Four years ago, the commission charged with investigating accusations of sexual abuse against members of the clergy, decided that two such charges against the late Bishop Joannes Gijsen, ordinary of Roermond from 1972 to 1993, and of Reykjavik from 1996 to 2007, were plausible. As the bishop had died the year before, no legal action was possible against him. And that was for the better, it now turns out.
The local court of Gelderland judged this week that the commission had acted carelessly and broken basic legal regulations int he cases against Bishop Gijsen. The judge decided that the commission acted contrary to its own regulations, did not investigate the facts to a satisfactory extent and did not hear the defence. The court reproached the commission for accepting limited evidence: one charge against the bishop was deemed plausible simply because of the existence of a second unproven complaint.
The St. John foundation had charged the commission for unnecessary damaging the good name of clergy and other Church workers. Bishop Gijsen was one of the people they represented. The foundation considers the entire procedure followed by the commission in investigating charges of sexual abuse to be in violation of the European Convention on Human Rights. The court thought otherwise and deemed this charge and others inadmissable, and thus offered no judgement on the guilt or innocence of Bishop Gijsen. But it did offer some stern words against the commission and their decisions, and so threw the conclusions of the last years into renewed doubt.
In an interview published today, on the occasion of the tenth anniversary of his installation as archbishop of Utrecht, Cardinal Wim Eijk once again repeated his opinion that Pope Francis should remove all doubt about the question remarried Catholics and heir receiving Communion (or not). He says:
“Following both Synods on the family a document was written by the pope, Amoris laetitia. This has caused confusion. Can divorced and remarried Catholics receive Communion or can’t they? What you see now is that one bishops’ conference deals with it in one way, and the other in another way. But, what is true in location A, can’t suddenly be not true in location B. At some point you’d want clarity. […] People are confused and that is not right. […] I would say: just be clear. On this point. Remove that confusion. For example in the form of a document.”
It is also clear to Cardinal Eijk what such a clarification should say.
“We have the words of Christ himself, that marriage is one and can’t be broken. That is what we maintain in the archdiocese. When an ecclesiastical court has declared a marriage null, it is officially confirmed that there has never been a marriage. Only then, one is free to marriage and receive the sacraments of Confession and Communion.”
The interview covers far more ground than this single point – from church closings and the abuse crisis to Pope Francis and the perceived differences between cardinal and pope and divine providence… – but this is making the headlines. And is being misinterpreted. Cardinal Eijk’s position is no surprise. He participated in both Synod of Bishops assemblies on the family, was one of the alleged signatories of a letter sent to the pope asking him to defend traditional Church teaching on marriage, and he has since maintained that the different interpretations of Amoris laetitia on this topic is problematic. Some may choose to see this as his attacking the pope, but in reality he, not unlike the “dubia cardinals”, is simply noting that different opinions and interpretations exist and that that is something that should be remedied. That he is no enemy of the Holy Father, is something that Cardinal Eijk also repeats in this interview, by saying, “Nowhere has Francis ever said anything that is contrary to the teachings of the Church.”
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.
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].”
By 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.”
Very 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:  Reuters,  Reuters / A. Bianchi,  Flickr/George Martell-Pilot New Media
As expected, Pope Francis ended that three-week period in which no German dioceses were without a bishop, by accepting the retirement of Bishop Norbert Trelle of Hildesheim. Bishop Trelle turned 5 on the 5th of this month and his retirement was announced by Archbishop Nikola Eterovic, apostolic nuncio to Germany, during the celebrations for the bishop’s birthday.
^Bishop Trelle, centre, is pictured here with Archbishop Stefan Heße of Hamburg, who preached during the birthday Mass, and Archbishop Nikola Eterovic, the nuncio.
Now heading the diocese of the senior auxiliary bishop, Nikolaus Schwerdtfeger, who is to call a meeting of the cathedral chapter to elect a diocesan administrator, who will manage affairs until a new bishop has been appointed, within eight days. That election is usually a speedy process, as the retirement of Bishop Trelle has long been foreseen. A likely candidate to be chosen as administrator is the vicar general, Hildesheim’s other auxilary, Bishop Heinz-Günter Bongartz.
Bishop Trelle has stood at the head of the Diocese of Hildesheim for almost 12 years. Appointed in 2005, he was previously an auxiliary bishop of Cologne for more than 13 years. Like other bishops in and around Germany, he was confronted with dwindling numbers of faithful, which led him to reducing the number of parishes from 313 to 119, and closing some 50 churches. Priests in Hildesheim are now rarely attached to a single parish or location, but are responsible for clusters of parishes and communities, working in pastoral teams.
In January of this year, Bishop Trelle consecrated a new church, in Hannover, the first such consecration in more than 20 years.
Among the high points of Bishop Trelle’s time was the renovation of Hildesheim’s cathedral of the Assumption of Mary, completed in 2014, and the celebration of the 1200th aiversary of the foundation of the diocese.
In 2015, Bishop Trelle was the first bishop of Hildesheim to officialy apologise for historical errors and misdeeds, including the diocese’s role in wars of religion, persecutions, failures in the Nazi era, as well as sexual abuse by clergy.
Hildesheim is the third-largest diocese in Germany, extending from the North Sea coast between Bremen and Hamburg southward to the heart of the country near Göttingen. It was established in the 9th century, expanded over time until the 1960s, and then losing bits of territory to Erfurt, Magdeburg and Hamburg in the 1990s, following the German reunification.
“With his down-to-earth faith and his dedication to his mission, Msgr. Ernst meant a lot to many people. Since my installation in 2012 I was able to visit him more often. His health was fragile, but his mind was strong. At the 75th anniversary of his ordination to the priesthood, in 2016, he was barely mobile, but he very much wanted to concelebrate the Eucharist. The Franciscan sisters increasingly watched over him in the past months. He was able to entrust himself to God. He reflected on his fragility and death very soberly. During a visit last year he told me that someone had advised him to prepare for the end of his life. It was a sign of his vitality that he responded with, “Perhaps it is time to do so”.”
Bishop Jan Liesen responds to the news of the passing of Bishop Hubertus Cornelis Antonius Ernst, emeritus bishop of Breda, six weeks after celebrating his 100th birthday. The most senior of the Dutch bishops passed away late in the evening on Friday 19 May.
Bishop Huub Ernst was the 8th bishop of Breda, from 1967 to 1992, after which he served for two more years as apostolic administrator. He lived long enough to see three bishops succeed him: the late Tiny Muskens in 1994, Hans van den Hende, now of Rotterdam, in 2007, and Jan Liesen in 2012. Bishop van den Hende, in his capacity of president of the Dutch Bishops’ Conference, reacted to the passing of Msgr. Ernst on behalf of the other bishops, saying:
“Into very old age Bishop Huub Ernst was vital and concerned with his diocese, the Church province and society as a whole. He was consecrated as a bishop almost fifty years ago. Recently, we were able to congratulate him with his 100th birthday. Bishop Ernst was our older brother in the office of bishop, possessing a great heart for charity and the work of peace.”
Generally respected as a wise and well-spoken man, Bishop Ernst nonetheless never received a university education. In some quarters he was also seen a progressive bishop, which he was to a certain extent on the classic topics like celibacy, homosexuality and women, although he failed to get along with the liberal 8 May movement after this group ignored his advice and used a ‘table prayer’ of their own making at their annual manifestation.
Bishop Ernst chaired Pax Christi Netherlands from 1976 to 1994, reflecting his concern with the projects of peace in the world. Under his guidance, Pax Christi and the Catholic Church in the Netherlands threw their support behind protests against the presence of nuclear weapons in the Netherlands and the world. In 1983, he spoke before 550,000 protestors in The Hague on this topic. He would later also be highly critical of the war against terrorism waged by the international coalition led by the United States. He based these positions in Pacem in Terris, Pope John XXIII’s 1963 encyclical on peace in the world.
One of Bishop Ernst lasting achievements is considered to be the establishment of Bovendonk seminary in Hoeven near Breda. At his installation in Breda, the Theological Faculty Tilburg was responsible for the formation of priests. In 1983, Bishop Ernst estaiblished Bovendonk specifically for late vocations: men are educated and formed for the permanent and transitional diaconate, as well as the priesthood, initially while also holding their day job. Graduates from Bovendonk currently work in all dioceses of the Netherlands.
The period of Bishop Ernst’s mission leading the Diocese of Breda coincided with a time of great change in Church and society. Over the course of the 1970s, he developed a program based on three observations: a decrease in the number of faithful; the presence of core group of faithful willing to carry responsibility in the Church; and a decrease in the number of priests, deacons and religious. Towards the end of his time in office he had concluded that the Church in the Netherlands was in a missionary situation and a minority in society. Bishop Ernst believed that the Church should distinguish itself through charity and displaying the contents of her faith through language, liturgy and the behaviour of faithful.
Bishop Ernst tried to find a balance between Church doctrine and respect for the conscience of individual people. As such, he participated in the Synod of Bishops meeting of marriage and family in 1980.
Following his restirement, Bishop Ernst continued to speak on topics of ethics and philosophy. In 2007, he reviewed a publication by the Dutch Dominicans calling for lay priests from among the faithful to offer the Eucharist when a real priest was unavailable. Bishop Ernst called this “incorrect, not sensible and not the right solution”.
In 2011, Bishop Ernst was called to testify in a court case against an abusive Salesian priest. The bishop’s claimed to not have been informed about the priest’s past transgressions and found it unimaginable that the Salesians withheld essential information from him when he was asked to appoint the priest in his diocese.
A short overview of the life of Bishop Ernst
1917: Born as oldest child of three in a Catholic family in Breda. He attended primary school at the parish school and the Huijbergen brothers. Subsequently, he went to minor seminary in Ypelaar and then the major seminary in Bovendonk.
1941: Ordained by Bishop Pieter Hopmans. He was appointed as parish assistant in Leur.
1943: Appointed as conrector of the Franciscan sisters in Etten.
1947: Moved to Bovendonk to teach moral theology there.
1957: Appointed as chairman of the (wonderfully-named) Society of Catechists of the Eucharistic Crusade.
1962: Appointed as vicar general of Breda by Bishop Gerard de Vet.
1967: Following the unexpected death of Bishop de Vet, vicar general Ernst succeeds him as bishop. He is consecrated by the archbishop of Utrecht, Cardinal Alfrink.
1980: Bishop Ernst participates in the Synod of Bishops on marriage and family, representing the Dutch episcopate.
1992: Bishop Ernst offers his resignation upon reaching the age of 75. Pope John Paul II appoints him as apostolic administrator pending the appointment of his successor.
1994: Bishop Ernst retires as apostolic administrator upon the appointment of Bishop Tiny Muskens.
Bishop Ernst was main consecrator of his successor, Bishop Muskens, and served as co-consecrator of Bishop Johann Möller (Groningen, 1969), Jos Lescrauwaet (Haarlem, 1984), Ad van Luyn (Rotterdam, 1994) and Hans van den Hende (Breda, 2007).
Bishop Ernst was the oldest Dutch bishop alive. On his death, that mantle passes to Ronald Philippe Bär, emeritus bishop of Rotterdam, who will be 89 in July.
In an interview published by Katholisch.de today, Father Hans Zollner SJ sheds his light on the resistance from certain persons in the Roman Curia against measures to fight sexual abuse of minors by members of the clergy or other representatives of the Church. Fr. Zollner is a member of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, most recently in the news because of the departure of Ms. Marie Collins, herself a survivor of abuse. She named the aforementioned resistance against the commission’s work as the main reason for leaving. Fr. Zollner explains:
“Of course there is resistance, but not specifically against the representatives of victims or the Commission. The entire topic of abuse is deeply terrible and frightening. Dealing with it and facing it requires a lot of courage. And I believe that many clerics, but also non-clerics, find this very difficult. This is not limited to the Curia. Last Monday – three years after the establishment of the Commission – I was able to speak for the first time about this topic to the Italian bishops in Bologna. It was the same in Ecuador and Colombia a few weeks ago, and next week it will be the same in Malawi. We must conclude that the topic of abuse has not yet registered worldwide. Not in the Church, but also not in society. But it can no longer be ignored now. That is also a merit of the Commission: it has made it public across the world. The question remains if those responsible in the Church will actively pursue the topic out of self-motivation, or only when scandals become public.”
While, according to Fr. Zollner, the resistance that exists is not based on anything exlusive to the Church, but rather the human hesitation of dealing with something painful, there are specific problems in the Church that must be dealt with before the scourge of sexual abuse can be efficiently fought.
“On the one hand, people criticise Rome – in part rightly so -, which does not handle the topic of child abuse coherently. On the other hand bishops’ conferences continue to refuse to implement instructions from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith from the year 2011. Of course, one can wonder who no take them to task about this. Very simply: because the Church has no means to sanction entire bishops’ conference. Even five years after the deadline set by Rome, for example, some West-African countries have no guidelines for dealing with victims and perpetrators of abuse.”
The Catholic Church is not a big company, with the Pope as a sort of CEO. There is only so much Rome can do, even when everyone there cooperates, to enforce policies like the 2011 CDF instruction. Levelling accusations against the Curia or the Pope, while sometimes justified, is often too simplistic.
I am rather surprised that articles like this one, which explains why American Cardinal Raymond Burke has been dispatched to the Pacific island of Guam, are even necessary. The cardinal has of course been on the receiving end of much criticism because of his outspoken orthodoxy, his questions regarding the writings of Pope Francis and of course his part in the dubia published by him and three other cardinals. But, although some of his critics would like to pretend it to be true, his recent departure for Guam is nothing like a Stalinesque banishment to Siberia.
Reality is far different. As one of the Church’s highest-raking experts on legal matters (he was Prefect of the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura from 2008 to 2014), he is on a two-week mission to lead the investigation into the allegations of sexual abuse against Archbishop Anthony Apuron of Agaña, the archdiocese covering all of Guam. Cardinal Burke has not been given any permanent appointment in the archdiocese, so he is in no way being sent far away from Rome and the Holy Father (besides, his frequent travels assure he’s probably rarely at home). Agaña doesn’t need any new appointments in the wake of the allegations against Archbishop Apuron anyway: in June of last year all his duties were taken over by Archbishop Savio HonTai-Fai, the Secretary of the Congregation for the Evangelisation of People, who now serves as Apostolic Administrator of the archdiocese; and in October erstwhile auxiliary Bishop Michael Byrnes of Detroit was appointed as Coadjutor Archbishop, undoubtedly set to succeed Archbishop Apuron once most of the dust has settled, partly by the efforts of Cardinal Burke.
Disagreeing with Cardinal Burke is one thing (and I don’t think his approach is the right one in all matters), misrepresenting the truth is another. Guam can be a testcase of how the Church under Pope Francis deals accusations of sexual abuse against a high-raking prelate, and a necessary one too. Our personal opinions and need to mock must take backseat to that.
Photo credit: Junno Arocho Esteves (@arochoju) on Twitter.