

The Church had to keep and attract young people by better explaining its doctrine, he said.

“A Church always on the defensive, which loses her humility and stops listening to others, which leaves no room for questions, loses her youth and turns into a museum,” he said.

And while he said the Church should be “attentive to the legitimate claims of those women who seek greater justice and equality” and that young people had complained of a “lack of leading female role models,” he offered no new ideas. Only a handful of women hold positions of authority in the Vatican.

This month the all-female staff of the Vatican newspaper’s monthly magazine on women’s issues resigned, saying a new editor sought to put them “under direct male control”.

Recent stories in the magazine include one on sexual abuse of nuns by priests. The editor has denied their accusations.

(Reporting By Philip Pullella, Editing by William Maclean and Jon Boyle)

Pope signs new law to prevent child abuse at Vatican HQ and embassies

Pope Francis speaks to the faithful during a visit to the Shrine of Our Lady of Loreto on the feast of the Annunciation, in Loreto, Italy March 25, 2019. REUTERS/Yara Nardi

By Philip Pullella

VATICAN CITY (Reuters) – Pope Francis on Friday enacted sweeping new legislation to protect children from sexual abuse within the Vatican and other Holy See institutions in Rome, as well as by its diplomatic corps worldwide.

Previously, the abuse of minors came under various legal provisions, some of them instituted on an ad hoc basis.

The Rome headquarters of the global Catholic Church is an independent state with the pope as its head.

While the territory of the Vatican is tiny, the new law comes as the pope is demanding local Catholic churches around the world set up their own rigorous policies to deal with child sex abuse.

The Church’s credibility has been decimated in much of the world by abuse scandals in countries including Ireland, Chile, Australia, France, the United States and Poland, paying billions of dollars in damages to victims and forcing parishes to close.

The scandals have reached the upper echelons of the Vatican itself with the conviction of Cardinal George Pell, jailed this month for six years for abusing boys in his native Australia. He had served as the Vatican treasurer and a member of the pope’s innermost council of cardinals until his conviction last year.

Other senior Church officials have been accused of knowingly covering up abuse, including the archbishop of Lyon who was convicted this year in France for failing to report abuse.

The new provisions mark the first time a unified and detailed policy for the protection of children has been compiled for the headquarters of the Church.

The changes signed by the pope make it obligatory for superiors and co-workers to report abuse allegations, punish failure to report and offer assistance to victims and families. Vulnerable adults are also given new protections.

The new law calls for a Vatican official or employee convicted of abusing a child to be dismissed, sets up procedures for reporting suspected abuse, and imposes more screening of prospective employees to prevent hiring potential abusers.

Campaigners who have accused the Church in the past of responding too slowly and ineffectively to the abuse crisis were not immediately available for comment.

Senior bishops from around the world held a summit last month to chart a strategy for ending abuse. Victims said the conference was merely a restatement of old promises.

While there are only several dozen minors who live inside the Vatican, the articles specifically mention a pre-seminary on the Vatican grounds where a boy alleged in 2017 that he had been abused by another minor and blamed inadequate supervision.

The law also applies to Vatican diplomatic missions, which have been involved in scandals in the past. In 2013, Archbishop Jozef Wesolowski, the Vatican’s ambassador to the Dominican Republic, was charged with paying boys for sex. He was recalled and jailed in the Vatican but died in 2015 before his trial.

(Reporting by Philip Pullella; Editing by Mark Heinrich and Peter Graff)

Women vent their anger at Vatican child abuse conference

FILE PHOTO: Protesters hold signs outside the venue of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) general assembly in Baltimore, Maryland, U.S., November 12, 2018. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque/File Photo

A nun and a woman journalist delivered the toughest criticism of Church leaders heard so far at Pope Francis’ sexual abuse conference on Saturday, accusing them of hypocrisy and covering up horrendous crimes against children.

Some 200 senior Church officials, all but ten of them men, listened at times in stunned silence in a Vatican audience hall as the women read their frank and at times angry speeches on the penultimate day of the conference convened by the pope to confront a worldwide scandal.

Sister Veronica Openibo, a Nigerian who has worked in Africa, Europe and the United States, spoke with a soft voice but delivered a strong message, telling the prelates sitting before her: “This storm will not pass”.

“We proclaim the Ten Commandments and parade ourselves as being the custodians of moral standards and values and good behavior in society. Hypocrites at times? Yes! Why did we keep silent for so long?” she said.

She told the pope, sitting near her on the dais, that she admired him because he was “humble enough to change your mind,” apologize and take action after he initially defended a Chilean bishop accused of covering up abuse. The bishop later resigned.

“How could the clerical Church have kept silent, covering these atrocities? The silence, the carrying of the secrets in the hearts of the perpetrators, the length of the abuses and the constant transfers of perpetrators are unimaginable,” she said.

She spoke of her shock when she watched the 2015 Oscar-winning film Spotlight, which showed how Church leaders in Boston moved predator priests from parish to parish instead of defrocking them or turning them over to civil authorities.

“We must acknowledge that our mediocrity, hypocrisy and complacency have brought us to this disgraceful and scandalous place we find ourselves as a Church. We pause to pray, Lord have mercy on us!” Openibo said.

“JOURNALISTS WILL BE YOUR WORST ENEMIES”

Valentina Alazraki, 64, a Mexican television reporter who, having covered five papacies, is the doyen of the Vatican press corps, told the bishops she was speaking as a woman and mother as well as a journalist.

“For a mother, there are no first or second-class children: there are stronger children and more vulnerable ones. Nor are there first and second-class children for the Church,” she said.

“(The Church’s) seemingly more important children, as are you, bishops and cardinals – I dare not say the Pope – are no more so than any other boy, girl or young person who has experienced the tragedy of being the victim of abuse by a priest,” she said forcefully in Spanish.

Alazraki told the bishops they could no longer “play ostrich” and bury their heads in the sand.

“If you do not decide in a radical way to be on the side of the children, mothers, families, civil society, you are right to be afraid of us, because we journalists, who seek the common good, will be your worst enemies,” she said.

Alazraki, who was applauded at the end of her speech, also spoke of cases of corruption where religious orders and Church officials hid abuse because “money, compensation, gifts” or other illegal or unethical activity.

Earlier, German Cardinal Reinhard Marx called for more “traceability and transparency” such as limiting secrecy in cases of abuse handled by the Vatican, releasing more statistics and publishing judicial procedures.

“Files that could have documented the terrible deeds and named those responsible were destroyed, or not even created. Instead of the perpetrators, the victims were regulated and silence imposed on them,” Marx, a leading progressive, said.

“The rights of victims were effectively trampled underfoot, and left to the whims of individuals,” he added.

The abuse crisis has made 2018 one of the toughest years for the pope since his election in 2013.

Chile’s 34 bishops offered to resign over the scandal, the pope’s trip to Ireland exposed decades of abuse in the once staunchly Catholic nation and a grand jury in Pennsylvania revealed priests sexually abused about 1,000 people over seven decades in that U.S. state alone.

Victims, some of whom told painful stories of abuse and cover-up when the conference began on Thursday, rallied in a Rome square before a march to the Vatican to demand change and justice.

The conference ends on Sunday when the pope will make a final speech. The Vatican says it will formulate follow-up measures to make sure all bishop return home knowing how to put anti-abuse procedures into place.

(Reporting By Philip Pullella; Editing by Edmund Blair and Robin Pomeroy)

Pope opens child sex abuse conference, promising ‘concrete’ remedies

Pope Francis attends the four-day meeting on the global sexual abuse crisis, at the Vatican February 21, 2019. Picture taken with a fish-eye lens. Vatican Media/­Handout via REUTERS

By Philip Pullella

VATICAN CITY (Reuters) – Pope Francis promised that concrete action against child sexual abuse by priests would result from a conference he opened on Thursday, with one cardinal acknowledging that the Church had to fight “the enemy within”.

Francis convened Catholic leaders from around the world for the four-day meeting to address the scandal that has ravaged the Church’s credibility in the United States – where it has paid billions of dollars in settlements – Ireland, Chile, Australia, and elsewhere over the last three decades.

His opening remarks appeared aimed at countering skepticism among victims who said the meeting looked like a public relations exercise.

“Faced with the scourge of sexual abuse committed by men of the Church against minors, I wanted to reach out to you,” Francis told the assembled bishops and heads of religious orders. He asked them to “listen to the cry of the little ones who are seeking justice”.

Francis, opening the conference of nearly 200 participants in a Vatican auditorium, added that victims deserve “concrete and efficient measures” and not mere condemnations.

Victims were mixed in their response, with some expressing cautious optimism and others saying it was too little, too late.

Cardinal Ruben Salazar Gomez of Bogota said the damage was home-grown, in large part because bishops had closeted themselves in a clerical mentality and some thought they could act with impunity.

“The first enemies are within us, among us bishops and priests and consecrated persons who have not lived up to our vocation. We have to recognize that the enemy is within,” he said.

The pope and the participants watched a video of five victims, most of whom wished to remain anonymous, telling painful stories of abuse and cover-up.

“From the age of 15, I had sexual relations with a priest. This lasted for 13 years. I got pregnant three times and he made me have an abortion three times, quite simply because he did not want to use condoms or contraceptives,” a woman said.

“MURDERERS OF THE FAITH”

Juan Carlos Cruz, a Chilean, said on the video that when he reported abuse to religious authorities he was treated as a liar and an enemy of the Church.

“You are the physicians of the soul and yet, with rare exceptions, you have been transformed – in some cases – into murderers of the soul, into murderers of the faith. What a terrible contradiction,” he said.

Cardinal Luis Tagle of the Philippines broke into tears as he read a keynote speech that acknowledged: “Wounds have been inflicted by us, the bishops, on the victims”.

A list of 21 “reflection points” written by the pope was handed out. The first was that each diocese should have a “practical handbook” on steps to be taken when cases emerge.

They included actions such as informing civil authorities of substantial accusations in compliance with local law and making sure non-clerics are involved in Church investigations of abuse.

“Putting together a handbook after all this time is laughable,” said Peter Isely, who was abused by a priest as a boy and now heads the advocacy group Ending Clergy Abuse.

Most of the 21 points are already practiced in countries like the United States.

In Ireland, the sexual abuse scandal shattered the power of the Church which four decades ago dominated society. In the past four years, voters approved abortion and gay marriage, defying the Vatican.

In Chile, all of the country’s bishops offered their resignations to the pope last year over a widespread cover-up. Francis accepted seven of the resignations and dismissed two others from the priesthood.

A report by a grand jury in Pennsylvania last year revealed that priests had sexually abused about 1,000 people over seven decades in that U.S. state alone.

Before the conference started, some victims’ groups said the event was an attempt to cleanse the image of the 1.3 billion-member Church.

But Anne Barrett-Doyle of bishopaccountablity.org, which tracks abuse cases around the world, said she was pleasantly surprised by the pope’s opening remarks.

“They said this was going to just be a teaching session, but he is now talking about concrete measures. That’s good, but let’s see how it ends up,” she told Reuters.

(Reporting by Philip Pullella; Editing by Robin Pomeroy and Mark Heinrich)

Abuse victims demand to see pope, say bishops should be sacked

Peter Isley, survivor of sexual abuse, talks to reporters outside the Vatican in Rome, Italy February 20, 2019. REUTERS/Remo Casilli

By Philip Pullella

VATICAN CITY (Reuters) – Victims of sexual abuse by the Catholic clergy on Wednesday demanded to meet Pope Francis personally to press demands that bishops who covered up such offenses be dismissed from the priesthood.

The 10 victims met for nearly three hours with five Vatican officials a day before the start of an unprecedented conference on abuse within the Church, designed to guide senior bishops on how best to tackle a problem that has decimated its credibility.

All the survivors of abuse expressed disappointment that the pope did not come to the meeting, even though he was not scheduled to be there.

“If he can meet with all those bishops over there he can meet with us,” said Peter Isely, who was abused by a priest when he was a boy.

“We made our demands for zero tolerance. We want the pope to write into universal law: zero tolerance for the cover-up of sex crimes. They can do it right now,” he told reporters after the meeting with the officials, all of them clerics.

He and other victims said bishops who had covered up abuse should be dismissed from the priesthood, just like those who had committed the abuse itself.

Other abuse victims waited outside the building where the meeting took place.

“We believed that this morning’s meeting would be with the pope, with a cross-section of survivors from around the world,” one, Englishman Peter Saunders, told Reuters TV.

He was not among those who took part in the meeting.

“It would seem that the pope, once again, is giving the two fingers to survivors and to child protection everywhere,” he said, using an English expression for a crude gesture.

The Vatican said the pope’s presence at the meeting was never intended because he would see others during the conference.

Isely and others who attended Wednesday’s meeting said they too wanted to meet the pope because they represented those with the most experience and information in gathering data on both abusers as well as victims.

Victims who meet Francis and address the four-day conference will remain anonymous at their request.

(editing by John Stonestreet)

Catholic Church credibility on the line at abuse meeting

FILE PHOTO - U.S. Cardinal Theodore Edgar McCarrick arrives for a meeting at the Synod Hall in the Vatican March 4, 2013. REUTERS/Max Rossi

By Philip Pullella

VATICAN CITY (Reuters) – The Vatican will gather senior bishops from around the world later this week for a conference on sex abuse designed to guide them on how best to tackle a problem that has decimated the Church’s credibility, but critics say it is too little, too late.

The unprecedented four-day meeting, starting on Thursday, brings together presidents of national Roman Catholic bishops conferences, Vatican officials, experts and heads of male and female religious orders.

“I am absolutely convinced that our credibility in this area is at stake,” said Father Federico Lombardi, who Pope Francis has chosen to moderate the meeting.

“We have to get to the root of this problem and show our ability to undergo a cure as a Church that proposes to be a teacher or it would be better for us to get into another line of work,” he told reporters.

The meeting, whose theme is “prevention of abuse of minors and vulnerable adults”, comes as the 1.3 billion-member Church still struggles to enact a concerted, coordinated and global effort to tackle a crisis that is now more than two decades old.

Lombardi, 71, said bishops from countries including the United States, which have developed protocols for preventing abuse and investigating accusations against individual members of the clergy, would share experiences and knowledge with those from developing countries, including those whose cultures make it harder to discuss abuse.

The Church has repeatedly come under fire for its handling of the sexual abuse crisis, which exposed how predator priests were moved from parish to parish instead of being defrocked or turned over to civilian authorities around the world.

Most of the crimes took place decades ago.

The pope called the meeting in September at the suggestion of his closest advisers, and last month he told reporters it was necessary because some bishops still did not know fully the procedures to put in place to protect the young and how to administer cases of abuse.

Francis said it would be a “catechesis,” or a teaching session, a pronouncement that stunned victims of abuse and their advocates.

DISGRACEFUL DELAY

Some experts have questioned why it has taken so long to get to this point.

“The fact that this still exists in 2019, that there is still awareness-raising that has to be done (among bishops) is a measure of what a low priority this has truly been for the Vatican,” said Anne Barrett-Doyle of the U.S.-based abuse tracking group bishopaccountability.org.

“I hope he has the candor to admit that it’s absolutely disgraceful that that’s where we are today,” said Barrett-Doyle, speaking in St. Peter’s Square.

On Saturday the Vatican sent what some saw as a warning that it would get tough with bishops who have either committed abuse or covered it up.

It expelled former U.S. Cardinal Theodore McCarrick from the Roman Catholic priesthood after he was found guilty of sexual crimes against minors and adults.

While many priests have been expelled for sexual abuse, few bishops have met the same fate, and McCarrick was the first former cardinal to be thrown out.

Archbishop Charles Scicluna, the Vatican’s top sexual crimes investigator, told Reuters that McCarrick’s dismissal was a “very important signal” to the Catholic hierarchy that no one is above the law.

While victims of sexual abuse and their advocates welcomed the expulsion, many were skeptical.

“I worry that this (McCarrick’s expulsion) is not going to be anything more than the equivalent of the pope tossing a bone to placate his critics, placate the survivors,” said Phil Saviano, who was molested by a priest in Massachusetts when he was 12 years old and whose story was told in the 2015 Oscar-winning film Spotlight.

(Reporting By Philip Pullella; editing by Mike Collett-White and David Evans)

‘We are witches’: Clerical abuse scandal divides parishes and politics in Poland

A cross is seen near trees with mistletoe near the church in Kalinowka, Poland November 25, 2018. Picture taken November 25, 2018. REUTERS/Kacper Pempel

By Marcin Goclowski and Andrew R.C. Marshall

KALINOWKA, Poland (Reuters) – The former Catholic priest of the village of Kalinowka in Poland is serving three years in jail for molesting five schoolgirls. But Marta Zezula, a mother whose testimony helped convict him, says the priest’s victims are the ones made to feel guilty.

“We are witches … because we have pointed at the priest,” Zezula fumed as she shoveled straw into a chaff cutter in her barn in the tiny settlement in eastern Poland.

Many parishioners believe she and other mothers of those molested “simply convicted an innocent man”, she said.

Home to about 170 people, Kalinowka is a short drive from the main road, but feels more remote. The Holy Cross church, built in 1880, sits on a hill overlooking rolling farmland and forests full of deer.

Krystyna Kluzniak, hurrying into the well-kept church on a chilly November evening, said people should give the jailed priest a break. “The priest was cool and we miss him,” she said.

The priest, who cannot be named under Polish law, is now on trial again, charged with molesting another child. His lawyer, Marek Tokarczyk, said he denies the allegations. “We need a fair trial,” Tokarczyk said.

Similar scandals have shaken the Catholic Church and split communities in the United States, Ireland, Australia and elsewhere.

But Poland is one of Europe’s most devout nations, where most people identify as Catholics and the Church is widely revered. Priests were active in the fight against communism and in 1989, led by a Polish pope, John Paul II, the Church helped overthrow Communist rule.

Divisions over allegations of abuse are particularly stark here, said Marek Lisinski, the director of “Have no fear”, a group that advocates for victims of clerical abuse. Parishioners often side with priests and ostracize victims and their families, Lisinski told Reuters.

LANDMARK RULING

In October, “Have no fear” published a map that revealed the scale of the issue. It used black crosses to mark places where 60 priests had been convicted of abuses dating back to 1956.

Afterwards, Lisinski said, people called in to report another 300 cases of suspected abuse by priests which they had not raised with the Church or police for fear they would be doubted or shunned.

The same month, a Polish court of appeal upheld a landmark ruling which granted a million zloty ($260,000) in compensation to a woman abused by a priest as a child.

Jaroslaw Gluchowski, a lawyer in Poznan who represents victims of clerical abuse, said the ruling set an important precedent.

“We’re now at a moment when all victims in Poland are realizing that they’re not alone,” he said.

In a November statement, Poland’s bishops asked victims of clerical abuse for forgiveness and said the Church had begun collecting data to “identify the causes of these deeds and assess their scale”.

Archbishop Wojciech Polak, the primate of Poland, told Reuters the Church will publish its findings within six months.

Polak encouraged victims of clerical abuse to talk to their bishops, who are “obliged to report to the prosecutors’ service all credible cases they get knowledge of”.

He said he was aware the issue had caused rifts in some communities. “It is the Church’s responsibility to act in a way that doesn’t create divisions but heals them,” he said.

Senior bishops from around the world will meet Pope Francis at a conference in the Vatican in February to discuss protection of minors. Conference organizers have said everyone must be held accountable or the Church risked losing credibility worldwide.

The issue could also have political ramifications in Poland, Lisinski and other observers say. The country is due to elect a new parliament by December 2019.

The Catholic Church has long played a major political role in Poland, making its 25,000 priests not only revered but also influential with voters.

In December, a report appeared in Gazeta Wyborcza, a leading Polish daily, containing molestation allegations from a woman, Barbara Borowiecka, against the late priest Henryk Jankowski, an iconic figure in the anti-communist Solidarity movement.

The mayor of Gdansk, the birthplace of Solidarity, asked the Church to investigate the allegations. Archbishop Polak told Reuters the Jankowski allegations “should be investigated for the good of the Church” and said it was up to bishop of Gdansk to address them.

“POLAND’S COLLAPSE”

The ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party won power in 2015 with a blend of patriotism and piety that echoed the religious nationalism of the Church. In October, a former PiS minister, Antoni Macierewicz, credited the Polish clergy with helping the party win local elections that month.

Joanna Scheuring-Wielgus, an MP for a small opposition party called Now, is seeking an independent inquiry into child abuse by priests because she says the Church cannot be relied upon to investigate itself. She says the idea has received no support from PiS or other big parties.

A PiS spokesperson did not respond to several requests asking whether it supported the idea of an inquiry. Ryszard Czarnecki, a PiS MP for the European Parliament, responded to Reuters by asking why the Church should be singled out.

“I don’t know why we are focusing on one group, as this also concerns different groups – for example, artistic or journalistic ones,” he said.

About 12 million people, or almost a third of Poland’s population, regularly attend Mass, according to a survey by the Institute for Catholic Church Statistics, a Warsaw-based research center. The numbers slightly declined from 2015 to 2016, the survey showed.

Most children attend religious classes, but their numbers are dropping, too. In Lodz, Poland’s third-largest city, they fell from 80 percent in 2015 to fewer than 50 percent now, according to local government data quoted by the daily Dziennik Lodzki.

In November, the Church said such trends could have dire consequences. “Abandoning the Catholic faith and the Christian principles governing our national life and state’s functioning” could lead to Poland’s collapse, it warned in a pastoral letter.

In Kalinowka, Reuters spoke to seven parishioners. Most of them were sticking by the convicted priest. “I have a cousin whose son went to one of his classes and they didn’t see it,” Wieslaw Solowiej, a pensioner, said outside the Kalinowka church.

Jolanta Zych, whose nine-year-old daughter was among those molested, said neighbors spurned the family. “I always greet people but some turn their faces from me,” said Zych.

The other mother Reuters spoke to, Zezula, said her daughter began refusing food after the court case. “She didn’t want to eat because one woman told her the priest was in jail because of her.”

During Mass, Zezula said, people shrank away or refused to shake hands during a ritual greeting known as the sign of peace. She no longer goes to church.

Piotr Lenart, the current priest, referred questions to the Zamosc-Lubaczow Diocese in which the Kalinowka parish lies.

Michal Maciolek, a priest and spokesman for the diocese, said it had offered the victims and their families pastoral and psychological help, but this had been rejected. No financial compensation was offered, because “the diocese can’t take responsibility for the priest’s actions”.

(Additional reporting by Karol Witenburg; editing by Philippa Fletcher)

Illinois Church abuse survivors demand perpetrators’ names

Cindy Yesko is presented as a survivor of clergy sex abuse by a legal team of attorneys Jeff Anderson and Marc Pearlman, during a news conference in Chicago, Illinois, U.S., January 3, 2019. REUTERS/Kamil Krzaczynski

By Suzannah Gonzales

CHICAGO (Reuters) – Survivors and lawyers demanded on Thursday the Catholic Church make public the names of 500 priests or clergy members in Illinois accused of child sexual abuse, in the latest outcry of a global crisis.

They spoke out two weeks after Illinois state Attorney General Lisa Madigan issued a blistering report stating alleged abusers had not been publicly identified by the Church and many had not been properly investigated.

“We’re here to fight for the 500 that have been identified as the number of clergy offenders who the Catholic bishops … in Illinois know about who have not disclosed,” attorney Jeff Anderson said at a news conference standing alongside survivors.

Anderson said he and his colleagues will issue a report by next month that identifies every clergy offender accused of child sexual abuse who was brought to their attention.

Children cannot be protected unless the names are provided to police and the general public, Anderson said.

Knowing the names of the accused priests would also help victims who have not come forward, survivor Ken Kaczmarz said.

“If the priest that molested them is on a published list, those people that are currently suffering in silence will, I guarantee you, have the courage to seek help,” he said.

The Illinois dioceses of Rockford, Joliet and Belleville on Thursday stood by lists published on their websites of priests with substantiated allegations of sexual abuse of a minor and of clergy removed from ministry.

Representatives of the other three dioceses in Illinois did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Madigan, who opened her investigation in August and leaves office later this month, said the 500 priests and clergy members her office had identified were in addition to 185 publicly named by the six dioceses.

Facing accusations of sexual abuse and coverups by priests around the world, Pope Francis on Thursday accused U.S. bishops of failing to show unity in the face of the crisis.

Survivors gathered in downtown Chicago on Thursday as U.S. bishops met near the city for seven days of prayer and spiritual reflection ahead of a gathering at the Vatican in February to confront the global abuse crisis.

“There has to be more than 500. That’s just the start. We need a comprehensive list in order for the Church to feel safe again,” Cynthia Yesko, a survivor and plaintiff of a lawsuit seeking the disclosure of the names of clergy offenders in Illinois, said.

(Reporting by Suzannah Gonzales in Chicago; Editing by Caroline Stauffer and Matthew Lewis)