Is the Pope’s fight against sexual abuse in the Church slipping away from him?

There has been an in-flight wedding, a preview on next year’s Synod of Bishops assembly on the Amazon and encounters with the peripheries of Church and society, but Pope Francis’ ongoing visit to Chile and Peru has been marred by an apparent slacking off in the fight against sexual abuse in the Church. Some have even claimed that we are back at square one.

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At the end of a meeting with survivors of sexual abuse in Iquique on 18 January, the Holy Father was asked about the case of Bishop Juan Barros. The bishop of Osorno, appointed by Pope Francis in 2015, continues to be accused of having been aware of  the abuse perpetrated by Fr. Fernando Karadima in the 1980s. Survivor groups, as well as lay faithful in the Diocese of Osorno and other Chilean dioceses, have consistently called for Bishop Barros not to be appointed (or, now that he has been, to be removed). During the papal visit, protesters continued to make their voices heard. Following the private meeting with abuse survivors, in which the pope talked, prayed and wept with them, he commented on the Barros case, “The day I’m presented with proof against Bishop Barros, I will see. There’s not a single proof against him, it’s all a calumny. Is that clear?”

This harsh comment has been almost universally condemned, not least by some of the pope’s closest collaborators in the fight against sexual abuse. Marie Collins, former member of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, tweeted on 20 January ,referring to Juan Carlos Cruz, a Chilean survivor of sexual abuse:

“In labelling [Juan Carlos Cruz] and his fellow Chilean survivors as guilty of slander the Pope has alligned himself with Cardinals Ezzati and Errazuriz, who, in an exchange of derogatory e-mails in 2015, conspired to block [Juan Carlos Cruz from] consideration for membership of the [Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors].”

42212019_401By claiming all accusations against Bishop Barros as slander or calumny, Pope Francis has indeed taking a major step back in how the Church relates to victims. Rather than listening to what they have to say, they are being silenced and ignored. Of course, this is what the Church has until recently been guilty of doing for decades, and what many parts of society still do to this day, when confronted with accusations of abuse. While it seems as yet unclear what role Bishop Barros may have played, the claims against Fr. Karadima at least are reliable. Karadima’s case was dismissed by the courts because the statute of limitations had expired, but the allegations were deemed nonetheless credible. The Vatican sentenced Fr. Karadima to a live of penance and prayer in 2011.

The Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors is headed by Cardinal Séan O’Malley. The archbishop of Boston also released comments about what the pope had said, saying:

“It is understandable that Pope Francis’ statements yesterday in Santiago, Chile were a source of great pain for survivors of sexual abuse by clergy or any other perpetrator. Words that convey the message “if you cannot prove your claims then you will not be believed” abandon those who have suffered reprehensible criminal violations of their human dignity and relegate survivors to discredited exile.”

Cardinal_OMalley1Very strong words condemning what Pope Francis said. The cardinal then continues his comments by underlining the Holy Father’s commitment to fighting clerical sexual abuse:

“Accompanying the Holy Father at numerous meetings with survivors I have witnessed his pain of knowing the depth and breadth of the wounds inflicted on those who were abused and that the process of recovery can take a lifetime. The Pope’s statements that there is no place in the life of the Church for those who would abuse children and that we must adhere to zero tolerance for these crimes are genuine and they are his commitment.”

There is an odd contrast here, between the pope’s apparent commitment to fighting abuse and the comment he made. That contrast is strengthened further by the continuing silence surrounding the new mandates of the members of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors. These were up for renewal over the course of last year (some in March, others in December), but no word has yet come out. In essence, the Commission now exists in a sort of limbo.

With the creation of the Commission, Pope Francis was off to a good start in this matter. For the first time, survivors had a say in how the Church should respond. Of course, that has since changed. New members were added, but two survivors chose to leave the Commission. In March it’ll be four years since its establishment, and that is too soon for the Commission to be forgotten, ignored or otherwise becoming irrelevant. Its work is too important.

Hopefully, these two developments, the pope’s accusation of calumny and the silence surrounding the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors are simply hiccups, and the commitment of the Catholic Church to combat sexual abuse of minors under her responsibility will continue to grow.

Photo credit: [1] Reuters, [2] Reuters / A. Bianchi, [3] Flickr/George Martell-Pilot New Media

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The question of a decoration – pro-abortion politician inducted in the Order of St. Gregory

31763202376_be0cc71348_zLilianne Ploumen, member of the Dutch parliament and formerly Minister for Foreign Trade and Development Cooperation, recently showed off a papal decoration she received, the insignia of commander in the order of St. Gregory the Great. This decoration is one of five papal orders of knighthood and is granted in recognition of “personal service to the Holy See and to the Roman Catholic Church, through [the recipient’s] unusual labors, their support of the Holy See, and their excellent examples set forth in their communities and their countries.”

This recognition is problematic in more than one way: Ms. Ploumen has been a staunch advocate of abortion, setting up the She Decides campaign to raise money after American President Trump discontinued the use of taxpayer’s money to finance abortions abroad. In 2010, she also urged people to disrupt Mass at St. John’s cathedral in Den Bosch, after an openly homosexual man was denied Communion. Ms. Ploumen’s public persona, at least, is one decidedly at odds with Catholic teaching and even openly hostile against parts of it.

It is hard to see exactly why she received this recognition, given in the name of the Holy Father, who, it must be said, is rather emphatically opposed to what Ms. Ploumen supports. However, there is a chance that the recognition was given for what she does in private life, in her parish or other organisation. In the past she also headed Catholic relief organisation Cordaid, which could possibly also play a part in this.

GregoriusordenIncreasing the surprise, even indignation, about this is the fact that neither the bishops’ conference nor the nuncio are aware of this decoration having been awarded. Normally, nominations are relayed to Rome via the bishops and apostolic nuncio, the the representative of the Holy See in a country.

Assuming that this is not a bit of fake news – and I see no reason to believe it is – there are two conclusions to draw from this: someone either seriously messed up, thus (un)wittingly making a mockery of the Catholic teachings about abortion (and also the Pope’s vocal opposition to it); or the entire process of awarding decorations is not to be taken too seriously. It is safe to assume that Pope Francis was not personally informed about the decorating, but someone in his staff was. What value do decorations have if they are automatically rubber-stamped, as could have conceivable happened here?

Whatever the case may, as the situation stands now many Catholics feel offended by the fact that a known supporter of abortion, and a person who has called for the disruption of the celebration of Mass to make a political point, has received this high papal decoration.

EDIT 1: The Archdiocese of Utrecht today issued an official reaction to this affair, which I share here:

“In response to many questions from both The Netherlands and abroad, Cardinal Eijk says that he was not involved in the application for the title Commander in the Pontifical Equestrian Order of St. Gregory the Great, which former minister L. Ploumen received last year. Cardinal Eijk was also unaware of the fact that this papal award was requested for her.”

EDIT 2: In a commentary for Nederlands Dagblad, Vatican watcher Hendro Munsterman offers a possible explanation for Ploumen being awarded the title of commander in the Order of St. Gregory. In 2017, he explains, Ms. Ploumen was part of the delegation accompanying King Willem Alexander on the first official state visit of a Dutch head of state to the Holy See. On such occasions it is customary for visitors and hosts to exchange decorations, and ten members of the Dutch delegation received such from the Vatican, among them then-Minister Ploumen. However, many people will obviously be unaware of such diplomatic niceties, and Munsterman is right when he says that Ploumen should have prevented the journalist interviewing her from turning a simple matter of protocol into a statement. To Catholic Herald, Ms Ploumen said that she also assumed that she received the decoration for being a part of the Dutch delegation.

EDIT 3: Late last night, the Vatican released an official comment, stating:

“The honor of the Pontifical Order of St. Gregory the Great received by Mrs. Lilianne Ploumen, former Minister of Development, in June 2017 during the visit of the Dutch Royals to the Holy Father, responds to the diplomatic practice of the exchange of honors between delegations on the occasion of official visits by Heads of State or Government in the Vatican.

Therefore, it is not in the slightest a placet [an expression of assent] to the politics in favor of abortion and of birth control that Mrs Ploumen promotes.”

This should put to rest this current affair, although it leaves questions open about the wisdom of issuing automatic decorations to politicians and diplomats with no regard of their standpoints and actions.

Photo credit: [1] Lex Draijer

For 2018, a somewhat obscure saint

Heilige_AfraEvery year I use the Saint Name Generator to find a patron saint for my blog for the year. Whatever name the generator may come up with, I always try to see it as something of an inspiration and guide for my future endeavours here and in social media. But sometimes, that’s difficult.

This year, I was given the name of Saint Afra. She’s no only a very old saint, having died in 304, but also one of whom we know very little beyond her legend. But at least she hails from the area which I try to cover in this blog: of Cypriot origins, she led a holy life and died in Augsburg, Germany.

Her legend tells us that she was originally a pagan, possibly the daughter of the king of Cyprus, working as a prostitute (perhaps in the service of the local temple of Venus). She converted when she and her mother hid the bishop of Girona, Spain, who was fleeing the persecutions under Emperor Diocletian. Now a Christian, she was arrested when she refused to make a sacrifice to pagan idols, and was killed by being burned at the stake (although some sources say she was actually beheaded). The story of her martyrdom is by far the more reliable part of her legend.

Her patronage includes the city of Augsburg, converts, martyrs and penitent women. There, at least, we may find something to relate to as your author is himself a convert (eleven years ago coming April). Maybe Afra’s steadfastness in the face of adversity will prove to be an inspiration as well.

Sancta Afra, ora pro nobis!

Against Limburg bishop, Catholic conservatives aim, shoot and completely miss the mark

csm_Portrait-Bischof-Baetzing-im-Bischofsgarten_int_20f2d8ef34Flyers, an online petition, a banner in front of his residence, security measures at Mass… What has Bishop Georg Bätzing done to warrant such an outpouring of protest? Well, according to reports by Katholisch.de he has done nothing more than correct a mistake made by a local parish community.

In November, the community of Hochtaunus in the Diocese of Limburg  was revealed to feature a PDF-file of contact addresses for ‘people in need’ on their website. Among these was a Lutheran charity which assists people in the first bureaucratic steps towards procuring an abortion.

Following this revelation, the diocese had the address removed immediately from the list, as abortion is, of course, completely incompatible with the Catholic faith. Nonetheless, Bishop Bätzing is now being accused of directly promoting the murder of children in the womb. Diocesan spokesman Stephan Schnelle rightly condemns this accusation as “nonsense” and “perfidious”. The diocese is now taking legal action against web portal Katholische.info, which has set up the online petition against the bishop* and continues making the accusations against him, as well as to others who can be held accountable for the aforementioned protests (it is, for example, as yet unclear who actually erected the banner in front of Msgr. Bätzing’s home).

Obviously, katholisches.info was right in pointing out that the charity on the Hochtaunus list provided services which are incompatible with Catholic teachings regarding the dignity of life. While one can wonder how it ever ended up on that list, the diocese acted appropriately in removing it immediately. Asked for a comment, spokesman Schnelle stated back in November, “The protection of life is of the highest priority for the bishop and the diocese”.

The actions against Bishop Bätzing and the Diocese of Limburg are grossly disproportionate. In fact, it does more harm than good to the goal of defending human life, not just to the persons undertaking these actions, but to all who think that killing unborn children is no solution to anything.

*The petition calls for legal action against bishop and diocese. According to German law, the dissemination of advertisements for abortions “for financial benefit or in a grossly offensive manner” is punishable with imprisonment for up to two years or a fine.

New cardinal appointments reveal papal focus

Yesterday, some of the new cardinals created by Pope Francis in his latest two consistories (November 2016 and June 2017) were given their duties in the Roman curia. More than simply an honorary title (although it sometimes is just that), a cardinal is expected to sit on various councils and congregations and so assist the Pope in running the affairs of the world Church. They are expected to be in Rome regularly to facilitate this, which, I imagine, does little to make life easier for some. Cardinal Mario Zenari, for example, serves in daily life as the Apostolic Nuncio to war-torn Syria. He has now been assigned to serve as a member of the Congregation for Oriental Churches as well.

763Among the cardinals in question are Jozef Cardinal De Kesel (at left), archbishop of Mechelen-Brussels, and Anders Cardinal Arborelius, bishop of Stockholm. They have been appointed as members of the Dicastery for the Laity, the Family and Life, and the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, respectively.

The appointments of both cardinals are logical ones. Cardinal De Kesel has spoken out on numerous occasions on the role of the laity in the Church, and the dignity of human life. His appointment will undoubtedly herald his continued role in the debate about these topics, not least in the context of the Amoris laetitia its interpretation. Cardinal Arborelius has long since been involved with ecumenism, which is unavoidable in a country like Sweden. The Catholic Church is small but growing and has to relate to the secular society of the country and its Lutheran background.

The dicastery to gain the largest number of new members is the Dicastery for Integral Human Development. With five members (Cardinals Patrick D’Rozario (Dhaka, Bangeldesh), Maurice Piat (Port-Louis, Mauritius), John Ribat (Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea), Louis-Marie Ling Mangkhanekhoun (Vientiane, Laos) and Gregorio Rosa Chávez (auxiliary of San Salvador, El Salvador), all from Pope Francis’ favoured ‘peripheries’, it perhaps shows the importance he attaches to the dicastery which he established at the start of this year.

Photo credit: Reuters

 

The state of the world at Christmas, according to Bishop Punt

In his regular ‘Word from the Bishop’ column, Bishop Jos Punt of Haarlem-Amsterdam this time looks ahead to Christmas, and particularly the state of our world today. Are political grandstanding and military threats really an answer, he asks. While we live in a broken world, power is needed to keep opposing powers in check, but real change starts in the hearts of people, he argues.

20160110_punt_70“We are celebrating Christmas in a tense time. The Middle East is on fire. North Korea and American are threatening “fire and fury” upon each other. Almost all countries are rearming themselves. Each one, in their own opinion, to defend themselves against the others. That is how the First World War started. How do we break this spiral of fear, hate and violence?

The world leaders are betting on diplomacy, shows of force and alliances. Understandable. At the same time, everyone knows that that is not the ultimate solution. What we need is a New World Order, many politicians therefore claim. Especially a world government with complete power and authority to control international conflicts. What they forget is that leaders are also always people with exactly the same weaknesses. They, too, easily fall into self-interest, greed and lust for power. We see it everywhere around us. We have already seen in extreme way, in Hitler, Stalin and Mao, what the concentration of power leads to. On a worldwide level the consequences will be unimaginable.

Great thinkers from the past have long foreseen this and warned against it. Think of Dostoyevsky or George Orwell, or of Aldous Huyxley with his famous novel Brave New World (1932). Or also of Robert Benson, an English priest from the 1900s, with his novel Lord of the World (1907). Both Pope Francis and Pope Benedict have referred to it as a warning to us. Visionary, Benson describes a secularised world in which mankind, plagued by fear and chaos, calls for a strong leader. Then, an all-powerful dictator rises, a sort of Antichrist. He does indeed bring order with power and control, but ultimately robs mankind of all its dignity and freedom. A new world order is not the answer to chaos and war, but sooner or later a highway to the most complete dictatorship of all time. As long as we live in this broken world, powers must always be confronted by other powers.

But how should things be? I have said it before: the world will only change when man changes. Diplomacy, alliances and sometimes military interventions are necessary, but can only combat the symptoms of a wounded world and an inwardly wounded mankind, but it is not the cure. That should take place in the heart of man. And the Good News of Christmas is that this is possible. Man has a conscience and is able to change. He can became great and holy, a force for good for all mankind. Great and small people defeating evil, first in their own hearts, and then changing their surroundings and the world. Our time needs such people, not least in politics. Nothing in man’s being or in his history should be an obstacle to that, the Lord promises.

You will probably the beautiful song Amazing Grace. What you may not know is that it was written by the captain of a slave ship in the eighteenth century, John Newton. In a storm he was touched by the light of God, and saw the great evil of his life. He had the courage to confront it and ask for forgiveness. One moment of grace completely changed him. He began to strive for the abolishment of slavery, and later became a gifted preacher who drew full churches in England. Only the change of heart can offer the solution. The entire Bible is an encouragement to open yourself up to the touch of God’s Spirit.

But Scripture also teaches us that that touch is never open-ended and always presents us with a choice. When the Spirit comes in force, as it did for John Newton, his mild Light will let you feel the love of God, but also show you the dark places of your heart and your hidden sins. Not to discourage you, but to give you the chance to change what is not right, and to receive forgiveness. That is why Christ has come, Scripture tell us, to save us through the forgiveness of our sins. We can leave behind everything that we regret and confess honestly. When you believe in this Child, love incarnate, and bring everything that weighs you down and holds you back to Him, He will carry it with and for you, and give you strength to be a force for good for the world around you. And after this life He will receive you in His eternal Kingdom. Some will receive this gift of redemption in gratitude, like the shepherds and the magi, and kneel down to worship the Child. Others will be too prideful for that, like Herod, and hold on to their power, greed and lust, persecute the Child and banish God from their lives.

Christmas is the feast of the Light. The Light of God’s Love and truth that enlightens the hearts of people, and through them the world. May this Light be ours in these days. In that sense I wish you all a Blessed Christmas.”

 

A little prayer for Christmas

prayerA little prayer I whipped up this morning for my wife to use in her school’s Christmas celebration. As it was to be prayed before (and, it is hoped, with) an audience of teens who are generally only vaguely familiar with the act of prayer and the Christian faith as a whole, I chose to focus mostly on human kindness and charity instead of more difficult theological concepts such as the Incarnation. Still, Christmas can’t exist without God, the Light of the world, the Word become flesh, so even when celebrating with people unfamiliar with such things, it is no good to be so general as to ignore that world-changing event.

And, yes, there are traces of the well-known prayer of St. Francis in there.

“Lord God,

We celebrate Christmas. In the darkest time of the year we celebrate that it became Light. That Light enlightens our world and ourselves.

We see that there is much that is wrong, that people do things that harm others and the world. We, too, sometimes make mistakes.

We celebrate Christmas. A new beginning. The child in the manger shows us that beginning. Now, at the start of the Christmas holidays, in which we will also begin a whole new year, we want to ask You to keep lighting our way. So that we can bring peace where there are fights and arguments, joy where there is sorrow, hope where people no longer know where to go, light in the darkness.

And when we may find ourselves in darkness, may we also encounter people of light.

We celebrate Christmas.

Amen.”