Vatican says China intimidating Catholics loyal to pope

FILE PHOTO: A believer prays outside St. Joseph's Church, a government-sanctioned Catholic church, in Beijing, China, October 1, 2018. REUTERS/Thomas Peter/File Photo

By Philip Pullella

VATICAN CITY (Reuters) – The Vatican asked China’s communist government on Friday to stop intimidating Catholic clergy who want to remain unequivocally loyal to the pope and refuse to sign ambiguous official registration forms.

The request, contained in Vatican guidelines to clergy in mainland China, was the latest hiccup in relations between the Holy See and Beijing since the two sides signed a historic and disputed pact on the naming of bishops last September.

Under Chinese law, priests and bishops must register with the state. They also must sign a form accepting the principle of independence, autonomy and self-administration of the Church in China.

Some have refused, fearing that it could jeopardize their fidelity to the pope as their religious leader and the independence of the local Church on doctrinal matters.

Catholics in China are emerging from more than half a century of division which saw them split between a state-backed “official” Church and a “non-official” underground Church that remained loyal to Rome.

Some divisions have begun to dissipate slowly since the September agreement, which gives the pope final say in the appointment of bishops. But the registration process has caused difficulties for those emerging from the non-official Church.

In the guidelines, the Vatican called for a registration procedure “that is more respectful of Catholic doctrine, and thus of the consciences of those involved”.

It added: “The Holy See asks that no intimidatory pressures be applied to the ‘non official’ Catholic communities, as, unfortunately, has already happened.”

The guidelines, requested by some Chinese bishops, said clergy should demand to include a sentence affirming that Catholic doctrine would be respected.

If authorities do not permit that, the priest or bishop, before signing, should take a stand orally before a government authority, preferably with a witness present.

September’s landmark deal between the Vatican and China has split Catholics there and around the world, with some critics of the pope saying he has caved in to the Communist government.

The deal’s most outspoken critic has been Cardinal Joseph Zen, the former archbishop of Hong Kong.

China’s constitution guarantees religious freedom, but since President Xi Jinping took office six years ago, the government has tightened restrictions on religions seen as a challenge to the authority of the ruling Communist Party.

China has been following a policy it calls the “Sinicisation” of religion, trying to root out foreign influences and enforce obedience to the Communist Party.

(Reporting by Philip Pullella; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

Sexual revolution of 1960s led to Church abuse crisis, ex-pope says

FILE PHOTO: Pope Benedict XVI finishes his last general audience in St Peter's Square at the Vatican February 27, 2013. REUTERS/Alessandro Bianchi/File Photo

By Philip Pullella

VATICAN CITY (Reuters) – Former Pope Benedict has blamed the Catholic Church’s sexual abuse scandal on the effects of the sexual revolution of the 1960s, homosexual cliques in seminaries and what he called a general collapse in morality.

Critics accused Benedict, who before becoming pope in 2005 was for 23 years in charge of the Vatican doctrinal office that has been widely criticized for its handling of abuse cases, of trying to shift blame away from the Church.

But in a rare essay, he also said the Church’s legal system had at times been overly protective of accused clerics, citing what he called judicial guarantees that were “extended to such an extent that convictions were hardly possible”.

The 91-year-old, who in 2013 became the first pope in six centuries to resign, argued that the sexual revolution had led some to believe pedophilia and pornography were acceptable. He also said an openly gay culture in some Catholic seminaries meant they had failed to train priests properly.

“It could be said that in the 20 years from 1960 to 1980, the previously normative standards regarding sexuality collapsed entirely, and a new normalcy arose that has by now been the subject of laborious attempts at disruption,” Benedict wrote.

Benedict was head of the doctrinal office when the first wave of abuse cases were exposed in Boston in 2002. Later, as pope, he took action against some pedophiles that had been blocked during the reign of his predecessor, John Paul.

Abuse scandals in Ireland, Chile, Australia, France, the United States, Poland, Germany and elsewhere have forced the Church to pay out billions of dollars in damages to victims and close parishes. Many cases date back decades before the 1960s.

Revelations that predatory priests were often moved from parish to parish rather than expelled or criminally prosecuted as bishops covered up the abuse have shaken the church globally and undermined its authority.

“STUNNING”

Benedict offered his evaluations in a long essay in Klerusblatt, a monthly Church magazine in Bavaria, his native region of Germany. A Vatican official confirmed it was authentic.

The impetus for the essay, titled “The Church and the Scandal of Sexual Abuse”, was a summit of senior bishops that Francis, his successor as pope, held in February to discuss the crisis, he said.

“Among the freedoms that the Revolution of 1968 sought to fight for was this all-out sexual freedom, one which no longer conceded any norms,” Benedict wrote, according to an English translation published by several Catholic websites.

He said the spread of explicit sex education for young schoolchildren and nudity in advertising had contributed to a loosening of moral bearings and an “absence of God”.

Some theologians took to Twitter to criticize Benedict.

“This is an embarrassing letter,” said Brian Flanagan, professor of theology at Marymount University in Virginia.

“The idea that ecclesial abuse of children was a result of the 1960s, a supposed collapse of moral theology, and “conciliarity” (the Church after the 1962-65 Second Vatican Council) is an embarrassingly wrong explanation for the systemic abuse of children and its cover up.”

Julie Rubio, a professor at Santa Clara University’s school of theology, called Benedict’s reasoning “deeply flawed”, adding: “The willingness to blame a permissive culture and progressive theology for a problem that is internal and structural is stunning.”

Benedict wrote that after the Second Vatican Council there was a “far reaching breakdown” of the traditional methods of priestly formation that coincided with a dissolution of the Christian concept of morality.

“In various seminaries homosexual cliques were established, which acted more or less openly and significantly changed the climate in the seminaries,” he writes, adding that the situation has now improved.

Late last year, Australian Cardinal George Pell became the most senior Catholic to be convicted for child sex offenses. His role as a former top adviser to Pope Francis brought the scandal to the heart of the papal administration.

(Reporting By Philip Pullella; Editing by Catherine Evans)

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)

Pope blames devil for Church divisions, scandals, seeks angel’s help

FILE PHOTO: Pope Francis talks as he meets youth and the Synod Fathers at the Pope Paul VI hall in Vatican, October 6, 2018. REUTERS/Alessandro Bianchi

By Philip Pullella

VATICAN CITY (Reuters) – The devil is alive and well and working overtime to undermine the Roman Catholic Church, Pope Francis says.

In fact, the pope is so convinced that Satan is to blame for the sexual abuse crisis and deep divisions racking the Church that he has asked Catholics around the world to recite a special prayer every day in October to try to beat him back.

“(The Church must be) saved from the attacks of the malign one, the great accuser and at the same time be made ever more aware of its guilt, its mistakes, and abuses committed in the present and the past,” Francis said in a message on Sept. 29.

Since he was elected in 2013, Francis has made clear that he believes the devil to be real. In a document in April on holiness in the modern world, Francis mentioned the devil more than a dozen times.

“We should not think of the devil as a myth, a representation, a symbol, a figure of speech or an idea. This mistake would lead us to let down our guard, to grow careless and end up more vulnerable,” he wrote in the document.

The Church has recently been hit by one sexual abuse scandal after another, from Germany, to the United States, to Chile. At the same time, a deepening polarization between conservatives and liberals in the Church has played out on social media.

Francis’ use of the term “the great accuser” to describe Satan hit a raw nerve with one of the pope’s harshest conservative critics, Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, the Vatican’s former ambassador to Washington.

 

CHURCH DIVISIONS

In an 11-page statement published on Aug. 26, Viganò launched an unprecedented broadside by a Church insider against the pope and a long list of Vatican and U.S. Church officials.

He accused Francis of knowing about sexual misconduct by a former U.S. cardinal with male adult seminarians but not doing anything about it.

Viganò, concluding that his former boss had singled him out as the devil in disguise, complained in his next statement that Francis “compared me to the great accuser, Satan, who sows scandal and division in the Church, though without ever uttering my name”.

On Sunday, a top Vatican official issued a scathing open letter accusing Viganò of mounting a “political frame job devoid of real foundation” and contesting his accusations against the pope point by point.

Francis is so convinced that Satan is ultimately to blame for both the sexual abuse scandals and the divisions within the Church that he has enlisted the aid of spiritual big gun – St. Michael the Archangel. Michael is mentioned several times in the Bible as the leader of the angels who ousted Lucifer, the fallen angel, from paradise.

Catholics are being asked to recite the rosary daily in October and conclude it with a prayer to St. Michael that was said after Mass until 1964 but then fell into disuse.

The prayer reads:

“St. Michael the Archangel, defend us in battle. Be our defense against the wickedness and snares of the devil. May God rebuke him, we humbly pray, and do thou, O Prince of heavenly hosts, by the power of God, thrust into hell Satan, and all evil spirits, who prowl about the world seeking the ruin of souls.”

(Reporting By Philip Pullella; Editing by Gareth Jones)

Pope to visit a changed Ireland during ‘perfect storm’ of abuse crises

A boy gestures as he rides on a truck with wax work figures of Pope Francis and former Pope John Paul II in Dublin, Ireland August 23, 2018. REUTERS/Hannah McKay

By Philip Pullella and Padraic Halpin

VATICAN CITY (Reuters) – When Pope John Paul II made the first visit by a pontiff to Ireland in 1979, contraception and divorce were still illegal and the Catholic Church’s influence on a deeply conservative society was near-total.

Pope Francis, who arrives in Dublin on Saturday for a two-day visit, will find an Ireland his predecessor would not have recognized as Catholic.

Ireland is now led by a gay prime minister. Three years ago, it became the world’s first country to adopt gay marriage by popular ballot. Last May, it ended one of the West’s strictest abortion regimes. Both referendums won by large majorities despite Church opposition.

And he will find a wounded Church whose once-absolute authority has been laid low by sexual abuse scandals.

Weekly Mass attendance was at about 80 percent 40 years ago. It’s about 35 percent now, and last year only half of marriages were held in religious ceremonies in churches.

The rock that was once Irish Catholicism began crumbling in the late 1990s, with media investigations about the notorious Church-run, and government-backed, Magdalene Laundries, where “fallen women” were forced to work in slave-like conditions.

A series of official government inquiries between 2005 and 2014 exposed sexual abuse of minors by priests in various areas of Ireland. Church homes for unmarried mothers have been investigated for their treatment of children.

“When the pope arrives in Ireland this weekend, he will find a Catholic Church not just falling to ruin, but in some respects beyond repair,” wrote Fintan O’Toole, a columnist for the Irish Times.

“He will be greeted with joy by the faithful, but few, even among them, will expect him to be able to fix an institution that has been shaken to its very foundations,” he wrote.

A “PERFECT STORM” OF ABUSE CRISES

Francis could not be visiting Ireland at a worse time.

Recent sexual abuse crises in the United States, Chile, and Australia have reminded the Irish people of their scandals at home and fed escalating anger towards bishops who mishandled abuse cases.

One Vatican official called the combination “a perfect storm”.

Last week, a grand jury in the U.S. state of Pennsylvania released the findings of the largest-ever investigation of sex abuse in the U.S. Church, finding that 301 priests in the state had sexually abused minors over the past 70 years.

The damning U.S. report has given Irish abuse victims and their advocates from around the world – some have flown into Dublin for the visit – fresh resolve to demand that the pope do more to root out sexual abuse in the Church.

“There are those who feel they can no longer trust our message, perhaps because they have been directly hurt and betrayed in their families by their experience of Church, or because the revelations of such heinous crimes have shocked them to the core,” said Archbishop Eamon Martin, Ireland’s most senior Church official.

The main purpose of the pope’s trip is to close a week-long international Catholic gathering on the theme of the family that takes place every three years in a different city.

In one sign of just how much sexual abuse has cast a shadow on a meeting that was to have concentrated on family themes, Martin delivered the gathering’s keynote address in place of Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington D.C., who withdrew after he was criticized in the Pennsylvania report.

Abuse victims, their families, and supporters will gather in another part of Dublin while the pope says Mass on Sunday. Many of them have called on him to do more than just hold a private meeting with a select group of survivors.

A silent vigil will be held at the same time by locals in the western town of Tuam. Four years ago, an unmarked grave with the remains of hundreds of babies was found there, on the grounds of a former Church-run home for unwed mothers and their children, shocking the country once more.

One sign of the Church’s waning influence, if any were needed, can be seen in Dublin’s city center, where street vendors like Marion White are struggling to sell papal flags and T-shirts made especially for the visit.

“I worked here for the pope in 1979 and the country was electrified. It was an amazing event. Everyone was so cheery and happy,” said White, who has worked the stall near Dublin’s main thoroughfare of O’Connell Street since he was nine-years old.

“It’s all changed now, with all that has happened,” he said. “There’s a lot of controversy, and people are not afraid to say it to us.”

(Additional reporting by Padraic Halpin and Graham Fahy in Dublin, editing by Larry King)

Pope vows no more cover ups on sexual abuse in letter to Catholics

FILE PHOTO: Pope Francis delivers a speech after a meeting with Patriarchs of the churches of the Middle East at the St. Nicholas Basilica in Bari, southern Italy July 7, 2018. REUTERS/Tony Gentile/File Photo

By Philip Pullella

VATICAN CITY (Reuters) – Pope Francis, facing sexual abuse crises in several countries, wrote an unprecedented letter to all Catholics on Monday, asking each one of them to help root out “this culture of death” and vowing there would be no more cover-ups.

In a highly personal letter addressed to “the people of God,” Church language for all members, the pope appeared to be launching an appeal for all Catholics to face the crisis together and not let it tear the Church apart.

The Catholic Church in the United States, Chile, Australia, and Ireland – where the pope is making a two-day visit this weekend – are reeling from crises involving sexual abuse of minors. Numerous surveys have pointed to plummeting confidence in the Church in those countries and elsewhere.

In his letter, the pope referred to the suffering endured by minors due to sexual abuse at the hands of a “significant number of clerics and consecrated persons.”

The Vatican said it was the first time a pope had written to all of the world’s some 1.2 billion Catholics about sexual abuse. Past letters on sexual abuse scandals have been addressed to bishops and faithful of individual countries.

“We have realized that these wounds never disappear and that they require us forcefully to condemn these atrocities and join forces in uprooting this culture of death,” he said.

Quoting a Gospel passage that says “If one member suffers, all suffer together,” Francis added:

“(Those words) forcefully echo in my heart as I acknowledge once more the suffering endured by many minors due to sexual abuse, the abuse of power and the abuse of conscience perpetrated by a significant number of clerics and consecrated persons.”

“With shame and repentance, we acknowledge as an ecclesial community that we were not where we should have been, that we did not act in a timely manner, realizing the magnitude and the

gravity of the damage done to so many lives. We showed no care for the little ones; we abandoned them,” Francis wrote.

Advocates for victims of clergy sexual abuse expressed disappointment. “More actions, less words,” said Anne Barrett-Doyle, co-director of BishopAccountability.org, a U.S.-based resource center that tracks cases of clerical abuse worldwide.

“He needs an effective discipline process for bishops and religious superiors who are known to have enabled abuse,” she said.

Last week a grand jury in the U.S. state of Pennsylvania released the findings of the largest-ever investigation of sex abuse in the U.S. Catholic Church, finding that 301 priests in the state had sexually abused minors over the past 70 years.

CRYING OUT TO HEAVEN

He acknowledged that “the heart-wrenching pain of these victims, which cries out to heaven, was long ignored, kept

quiet or silenced”.

“Looking ahead to the future, no effort must be spared to create a culture able to prevent such situations from happening, but also to prevent the possibility of their being covered up and perpetuated,” he said.

He also acknowledged that the implementation of a zero tolerance had been “delayed” in some places.

Victims groups have said that while new policies have been put into place in several countries to alert civil authorities about cases of abuse, the pope still needed to do more to hold accountable bishops who covered it up, mostly by moving priests from parish to parish.

In his first direct response to the U.S. grand jury report, Francis said that while most cases it listed “belong to the past,” it was clear that the abuse cited “was long ignored, kept quiet or silenced”.

Last month, Theodore McCarrick, the former archbishop of Washington, D.C., and one of the U.S. Church’s most prominent figures, stepped down as a cardinal after accusations that he abused two minors about 50 years ago and later abused adult seminarians.

He was believed to be the first cardinal to lose his red hat in nearly a century and the first ever for alleged sexual abuse.

In May, all 34 of Chile’s bishops offered their resignation to the pope over a widening sexual abuse crisis there. He has so far accepted five of the resignations.

(Additional reporting by Padraic Halpin in Dublin, editing by Steve Scherer, Richard Balmforth)

‘There’s going to be a raid’: A Chilean prosecutor forces Catholic Church to give up secrets

Archbishop of Santiago, Ricardo Ezzati attends his religious service at the Santiago cathedral, in Santiago, Chile, July 25, 2018. REUTERS/Ivan Alvarado

By Aislinn Laing and Cassandra Garrison

SANTIAGO (Reuters) – Two special envoys sent by Pope Francis to investigate a child sex abuse scandal in Chile were meeting priests and Church workers at a university in the Chilean capital last month when aides rushed into the room with an alarming development: police and prosecutors were about to start raiding Church offices.

The envoys were 90 minutes into a seminar on how to investigate allegations of sex abuse committed by fellow clergy following revelations that hundreds of children might have been molested. For decades, the Roman Catholic Church in Chile quietly investigated such allegations without alerting police, but it now stands accused, even by Pope Francis himself, of a cover-up that allowed abusers to operate with impunity.

One of the clergymen listening to the envoys was Jaime Ortiz de Lazcano, the legal adviser to Santiago’s archbishop. The aides rushed to his side and told him, “‘Father, go to the (Church offices) because there’s going to be a raid’,” Ortiz later recounted.

Chilean prosecutor Emiliano Arias, who is leading an investigation against alleged sex abuse crimes by Roman Catholic priests, is seen at his work place in Rancagua, Chile, July 18, 2018. Picture taken July 18, 2018. REUTERS/Esteban Medel

Chilean prosecutor Emiliano Arias, who is leading an investigation against alleged sex abuse crimes by Roman Catholic priests, is seen at his work place in Rancagua, Chile, July 18, 2018. Picture taken July 18, 2018. REUTERS/Esteban Medel

Police and prosecutors were staging simultaneous raids on Church offices less than a mile away from the university and outside the capital, looking for evidence of sex crimes the Church had not reported to the police.

The surprise sweeps, ordered by Emiliano Arias, a provincial prosecutor, marked the start of what experts who track sex crimes in the Roman Catholic Church say is one of the most aggressive investigations ever undertaken by a judicial authority anywhere in the world.

Since that cold June afternoon, there have been five more raids on Church offices to seize documents, phones, tablets, and computers, leaving the Vatican scrambling to respond to a rapidly unfolding scandal that is the worst image crisis of Francis’ papacy, now in its sixth year.

Leading the charge against the Church is Arias, 45, who is experienced in fighting organized crime and has a showman’s fondness for taking television news crews on the raids.

Arias told Reuters in an exclusive interview that documents seized by his team contained 30 cases of alleged abuse dating back to 2007 that the Church had not reported to the police. While Reuters was allowed to film his investigators poring through seized documents, he declined to give details from the files because he said they named victims of abuse.

He also alleged that some local Church officials had tried to destroy documents but that his team – made up of two prosecutors, three lawyers and a unit of specialist sex crime police – had salvaged them. He declined to say who had tried to destroy them or how they had tried to get rid of them.

Citizens hold a banner reading "They will not steal our hope" as Archbishop of Santiago Ricardo Ezzati (not pictured) attends his religious service at the Santiago cathedral, in Santiago, Chile, July 25, 2018. REUTERS/Ivan Alvarado

Citizens hold a banner reading “They will not steal our hope” as Archbishop of Santiago Ricardo Ezzati (not pictured) attends his religious service at the Santiago cathedral, in Santiago, Chile, July 25, 2018. REUTERS/Ivan Alvarado

Reuters was unable to independently confirm those assertions.

Víctor Villa Castro, head of communications for the Santiago archbishopric, said he could not comment on any cases under investigation by Arias.

“We would, however, say that we have no knowledge of the destruction of documents, nor the covering-up of crimes,” he said. “The victims are the first, and most important, in this and we will cooperate with the civil authorities in any way that can help to get to the truth of these matters.”

Arias says he wants to arrest both those who perpetrated the abuse and those who he says helped to cover it up. He arrested Oscar Munoz, a top aide to Santiago’s archbishop, Cardinal Ricardo Ezzati, after seizing church documents in which Munoz confessed to sex crimes. Munoz’s lawyer has acknowledged that some of the accusations in the documents are true but says he will challenge some others.

Arias last week named Ezzati, the most senior Roman Catholic in Chile, as a suspect, accusing him of covering up his aide’s alleged abuses. Ezzati has denied any wrongdoing and promised to cooperate.

Arias said he launched the raids after Church officials in Rancagua, the capital of O’Higgins region, told him he would have to make a formal petition to the Vatican to obtain information he was seeking because it was protected by ‘pontifical secret.’

A spokesman for the Rancagua archbishop’s office said they were told to do this by the Vatican and insisted they were cooperating fully with civil authorities. Vatican spokesman Greg Burke declined to comment.

The Roman Catholic Church says the ‘pontifical secret’ provision in canon law is intended to protect the privacy of all involved in sex abuse claims. Critics say bishops have historically used it as a shield to block inquiries from civil authorities.

“We are not talking about a fraud, or a theft, we are talking about crimes against children,” Arias said in an interview in his office in Rancagua, explaining his decision not to submit the request to the Vatican and instead get a judge to approve the raids.

‘CULTURE OF ABUSE’

Allegations of sexual abuse of minors by clergy are not new, but under Chilean law governing the separation of church and state, the Catholic Church, a powerful and politically influential institution in this conservative Andean nation, has no legal obligation to report the allegations to police.

The sex abuse scandal came to a head after Pope Francis visited in January and was initially dismissive of claims by survivors of a cover-up by top Church officials there. A backlash among advocates for abuse survivors prompted him to dispatch an investigator, Archbishop Charles Scicluna of Malta, who produced a confidential 2,300-page report on the allegations.

After receiving the report Pope Francis wrote an open letter to Chile’s faithful in May in which he decried “the culture of abuse and the system of cover-up” by the Church in Chile.

He summoned all 34 of Chile’s bishops to Rome in May where they offered to resign en masse. He has so far accepted five resignations and is expected to accept more.

Arias speaks mostly without emotion during the hour-long interview until he talks about how, according to their accusers, priests convinced their victims that they were doing nothing wrong. Then he displays flashes of anger, sometimes so impassioned that he trips over his words.

“I have seen some tough cases but what shocks me about all this is the abuse of conscience – how an accused (Church worker) has entered into the soul of another person and is capable of convincing him that satisfying his desires is not even a sin,” said Arias, who describes his family as “very Catholic” but says he has lapsed.

Arias said he can prosecute senior Church officials for covering up the abuses if he can prove they knew about the systematic abuse and failed to do anything to stop it, or hid evidence to prevent civil authorities from getting involved.

But first he must prosecute the abusers, said Maria Ines Horvitz, a senior lawyer at the State Defense Council of Chile, a public agency that provides legal advice to the Chilean state. And to do that he must find cases within the 10-year statute of limitations – a potential problem that has bedeviled prosecutors in other countries – or turn to the one court in Chile that still handles cases from before roughly 2000, which is backlogged.

PROSECUTORIAL ZEAL

The national public prosecutor instructed all provincial prosecutors last month to pursue sex abuse allegations more vigorously.

But Arias has gone much further than his colleagues in his zeal to bring prosecutions. He has repeatedly widened his remit, from a handful of cases to dozens, from his provincial base to the capital, and from investigating claims of abuse by 14 priests in Rancagua to the alleged complicity of Ezzati, Santiago’s archbishop, himself.

As a result of his uncovering new cases in Church documents, the national prosecutor last week authorized him to expand his investigation into other regions.

BishopAccountability.Org, which tracks allegations of sexual abuse by Roman Catholic priests, says the only comparable investigation into sex abuse in the Church was in Belgium in 2010 when police launched coordinated raids on Church offices and the home of a cardinal. That investigation did not lead to any prosecutions because of the statute of limitations.

Arias is carrying out his investigation in the absence of any public backing from the center-right Sebastian Pinera government. Shortly before becoming president in March, Pinera criticized the Church for its “defensive” attitude to the scandal and “insufficient” investigations but has remained silent on the issue since.

A government spokesman did not respond to a request for comment.

WHY NOW?

For decades allegations of sexual abuse by priests swirled through Chilean society, but little was done to address them. The Church was largely left to police itself.

But this year that suddenly changed.

Church watchers say several factors contributed to this watershed moment – the international attention received by several victims who went public; the pope’s initial poor handling of the claims; and the ripple effect of the global #MeToo movement.

The Church’s grip on Chile is also weakening, public opinion polling shows, even though the formerly predominately Catholic nation remains largely conservative on social issues.

The waning support for the Church was evident when the pope visited Chile in January – there were many empty seats at his public masses. This was “a turning point for Francis’ papacy” a Vatican official said. “It is when he realized that he was listening to the wrong people about the real situation in Chile.”

For Arias, the pope’s subsequent mea culpa that the Church had covered up abuses gave him the impetus he needed to act. “His description of what was happening in Chile was powerful and should concern us all,” he said.

(Reporting by Aislinn Lange and Cassandra Garrison in Santiago; Additional reporting by Philip Pullella in Rome; Editing by Ross Colvin and Paul Thomasch)

Unholy war of words breaks out over Vatican rapprochement with China

A believer prays during a weekend mass at an underground Catholic church in Tianjin in November 10, 2013.

By Philip Pullella

VATICAN CITY (Reuters) – An unholy war of words has broken out among Vatican and Catholic officials over the Holy See’s rapprochement with Communist China, with cardinals, archbishops and priests caught in an undiplomatic crossfire.

In the past few days, one cardinal has accused another of spouting “nonsense” and a priest accused an archbishop of being so naive about China that he was like Alice in Wonderland.

The exchanges came as the Vatican and China moved closer to an accord on the appointment of bishops in what would be an historic breakthrough and a precursor to a resumption in diplomatic relations after 70 years.

Any deal was bound to be controversial because of concessions the Vatican would have to make to a government that has kept religion under its thumb. But the accusations have become exceptionally shrill as diplomacy has collided with passion.

Father Bernardo Cervellera, head of the AsiaNews agency, which specializes in China, accused Archbishop Marcelo Sanchez Sorondo, the head of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, of being “naive”.

In an interview this week, Sanchez Sorondo praised China, saying that Chinese today were those who are perhaps best implementing Church teachings on social issues, such as concern for the environment and human dignity.

“We can understand that in the heat of desire for relations between China and the Vatican one can be doting and exalt Chinese culture … but adulating China is an ideological affirmation that makes a laughingstock of the Church,” Cervellera wrote in an editorial headlined “Sanchez Sorondo in Wonderland”.

Catholics in China are split between “underground” communities that recognize the pope and a state-controlled group where bishops are appointed by the government in collaboration with local Church communities. Critics have blasted the deal because it would involve accepting the legitimacy of bishops appointed by the government.

The war of words also reached the stratosphere of Church hierarchy, cardinal versus cardinal.

The Vatican rebuked Cardinal Joseph Zen, 86, the outspoken former bishop of Hong Kong, after he accused it of “selling out” China’s underground Catholics to the communists. Zen, known for his feistiness, did not take it lying down.

He accused the Vatican’s chief diplomat, Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin, of speaking “nonsense,” after Parolin said in an interview that the aim of dialogue was the greater good and that the Vatican understood the “pain” of Chinese Catholics.

Zen retorted in his blog on Monday: “Oh! This man who lacks faith, how would he understand what is real pain?!”

A Vatican source has said the deal could be signed in the next few months. The clerical gloves are expected to stay off at least until then.

(Additional reporting By Venus Wu in Hong Kong, editing by Larry King)

Pope to Egypt to mend ties with Islam but conservatives wary

FILE PHOTO - Pope Francis meets Sheikh Ahmed Mohamed el-Tayeb (R), Egyptian Imam of al-Azhar Mosque, at the Vatican May 23, 2016. REUTERS/Max Rossi/File Photo

By Philip Pullella

VATICAN CITY (Reuters) – Pope Francis hopes to mend ties with Muslims on his trip to Egypt on Friday but faces criticism from church conservatives for meeting Islamic religious leaders after a spate of deadly attacks against Christians.

In a video message to the people of Egypt on Tuesday, Francis said the world had been “torn by blind violence, which has also afflicted the heart of the your dear land” and said he hoped his trip could help peace and inter-religious dialogue.

Security is a primary concern less than three weeks after 45 people were killed in attacks on Coptic Christian churches in Alexandria and Tanta, claimed by Islamic State, on Palm Sunday.

But Francis has insisted on using an ordinary car during his 27 hours in Cairo, continuing his practice of shunning armored limousines in order to be closer to people.

Francis will meet President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi; Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb, the Grand Imam of al-Azhar, the world’s most influential center of Sunni Islamic theology and learning; and Pope Tawadros II, head of the Coptic Orthodox Church, who barely escaped the Alexandria bombing.

Sisi declared a three-month state of emergency after the attacks.

A main reason for the trip is to try to strengthen relations with the 1,000-year-old Azhar center that were cut by the Muslim side in 2011 over what it said were repeated insults of Islam by Francis’s predecessor, Pope Benedict.

Ties with the center were restored last year after Tayeb visited the Vatican. Tayeb, widely seen as one of the most moderate senior clerics in Egypt, has repeatedly condemned Islamic State and its practice of declaring others as apostates and infidels as a pretext for waging violent jihad.

The Vatican says that Francis, who denounces the idea of violence in God’s name, is convinced that Christian-Muslim dialogue is more important now than ever. Papal aides say a moderate like Tayeb would be an important ally in condemning radical Islam.

In Tuesday’s message, Francis said he hoped the trip could bring “fraternity and reconciliation to all children of Abraham, particularly in the Islamic world, in which Egypt occupies a primary position” and “offer a valid contribution to inter-religious dialogue with the Islamic world”.

WAR OF RELIGION?

The pope’s views are not shared by all Catholics, however. Some conservatives say there should be no dialogue with Islam and that a “war of religion” is in progress.

Italian historian Roberto de Mattei said the Palm Sunday attacks should be “a brusque reality check for Pope Francis”.

The perpetrators were “not unbalanced or crazy but bearers of a religious vision that has been combating Christianity since the seventh century,” De Mattei, editor of the conservative monthly magazine Christian Roots, wrote in an editorial.

Novus Ordo Watch, an ultra-conservative Catholic blog, blasted the Vatican over the logo of the trip, which displays the Muslim crescent and the cross together, and derided the pope as “Mr. Coexist”.

A leading Catholic scholar of Islam, Egyptian-born Father Samir Khalil Samir, said that Francis meant well but was naive.

“I think his ignorance of Islam does not help dialogue. He has said often that we know that Islam is a religion of peace but this is simply a mistake,” Samir, who is based in Beirut, told reporters in Rome.

“We know there are certainly times of peace and a willingness for peace on the part of many Muslims but I can’t read the Koran and pretend that it is a book that is oriented towards peace,” he said.

The region has witnessed a massive exodus of Christians fleeing war and persecution in the past few decades, accelerated recently by the rise of Islamic State. Francis said in his message he hoped his visit could be a “consolation and … encouragement to all Christians in the Middle East”.

He will visit Cairo’s largest Coptic cathedral to pray for the 28 people killed in a Christmas season blast last year and lay flowers in their memory.

Rights activists are concerned about the pope’s meeting with President Sisi.

Sisi has sought to present himself as an indispensable bulwark against terrorism in the region, deflecting Western criticism that he has suppressed political opposition and human rights activists since he was elected in 2014.

Asked if the pope would raise human rights concerns, Vatican spokesman Greg Burke said Francis had made “trips more delicate than this one,” adding “let’s see what the pope has to say.”

(Additional reporting by Lin Noueihed in Cairo; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall)

New Jersey teen pleads guilty in plot to assassinate the Pope

Pope Francis celebrates his final mass of his visit to the United States at the Festival of Families on Benjamin Franklin Parkway in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania September 27, 2015. REUTERS/Jim Bourg

By Gina Cherelus

(Reuters) – A New Jersey teen pleaded guilty to attempting to provide material support to terrorists in what media called an ISIS-inspired effort to kill Pope Francis in 2015 during a public Mass in Philadelphia, according to a statement by federal prosecutors.

Santos Colon, 17, admitted on Monday in a federal court in Camden, New Jersey, that he attempted to conspire with a sniper to shoot the Pope during his visit in Philadelphia and set off explosive devices in the surrounding areas.

Colon engaged with someone he thought would be the sniper from June 30 to August 14, 2015, but the person was actually an undercover FBI employee, according to prosecutors. The attack did not take place, and FBI agents arrested Colon in 2015.

“Colon engaged in target reconnaissance with an FBI confidential source and instructed the source to purchase materials to make explosive devices,” prosecutors said in a statement on Monday.

A U.S. citizen from Lindenwold, New Jersey, Colon was charged as an adult with one count of attempting to provide material support to terrorists on Monday and faces up to 15 years in prison.

What motivated the attempted attack was not immediately known to Reuters. NBC News reported that prosecutors said Colon admitted the terror plot was inspired by the Islamic State.

Prosecutors and the defense attorney did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Colon also faces a fine of $250,000, or twice the amount of any financial gain or loss from the offense, prosecutors said. No date has been set for sentencing and the investigation is ongoing.

The Pope visited Philadelphia on Sept. 26 and 27, 2015, to hold a public Mass, attracting hundreds of thousands of people during his biggest event in the United States.

(Reporting by Gina Cherelus; Editing by Lisa Von Ahn)