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.
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
Flyers, 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.
A Belgian priest of the Diocese of Bruges is being sued for not acting on information shared with him in a confession. The case has the potential of becoming a precedent on how society and law deals with the seal of confession, as well as the professional secrecy as it exists in medical professions, and also highlights once more what confession actually is.
The case: a man confided in a confession over the telephone (which, under certain circumstances, such as immediate duress, can count as a confession) that he had suicidal thoughts. He later acted on those thoughts and ended his own life. The wife of the man now sues the priest for never having informed anyone of what he learned in the confession. The problem is that the priest couldn’t. The seal of confession is absolute. He could have urged the penitent to seek professional help, even offered forms of help himself, be it the help he could offer himself or relaying the help of others. But that is just about the end of it.
The paradox in this case is that suicide in itself, sad and disturbing as it is, is not a crime under Belgian law, so not acting on the suicidal thoughts of a person can not be considered cooperation in a crime, and the priest can’t be accused of negligence in that regard.
There is some uncertainty, however, if the confession in which the priest learned about the suicidal thoughts of the penitent actually was a confession. A confession, by definition, involves a sin which can be be forgiven. Suicidal thoughts are not in themselves a sin, especially since they are most often caused by factors, mental or otherwise, outside of a person’s control. All the same, the man could have been convinced that his thoughts were sinful, and this would be enough for a valid confession. But if that was not the case, the priest would have been free to offer his help or inform others, with the man’s consent, of the situation and the help needed.
Also, if the suicidal thoughts were shared in a confession of other sins, the seal of confession would obviously also apply: it affects the entirety of the confession, not just the sins, but also whatever pastoral advice or personal thoughts are being relayed. The priest in that case simply lacks the freedom to divulge what he learns. This protects the integrity and freedom of the sacrament and the penitent.
Confession is not just a pastoral conversation or personal meeting with a priest. According the Catholic teaching it is the intensely personal presentation of one’s wins to God, and asking His forgiveness. The priest who hears the conversations is not really a party in this: he is a tool to hear the confession and relay advice or penitence according to his own formation, inspiration and understanding, but these ultimately derive from God. Everyone must be free to stand before God and open themselves up to Him, which is why they must first be aware of the freedom to ask for and receive the sacrament of confession. In many cases this involves the certainty that what they share is shared in complete confidence, just like when one would share medical problems with their doctor. It is so intensely personal, and, quite frankly, completely a matter between man and God.
If the case outlined above included a true confession, the priest could do nothing else but keep the information to himself and do his best to convince the man to seek and accept help. He had no freedom to ask others for that help on the man’s behalf, as this would involve breaking the seal of confession. But, as publicist Mark Van de Voorde writes here, “in cases of great evil which fall under criminal law, such as sexual abuse and murder, the penitence also includes that the perpetrator must report himself to the police. Every confessor is obliged to point this out to the penitent, stating that forgiveness of sins is not possible otherwise.” A priest is not completely powerless before a penitent unwilling to seek help.
It will be interesting to see what the judge rules in this case. If the priest is convicted it will set a precedent for any future case involving the sacrament of confession as well as doctor-patient confidentiality and information shared confidentially shared with one’s lawyer. All are protected under Belgian law (as they are in many other European countries).
Yesterday Pope Francis appointed five new members of the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura, the highest court of law of the Catholic Church. In addition to three cardinals and an archbishop, one of the new members is Bishop Jan Hendriks, auxiliary bishop of Haarlem-Amsterdam. He is also the only new member who does not reside in Rome or has been a member of the Signatura before. He will exercise his new duties in addition to his current ones.
Bishop Hendriks is a canon lawyer, having various legal functions in a number of dioceses, and he is also a consultor of the Congregation for the Clergy.
In his blog he descibes the duties of the Apostolic Signatura:
“The Apostolic Signatura is the ‘supreme court’ of the Catholic Church and judges, among other things, certain forms of appeal against judgements of the Roman Rota and appeals against certain decisions of policy (administrative disputes). […] The Signatura generally judges if the decisionmaking process has been correct.”
The other members appointed along with Bishop Hendriks are Cardinals Agostino Vallini (Vicar General emeritus of Rome and Prefect of the Supreme Tribunal from 2004 to 2008), Edoardo Menichelli (Archbishop emeritus of Acona-Osimo and former secretary of the Prefect), Raymond Burke (Prefect of the Supreme Tribunal from 2008 to 2014) and Archbishop Frans Daneels (Secretary emerotis of the Supreme Tribunal).
“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.
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.