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)

Venezuela opposition envoys in Rome to press Guaido’s cause

FILE PHOTO: Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido, who many nations have recognized as the country's rightful interim ruler, talks to the media after attending a religious event in Caracas, Venezuela February 10, 2019. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins/File Photo

By Philip Pullella and Vivian Sequera

VATICAN CITY/CARACAS (Reuters) – Envoys for Venezuela’s self-declared caretaker leader Juan Guaido met Vatican officials and lobbied the Italian government for support on Monday in their quest to keep international pressure on socialist President Nicolas Maduro.

The Vatican, which has offered to mediate, called for respect for rights and avoidance of bloodshed after Guaido’s bid to end two decades of increasingly authoritarian leftist rule in the volatile OPEC member nation of 30 million people.

Members of the Vatican Secretariat of State met a delegation including Francisco Sucre, president of the foreign affairs commission of Venezuela’s National Assembly, and Antonio Ledezma, former mayor of Caracas.

They also met Italy’s deputy prime minister Matteo Salvini.

“We’re in Italy to seek more support for our President @jguaido,” tweeted Ledezma. “We’re doing well, but we need to finish this with victory.”

The Vatican “underscored the deep concern that a just and peaceful solution could be found urgently to overcome the crisis while respecting human rights, seeking the good of all the country’s people and avoiding bloodshed,” it said in a statement.

Pope Francis has said the Vatican could mediate if both sides asked. Maduro wants that, but Venezuela’s opposition is skeptical given past dialogue failures and Guaido says the starting point for any talks must be Maduro’s exit.

Venezuela’s opposition regards Maduro as an incompetent dictator who has wrecked their economy and crushed dissent, while he calls them puppets of Washington seeking a coup in order to control the nation’s vast oil reserves.

Rank-and-file opposition supporters, though often Roman Catholics, are suspicious of the Vatican given its support of past talks that have enabled Maduro to win time and survive various waves of protests.

Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin calls the Holy See’s stance “positive neutrality”, saying it has to stay above both sides if it is to help.

The Venezuela conflict has fed into a wider geopolitical struggle. Along with U.S. President Donald Trump, numerous Latin American and European nations have recognized Guaido as interim president and backed his calls for a new, free election.

But other powers, including Russia and China who have billions of dollars invested and loaned to Caracas, have denounced outside interference and backed Maduro.

Breaking the unity of other major European countries, Italy’s coalition government is divided over Venezuela.

Salvini, far-right leader of the Northern League party and also interior minister, favors recognizing Guaido, but its coalition partner the 5-Star Movement believes that is a bad precedent.

Salvini telephoned Guaido while the Venezuelan delegation was visiting him, stressing his opposition to Maduro and support for a new vote, his office said.

Guaido, who heads Venezuela’s opposition-led National Assembly, invoked a constitutional provision last month to declare himself president.

As well as the Vatican, Norway, another traditional international mediator, has also offered to help with dialogue.

(Reporting by Philip Pullella in Rome, Vivian Sequera in Caracas, Nerijus Adomaitis in Oslo; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne)

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)

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)