In Bruges, priest once found guilty of abuse returns to the fold

Bisdom%20BruggeA potentially difficult situation that is bound to raise more than a few eyebrows has developed in the Diocese of Bruges, as Bishop Jozef De Kesel has assigned a priest, who has been found guilty of at least one case of molesting a minor in the past, to the parish federation in Middelkerke, halfway between Ostend and Nieuwpoort on the Belgian coast.

Father Tom Flamez appeared in court in 2008 and 2009, where he was found guilty of sexual molestation of teenage boy. In January of 2009, the court, for reasons of its own, decided to waive any punishment, as Bishop De Kesel explains in a statement released today:

de kesel“For a period of five years, Tom Flamez was permanently monitored by the house of justice in Courtrai. Even during this time the probation commission had no objections to an eventual appointment as parish priest. Unlike the reporting of some media he never violated the probationary  conditions. In January of 2014 the commission of the court of Courtrai decided that the trial period could be ended. Until this day Tom Flamez is sustainably and professionally supervised.”

In the meanwhile I have also presented this file to a higher ecclesial authority. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith agreed with an eventual appointment, starting on 15 January 2014. Tom Flamez has been working on occasion in the parish of Middelkerke since September of 2011. His work there was positively evaluated. All this led me to decide, after consulting the diocesan council, to appoint Tom Flamez as parish priest in the federation of Middelkerke. Convinced that everyone who has shown to be able deserves a second chance, I hope that Tom Flamez will be given the opportunity to properly fulfill the duties entrusted to him.”

This statement is a response to ongoing media speculations that Fr. Flamez did violate the conditions of his probation, something which the bishop denies. Additionally, many also link him to the disgraced former bishop of Bruges, Roger Vangheluwe, who resigned in 2010 after admitting being guilty of years of sexual abuse. This subject, of the sexual abuse or violation of minors, is extremely sensitive and needs to be handled very carefully. In the first place for the sake of the victims, but also for all others involved with the perpetrator in his new duties.

Of course, Bishop De Kesel is correct that everyone deserves a second chance when he or she is able to take it. And our entire legal system is founded on the principle that once a person has been punished for a crime, he can’t be punished again for that same crime. He starts over with a clean slate, so to speak. But as Fr. Flamez has not been punished (for reasons we don’t know – perhaps the case was settled in some form outside court), many may feel that this principle does not apply to him.

Bishop De Kesel, backed by not only his own diocesan council, but also by the court and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the faith, which has authority in all abuse cases, has decided that there is no reason for Fr. Flamez not to be the priest in a parish, working with people of all ages, including children and youth. And in this he also seems to be supported by the church in Middelkerke, where Fr. Flamez has been a familiar face for these past three years.

Let’s hope his trust is justified, and that this is an example of how people who once made grave mistakes can leave those behind them.

EDIT:

Yesterday it turned out that the careful process followed by the bishop – consulting both his diocesan council and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith before appointing Fr. Flamez – was not as careful as it seemed. He forgot one all-important group: the victims of sexual abuse by clergy. And it was Fr. Flamez himself who made the best call possible in not accepting the appointment as parish priest of Middelkerke. A statement published yesterday says that the bishop realises that the appointment hurt the victims of sexual abuse, and that that was never his intention. Which begs the question: why did he not realise this beforehand?

The Belgian bishops use certain guidelines when dealing with clergy who have been found guilty of sexual abuse of minors. One of these is that they can never be allowed to work with children and young people again. The position of parish priest does entail working with people of all ages, including youth and children.

We can’t know what the exact motivation was for Fr. Flamez’ decision not to accept the appointment. Was it the questions in the media which made his position untenable, or perhaps a realisation that this was not the sort of duty he could take up considering his past mistakes? Yesterday’s statement only mentions “given circumstances”, which is as vague as it gets.

All in all, this whole situation, despite the apparent care expressed in certain areas, gives the impression of carelessness. The victims, be they of the priest in question or of other clergy, can not be ignored. The Church is under scrutiny in this area, and may well serve as an example to other institutions. But not when things like this happen.

The fluidity of doctrine – looking back at the Synod

Bishop Gerard de Korte looks back on the Synod:

bisschop de korte“Pope Francis’ thinking is process-oriented. The Synod (‘journeying together’) which has now ended was a moment on the way. The Church is on her way to a new Synod in October of 2015. In the meanwhile the thinking about sexuality, marriage and family continues in the worldwide community of faith.

Building bridges, not destroying them, as Church is in the spirit of Pope Francis and the Synod. Personally I advocate a ‘ministry of encounter’.

We can’t kick people with marriage problems or other relational worries when they’re down, but we should stand with and help them. In that way we follow in the footsteps of Christ who, as the Good Samaritan, seeks out and heals people who lie wounded on the side of the way of life. Catholic ministry will not repel or write off people but try and meet them in the places where they are. In that, the Catholic shepherd is called to manifest God’s unconditional love for imperfect people.

Media report that the Church wants to be more merciful but that doctrine is unchangeable. I think that is too simplistic. Life means growth and change. That is also true for the life of the Church. Christian teaching knows development (Cardinal John Henry Newman). When our thinking is historical-organical it becomes clear how important the hermeneutic questions are. The doctrine of the Church must continuously be interpreted and communicated. Of course, the spirit of the times can never be a deciding factor in that. He who marries the spirit of the times, is soon widowed. But we should wonder of we have sufficiently probed the wealth of Scripture and Catholic Tradition (Cardinal Reinhard Marx). In that sense the doctrine of the Church must always be actualised to stay close to life.

Going towards the Synod of October 2015, there are important questions on the Church’s agenda. How can we help young people to grow towards the sacrament of marriage? How do we help couples to strengthen and deepen their marriage bond? How do we stand with people who failed and were unable to fulfill their word of faithfulness?

An important questions, it seems to me, is also how love, friendship and affection can take shape for people who do not live within the bond of marriage. In our country millions of people live outside of marriage. The Church traditionally asks them to live in abstinence. But what does this mean in real situations, certainly when we realise that celibate life is a charisma, a gift from God, which few people receive. When we acknowledge that the questions of relationship ‘within the boundaries of Catholic morality become all the more exiting. In short, there is much work to do for the faith community.

Msgr. Dr. Gerard de Korte”

The bishop raises good questions, ones that certainly need answering. But not just theoretical answers. These questions instead need practical solutions, they need to become visible in how the Church acts and speaks, not just how she thinks. That’s what the Synod is about, too: the question of how teachings become reality for people living in the world.

The doctrine of the Church, the rich body of faith that she protects and communicates, is neither completely solid nor completely fluid. Comments about doctrine continuously needing to be interpreted, as made by Bishop de Korte above, are often understood to mean that what the Church once believed to be true, need not be believed anymore (not that am I saying that the bishop holds to this). That is quite simply wrong.

In his most recent blog post, Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York writes:

Cardinal-Timothy-Dolan“We Catholics pledge allegiance to what is called a “revealed religion”.  That simply means that we believe that God has told us (“revealed”) certain things about Himself and ourselves through the Bible, through our own nature, especially through His Son, all celebrated and taught by His Church.”

We find this everywhere in the Bible. God reveals Himself to people and over the course of history we get to know Him more and more, and our relationship with Him develops. But at the start, there are certain truths which we know because they have been revealed. These divine truths are unchangeable, as they exist independent of us. So when we say that we must interpret or develop doctrine, we always have these revealed truths as our solid basis. Does that limit us? Perhaps it does, but only because it’s not only about us. God is the other party in the relationship and His contributions, His truth about Himself, creation and human nature and purpose, must equally be acknowledged.

Developing doctrine must be understood as increasing our knowledge and understanding of it, building on what we already know. That deeper understanding is one step, the communication and manifestation of it is another. And that, again, is what the Synod is intended to encourage.

But, as a final aside, not every doctrine is dogmatic (ie. held to be absolutely and unchanging true). Non-dogmatic teachings and practices, such as certain rituals and traditions of the Church, can certainly change. But if we want to change them, we must always ask ourselves: why do want them to change, and why do we have them in the first place? Perhaps then we’ll find that it is sometimes better to hold onto teachings, instead of doing away with them.

Some thoughts on the Synod and how some people choose to view it

I have to wonder about all those people who claim that poor Pope Francis has been thwarted by those mean old bishops in getting the liberal result of the Synod they wanted? They act as if the only possible conclusion could be what the Pope wishes for: Communion for all, approval of same-sex marriage and an end to difficult and nasty words about sin and exclusion. If only it weren’t for those bishops who are simply afraid of change and don’t want to lose their luxury positions of power.

Except that this is about as far removed from reality as possible.

There is an image of the Pope that is only about being nice. Those who hold to this image quote such statements like the infamous “who am I to judge?” about homosexuals seeking God, but conveniently ignore the fact that no other modern pontiff has spoken as much about sin and the Devil as Pope Francis. According to this line of thought, the Synod must be Pope Francis’ attempt to make the Church nice: to get rid of the difficulties surrounding Communion, marriage and sexuality (never mind the tendency of pretending that these are the sole topics discussed at the Synod is an extremely narrow view).

Now that the Synod is over and the concluding remarks have been published, the followers of this train of thought claim that it is not Pope Francis who holds to the carefu language about homosexuality, about Communion for the divorced and remarried, language that does not go as far as they would want, but those mean old bishops who hijacked the debate. Never mind that Pope Francis has expressly denied that there are opposing sides among the Synod fathers, or that the purpose of the Synod itself says nothing about pushing through any agenda. The Pope called for free and open discussion, no holds barred, and that’s what, and we, he got.

The idea that Pope Francis is disappointed in the result (a temporary result, I might add) of the Synod is unrealistic and presumptuous, a result of seeing the Church as a mere political arena, with opposing side; one conservative, clinging to what is old and familiar, and the other liberal, hoping to change the Church to align to the times.

“Many commentators, or people who talk, have imagined that they see a disputatious Church where one part is against the other, doubting even the Holy Spirit, the true promoter and guarantor of the unity and harmony of the Church, the Holy Spirit who throughout history has always guided the barque, through her Ministers, even when the sea was rough and choppy, and the ministers unfaithful and sinners.”

Many people talk, few listen or read. A proper read-through of the documents of the Synod should be enough to know that both secularist and extreme conservative conclusions are unrealistic. The Church has not closed doors to anyone, and nor has she thrown out the deposit of the faith that she has been given to keep and share.

Forget the sensational headlines – What the Synod is really about

Today, it seemed as if the Church has turned a whole bundle of pages, made a full 180 on several high profile subjects and basically “got with the times”. Of course, reality is quite different, but you wouldn’t know it from certain sources, both left and right.

Peter+Erdo+Synod+Themes+Family+3tjyhEsy4E_lThe Relatio post disceptationem, which was presented today by Cardinal Péter Erdö, summarises the discussions and presentations of the first week of the Synod, and tries to paint a picture of the major topics discussed and field of further study and development identified. As such there is nothing conclusive in it, nothing authoritative, nothing but a update on where the discussion now stand.

In order to understand what the contents of the document mean, it is always good to read all of it. Not just part 3, which outlines the pastoral areas that the discussion will focus on, but also part 1 (the challenges of the family in our modern world) and part 2 (the Biblical and traditional basis of the Church’s teaching on marriage and family). Only when read together can each part be understood fully and flights of fancy and wishful thinking be avoided.

We must never forget the theme of this assembly of the Synod: The pastoral challenges of the family on the context of evangelisation. There are several keywords here: The Synod participants will deal with pastoral challenges, not dogmatic. The teachings of the Church are not under discussion. It is about the family: their challenges, not the teachings, are what dictate the discussions. The context is that of evangelisation: pastoral care for families, the ways of facing their challenges, has evangelisation as its goal.

The outlines, which are not recommendations, and certainly not changes in the Church’s teaching, deal with people, and the Church has never ceased encouraging the innate dignity of human beings and the respect we are obliged to have for it. That is regardless of their gender, skin colour, sexual orientation, language or whatever element of their being you’d care to mention. It’s in the catechism, so anyone displaying surprise as the Relatio‘s emphasis on respect for all people, has some reading up to do.

The Relatio post disceptationem is interesting, worth reading and studying, and a good reminder of the importance of mercy, but it is not the earthquake some have made it out to be.

Read it, all of it. Don’t be satisfied with headlines.

Photo credit: Franco Origlia/Getty Images Europe

The pain of closure – A Dutch community pleads with the Pope

In more than a few dioceses in Europe, bishops and parish councils are forced to make choices about which Church buildings to maintain and which to close. The reasons are generally financial and logistical and call for local faith communities to merge, to join one another in remaining local Churches. The pain and even anger that this process causes, despite its frequent necessity, becomes clear in this plea from the community of the church of Our Lady of Good Counsel in Beverwijk, Diocese of Haarlem-Amsterdam. For four years, they have been fighting the parish council and the diocese, guarding their church to prevent it from being closed.

I understand their pain. The place which has been the home of a community for decades, where people have worshipped, married, were buried from, prayed, celebrated, grieved… Losing that can’t be easy. But that does not mean, if we are in such a situation, that we should become closed in. The impression I get from this video is that the people of this community put their local community first: they are members of their local community first, faithful of the diocese, the greater Church in the world second. But as Catholics we profess no bond to a localised place, although we have our local duties, tasks and relations. We profess to be followers of Jesus Christ, who is everywhere where two or more people are gathered in His name. Our brothers and sisters are everywhere, not just in our immediate vicinity. In the case of this community, it seems that their walls have become so high that it has become impossible to look over them from within.

Again, while I understand the pain, the community members present themselves as a very angry bunch. I don’t know the reasons for the parish council and the diocese to want to close this church, but I would have my reservations at the community’s promise to pay for the upkeep of the building. They may be able to do so now, but they all seem to be quite elderly. Will this community still be able to maintain their building in ten years time?

It is to be hoped that, despite their high walls and anger, the ears of this community will still listen. And the same goes for the diocese and parish council as well, of course. But for now, it seems it is more important to speak (or even shout) than to listen.

A just and merciful God – Cardinal Danneels’ intervention at the Synod

It is a shame that none of the interventions presented by cardinals, bishops, laity and other participants at the Synod are made public, a sentiment I share with more than a few, among them Cardinal Gerhard Müller. But we can take a look at at least one, which was given yesterday afternoon by Godfried Cardinal Danneels, the archbishop emeritus of Mechelen-Brussels. Cardinal Danneels was one of the Synod fathers personally selected by Pope Francis.

danneels synod

^Cardinal Danneels (right) leaves one of the Synod sessions. Also pictured are Bishop Anders Arborelius (left) and Cardinal Béchara Raï (centre).

“God is just and merciful. He can’t contradict himself. He can separate good and evil in a great straddle. We, we have difficulty because we are only poor ballet dancers for a moment in the whole of history.

It is up to us, poor sinners, to find ways of mercy which do not deny the truth; to find a way for the times in which we live and for every culture. It is up to us to find ways of mercy.

I will limit myself to a single way of mercy, which is so necessary today. Many are confronted with the failure of their first marriage and have committed themselves to a second marriage which, however, is neither valid for the Church, nor sacramental. Today there are many people in this situation. What do we do for them? They often desire regularisation but known that there are no options. While many fall away there are others who suffer much. What do we do for all these brothers and sisters who desire to be able to marry anew for the Church?

I regularly think that we could established something in the Church like the catechumenate and the ordo penitentium of the past, for which the Church could be a mother. Actually, what matters is more is to organise some pastoral care for divorced and remarried people, and less about an institutional change. How to form priests and laity for this specific ministry like, in the past, for the catechumens and for those in the process of receiving pardon for their sin?

In the first place we are invited to greatly respect our brothers and sisters, the divorced and remarried. Mercy starts where we have unconditional respect for all who want to live within the Church but can’t marry again for the Church and receive Communion.

The same respect is due to every actual marriage. Some carry within them the seeds waiting for spring. Very often divorced and remarried faithful are consciously or subconsciously looking for a way out. But there is no way out. In many cases couples are on the way to the ideal they so desire. Respect must be the ministry of our Mother the Church a ministry which sees the growth, the journey.

How to create space in the mission of the Church for a ministry for divorced and remarried people? In the first place, let us try and find these people. Many are hiding and dare not speak about it, sometimes not even with their partner. There is much hidden suffering. It is up to us priests to search for the sheep who want to come home but do not have the courage to say so.

Let us invite these people to come together, to meet and listen to one another, but in the presence of the shepherd. A shepherd who listens with his heart. There should be no immediate focus on the painful question of Communion being denied to those who have entered into a second marriage. True listening carries healing within it.

It is so important to speak with them, to let them speak about the beauty of marriage and the Christian family. Beauty is so powerful! This is obviously not esthetic beauty, but beauty who is the sister of truth and goodness. According to Aristotle “beauty is truth in all its glory”. Pulchrum est splendor veri.

Among our contemporaries there is much scepticism about the truth; even goodness can discourage, but beauty disarms. Beauty heals. Archimedes said about our world today, “Give me a place to stand and I will lift the world.”

The divorced and remarried are not the only suffering children, but there are far more than we think. My appeal – in all simplicity – is: to love God’s children. Their pain and suffering is often great. They don’t immediately ask for the regulations of the Church to change. Their cry is rather one to the shepherds with their hearts in the right place, why carry the wounded lamb on their shoulders. Beauty disarms. We hold the cards: there is indeed nothing more beautiful than Christian marriage and a deeply faithful family. But we must communicate the truth to divorced and remarried people – delicately – with the words of Saint Francis in mind, which he spoke to the superiors of his small communities, “never let anyone leave you in sadness”.

+ Godfried Cardinal Danneels,

Rome, 8 October 2014

Photo credit: Siciliani Gennari/SIR

Synod Day 1 – First impressions

léonard synod

^Orthodox metropolitan of Belgium, Athenagoras, who is a guest at the Synod, snapped this photo of Archbishop André-Joseph Léonard of Mechelen-Brussels. Also visible, at the far right, is Bishop Anders Arborelius of Stockholm.

eijk synod^Cardinal Eijk (second from the right) is seen in this still from the CTV live stream, seated between Cardinals John Tong Hon of Hong Kong and George Alencherry of Ernakulam-Angamaly. On the other side of Cardinal Alencherry sits Cardinal Marx.

As the Metropolitans of the Low Countries, to name but two, got down to business, the rest of the world was treated to a mixture of openness and secrecy about the Synod’s deliberations. On the one hand the first session was streamed live, but on the other the remainder will take place behind closed doors. And unlike previous Synod assemblies, the contributions of the speakers will also not be published. Instead, there will be summaries of the day’s proceedings and several participants will take part in daily press briefings.

In his opening address to the Synod, Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri told the participants not to use their Twitter accounts in the Synod hall. That makes sense, but let’s hope they’ll continue using them outside the hall. Related to that, there are a few blogging bishops and cardinals at the Synod. In addition to those populating my sidebar, I have also come across the blogs of Archbishop Paul-André Durocher, of Gatineau in Canada, and Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville in the US.

The official Vatican website on the Synod also has a bunch of texts and also video interviews with participants in several languages.

Today, Cardinals Maradiaga (Tegucigalpa and the Council of Cardinals), Marx (Munich and the Council of Cardinals), Napier (Durban), Sistach (Barcelona), Erdö (Budapest) and Archbishop Okada (Tokyo) took the first sit-down with the press. Their words there gave some hints at what was discussed in the second congregation, which took place this afternoon.

Cardinal Maradiaga spoke about the importance of marriage preparation which, he said, should start after Confirmation. Cardinal Sistach stressed the importance of the bishops staying as close as possible to the people and their lives, so as to formulate a realistic response. Archbishop Okada added that in Japan it was the laity who kept the faith alive and passed it on to later generations, despite persecutions. Cardinal Napier painted the image of the Church as the Good Samaritan, caring for the wounded. Cardinal Marx, then, stated that there needs to be a public debate on the Synod’s themes.

The entire mission programme, so to speak, of the Synod was outlined by the ubiquitous Cardinal Péter Erdö, in his Relatio ante disceptationem.

pope francis synod^And in the end, the Pope strolled home… (photo courtesy of Charles Le Bourgeois)