U.S. bishops delay action on clergy abuse at Vatican’s request

Cardinal Daniel DiNardo (R), president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, speaks with other attendees at the USCCB general assembly in Baltimore, Maryland, U.S., November 12, 2018. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

By Gabriella Borter

(Reuters) – The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops will delay action to deal with a crisis involving sexual abuse of minors by clergy until after a global meeting in February at the request of the Vatican, conference president Cardinal Daniel DiNardo said on Monday.

The Catholic Church worldwide is reeling from crises involving sexual abuse of minors, deeply damaging confidence in the Church in the United States, Chile, Australia, Ireland and elsewhere.

Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, speaks during a press conference at the USCCB general assembly in Baltimore, Maryland, U.S., November 12, 2018. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, speaks during a press conference at the USCCB general assembly in Baltimore, Maryland, U.S., November 12, 2018. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

Cardinal DiNardo of Galveston-Houston said the Congregation for Bishops in Rome had sent a letter asking U.S. bishops to wait until after the Vatican-convened global meeting on sex abuse takes place in February.

“We have accepted with disappointment this particular event that took place this morning,” Cardinal DiNardo of Galveston-Houston said at a media conference on Monday, the opening day of the conference. “We have not lessened in any of our resolve for actions.”

In the United States, 13 state attorneys general have launched statewide investigations into sexual abuse by clergy.

In August, an 884-page report made public by Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro stated that Roman Catholic priests in the state sexually abused nearly 1,000 children over a 70-year period and silenced victims through “the weaponization of faith” and a systematic cover-up campaign by their bishops.

The conference of bishops had expected to focus this week on measures to combat abuse, including establishing a new code of conduct, according to a September statement.

“We humbly welcome and are grateful for the assistance of the whole people of God in holding us accountable,” the statement said.

Terry McKiernan, co-director of victims’ advocacy group BishopAccountability.org, said the Pope’s intervention in this week’s conference was a frustrating setback.

“This situation is so terrible that the only way that it’s really going to be solved is if bishops convincingly demonstrate their remorse and concern,” McKiernan told Reuters in a phone interview.

DiNardo called the delay “a bump in the road” on Monday but said it does not reflect U.S. bishops’ lack of determination to deal with the issue.

“We were all set to move to reach an action stage here this week,” DiNardo said. “I don’t look upon any of this as a change in direction for the Catholic bishops of the United States.”

(Reporting by Gabriella Borter; Editing by Susan Thomas)

Catholic Church admits ‘shameful’ legacy of abuse after study leaked

FILE PHOTO - A statue of the Virgin Mary adorns the facade of the bishop's residence next to Limburg Cathedral October 14, 2013. REUTERS/Kai Pfaffenbach

By Riham Alkousaa

BERLIN (Reuters) – The Catholic Church in Germany acknowledged a “depressing and shameful” legacy of sexual abuse on Wednesday after a leaked study said clerics had abused thousands of children over a 70-year period.

The document, commissioned by the German Bishops’ Conference, revealed that 1,670 clerics and priests had sexually abused 3,677 minors, mostly males, in the country between 1946 and 2014, Der Spiegel said.

The news magazine quoted a leaked copy of the study, which was compiled by three German universities.

Bishop of Trier Stephan Ackermann said the Church was aware of the extent of abuse demonstrated by the study’s results.

“It is depressing and shameful for us,” he said in a statement on Wednesday.

The leaked study was published on the day that Pope Francis, who has made several attempts to tackle a spreading sexual abuse crisis that has badly tarnished the Church’s image, summoned senior bishops from around the world to the Vatican to discuss the protection of minors.

The Vatican had no immediate comment on the Spiegel report.

The magazine said the study, which examined more than 38,000 files from 27 dioceses, showed more than half of the victims were aged 13 years or under when they were abused.

About one in six of cases documented involved rape and three-quarters of the victims were abused in a church or through a pastoral relationship with the abuser. In many cases, evidence was destroyed or manipulated, it cited the study as saying.

The Bishops’ Conference was expected to present the “strictly confidential” study’s findings later this month, Spiegel said.

Speaking on behalf of the Conference, Bishop Ackermann said that, while he regretted that the study had been leaked, he was convinced its survey was comprehensive and thorough.

“The study is a course of action which we owe not only to the Church but above all and foremost to those affected,” Ackermann said.

The Church had often transferred clerics accused of sexual abuse without providing the new host community with “appropriate information” about them, the study found.

Only one-third of those accused had to face proceedings under canon law and sanctions imposed were at most minimal, with 4 percent of those found to have committed abuse still working.

The study called on the Catholic Church to rethink its refusal to consecrate homosexual men and to view the celibacy obligation imposed on its clergy as “a potential risk factor”, Der Spiegel reported.

Last month, a U.S. grand jury released study findings showing 301 Catholic priests in Pennsylvania had sexually abused minors over 70 years.

(Reporting by Riham Alkousaa, Editing by Tassilo Hummel and John Stonestreet)

Can the pope’s accusers force him to resign?

FILE PHOTO: Pope Francis speaks with the media onboard a plane during his flight back from a trip in Dublin, Ireland August 26, 2018. Gregorio Borgia/Pool/File Photo

By Philip Pullella

VATICAN CITY (Reuters) – Calls by a Roman Catholic archbishop and his conservative backers for Pope Francis to resign could make it difficult, if not impossible, for him to do so, Church experts say.

Canon (Church) Law says a pope can resign but the decision must be taken freely. In 2013, Francis’s predecessor, Benedict, became the first pontiff in six centuries to resign.

Benedict, then 85, abdicated because he said he no longer had the strength to run the Church. Unlike now, no-one had publicly demanded his resignation, which was a surprise even to top Vatican officials.

HOW DID THE VATICAN AND THE POPE GET TO THIS POINT?

In an 11-page statement published on Aug. 26, Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, the former Vatican ambassador to Washington, launched an unprecedented broadside by a Church insider against the pope and a long list of Vatican and U.S. Church officials.

He said that soon after the pontiff’s election in 2013, he told Francis that Theodore McCarrick, the former archbishop of Washington, D.C., had engaged in sexual misconduct.

He said the pope did nothing and even lifted sanctions that had been imposed on McCarrick by Benedict, the former pope.

Critics of Vigano say his statement has holes and contradictions. They say McCarrick disregarded any sanctions, appearing in public often, even alongside Benedict, in the years after Vigano says the former pope sanctioned McCarrick. Vigano stands by his accusations.

Vigano, who is in hiding and communicating exclusively through reporters for conservative media outlets who helped him prepare, edit and distribute the statement, says there is a “homosexual network” in the Vatican that promotes the advancement of gays in the Church.

His statement included no supporting documents.

In July, after U.S. Church officials said there was evidence that McCarrick, 88, had sexually abused a minor more than 50 years ago, Francis sacked him as cardinal and ordered him to live the rest of his life in seclusion, prayer and penitence. Francis’ defenders say he took strict action against McCarrick while Benedict had not.

Francis told reporters on his plane returning from Ireland that he would “not say one word” about Vigano’s accusations. “Read the document carefully and judge it for yourselves. It speaks for itself,” he said.

WHAT IS THE GENESIS OF THE CURRENT CONSERVATIVE ESCALATION?

Since his election in 2013, conservatives have sharply criticized Francis, saying he has left many faithful confused by pronouncements that the Church should be more welcoming to homosexuals and divorced Catholics and not be obsessed by “culture war” issues such as abortion.

Their attacks on the pope hit a new level with Vigano’s broadside. Much of the drama has been played out in newspapers and social media, part of what has become an often shrill proxy war between Francis’ defenders and Vigano’s allies, who back his call for the pope to step down.

WHAT DOES CANON LAW SAY ABOUT PAPAL RESIGNATIONS?

Canon 332, paragraph two, states:

“If it should happen that the Roman Pontiff resigns his office, it is required for validity that he makes the resignation freely and that it be duly manifested but not that it be accepted by anyone.”

Canon lawyers say much hinges on the interpretation of the word “freely” and whether the demands being made by the pope’s fiercest critics has constituted enough of a climate of duress to put its validity into doubt.

WHAT DO CANON LAW EXPERTS SAY?

“The pope has the right to freely resign. That’s what the canon says. The doubt is whether the situation Francis is in now really allows for a free choice because there is a political faction in the Church trying to force it,” said Nicholas Cafardi, former dean of Duquesne University School of Law.

“I don’t see how (the pope can resign freely) when you have people campaigning for it,” said Cafardi, who is also a former member of the Board of Governors of the Canon Law Society of America.

Kurt Martens, professor of canon law at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., agreed.

“I think were are getting to the point of it becoming impossible because the pressure on him is so intense psychologically that it would be impossible to withstand and therefore it would be invalid,” Martens said.

A Rome-based canon lawyer, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of his position in the Church, said he believed a resignation could be possible but that “it would be very complicated and hairy” and its validity hotly contested because some would see it as a result of duress.

Edward Peters, a conservative canon lawyer based in Detroit, has said on his blog that Francis should not be considered any different to other bishops who canon law says should resign for just or grave causes. The pope is also bishop of Rome.

But some experts also say two former popes (Benedict and Francis) would be just too much for Catholics to digest and would confuse the faithful.

Father Raymond de Souza, a widely read conservative commentator based in Canada, said it would be wrong to treat “the papal office as something worldly than can be relinquished under adverse circumstances”.

WHAT DOES CANON LAW SAY ABOUT PAPAL CONTESTERS?

Canon 1373 says one “who publicly either stirs up hostilities or hatred among subjects against (a pope) … is to be punished by an interdict or by other just penalties”.

Cafardi said: “I think they (the harshest papal critics) are violating it (canon 1373) or are very close to violating it because of the hate they are trying to stir up against Francis”.

CAN A POPE BE DEPOSED?

Not these days. He can die in office or resign of his own free will. There is no impeachment procedure for a pope.

But Church history is nothing if not colorful. At the start of the 15th century there were three men claiming to be the true pope, each backed by political powers in Europe and Church factions. The Council of Constance, which ran from 1414 to 1418, deposed two of them and the third abdicated.

(Editing by Timothy Heritage)

Conservative media move to front line of battle to undermine Pope Francis

FILE PHOTO: Pope Francis waves as he arrives to lead the Wednesday general audience in Saint Peter's square at the Vatican, August 29, 2018. REUTERS/Alessandro Bianchi/File Photo

By Philip Pullella

VATICAN CITY (Reuters) – Last March, Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano dined on the outskirts of Rome at the home of a conservative Italian Catholic journalist. Over pasta, fish and white wine, the prelate poured out his concern for the future of the Roman Catholic Church.

It was the start of about five months of contacts and collaboration between Vigano and several conservative journalists and media outlets that would lead to one of the greatest crises for the Church in modern times.

In a bombshell statement published last weekend when Pope Francis was in Ireland, Vigano, the former Vatican ambassador to Washington, urged Francis to resign on the grounds he knew for years about the sexual misconduct of an American cardinal and did nothing.

The full extent of journalists’ involvement in the statement – from conception and editing to translation and publication – emerges from a series of Reuters interviews that reveal a union of conservative clergy and media aimed at what papal defenders say is a campaign to weaken the reformist Francis’s pontificate.

Since his election in 2013, conservatives have sharply criticized Francis, saying he has left many faithful confused by pronouncements that the Church should be more welcoming to homosexuals and divorced Catholics and not be obsessed by “culture war” issues such as abortion.

“The conservatives have declared war and they are convinced they can reform the Church with a frontal attack,” a senior Vatican prelate said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because “the line is silence” now.

Vigano said he had told the pope of the allegations five years ago, soon after Francis’ election. The statement included no supporting documents and also accused a long list of current and past Vatican and U.S. Church officials of facilitating the expansion of a “homosexual network” in the Church.

Pope Francis told reporters on his plane returning from Ireland that he would “not say one word” about the accusations. “Read the document carefully and judge it for yourselves. It speaks for itself,” he said.

Vatican sources say it still has not been decided if the Vatican will issue a detailed institutional response to Vigano’s accusations, which they say have caused consternation among many members of the faithful.

UNPRECEDENTED ATTACK ON POPE

Vigano’s move, an unprecedented attack on the pope by a Vatican insider, was the latest blow to the credibility of the Church.

Two weeks ago, a grand jury in 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.

The dinner with Vigano in March was held at the home of Aldo Maria Valli, a journalist who covers the Vatican for Italian state television RAI, publishes a conservative blog and has written several books.

Valli writes in his blog that he had several other meetings with Vigano, including a second dinner in Valli’s home in August to discuss the topics of the statement.

He says Vigano arrived at their last meeting in a secret location wearing sunglasses and a baseball cap – unusual headgear for an archbishop.

On Aug. 22, Vigano went to the home of Marco Tosatti, a longtime Vatican journalist who writes for conservative publications and runs his own blog that is highly critical of Francis’ papacy.

Tosatti said he helped Vigano rewrite and edit the statement during a three-hour meeting. Valli told Reuters Tosatti then sent him and other selected journalists the final version.

Valli told Reuters there is clear division between his work as a television journalist and his personal opinions in his blog and books.

PUSHING THE BUTTON

The statement surfaced on Aug. 26, four days after it was dated. Interviews with those involved show its publication was coordinated in consultation with Valli, Tosatti, the National Catholic Register in the United States and Italy’s La Verita, both conservative newspapers that criticize Francis regularly.

It was translated into English by Diane Montagna of the conservative LifeSiteNews, which published it at the same time and often carries full texts of speeches by Cardinal Raymond Burke, one of the pope’s fiercest critics.

“It’s very reminiscent of what is going on in conservative politics in the United States. It’s the same playbook,” said David Gibson, director of the Center on Religion and Culture at Fordham University in New York. He was alluding to the close relationship between President Donald Trump’s administration and conservative-leaning news outlets such as Fox News.

Tosatti told Reuters there was “no conservative conspiracy” behind the statement and that its publication was delayed because it had to be translated in several languages.

He said it was “a mere coincidence” that it was published during the pope’s trip to Ireland, where sexual abuse by the clergy was a main issue.

But Valli says in his blog that its release was specifically timed so that it would come up during the pope’s in-flight news conference from Dublin to Rome. Experienced Vatican journalists such as Valli and Tosatti understand that the papal plane is a rare chance for reporters to ask the pope questions.

Another journalist who received the statement also confirmed that Vigano, who is now in hiding in an undisclosed location and issues statements through Valli, wanted it published while the pope was in Ireland.

“Obviously Vigano is being used as a weapon by a whole coterie of people who can’t stand Pope Francis and the changes he wants to make to the Church,” said Alexander Stille, professor of international journalism at Columbia University in New York and author of several books on Italy.

“People who would defend to the death the doctrine of papal infallibility have no difficulty in treating a pope who has been elected by all the standard Vatican protocols as if we were a corporate manager who could be fired from one day to the next.”

(Reporting by Philip Pullella; editing by Mark Bendeich and Mark Heinrich)

Archbishop who called on Pope to resign says corruption reaches the top

Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano reads during the episcopal ordination of Auxiliary Bishops James Massa and Witold Mroziewski, in Brooklyn, New York, U.S., July 20, 2015. Picture taken July 20, 2015. REUTERS/Gregory A. Shemitz

By Philip Pullella

VATICAN CITY (Reuters) – The archbishop who sparked a crisis in the Catholic Church by calling on Pope Francis to resign has denied he was motivated by personal vendetta and said he sought to show that corruption had reached the top levels of the Church hierarchy.

Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano has gone into hiding since conservative media published an 11-page statement in which he alleged the pope knew for years about sexual misconduct by an American cardinal and did nothing about it.

Vigano has been communicating through Aldo Maria Valli, an Italian television journalist who Vigano consulted several times before releasing his statement last Sunday when the pope was in Ireland.

Italian media has reported he was upset because he was never made a cardinal by former Pope Benedict or because Francis blocked his further advancement in the Church.

“I have never had feelings of vendetta and rancor in all these years,” he was quoted as telling Valli, who has been publishing statements from Vigano in his blog.

“I spoke out because corruption has reached the top levels of Church hierarchy,” said Vigano, a former Vatican ambassador to Washington.

The Vatican had no comment on the new accusations by Vigano.

In his statement, Vigano accused a long list of current and past Vatican and U.S. Church officials of covering up the case of Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, who resigned last month in disgrace.

One of the people he attacks in the statement is Cardinal Tarciscio Bertone, who was secretary of state under former Pope Benedict.

Italian media reports have said Vigano was upset because Bertone had blocked any possibility of him becoming a cardinal.

In his comments published on Valli’s blog, Vigano says he himself gave up the possibility of becoming a cardinal “for the good of the Church”.

Vigano did not include any supporting documents in his remarkably blunt statement in which he said cover-ups in the Church were making it look like “a conspiracy of silence not so dissimilar from the one that prevails in the mafia”.

On his flight home from Ireland on Sunday, Francis told reporters he would “not say one word” about the accusations.

“Read the document carefully and judge it for yourselves,” he said.

Francis’ supporters say the statement contains holes and contradictions and note that Vigano prepared it with help from two journalists who have been critical of Francis, citing this as evidence that it forms part of an ideological anti-Francis strategy. The journalists deny this.

(Reporting By Philip Pullella; Editing by 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)

Exorcism by cellphone: Beating the devil in the 21st century

A priest holds a leaflet advertising a course for aspiring exorcists in Rome, Italy April 16, 2018. REUTERS/Tony Gentile

By Philip Pullella

ROME (Reuters) – About 200 aspiring exorcists gathered on Monday for a week-long course in casting out demons – including by cellphone if necessary – amid increased demand for the service among Roman Catholics.

Participants, many of them priests, will attend lectures and talks on a range of topics including witchcraft in Africa, how to tell the difference between demonic possession and mental illness, and a step-by-step guide to casting out demons.

Cardinal Ernest Simoni of Albania drew strong interest in the first session by citing the use of cellphones in exorcisms.

“They call me and we speak and that’s how I do it,” the 89-year-old Simoni told Reuters after his address, explaining how he would read the prayers of exorcism in Latin over the phone just as he would if performing the lengthy rite in person.

Although no official figures are available, Catholic Church officials say the number of demonic possessions is on the rise.

“The number of exorcisms has definitely increased over the years, as the requests to carry out exorcisms has increased,” said Professor Giuseppe Ferrari, an organizer of the “Course on Exorcism and the Prayer of Liberation” at the Vatican-approved Pontifical Regina Apostolorum University in Rome.

“This course is useful because it prepares the priests who carry out exorcisms to have a complete vision, a multi-disciplined view of the situation,” he added.

Father Benigno Palilla, an exorcist for the diocese of Palermo, told Vatican Radio in February that he had performed about 50 exorcisms in the past two and a half years.

“AUXILIARY EXORCISTS”

As well as licensed exorcists, theologians, psychologists, medical doctors, criminologists, and Church historians will also address the course participants.

With a nod to U.S. thriller writer Dan Brown, whose novels such as “Angels and Demons” often concern the Catholic Church, one lecture is entitled “Angels and Demons in Sacred Scripture and the Teachings of the Church”.

Students, who include several dozen women, will receive a certificate, though Ferrari stressed that it would not entitle them to cast out demons. Only priests can perform exorcisms, and only with their bishop’s permission or a license.

Lay Catholics, including women, can be what a course entry called “auxiliary exorcists,” meaning they can be present at the rite, pray and give moral support to the priest casting out the demon.

Simoni, the Albanian cardinal, said exorcisms should only be attempted after doctors are unable to explain the behavior of a person deemed to be demonically possessed.

“Discernment is important,” he said, stressing several times that he only saw himself as the instrument of a higher power.

“It is Jesus who liberates. It is his power,” he said. “In all the exorcisms I have done, the Lord has helped me. I am not the great one.”

(Reporting By Philip Pullella; Editing by Gareth Jones)

For one Catholic parish in China, division and confusion as historic deal looms

FILE PHOTO: A Catholic faithful holds a rosary during a mass on Holy Thursday at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Beijing, China March 29, 2018. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj/File Photo

By James Pomfret

YINGTAN, China (Reuters) – Like many Chinese Catholics, Lin Jinqing was shocked when news trickled through to him of an impending deal between Beijing and the Vatican that would end a long dispute over control of the Church in China.

As a member of a so-called “underground” church – one that is not sanctioned by Beijing – in the southeastern province of Jiangxi, Lin and fellow parishioners have for years been attending clandestine Bible readings and services.

In recent years, as Chinese authorities cracked down on underground services as part of broader restrictions on religious groups, he has also started attending services at state-sanctioned churches in order to avoid trouble.

“The pressure on underground church members has been quite big,” said Lin, who lives in Yingtan, a gritty city of one million people in southeastern Jiangxi province.

Now, the deal between China and the Vatican is worrying him.

“Many of us don’t know what to think,” he said. He said that the underground churchgoers wanted more freedom to worship. “But at what cost?”

A senior Vatican source told Reuters last month that a framework accord was ready and could be signed in months. The expected deal would allow China to appoint bishops, in consultation with the Vatican, and eventually could lead to the restoration of full diplomatic relations between the two sides for the first time in seven decades.

Until now, China and the Vatican have not recognized most bishops named by each other. Underground Catholics like Lin have stayed loyal to Vatican-appointed bishops – and the Pope.

News of the impending deal has split communities of Catholics across China, according to some critics like Cardinal Joseph Zen in Hong Kong.

Some fear greater suppression should the Vatican cede greater control to Beijing, but others want to see rapprochement.

“We hope for an early establishment of ties. It will definitely bring advantageous policies, and greater openness to the Church,” said Father Pan Yinbao, a priest affiliated with the official Church in Yingtan, in an interview with Reuters. “There is a need for change. There is a need for adjustment.”

Lin’s apprehensions, meanwhile, are echoed in WeChat groups used by Catholics, and the few uncensored religious news sites still viewable in China like www.tianzhujiao.life – as is cautious criticism.

“Churchgoers stay hopeful on the Vatican-China deal, but no one wants to live in a bird cage or only fighting for a larger space in the bird cage,” read one post by a blogger named Priest Shanren. “People are born to be free.”

The Chinese Communist Party has long sought to control organized groups, including religious ones, whose devotees can only worship under the auspices of state-sanctioned bodies, like the Catholic Patriotic Association.

Of the 146 bishops now in China, about a third are affiliated with the underground church.

A source close to the Vatican based in Hong Kong said that there would be a tightening of religious freedoms following a restructuring of China’s religious affairs authority this year, to bring it directly under party, rather than state control.

A Chinese government statement explaining the move said it would help China “steadfastly persevere in the direction of Sinicizing our country’s religions”.

This week, Guo Xijin, a bishop in the southeastern province of Fujian was detained by authorities for refusing to officiate Easter services with an official bishop. Guo, who is reportedly one of two Chinese bishops the Vatican has asked to retire or accept demotion to make way for a Beijing-backed one, couldn’t be reached by Reuters for comment.

Some critics and Chinese Catholics say rapprochement between Beijing and the Vatican could drive an even deeper wedge between the faithful in China, and engender some bitterness toward the Vatican.

TORN LOYALTIES AND FACTIONS

Those divisions are evident in places like Jiangxi province, where there are factions even within the underground Church.

When the province’s then 92-year-old Vatican-appointed bishop, Thomas Zeng Jingmu, retired in 2012, one faction, led by a relative, split from another underground faction loyal to the Vatican’s appointed successor, Bishop John Peng Weizhao.

The faction loyal to Peng, which now has at least six priests leading underground Masses, is likely to remain opposed to any deal and lead to the erosion of the Vatican’s authority, according to a source with close ties to underground Catholics in Jiangxi’s three dioceses.

She said that some devout Catholics across China were prepared to cut ties with the Vatican over a deal. “If they’re abandoned by the Vatican they’ll pray to God themselves at home,” said the source who declined to be named given the sensitivity of the matter.

“The Vatican has done the calculations and they feel it doesn’t matter if they abandon the underground, because they are a relatively small group, and will sooner or later fade away.”

Peng, who was detained by authorities for six months in 2014, couldn’t be reached for comment.

Archbishop Paul Gallagher, the Vatican’s equivalent of a foreign minister, said at a conference on Chinese Catholicism in Rome, that while the faithful in China had experienced “great suffering” in the past, the country was seeking to regain a central position in the world and so efforts should be made to forge Catholicism with “Chinese forms”.

 

RELIGIOUS SPIN

While some dioceses in coastal Fujian and in inland Hebei have large clusters of underground Catholics, Jiangxi’s are less influential. Many in the area, including 62-year-old Liu Ande, have switched to the official Church.

“We are sons and daughters of God but for our country, we must listen to the leaders here,” Liu said after a Sunday Mass at the official Catholic church in Yingtan.

The church is a shabby building in need of paint wedged into a residential courtyard with several cracked windows, where 48 mostly elderly Catholics listened to a sermon by Father Pan.

After Mass, on the steps of the church, some of the tensions of the impending deal were laid bare.

Liu asked Pan to verify if the Vatican had asked another Bishop in southern China besides Guo, to step down.

“Is it true? We’ve heard it’s true? It should be true,” said Liu. “Everyone is opposed to this.”

But Pan, the official priest, now dressed in a blue fleece jacket after mass, disputed the standoff.

“Whether it’s true or not isn’t clear,” he told Liu, who began nodding. “There’s a lot of news on the internet.”

Another worshipper dressed in a pink coat, who would only give her surname as Li, said she would be praying for a better tomorrow.

“If you’ve done bad things, you must then try to do lots of good things,” she said. “There shouldn’t be tensions,” she added. “We are all just trying to save our own souls.”

(Additional reporting by Anita Li in Shanghai; Philip Pullella in Rome; Greg Torode, Venus Wu and Chermaine Lee in Hong Kong; Editing by Philip McClellan)

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)

Vatican urges Venezuela’s Maduro to suspend new legislative superbody

Vatican urges Venezuela's Maduro to suspend new legislative superbody

VATICAN CITY (Reuters) – The Vatican called on Friday for Venezuela’s government to suspend its new legislative superbody and made a direct appeal to the security forces to avoid excessive force in dealing with opposition protests.

Current initiatives including the constituent assembly “create a climate of tension and conflict and take the future for granted”, the Holy See Secretariat of State said in a statement, calling for the changes to be prevented or suspended.

The spiritual home of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics also urged Venezuela’s security forces to avoid “excessive and disproportionate use of force”. More than 120 people have died in four months of opposition protests.

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro has defended the newly minted superbody, created as a result of a vote on Sunday, and which countries around the world have criticized as a bid to indefinitely extend his rule.

The Vatican statement called for a negotiated solution following the same guidelines the Vatican set out last year when it brokered talks between the government and the opposition which later broke down.

It also called on Venezuela to respect human rights and the country’s current constitution.

(Reporting by Isla Binnie, editing by Alister Doyle)