At the Synod, an agenda point inserts itself

The relationship between Church and young people is at the forefront of the minds of many a bishop heading to Rome next month. Not just because the Synod of Bishops will be discussing the topic of youth and vocation, but also because said relationship – at least between young people and certain representatives of the Church – has not always been smooth, to say the least. For two bishops this has been reason to stay at home: Msgr. Rob Mutsaerts because he doesn’t believe this is the right time to discuss the Synod topic, and American Cardinal Joseph Tobin because he feels he should not be away from his Archdiocese of Newark in such troubling times.

Among the bishops who are going, however, the concerns expressed by the aforementioned prelates are equally present.

everard de jongBishop Everard de Jong, who will be taking Bishop Mutsaerts’ place at the Synod has said that he will be supporting the latter’s statement:  “I will probably start with saying something about the importance of a safe environment.” In the mere four minutes alloted to him Bishop de Jong also intends to address the question of how young people may be taught to discern their vocation, and break the Catholic hesitance to speak about God and faith, he told Katholiek Nieuwsblad.

“Too long have we been silent; as Catholics we failed to speak explicitly about God and the sacraments. Young people therefore know little to nothing about this. But I haven’t written out my text completely, and I only have four minutes of speaking time. So I doubt if I can address all of that.”

bischof-oster-passau-124~_v-img__16__9__xl_-d31c35f8186ebeb80b0cd843a7c267a0e0c81647Bishop Stefan Oster, one of three German delegates to the Synod, goes a step further, saying before Katholisch.de that the bishops can’t avoid discussing the abuse crisis at the Synod. They must do three things, he says: listen to young people, take further measures of prevention, and credibly present the teachings of the Church. Bishop Oster says that cancelling the Synod  because of the abuse crisis is not an option, as the topics of young people are even more important now. In the meantime, the abuse crisis has also had its influence on the daily interactions between priests and young people, perhaps inadvertently causing division. When he is asked to take a selfie with someone, to cite an example, Bishop Oster finds himself wondering, “do I dare put my arm around a young person’s shoulder?”

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“Not the right time” – +Mutsaerts stays at home

Mgr. drs. R.G.L.M. Mutsaerts

Less than a week after his participation in the Synod of Bishops assembly on youth and vocation was confirmed by the Holy See, Bishop Rob Mutsaerts announces that he will not go. The auxiliary bishop of ‘s-Hertogenbosch was the first choice of the bishops’ conference to take part in the three-week meeting in Rome as their delegate. As the brief statement from the bishops states:

“[Bishop Mutsaerts] informed Pope Francis that he does not think it is the right time to hold a synod on youth, considering the studies and the news about sexual abuse which came out in, among other places, America. He therefore chooses not to take part.”

The Dutch Bishops’ Conference respects the choice, but also states that the Synod is “a chance and an opportunity to address this in the context of the topic and discuss it with bishops from all countries of the world.”

The inability or – in this case – unwillingness of a chosen delegate to take part in the Synod has been foreseen in the preparations. In addition to one or more delegates, every bishops’ conference also chooses one or more substitutes to take over from a delegate if the need arises. The Dutch bishops have appointed Bishop Everard de Jong as subsistute for Bishop Mutsaerts, and the auxiliary bishop of Roermond will now travel to Rome instead.

de jong synod

For Bishop de Jong this will be the second Synod in which he takes part. In 2012 he participated in the Synod Assembly on the new evangelisation (first from left in the picture at right), where he emphasised the importance of the role of the Holy Spirit, proper spiritual formation and a courageous pro-life attitude

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New wave of abuse in the Church in the Netherlands? Not quite, but the need for vigilance remains

New revelations about sexual abuse, with the knowledge of a significant number of bishops no less, in the Catholic Church in the Netherlands? If certain headlines are to be believed, that is indeed the case. Reality, however, disagrees somewhat.

eindrapport%20commissie%20DeetmanIt all started with this article in major daily NRC. In it, reporter Joep Dohmen lists which bishops were in some way involved (peripherally or directly) in abuse cases between 18945 and 2010. At the bottom of his article he lists his sources, two of which are the report of the Deetman Commission and the commission collecting claims of abuse in the Church. Both are the result of the independent investigation which was commissioned by the Dutch Bishops’ Conference and the Conference of Dutch Religious in 2010. The third source is a study by NRC itself.

This, together with the dates mentioned, already shows that the news is not new. The majority of cases took place decades ago, and the 20 bishops listed by Mr. Dohmen are all no longer active (in fact, 14 of them are deceased). All of the cases mentioned have been known at least since 2011.

Having all the facts straight can only be good, and the article in NRC at least serves as a good reminder for the Church to keep working for the victims and to do everything to prevent future abuse of minors and vulnerable adults in the Church, and to see that the perpetrators are punished, if at all possible (after all, the law can do little against deceased persons, and is in many cases often limited by the statute of limitations). However, the NRC article has been labelled by some as populist. This in part because some of the facts presented are not necessarily the whole story. For example, the accusations against Bishop Jo Gijsen (bishop of Roermond from 1972 to 1993) have been challenged in court, with the judge determining that the evidence against the bishop was accepted all too readily and does not hold up in a court of law, and there are cases in which a bishop accepted the appointment of a bishop from another diocese without having been informed about his background.

That said, all of the above does not take anything away from the serious nature of sexual abuse, be it in the Church or elsewhere. No longer does any bishop have the excuse of claiming he couldn’t have known, or resort to simply transferring an abusive priest. Any bishop caught doing that should rightly be charged with aiding an abuser, and be punished accordingly.

However, this is the luxury of hindsight. As former spokesman of the bishops’ conference Jan-Willem Wits states in his excellent commentary on the article, such was the simple and painful reality:

“What I personally do not believe, and yet somehow read in the NRC pieces, is that bishops were a sort of leaders of a virtual criminal organisation which consciously closed its eyes to priests who could not control themselves. Of course the fear of a damaged reputation will have played its part, but I have seen a lot of shame and a lot of naivety. Especially the transferring of priests with abuse in their genes has, in hindsight, been unbelievably stupid and actually unforgivable. Now we know that the chance of recidivism is so very great that, even with therapy, let along after apologies and confession, it is only a matter of time for the bomb to blow.”

Hindsight is 20/20, they say. No one can change the past. But it can – and must – be a lesson. Lets hope that the lesson is being received.

On abuse, the pope calls the bishops to Rome

synodIn February of next year, Pope Francis will receive the presidents of the world’s bishops’ conferences to discuss the “protection of minors”, as today’s press communique states. It is obvious that this announcement, originally proposed by the Council of Cardinals who concluded their 26th meeting today*, comes in the wake of, and is a reaction to, the events of the past weeks.

Some think that February’s meeting, which has not been identified as an Extraordinary Assembly of the Synod of Bishops, as the participation of conference presidents only suggests. comes rather late. After all, the crisis is happening now, but it would be foolish to think it will be gone when the new year rolls around. The current crisis was triggered by investigations by a grand jury in the American state of Pennsylvania, but at this time, the attorneys general of six more states have either already subpoenaed dioceses in their states, have announced that they will do so, or, in some cases, dioceses themselves have invited AG’s to study their paperwork. This, and similar procedures in other countries, including Germany, assure that the abuse history of the Church will be with us for a long time to come. Things will not have blown over by the time the bishops meet in Rome.

That said, the Church, from the Pope on down, does not have the luxury to sit back and do nothing until February. Too many high ranking prelates, including the pope himself, have been implicated or somehow included in accusations of silencing victims, hiding abusers, and not reporting crimes. The crisis has by now, rightly or wrongly, involved so many people, and high ranking ones at that, that proper action has become not only unavoidable, but extremely necessary.  And continued silence is not that proper action.

Finally, as some have rightly pointed out, while the prevention of abuse of minors  and the identification and punishment of perpetrators remains high on the list of priorities, the current crisis in the Church is not only about that. The victims have not solely been minors. In the case of Archbishop McCarrick, they were seminarians, so young adults, and the abuse was later covered up by other priests and bishops. It is to be hoped that February’s assembly will recognise and discuss that aspect too.

DSC_2699_31481e79b67ab70c5ca711c62299f166While Pope Francis is free to appoint other delegates to the assembly, and he would be wise to do so, the presidents of the bishops’ conferences are expressly invited, or, if you will, summoned. There are 114 Roman-rite conferences in the Church, and a further 21 of Eastern rites. The presidents of these are elected by the members of each conference, and they need not be a cardinal or archbishop (metropolitan or not). The president of the Dutch Bishops’ Conference is the bishop of Rotterdam, Msgr. Hans van den Hende (pictured), while the Belgian bishops, on the other hand, are headed by Cardinal Jozef De Kesel, and the Germans by Cardinal Reinhard Marx. The Nordic Bishops’ Conference then, made up of bishops from five countries, have the bishop of Copenhagen, Msgr. Czeslaw Kozon, as their president. It is unknown if bishops from dioceses which do not belong to a conference, such as Luxembourg, will be invited as well.

*And not on Monday, as I wrote earlier. Thanks for the correction sent by e-mail, David Cheney of Catholic Hierarchy!

**A detailed investigation of several years has revealed, media suggest, almost 4,000 victims of abuse over the course of 6 decades. The official report is to be published in two weeks time.

Photo credit: [2] KN/Jan Peeters

Changes for the C9

For the first time since its establishment in 2013, the so-called C9, or the Council of Cardinals who assist the pope in governing the Church and reforming the Curia, is on the verge of a major shakeup. Originally composed of eight cardinals and a bishop secretary, the council was expanded to nine with the addition of the Secretary of State in 2014.

council of cardinals

^The Council of Cardinals in 2013. From left to right: Cardinal Errázuriz, Bishop Semeraro, Cardinal Gracias, Cardinal Marx, Pope Francis, Cardinal Maradiaga, Cardinal Bertello, Cardinal O’Malley, Cardinal Pell, Cardinal Monsengwo Pasinya. Cardinal Parolin was not yet a member.

In its 26th meeting, which concluded today, the members asked the pope to, among other things, consider the composition of the council, also taking into account the age of some of the members. This seems a direct reference to the three members who are over 75, the mandatory age of retirement for bishops and cardinals in the Curia (cardinals automatically retire at the age of 80, if their retirement had not been accepted before then). However, if, in his deliberations on this issue, the pope decides to look a few years ahead, all but two of the members of the Council of Cardinals could arguably be up for retirement.

The three senior members, who are almost certainly to retire from the Council, are:

  • Francisco Cardinal Errázuriz Ossa, archbishop emeritus of Santiago de Chile, 83
  • Laurent Cardinal Monsengwo Pasinya, archbishop of Kinshasa, 78
  • George Cardinal Pell, Prefect of the Secretariat for the Economy, 77

Of these, Cardinals Errázuriz and Pell are also facing accusations of mismanagement of sexual abuse claims, perhaps further compromising their position in the Council – Cardinal Errázuriz as part of the overall Chilean abuse crisis, while Cardinal Pell, who maintains his innocence, is currently in the middle of court proceedings against him in his native Australia.

Of the other six members, 2 are currently 75, while two more will reach that age within the next to years. They are:

  • Óscar Cardinal Rodríguez Maradiaga, archbishop of Tegucigalpa, 75
  • Giuseppe Cardinal Bertello, president of the Governorate of and the Pontifical Commission for the Vatican City State, 75
  • Seán Cardinal O’Malley, archbishop of Boston, 74
  • Oswald Cardinal Gracias, archbishop of Bombay, 73

Of these, four, Cardinal Maradiaga stands accused of complicity in the handling of abuse cases and financial mismanagement, while, on he other side of the case, Cardinal O’Malley continues to play a significant part in the fight against abuse as president of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors.

Rounding out the membership, and not at risk to be retired, at least for reasons of age are:

  • Reinhard Cardinal Marx, archbishop of München und Freising, 64
  • Pietro Cardinal Parolin, secretary of state, 63
  • Bishop Marcello Semeraro, bishop of Albano, 70

Who Pope Francis will select to replace the three senior Council members is anyone’s guess, although it would be logical if he maintains the practice of choosing one member per continent. So we may expect a new member each from South America, Africa and Oceania. But other than that, the guessing is actually harder than back in 2013. In his first year as pope, Francis will have likely picked cardinals he knew well enough (Errázuriz), or who headed a major diocese in their part of the world (Monsengwo Pasinya, Pell). Now, five years later, and as we have seen from the cardinals he has created, Francis may well have an eye for the little men, some of whom he gave a red hat. As it is actually called a Council of Cardinals, we can safely assume that he will choose cardinals, and not regular bishops or archbishops. Then again…

In the same statement about their 26th meeting, the Council of Cardinals also announced hat a formal response to the Viganò allegations would be forthcoming. A welcome announcement.

In deep shame, remembering what is good – Bishop de Korte urges “joyful faith” in “days of crisis”

downloadFollowing his earlier comments on the latest revelations about past abuse in the Catholic Church, and in light of the impact this has had on Catholics, also in the Netherlands, Bishop Gerard de Korte has written a letter to the faithful of his diocese. But its message is just as pertinent for Catholics in other dioceses and even other countries.

Without wanting to diminish the suffering of the victims – the bishop describes how he has personally been in touch with a number of them – the letter reminds the reader of what is being done today to fight abuse, despite the failures of the past, and asks to remember of the good the Church still offers. It is good to remember, in my opinion, that there is no distinction between ‘the Church’ and the faithful in the pews. They – we – are the Church, and Bishop de Korte’s letter must be read in that light, so that it does not become a bishop’s call to not leave him and his priests, but an invitation to work together as God’s Church in the world.

“Brothers and sisters,

In the past weeks our Church has frequently been negatively in the news. There was the news about sexual abuse of minors in the United States. And on the highest level of our Church our good pope is accused of not having responded adequately to signs of abuse.

Altogether, the recent news reports are for many cause for pain and sadness. Several victims of sexual abuse who have I have spoken with in the past, have contacted me and told me that their pain is resurfacing because of the news. More than a few faithful in the parish are experiencing sadness with so many negative reports.

In recent history, religious, priests and bishops have been unfaithful to their vocation. They have committed crimes and seriously damaged the lives of people. Their behaviour did not bring people to God, but, in many cases, tested or even extinguished the faith in the hearts of people. This is a reason for deep shame.

In the Netherlands, the sexual abuse of minors was revealed in 2010. From that moment on, the Dutch bishops have been intensively involved in ding justice to the victims of the abuse. They have done their utmost, and will continue to do so, to purify and renew the Church.

All the recommendations of the Deetman commission, which investigated the sexual abuse of minors in our Church, have been followed. A great number of measures have been taken recognise victims and, at the same time, to prevent new victims being made. Of course, constant vigilance is needed, but I am strongly convinced that our Church in the Netherlands is a safer place than it was in the past, especially also for children and young people.

In these days of crisis our bond with the Church is being tested. May I ask you, especially now that it is difficult, to remain faithful? Now that we are going through an exceptionally difficult time for the Church, no one can be missed.

There are countless good things happening in the faith communities of our parishes. Things that can give us courage and hope. I think of celebrating God’s love together, as made visible in Jesus Christ. I’ll also mention all kinds of activities in the fields of communicating the faith and catechesis. And in the last place I gladly emphasise all sorts of charity and other forms of service, within and without the parishes. I think not only of the care for the elderly and the lonely, but also of efforts towards peace, justice and the maintenance of God’s creation.

The Church of our country and most especially of our own Diocese of ‘s-Hertogenbosch only has a future if many take the faith of their baptism seriously.

In these dark days, let us stay close to Christ and His Gospel, also by being close to all who are struggling. In these times we need Catholics who, despite everything, live their faith joyfully.

Thank you to all the faithful, priests, deacons, pastoral workers and all other baptised who form their faith in loyal perseverance.

Let us, inspired by the Holy Spirit, make our friendship with Christ visible in today’s world.

Msgr. Dr. Gerard de Korte”
Photo credit: ANP / Ramon Mangold

After McCarrick, Viganò and Francis, Dutch bishops comment

It took some time for the Dutch bishops to comment on what I have seen being called ‘the summer of scandal’: the revelation of past abuse and cover-ups in dioceses in Pennsylvania, accusations of similar cover-ups as far as the Vatican and the pope himself, and the silence that remains a too-frequently employed answer. Of course, as none of the developments involves the Catholic Church in the Netherlands in particular, and considering that we have been through a coupe of years of revelations and their fallout in recent years, it is in some way understandable that the bishops have kept their silence. After all, what else could they say that they haven’t been saying already? On the other hand, the abuse and accusations have been making headlines, also in Dutch media, and as Pope Francis remains highly popular inside and outside the Church, faithful in the Netherlands have been looking for answers and explanations, even if they are the same as those given a coupe of years ago.

bisschop-de-korteBishop Gerard de Korte of ‘s-Hertogenbosch was the first to comment directly on the letter by Archbishop Viganò and the steps taken by Pope Francis to combat sexual abuse and to promote openness in the Church concerning that issue. Last week he stated for Nieuwsuur:

“I think the debate is about how to deal with bishops who have consciously kept things secret and are guilty of abuse themselves. Bishop obviously can’t do that themselves. Someone above them, in this case the pope, must take those measures.”

Bishop de Korte admitted that it would be good if the pope displayed more decisiveness:

“He has already done some in a number of cases. But he could perhaps do a bit more. And I also think that many Catholics hope that he will do so in the near future.”

jan_hendriksIn his blog, Bishop Jan Hendriks, auxiliary of Haarlem-Amsterdam, shares his thoughts about recent developments, following his summer vacation pilgrimage to the tomb of St. Francis de Sales. Describing the cases of former Cardinal McCarrick and the testimony of  Archbishop Viganò, the bishop states:

“It is clear that I am not able to judge this and that is not my task anyway. I condemn every form of sexual abuse: justice must be done to victims, who have been done great harm by people who, as clerics, must stand for a completely different morality. We must continue making clear that we want to and must stand on the side of the victims. Obviously, this is not only true for people who have been the victim of the actions of representatives of the Catholic Church, but thought must also be given to proper procedures for people who have been the victim of abuse in youth care, families, schools or other parts of society. In that regards the Catholic Church is a clearly definable worldwide ‘organisation’ and things work differently for sport clubs, youth movements, schools or youth care.”

Bishop Hendriks continues by emphasising that recent investigations in both the Netherlands and the United States have revealed few abuse cases from recent years. Most were committed decades ago. This, the bishop says, could be due to improved procedures to fight abuse and help victims in the Church. He also adds that, in his experience, the reactions to accusations of abuse are sometimes exaggerated, leading to acceptance of accusations which turn out to not always be true.

“Personally, I see an advantage in clear procedures – also for the judging of abuse of office by bishops – which can establish a proper and public jurisprudence. A bishop who systematically fails to uphold celibacy, can not remain in office. How else can he proclaim the ‘Gospel of the family’?

In closing, Bishop Hendriks looks to the future, saying:

“We must expect that the topic of abuse will demand our attention for years to come. Country by country, abuse in the Catholic Church will have to be dealt with, and we haven’t gone through to all countries yet… I hope and pray that it may lead to something good, in any case to a greater awareness of the problem of sexual abuse an a more adequate means to preventing abuse, fighting and condemning it and supporting the victims.”