U.S. bishop accused of sex abuse cover-up steps down

VATICAN CITY (Reuters) – A New York state bishop who had been at the center of a sex abuse crisis stepped down on Wednesday after learning the conclusions of a Vatican investigation, becoming the latest high-ranking prelate toppled by the decades-old scandal.

Pope Francis accepted the resignation of Bishop Richard Malone of Buffalo, New York, and named Albany Bishop Edward Scharfenberger, to administer the Buffalo diocese until a new bishop can be appointed.

Malone, 73, who has been under pressure to resign for years, stepped down two years before bishops’ normal retirement date.

A long line of priests and bishops have been toppled by the Roman Catholic Church’s abuse crisis, which exploded onto the international stage in 2002 when the Boston Globe newspaper revealed priests had sexually abused children for decades and church leaders had covered it up.

Patterns of widespread abuse of children have since been reported across the United States and Europe, in Chile and Australia, undercutting the 1.2 billion-member Church’s moral authority and taking a toll on its membership and coffers.

Malone, who met with the pope last month, has been accused of covering up or mishandling the abuse of dozens of minors by priests in his diocese in western New York.

Last year, a whistleblower in his office released documents to WKBW, a New York news channel, indicating that Malone withheld scores of priests’ names from a list his office published of clergy accused of sexual abuse.

He has denied the accusations.

His diocese is facing more than 200 child sex abuse lawsuits, according to the New York Times. A new state law this year temporarily waived statutes of limitations for people who were victims of sexual abuse as children, allowing hundreds of people to sue over decades-old crimes.

Malone acknowledged “tremendous turmoil” in his diocese in a statement on Wednesday.

He said he had made mistakes in not addressing what he described as personnel issues more swiftly. He said the conclusions of the Vatican investigation, which have not been published, were a factor in his decision but that he was resigning “freely and voluntarily.”

In September, a poll by the local newspaper, The Buffalo News, showed that about 85% of Roman Catholics or lapsed Roman Catholics in the area said he should resign.

Scharfenberger said he supported Malone’s resignation.

“I think he made a prudent decision to withdraw as he did at the time that he did,” he said in a news conference.

(Reporting By Philip Pullella; Additional reporting by Jonathan Allen in New York; Editing by Scott Malone)

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)

Morocco’s hidden Christians see Pope trip as chance to push for freedom

FILE PHOTO: Pope Francis is seen during the weekly audience in Saint Peter's Square, at the Vatican February 27, 2019. REUTERS/Yara Nardi/File Photo

By Ahmed Eljechtimi

RABAT (Reuters) – Moroccan converts to Christianity, a tiny minority in an overwhelmingly Muslim country, are looking to Pope Francis’ visit next week as an chance to press their demands for religious freedom.

Francis will spend two days in Rabat on his first trip to the North African country from March 30-31 – the first visit there by any pope in nearly 35 years.

He will spend time with Roman Catholics – most of them expatriate Europeans, mainly French, and sub-Saharan African migrants – who are free to worship in churches such as the capital’s art deco St. Peter’s Cathedral.

But unlike those “foreign Christians”, Moroccan converts say they are forced to worship at home, in secret. Conversion from Islam to Christianity is banned – as it is in many Muslim countries – and proselytizing is punishable by up to three years in prison.

One group backing them – the Moroccan Association for Religious Rights and Freedoms – has already written to the Vatican, raising its concerns, and it is planning a sit-in outside a church in Rabat on the eve of the visit.

“We want laws that protect religious minorities in the country on an equal footing,” the head of the association, Jawad El Hamidy, said.

“We will seize the pope’s visit to put more pressure on the state to protect religious freedoms.”

“NO DISCRIMINATION”

Morocco has marketed itself as an oasis of religious tolerance in a region torn by militancy – and has offered training to Muslim preachers from Africa and Europe on what it describes as moderate Islam.

Government spokesman Mustapha El Khalfi said the authorities did not violate religious freedoms. “There is no persecution in Morocco and there is no discrimination on the basis of faith,” he told reporters when asked about the accusations.

But converts point to the constitution, which formally recognizes the existence of Moroccan Muslims and Jews – but not of Moroccan Christians. They also point to their day-to-day experience.

“When I went to a church to declare my faith, I was told that I was prohibited to do so by Moroccan law,” said a 40-year-old Moroccan Christian who gave his name as Emmanuel and asked not be shown while filmed.

“We call on Moroccan authorities and the Holy Father to seize the opportunity offered by this papal visit to launch a sincere dialogue on religious freedom for Moroccan citizens,” the Coordination of Moroccan Christians, a local lobby group, said.

There are no official statistics, but leaders say there are about 50,000 Moroccan Christians, most of them from the Protestant Evangelical tradition – outnumbering the estimated 30,000 Roman Catholics in the country.

There was no immediate response from the Vatican to the Association’s letter. But the most senior Roman Catholic in Morocco – the Archbishop of Rabat, Cristobal Lopez Romero – offered his support.

“We as Catholic Christians appreciate that we fully enjoy the freedom of faith but we will be happier if the Moroccan people could also enjoy that,” the Spanish cleric told reporters.

“I would love to be able to become Moroccan without having to change my religion.”

(Editing by Ulf Laessing, Philip Pullella and Andrew Heavens)

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)

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)

Pope says he is committed to stopping sexual abuse of nuns

Pope Francis gestures during a farewell ceremony before leaving Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates February 5, 2019. Vatican Media/­Handout via REUTERS

By Philip Pullella

ABOARD THE PAPAL PLANE (Reuters) – Pope Francis, whose papacy has been marked by efforts to quell a global crisis over sexual abuse of children by Catholic clergy, said on Tuesday he was committed to stopping the abuse of nuns by priests and bishops, some of whom had used the women as sex slaves.

Francis made his comments on the plane returning from Abu Dhabi in response to a reporter’s question about an article last week in a Vatican monthly magazine about the abuse of nuns in the Catholic Church.

Recently more nuns, encouraged by the #MeToo movement, have been coming forward to describe abuse at the hands of priests and bishops. Last year, the International Union of Superiors General, which represents more than 500,000 Catholic nuns, urged their members to report abuse.

“It is true … there have been priests and even bishops who have done this. I think it is still going on because something does not stop just because you have become aware of it,” Francis said.

“We have been working on this for a long time. We have suspended some priests because of this,” he said, adding that the Vatican was in the process of shutting down a female religious order because of sexual abuse and corruption. He did not name it.

“I can’t say ‘this does not happen in my house.’ It is true. Do we have to do more? Yes. Are we willing? Yes,” he said.

Francis said former Pope Benedict dissolved a religious order of women shortly after his election as pontiff in 2005 “because slavery had become part of it (the religious order), even sexual slavery on the part of priests and the founder”.

He did not name the group but Vatican spokesman Alessandro Gisotti said it was a French order.

Before he became pope, Benedict was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the head of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican department that investigates sexual abuse. The pope at the time was John Paul.

Then-cardinal Ratzinger wanted to investigate the religious order where women were being abused but he was blocked, Francis said, without saying who prevented the probe.

After he became pope, Ratzinger reopened the investigation and dissolved the order, Francis said.

Pope Francis has summoned key bishops from around the world to a summit later this month at the Vatican to find a unified response on how to protect children from sexual abuse by clergy.

Asked if there would be some kind of similar action to confront abuse of nuns in the Church, he said: “I want to move forward. We are working on it.”

(Reporting by Philip Pullella; Editing by Frances Kerry)

Los Angeles bishop resigns over sex abuse as crisis spreads

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

By Philip Pullella

VATICAN CITY (Reuters) – Pope Francis accepted the resignation of a bishop in Los Angeles accused of sexually abusing a minor, the Vatican said on Wednesday, in the latest case of clergy misconduct to shake the U.S. Catholic Church.

A brief Vatican statement said Alexander Salazar, 69, an assistant bishop in Los Angeles, was stepping down. It also distributed a letter on the Salazar case written by the current Archbishop of Los Angeles, Jose Gomez.

The U.S. Catholic Church is still reeling from a U.S. grand jury report that found that 301 priests in the state of Pennsylvania had sexually abused minors over a 70-year period.

There will be a major meeting at the Vatican in February on the global sex abuse crisis.

Gomez’s letter to the faithful said that in 2005, a year after Salazar became bishop, the archdiocese had become aware of an accusation that Salazar had engaged in “misconduct with a minor” when he was a priest in a parish in the 1990s.

Police investigated but the Los Angeles district attorney did not prosecute, Gomez’s letter said, adding that Salazar, a native of Costa Rica, “has consistently denied any wrongdoing”.

The archdiocese’s independent Clergy Misconduct Review Board found the allegation “credible” and informed the Vatican.

The archbishop’s letter did not explain why the process between the initial accusation and Wednesday’s resignation took 13 years.

A statement from the Archdiocese of Los Angeles said Salazar’s name resurfaced after Gomez became archbishop in 2011, and ordered a review of past allegations of abuse.

The archdiocese’s statement disclosed that Gomez’s predecessor, Cardinal Roger Mahoney, sent the case to the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), which investigates abuse cases.

The CDF “permitted Bishop Salazar to remain in ministry subject to certain precautionary conditions, which he has respected”. The statement did not elaborate on what the conditions were or why he was allowed to return to ministry.

Benedict XVI was pope between 2005 and his resignation in 2013.

Pope Francis has summoned the heads of some 110 national Catholic bishops’ conferences and dozens of experts and leaders of religious orders to the Vatican on Feb. 21-24 for an extraordinary gathering dedicated to the sexual abuse crisis.

Victims of clergy sexual abuse are hoping that the meeting will finally come up with a clear policy to make bishops themselves accountable for the mishandling of abuse cases.

(Reporting by Philip Pullella; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

Catholic bishops told to act on sex abuse or lose all credibility

FILE PHOTO: Pope Francis celebrates a special mass for the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Saint Peter's Basilica at the Vatican, December 12, 2018. REUTERS/Max Rossi - RC11EC66C6A0/File Photo

By Philip Pullella

VATICAN CITY (Reuters) – The Roman Catholic Church’s leading experts on sexual abuse told bishops on Tuesday finally to take responsibility for a global clerical abuse scandal and go and speak personally to victims, or risk seeing the Church lose its credibility worldwide.

Pope Francis has summoned the heads of some 110 national Catholic bishops’ conferences and dozens of experts and leaders of religious orders to the Vatican on Feb. 21-24 for an extraordinary gathering dedicated to the sexual abuse crisis.

Victims of clergy sexual abuse are hoping that the meeting will finally come up with a clear policy to make bishops themselves accountable for the mishandling of abuse cases.

“Absent a comprehensive and communal response, not only will we fail to bring healing to victim-survivors, but the very credibility of the Church to carry on the mission of Christ will be in jeopardy throughout the world,” the conference’s steering committee said in a letter to all participants.

“But each of us needs to own this challenge, coming together in solidarity, humility, and penitence to repair the damage done, sharing a common commitment to transparency, and holding everyone in the Church accountable,” said the letter, which was released by the Vatican.

The committee is made up of Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago, Cardinal Oswald Gracias of Mumbai, Archbishop Charles Scicluna of Malta, the Vatican’s leading sex abuse investigator, and Father Hans Zollner, an abuse expert based in Rome.

“The first step must be acknowledging the truth of what has happened,” they said.

Each bishop was asked to visit survivors of clergy sex abuse in their area to learn first-hand the suffering that they have endured.

“PUTTING VICTIMS FIRST”

“This is a concrete way of putting victims first, and acknowledging the horror of what happened,” said Vatican spokesman Greg Burke, adding that the February gathering would focus on responsibility, accountability and transparency.

Last month, when U.S. bishops held their annual assembly in Baltimore, the Vatican asked them to wait until the February meeting before voting on a series of corrective measures.

The proposals included a telephone hotline to report accusations of mishandling of cases of abuse by bishops, a review board made up of non-clerics to handle accusations against bishops, and a bishops’ code of conduct.

Victims’ groups and some bishops saw the Vatican intervention as a setback. But the Vatican said it wanted to see if some of the U.S. proposals could be applied worldwide, not just in the United States.

The Church is also facing sexual abuse scandals in Chile, Australia and Germany.

In September, a study commissioned by the German Bishops’ Conference showed that 1,670 clerics and priests had sexually abused 3,677 minors, mostly males, in Germany over a 70-year period.

A U.S. Grand Jury report in August found that 301 priests in the state of Pennsylvania had sexually abused minors over a similar period.

(Reporting By Philip Pullella; Editing by Gareth Jones)

Vatican ‘suffragettes’ want vote, change, in a man’s Church

FILE PHOTO: A nun enters to take part at the synod afternoon session led by Pope Francis at the Vatican October 16, 2018. Picture taken October 16, 2018. REUTERS/Max Rossi

By Philip Pullella

VATICAN CITY (Reuters) – Catholic women say there’s a clerical stained glass ceiling in the Vatican, and they want to shatter it.

They want to vote in major policy meetings. They want Pope Francis to deliver on his promise to put more women in senior positions in the Holy See’s administration. And some of them say they want to be priests.

“Knock knock! Who’s there? More than half the Church!” several dozen Catholic women chanted outside the Vatican on Oct. 3, the first day of this year’s synod of bishops from around the world.

The role of women in the Church has been a recurring theme at the month-long meeting, which brings together some 300 bishops, priests, nuns and lay participants. Only about 35 are women.

The subject has come up in speeches on the floor, in small group discussions and at news conferences by participants in the gathering, officially titled “Young People, Faith and Discernment of Vocation”.

Only “synod fathers”, including bishops and specially appointed or elected male representatives, are allowed to vote on the final recommendations to be sent to the pope, who will take them into consideration when he writes his own document. Other participants are non-voting observers, auditors or experts.

Some of the attendees have pointed to what they say is a contradiction in the rules of the synod, which takes place every few years on a different theme.

This year, two “brothers”, lay men who are not ordained, are being allowed to vote in their capacity as superiors general of their religious orders.

But Sister Sally Marie Hodgdon, an American nun who also is not ordained, cannot vote even though she is the superior general of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Chambery.

“I am a superior general. I am a sister. So in theory, logically you would think I would have the right to vote,” Hodgdon, who is also vice president of the International Union of Superiors General (UISG), an umbrella group of Catholic nuns, told reporters.

The membership of female religious orders is about three times larger than that of male orders.

FILE PHOTO: Sister Sally Hodgdon (2nd L) stands during a synod afternoon session led by Pope Francis at the Vatican October 16, 2018. Picture taken October 16, 2018. REUTERS/Max Rossi

FILE PHOTO: Sister Sally Hodgdon (2nd L) stands during a synod afternoon session led by Pope Francis at the Vatican October 16, 2018. Picture taken October 16, 2018. REUTERS/Max Rossi

GENDER IN THE CHURCH

A petition demanding that women have the right to vote at synods has collected 9,000 signatures since it opened online at the start of this meeting. It is sponsored by 10 Catholic lay groups seeking change in the Church, including greater rights for women and gays and a bigger role for the laity.

“If male religious superiors who are not ordained can vote, then women religious superiors who are also not ordained should vote. With no ontological/doctrinal barrier, the only barrier is the biological sex of the religious superior,” it reads.

The cause has won some influential clerical male backers.

At a news conference on Oct. 15, superiors general of three major male religious orders – the Jesuits, the Dominicans and one branch of the Franciscans – expressed support for changes in synod rules in order to allow women to vote in the future.

Backing also came from Cardinal Reinhard Marx, archbishop of Munich, president of the German Bishops Conference and one of the most influential Catholic leaders in Europe.

“We must face up to the often uncomfortable and impatient questions of young people about equal rights for women also in the Church,” Marx said in his speech to the synod.

“The impression that the Church, when it comes to power, is ultimately a male Church must be overcome in the universal Church and also here in the Vatican. It is high time.”

The Holy See, as the offices of the central administration of the 1.3 billion-member Church are known, and the State of Vatican City have a combined work force of about 4,100 people. About 700 are women.

Of the approximately 60 departments in the Holy See, about 10 must be headed by priests because they deal with governance and jurisdiction over other ordained ministers or other sensitive doctrinal matters, the Church says.

Francis has promised to put more women in senior roles in those other 50 departments. But more than five years after he was elected, there are only six women in such roles. Five are lay women and one is a nun. None of them heads a department.

Francis told Reuters in June he had to “fight” internal resistance to appoint 42-year-old Spanish journalist Paloma Garcia-Ovejero as deputy head of the Vatican’s press office.

He declined to name those who had resisted, but said he had to use “persuasion,” an apparent reference to the powerful conservative wing of what has been an institution run exclusively by males for 2,000 years.

The Vatican Museums, which are part of the State of Vatican City, are headed by Barbara Jatta, the first woman to hold the high-profile post which oversees nearly 1,000 employees.

The pope’s critics, including former Irish President Mary McAleese, say he is moving too slowly.

“How long can the hierarchy sustain the credibility of a God who wants things this way, who wants a Church where women are invisible and voiceless in Church leadership?” she said at a conference in Rome in March.

TIME FOR CHANGE

Sister Maria Luisa Berzosa Gonzalez, one of the participants at the current synod, thinks it is time for change – in the synod, and in the wider Church.

The Spanish nun, whose energy belies her 75 years, has dedicated her life to educating the poor and underprivileged in Spain, Argentina and Italy and is still going strong.

“With this structure in the synod, with few women, few young people, nothing will change. It should no longer be this way. Its participation should be broadened,” she told Reuters.

Berzosa, who took her vows in 1964, said she supports a female priesthood, a position not very common among nuns her age.

The Church teaches that women cannot become priests because Jesus chose only men as his apostles.

Proponents of a female priesthood, like 32-year-old Kate McElwee, who organised the protest on the synod’s opening day, say Jesus was merely acting according to the norms of his times.

“Some women feel called by God to be priests. They discern a vocation to the priesthood just as men do,” said McElwee, the Rome-based executive director of the Women’s Ordination Conference, a U.S. lobbying group.

McElwee has found kindred spirits in nuns like Berzosa.

The nun said she knows women won’t be priests in her lifetime because change comes slowly and piecemeal in the Church.

Still, between one easy laugh and another, her frustration slipped through.

“I lead spiritual exercises, I develop a deep rapport with people, I teach them how to pray, and then someone else comes along to say the Mass,” Berzosa said. “It’s not fair.”

(Reporting by Philip Pullella; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall)