Vatican police raid top offices in financial investigation

By Philip Pullella

VATICAN CITY (Reuters) – Vatican police raided the offices of the Holy See’s Secretariat of State and its Financial Information Authority, or AIF, on Tuesday and took away documents and electronic devices as part of an investigation of suspected financial irregularities, a Vatican statement said.

It was believed to be the first time the two departments were searched for evidence involving alleged financial crimes.

The Secretariat of State, the most powerful department in the Vatican, is the nerve center of its bureaucracy and diplomacy and the administrative heart of the worldwide Catholic Church.

The AIF, headed by Swiss lawyer Rene Bruelhart, is the financial controller, with authority over all Vatican departments.

The Vatican statement gave no details except to say that the operation was a follow-up to complaints filed in the summer by the Vatican bank and the Office of the Auditor General and were related to “financial operations carried out over the course of time”.

A senior Vatican source said he believed the operation, which the statement said had been authorized by Vatican prosecutors, had to do with real estate transactions.

Since the election of Pope Francis in 2013, the Vatican has made great strides in cleaning up its often murky financial reputation.

Last year, a former head of the Vatican bank and an Italian lawyer went on trial to face charges of money laundering and embezzlement through real estate deals. It is still in progress.

In May, the AIF said reports of suspicious financial activity in the Vatican reached a six-year low in 2018, continuing a trend officials said showed reforms were in place.

For decades, the bank, officially known as the Institute for Works of Religion, or IOR, was embroiled in numerous financial scandals as Italians with no right to have accounts opened them with the complicity of corrupt insiders.

Hundreds of accounts have been closed at the IOR, whose stated purpose is to manage funds for the Church, Vatican employees, religious institutes or Catholic charities.

In 2017, Italy put the Vatican on its “white list” of states with cooperative financial institutions, ending years of mistrust.

The same year, Moneyval, a monitoring body of the Council of Europe, gave Vatican financial reforms a mostly positive evaluation.

(Reporting by Philip Pullella; Editing by Hugh Lawson and Dan Grebler)

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

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

By Philip Pullella

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

REPORTING LAWS VARY

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Reporting by Philip Pullella; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

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

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

By Philip Pullella

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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)