A priest breaks his vows – my thoughts about the case of Pierre Valkering

I didn’t want to devote many words to this, as I thought that, sordid as the affair is, it is not a reflection of the Catholic Church in the Netherlands, nor does the priest responsible deserve his story to overshadow other, more positive news. But as it has now broken internationally (in English at Crux, and in German at Katholisch.de), I think I can at least share my thoughts. I published those thoughts in Dutch on Tuesday, and, as said, I wanted to leave it at that. But perhaps it is good to also share them in English.

First, the context:

pierre-valkeringOn 1 April, Father Pierre Valkering celebrated the 25th anniversary of his ordination to the priesthood. After the festive Mass he presented his autobiography, which he had been working on in secret over the past couple of years. In it, he describes not only his homosexuality, but also his addiction to pornography (going so far as to say that something of the Gospel may be found in pornography) and his past visits to dark rooms and other homosexual meeting areas. These revelations came as a shocking surprise to the diocese. In the past, Bishop Jos Punt had spoken at several occasions with Fr. Valkering about his celibacy, receiving the assurance that the latter was dealing with it “responsibly”. That was obviously a lie.

As a response, the bishop requested that Fr. Valkering cease his priestly duties for the time being and enter into a period of reflection. In a statement issued on 2 April, the diocese states:

“Father could also have chosen to discuss his struggle with his sexuality and celibacy openly and honestly with his bishop. That honesty would certainly not have been punished. On the contrary, together with Fr. Valkering ways could have been found to reflect upon it and receive help. That has in the past also been done for several other priests.

But Fr. Valkering has chosen for a sudden and public act, in which the bishop has not been known in any way. He has also not given any indication about whether he is willing or able to maintain his celibacy in the future.”

Below follows the opinion piece I shared in Dutch via Twitter and Facebook.

The piece below is not a discussion about the doctrine of the Church, homosexuality, sexual abuse in the Church or the mandatory celibacy for priests in the Catholic Church. This is my response to articles about the Amtserdam priest Fr. Pierre Valkering who was placed on leave by Bishop Jos Punt of Haarlem-Amsterdam following the publication of his autobiography. In that autobiography Valkering describes his homosexuality, his ignoring his oath to remain celibate by actively having sexual contacts and his appreciation for pornography. Separate from a discussion about these topics, the indignation about such behaviour by a Catholic priest is justified. Had Valkering written about heterosexual contacts, that indignation and the consequences for him would have been no different.

At first I thought it was an April Fool’s joke. A sensible conclusion to draw when someone publishes a book by his hand on that date, in which he prides himself in his sexual excesses, appreciation for pornography and regular visits to dark rooms and other gay meeting places. And this person is a priest of the Roman Catholic Church. No priest, who should have a more than superficial knowledge of what the Church teaches about sexuality and priesthood, would say something like that in all seriousness, right? It would have been a fine April’s Fools joke.

But nothing of the sort. Father Pierre Valkering apparently does not value the oaths he made at his ordination. Celibacy for priests is not a new thing. It existed long before there was a Pierre Valkering. But this priest seemingly considered it possible that an active sexual life was compatible with the priesthood, and thought he should speak about it proudly as well.

Valkering indicates that he has long struggled with his homosexuality and that his priesthood was essentialy a form of fleeing. That is something that must be taken seriously. That struggle and flight should have been prevented, and Valkering should have received the help he needed. His surroundings, including the Church, have failed him in that respect. It is to be hoped, therefore, that the period of reflection imposed upon him by Bishop Punt, can help him, and that he will not have to go through it alone.

I obviously do not know the exact cirucmstances which led Valkering to a crooked combination of priesthood and a seriously harmful form of sexuality. Bishop Punt probably also does not know, even though there have been meetings between priest and bishop in the past regarding previous publications and statements and the priest’s view on celibacy and his experience of it (he handled it responsibly, according the the diocese’s statment, but that apparently has a different meaning for Valkering than it did for the bishop). But with the bishop’s responsibility for assuring the correct communicatuon of the faith and the doctrine of the Church by his priests, Msgr. Punt could do little else than asking Fr. Valkering to lay down his duties, at least for now, and reflect on his actions.

The bishop shares the responsibility mentioned above with his priests. From his ordination and mission a priest has the duty of communicating the faith, by celebrating and teaching it, but also by being an example. The sexual excesses of Pierre Valkering, and the way in which he made them public, are an example which is contrary to the faith in all respects: he not only repeatedly broke his oath, but he also ignores his priestly mission and so leads others away from the faith. The way in which he thinks to express his sexuality are at odds with a healthy sexuality as the Church understands it. This is something one can disagree with, obviously. Discussion is always possible, but Valkering did not choose that option. Instead, he chooses a prideful form of deceit. He is a Catholic priest, but does not feel bound to the tasks and responsibilities of a priest. Instead of living for God, he chooses living for himself. He choose to lie to his bishop, to all the faithful for whom he was responsible as parish priest, and ultimately also to God.

With his autbiography, Valkering inflicts damage to the Church, to the people around him, and most of all to himself. Let us hope and pray that he may learn to see that and is offered and can accept the help he needs. The damage done in the past can’t be taken away, but perhaps its impact can be softened.”

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Tweeting the Synod

Today the Synod of Bishops will convene for the first session of their fifteenth ordinary general assembly on “Young People, Faith and Vocational Discernment”, which will run until the 28th of October. In the past, the daily deliberations and individual contributions of delegates were summarised and published by the Holy See press office, but this is no longer the case. An unwise decision, in my opinion, as it makes the entire process a secretive one. As outsiders, all we will have are rumours and the eventual final document. During the previous Synod we have seen what damage rumours can do, especially when they are neither confirmed nor denied in any clear way..

twitterThat said, there is always social media, and a number of Synod delegates are enthousiastic (or less so) users of those media. Below, I present a short (probably incomplete) list of delegates who use Twitter. It is mostly western prelates using the medium, with English being the dominant language. Other languages used are Italian, French, Spanish, German and Maltese.

  1. Pope Francis (obviously). As pope he convenes the Synod and acts as its president, although he delegates that duty to four delegate presidents. Pope Francis will not be commenting on the Synod proceedings, but offer prayers and short items to reflect on spiritually.
  2. Archbishop Charles Scicluna. Archbishop of Malta. One of three members of the Commission for Disputes.
  3. Bishop Robert Barron. Auxiliary Bishop of Los Angeles and CEO of Word On Fire.
  4. Bishop Frank Caggiano. Bishop of Bridgeport, Connecticut.
  5. Archbishop José Gómez. Archbishop of Los Angeles.
  6. Archbishop Leo Cushley. Archbishop of Edinburgh.
  7. Archbishop Eamon Martin. Archbishop of Armagh.
  8. Archbishop Anthony Fisher. Archbishop of Sydney.
  9. Leonardo Cardinal Sandri. Prefect of the Congregation for the Oriental Churches.
  10. Robert Cardinal Sarah. Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments.
  11. Kevin Cardinal Farrell. Prefect of the Dicastery for Laity, Family and Life.
  12. Peter Cardinal Turkson. Prefect of the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development.
  13. Gianfranco Cardinal Ravasi. President of the Pontifical Council for Culture.
  14. Gérald Cardinal Lacroix. Archbishop of Québec.
  15. Daniel Cardinal Sturla Berhouet. Archbishop of Montevideo.
  16. Blase Cardinal Cupich. Archbishop of Chicago.
  17. Carlos Cardinal Aguiar Retes. Archbishop of Mexico City.
  18. Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia. President of the Pontifical Academy for Life,
  19. Archbishop Peter Comensoli. Archbishop of Melbourne.
  20. Father Antonio Spadaro. Member of the Vatican Media Committee.
  21. Christoph Cardinal Schönborn. Archbishop of Vienna.
  22. Wilfrid Cardinal Napier. Archbishop of Durban.
  23. Luis Cardinal Tagle. Archbishop of Manila.
  24. Vincent Cardinal Nichols. Archbishop of Westminster.
  25. Carlos Cardinal Osoro Sierra. Archbishop of Madrid.

KLqGjJTk_400x400Not all of the prelates above use their accounts equally often or in the same way. For example, Cardinal Tagle only posts links to his ‘The Word Exposed’ Youtube catechesis talks, Cardinals Sturla Berhouet and Farrell mostly retweet, Archbishop Fisher hasn’t tweeted since February of 2017, and most use Twitter as a one-way channel. Among those who do respond to what their followers say are Cardinal Napier, Archbishop Comensoli (his Twitter profile picture at left) and Bishop Barron.

Other delegates, such  as Philadelphia’s Archbishop Charles Chaput and Passau’s Bishop Stefan Oster, are active on Facebook, while Belgian Bishop Jean Kockerols keeps the youth of his country up to speed via a blog.

Several delegates have already shared their arrival in Rome, and it is these (such as Archbishop Comensoli and Bishop Barron) who will perhaps offer the best idea of what goes on in the coming weeks. That said, all we will get are glimpses, and no tweeting delegate will share what goes on in the debates. So, in this age of social media and high-speed communication, the Synod of Bishops remains firmly behind closed doors.

 

Capital punishment no longer an option as Pope Francis changes the Catechism

o-DEATH-PENALTY-facebookSister Helen Prejean, renowned American anti-death penalty advocate, called it “the last remaining loophole in Catholic teaching on the death penalty”: the paragraph in the Catechism of the Catholic Church which allowed the death penalty, if only when it was “the only practicable way to defend the lives of human beings effectively against the aggressor”. Par. 2267 continued by stating that, if there are other and bloodless means of defence against an aggressor, these should always be used instead of the death penalty.

Yesterday Pope Francis changed this paragraph, and it now states that the death penalty is inadmissable in all circumstances.

The full text of the new paragraph 2267 is as follows:

catechism-of-the-catholic-church2628lg“Recourse to the death penalty on the part of legitimate authority, following a fair trial, was long considered an appropriate response to the gravity of certain crimes and an acceptable, albeit extreme, means of safeguarding the common good.

Today, however, there is an increasing awareness that the dignity of the person is not lost even after the commission of very serious crimes. In addition, a new understanding has emerged of the significance of penal sanctions imposed by the state. Lastly, more effective systems of detention have been developed, which ensure the due protection of citizens but, at the same time, do not definitively deprive the guilty of the possibility of redemption.

Consequently, the Church teaches, in the light of the Gospel, that “the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person”,[1] and she works with determination for its abolition worldwide.”

[1] Francis, Address to Participants in the Meeting organized by the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of the New Evangelization, 11 October 2017: L’Osservatore Romano, 13 October 2017, 5.

With the press release came a letter from Cardinal Luis Ladaria, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, addressed to the world’s bishops. He explains how the changes to the Catechism are rooted in past teachings of the Magisterium, especially Pope St. John Paul II’s 1995 encyclical Evangelium vitæ, and teachings from Pope Benedict XVI and Francis himself. The cardinal therefore concludes:

“All of this shows that the new formulation of number 2267 of the Catechism expresses an authentic development of doctrine that is not in contradiction with the prior teachings of the Magisterium. These teachings, in fact, can be explained in the light of the primary responsibility of the public authority to protect the common good in a social context in which the penal sanctions were understood differently, and had developed in an environment in which it was more difficult to guarantee that the criminal could not repeat his crime.”

In his blog, canon lawyer Bishop Jan Hendriks explains why past teachings, which did allow for the death penalty to be implemented, do no invalidate this new text:

“The reason lies in a greater awareness of human dignity and the various developments in society which make it no long necessary to implement the death penalty to protect citizens. That was also the reason why Pope John Paul II could hardly imagine the death penalty to be necessary, as the Catechism has stated since 1995: the state has such good means that the cases in which the death penalty is necessary to neutralise the aggressor are very rare, if they even occur. The new text takes a further step and unequivocally states that it is no longer necessary to implement the death penalty, and that a greater awareness of human dignity makes this even more inadmissable.”

Is this change as major as some media would have us believe? Yes and no.

Yes, because it is evidence that the Church has the luxury to say that capital punishment is no longer a necessity, no matter how rare. Past reasons for a state to kill a person are no longer valid, as there are other ways in which society can be protected from dangerous people.

And no, because it is a logical consequence of the pro-life position of the Church. Every person is created and willed by God and as such has an innate dignity which we must respect. Among other things that means that we have no right to take a life. This is a position that the Church has always held, even when it allowed for certain situations in which capital punishment was the only resort. The death penalty as such is always sinful. But, being also practical, the Church knows that sometimes there are no ideal solutions.

But that no longer flies. As Catholics we are pro-life, even if that life belongs to a murderer or other criminal.

Cardinal no more – McCarrick goes back to purple

A historic development today in the fight against sexual abuse in the Church: a cardinal, albeit a retired one, resigned his title and red hat, and was ordered to cease all his public duties and lead a live of prayer and penance in a yet to be announced location.

_CNS-NY-TIMES-MCCARRICK-SEMINARIANS.jpgCardinal – now just Archbishop – Theodore McCarrick faces two allegations of sexual abuse of minors and several further claims of harassment of and misconduct with adults. The steps taken today come before his case is heard and judged in a canonical trial according to ecclesiastical law, and any legal developments which may take place  in an American court of law, as the law allows (the major obstacle in such cases, which – as here – often took place many years ago, remains the statute of limitations).

The case of McCarrick brings back strong memories of that of the late Scottish Cardinal O’Brien. He too saw all his cardinal rights and duties removed on his own request, but he was allowed to remain a cardinal. Former Cardinal McCarrick is punished more severely, although it is, in some ways, a passive punishment, as it was McCarrick himself who requested it in a  letter to the Pope.

The full resignation of a cardinal is a rare event, and this is the first time it has happened since 1927. In 2015, I wrote a blog post about the history of cardinal resignations, in which I gave an overview of past resignations of cardinals (although in it I erroneously claimed that the last such resignation took place in 1911 instead of 1927).

It remains to be seen if there will be a canonical trial for McCarrick, as today’s press release suggests, and if so, what its result will be. Perhaps there will be further penalties for Archbishop McCarrick. On Twitter,  Dr Kurt Martens, Professor of Canon Law at the Catholic University of America, offers a detailed analysis of the possible penalties that can be levied against McCarrick according to the laws of the Church. He suggests that dismissal from the clerical state is one of the few options remaining, as McCarrick is already retired and so no longer holds any office. Martens mentions two recent examples of prelates having been laicised after allegations of abuse: Raymond Lahey, former bishop of Antigonish in Canada in 2012, and Józef Wesolowski, former Apostolic Nuncio to the Dominican Republic (and thus automatically an archbishop)  in 2014.

Beyond McCarrick, there is a chance that there will be consequences for other bishops in the United States and Rome, as the question of who knew what and when about McCarrick’s abuse remains unanswered.

Theodore Edgar McCarrick was a priest of the Archdiocese of New York, and became auxiliary bishop of that archdiocese in 1977. In 1981, he was appointed as bishop of Metuchen in New Jersey, and then as archbishop of Newark in 1986. From 2011 to 2006 he served as archbishop of Washington. He was created a cardinal in the giant consistory of 21 February 2001 (making him a cardinal class mate of Pope Francis). He held the title of Santi Nereo ed Achilleo. The two allegations of sexual abuse of a minor, which were deemed credible and substantiated by the Archdiocese of New York in June, took place in the early 1970s and involved a then 16-year-old boy. McCarrick was then serving as a priest in New York, and today claims to have no memory of the alleged abuse. At the same time last month, the chanceries of the Archdiocese of Newark and the Diocese of Metuchen, where McCarrick served as bishop, announced that they had received three further allegations of misconduct involving adults, and that two of these allegations had resulted in settlements.

Photo credit: CNS photo/Bob Roller

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lectures and meetings – baby bishops’ school in Rome

This past week, the bishops who have been appointed in the last year were in Rome for what has become known as ‘baby bishops’ school’, a series of lectures on things related to being a bishop. Among the participants was Bishop Ron van den Hout of Groningen-Leeuwarden, appointed in April of this year. The last time a Dutch bishop participated was in 2012. The week-long course has existed since 2001 and is jointly organised by the Congregations for Bishops and for the Oriental Churches.

20170908-_C817730.jpgBishop Ron van den Hout, at left, concelebrates the daily Mass during the course for newly-appointed bishops.

This year’s topic of the course was ‘Teachers in discernment’, and, according to a factual report on the website of Bishop van den Hout’s diocese, the bishops heard lectures on mutual collegiality, the relationships with the priests of the bishop’s new diocese, ecumenism, pastoral care for priests and their affective life, Church and media, the missionary Church, and the role of canon law in managing a diocese.

The German bishops were with six in Rome, among them Bishop Peter Kohlgraf of Mainz, who shared the photo below on his Facebook page, of bishops (and one priest) at dinner.

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From left to right: Franz Josef Gebert (auxiliary, Trier), Georg Bätzing (Limburg), Fr. Stefan Langer (Hamburg), Peter Kohlgraf (Mainz), Horst Eberlein (auxiliary, Hamburg), Dominicus Meier (auxiliary, Paderborn (albeit not a newly-ordained bishop)) and Rupert Graf zu Stolberg (auxiliary, München und Freising). Absent from the gathering were Bishops Mattäus Karrer (auxiliary of Rottenburg-Stuttgart) and Rolf Lohmann (auxiliary, Münster).

 

Next to the lectures, Bishop Kohlgraf identifies another important element of the week. “Another at least equally important part is formed by the conversations between the individual participants. It allowed me to get to know brothers who work in very sober and sometimes difficult situations and yet radiate great joy”. A participant in last year’s edition, Bishop Richard Umbers of Sydney, Australia (a bishop you should follow in Facebook or Twitter, by the way), said something similar in a recent conversation with Crux: “Make sure you organize a few lunches and dinners along the way. Make sure you make time to get to know some of those bishops in a more intimate setting. Build friendships there.”

The new bishops were received in audience by Pope Francis on Thursday afternoon. In his address, the Holy Father reminded them that “[t]he mission that awaits you is not to bring your own ideas and projects, nor solutions that are abstractly designed by those who consider the Church a home garden but humbly, without attention-seeking or narcissism , to offer your concrete witness of union with God, serving the Gospel that should be cultivated and helped to grow in that specific situation.” He spoke about discerning God in everything the bishops does and says. “Remember that God was already present in your dioceses when you arrived and will still be there when you are gone. And, in the end, we will all be measured not by counting our works but on the growth of God’s work in the heart of the flock that we keep in the name of the “Pastor and keeper of our souls” (cf. 1 Pt 2:25)”.

 

A social media-using bishop who doesn’t overstay his welcome, please

coat of arms roermondThe next bishop of Roermond should be a social media user, but is to stay in office for 15 years at most, a poll amongst priests of the Diocese of Roermond by newspaper De Limburger has revealed. The successor of Bishop Frans Wiertz, who will reach the mandatory retirement age of 75 in December, should be communicative, using social media and other means to reach people. He should also be a bishop in the line of Pope Francis, with strong and inspirational policies. Several priests have said that the diocese’s management has been slowly dying down in recent years. Bishop Wiertz has been at the helm of the southern Dutch diocese since 1993, which makes him the most senior among the Dutch bishops.

A consequence of the need for fresh management and policies is that a bishop shouldn’t stay in one place for too long. “Ten, fifteen years is nice, but then it is  time for a new one,” Father Harrie Broers says. Father Jos Spee, the dean of Venlo, adds, “Different times need different challenges and that is why change is needed on time. Therefore it’s best to appoint a bishop in his mid-sixties. He will cease automatically at 75.”

Mgr. F.J.M. Wiertz

Bishop Wierts was appointed at the age of 50. Recently, his eye sight has been failing, although he hopes to be able to continue in his office until turning 75 on 2 December. Since 1998, Bishop Wiertz has been assisted in his duties by auxiliary Bishop Everard de Jong.

A social media-using bishop would certainly constitute a change in the Dutch episcopate. Although some bishops have dabbled in using twitter or a blog, only Bishop Jan Hendriks, auxiliary bishop of Haarlem-Amsterdam, is an active blogger who also uses Twitter and Facebook, and not only to share, but also to communicate with his followers.