News Story of the Day

Francis’ clergy abuse law, ‘Vos Estis,’ isn’t working. Here’s how to fix it.

VATICAN CITY (VATICAN CITY)
National Catholic Reporter [Kansas City MO]

May 25, 2022

By Anne Barrett Doyle

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Entitled Vos Estis Lux Mundi (“You Are the Light of the World”), the law was touted by papal spokesmen as a turning point in the fight to end child sexual abuse in the Catholic Church.

It’s “revolutionary,” said Chicago Cardinal Blase Cupich.

“The silence, omertà and cover-ups can now become a thing of the past,” said Maltese Archbishop Charles Scicluna, the pope’s trusted abuse investigator.

Vos Estis, a motu proprio that was signed on May 9, 2019, was originally enacted for a three-year trial period that ends this June 1. As we wait to see if Francis will now make the law permanent, it is a good time to assess what will likely be this pope’s most significant response to the Catholic abuse crisis.

So far, the Vatican has released no information about the number or names of bishops investigated under Vos Estis. BishopAccountability.org has been able to identify 28 cases where it has been used to process allegations of cover-up or abuse by bishops. We hope it is being used more widely than this — there are 5,600 living Catholic bishops! — but we can’t be sure.

At least 11 of the Vos Estis or Vos Estis-like cases have been in the United States. Two of these bishops have been sanctioned, three have been “cleared,” and six face ongoing probes.

But the largest concentration of cases, interestingly, has been in Poland, where Vos Estis procedures have been applied against 16 of the country’s 209 active or retired bishops. Eleven appear to have been found guilty by the Vatican of negligence, with sanctions announced in eight of these cases; one archbishop “self-punished”; two others have been cleared; and two other cases are ongoing.

Why the focus on Poland? It’s likely Vatican officials saw an opportunity to do damage control in this most Catholic of countries, which has become a flashpoint in the church’s global crisis. Since 2019, due to media investigations and two searing documentaries, Poland has been rocked by revelations of widespread complicity by its bishops. Half of all Poles surveyed last fall said that the entire episcopacy should resign.

And despite the spate of sanctions, a cadre of alleged enablers remains in power in the Polish church.

Cardinal Kazimierz Nycz, the archbishop of Warsaw, is accused of allowing two different priests to minister following their convictions for child sex crimes. Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz, archbishop emeritus of Krakow, was recently pronounced not guilty of negligence in a clergy abuse case in Poland, despite a whistleblower priest’s insistence that he had notified Dziwisz of the abuse in person. The Vatican’s verdict concerned only the one Polish case; it did not consider allegations that as secretary to Pope John Paul II, Dziwisz had dismissed abuse reports against both Fr. Marcial Maciel Degollado, the disgraced founder of Legion of Christ, and ex-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick.

Our assessment so far of Vos Estis, based on the cases we’ve tracked in Poland, the United States, and elsewhere: Too few bishops have been found guilty, they’ve been punished too lightly, and next to no information about their misdeeds has been disclosed.

To be sure, under Vos Estis, a dozen or more complicit or abusive bishops have been removed from office — and that’s not nothing.

But it’s a drop in the bucket.

The collective complicity of the Catholic hierarchy, ranging from negligence to willful ignorance to wily deceit, has facilitated the rapes and sexual assaults of hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of children. A remorseful church committed to ending its culture and system of cover-up would have demoted and defrocked hundreds of complicit supervisors — not one or two dozen.

Moreover, the majority of Vos Estis cases were necessary for PR reasons. In all but two of the U.S. cases, for instance, the bishop’s ability to lead was already impaired by public allegations. Similarly, nearly all of the Polish bishops penalized under Vos Estis had already been tarred by public scandal.

The weakness of Vos Estis lies mainly in its design: It is self-policing packaged as accountability.

In crafting Vos Estis, the pope prioritized insularity and containment, keeping the hierarchy in total control of the reporting and investigative process. He chose not to require notifying civil authorities. He chose to omit any obligation to notify the public. He limited lay involvement to roles that are fragmented, powerless and (almost certainly) bound by confidentiality.

To be the transformative tool that’s needed, Vos Estis must be revamped. Here are five (admittedly major) changes that would make it effective.

  1. Require reporting to civil authorities.

Under Vos Estis, most of the world’s bishops are allowed not to tell civil authorities that a priest is raping a child. That’s because in most civil jurisdictions, clergy are not mandated reporters, and Vos Estis at most requires reporting only when civil law requires it.

Delete Article 19Vos Estis’ minimal nod to cooperation with civil law. Replace it with mandatory reporting to civil authorities whether or not local law requires it. That is, instruct every priest and religious to notify civil authorities of suspected or known sexual offenses, as well as suspected cover-up by church officials.

Exempt clergy from this requirement in those few jurisdictions worldwide where there is good reason to fear that such reporting would imperil the safety of accusers and/or suspected offenders. Reputable human rights organizations such as Amnesty International could be called on to generate the list of exempted countries.

2. Loosen the Vatican’s grip.

Vos Estis was a doubling down of the pope’s and the Vatican’s control over matters of episcopal discipline — an ironic move by a pope who decries clericalism.

Under Vos Estis, the Vatican controls every key decision. Only it has the power to authorize an investigation, to render a verdict, and to determine penalties.

The problem? Almost invariably, the pope and Vatican officials are lenient towards accused bishops.

Consider Francis’ 2020 decision to reinstate Argentine Bishop Gustavo Zanchetta to a Vatican post, even though the bishop was still under investigation in his native country for alleged sexual abuse. (Zanchetta eventually had to return to Argentina for trial and was recently sentenced to four years in prison.)

Or consider the Vatican’s shocking verdict last year in the canonical case of Bishop Joseph Hart, who ran the Cheyenne, Wyoming, Diocese from 1978 to 2001. Despite allegations that Hart had sexually assaulted more than 15 children, and despite the current Cheyenne bishop’s unwavering insistence that the victims are credible, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith cleared Hart on every count. (Note: Hart’s was not a Vos Estis case, presumably because the Vatican began its inquiry before Vos Estis was enacted, but the canonical process was similar.)

3. Scrap the “metropolitan model.” Archbishops can’t objectively investigate their neighbors.

Vos Estis tasks metropolitans — residential archbishops who symbolically lead their ecclesiastical provinces around the world — with initially assessing and overseeing investigations of accusations against bishops in their provinces.

Not surprisingly, the result has been conflicts of interest, actual and perceived. Archbishops are investigating neighboring bishops who are their colleagues, their collaborators, and, sometimes, their friends.

Consider the Vos Estis case of retired Brooklyn Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio. After he was accused of child sexual abuse in late 2019, the Vatican tagged his metropolitan, Cardinal Timothy Dolan of the New York Archdiocese, to oversee the investigation.

In his podcast a few weeks later, Dolan made no effort to appear impartial. “I love the guy, he’s a good friend,” he said of his colleague. (In September 2021, Dolan announced that the Vatican had found DiMarzio innocent.)

In another Vos Estis case, the metropolitan is implicated in an alleged act of cover-up along with the bishop he’s investigating. Bishop Richard Stika of Knoxville, Tennessee, is being investigated for cover-up by retired Louisville Archbishop Joseph Kurtz, who preceded Stika as Knoxville bishop.

Stika is facing a slew of allegations, including one that surfaced in a lawsuit he settled last July. A woman accused the diocese of negligence in its response to her alleged sexual abuse and exploitation by a longtime diocesan priest, Fr. Michael Sweeney. In 2005, Sweeney had admitted to his then-bishop — none other than Kurtz — that he had started having sex with the woman after converting her to Catholicism and serving as her spiritual director.

Kurtz kept the priest in ministry despite his admitted misconduct, and when Stika succeeded Kurtz, he kept the priest in ministry, too.

4. Authorize laypeople to judge Vos Estis cases.

If the Vatican’s control is loosened, and the metropolitan model scrapped, who will judge allegations against bishops?

How about non-clerics? Many have observed that Vos Estis doesn’t mandate lay involvement. Few have pointed out that it effectively prohibits the possibility of lay boards anywhere being allowed to review allegations against prelates. It allows only the enlisting of individual lay experts on an ad hoc basis (Article 13). These persons must be deemed “suitable,” and they are required to take an oath.

This must change — external oversight is crucial. For each episcopal conference, there should be a permanent lay commission dedicated to evaluating bishops. This would be similar to the model promoted in the fall of 2018 by Archbishop Allen Vigneron and Cardinal Daniel DiNardo — but it must be more independent and powerful than what those bishops proposed. It should include no clergy, its members should include outspoken critics of the church’s handling of abuse, and it must be empowered to report to civil authorities.

5. Require disclosure to the public.

Vos Estis enables secrecy. Under Vos Estis, it is permissible to keep the public in the dark from start to finish. It includes no requirements to inform the faithful.

Change this. Mandate disclosure. To quote Scicluna, “Information is of the essence if we really want to work for justice.” It’s also crucial to deter crimes and cover-ups.

Begin by requiring that the public be notified of all plausible allegations against clergy and bishops. Require public notification of outcomes too. Adopt the sensible recommendation of Australia’s Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse to “publish decisions in disciplinary matters relating to child sexual abuse, and provide written reasons for [the church’s] decisions.”

Most importantly, honor a complainant’s right to information. Require church authorities to regularly update victims and other reporters on the status of investigations. Upon request, release to the victim the files about her case, redacting the names of other victims.

Trust at issue

In April, Francis asked the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors to produce written reports tracking the church’s anti-abuse initiatives. He hopes the reports will show progress.

“Without that progress,” he warned, “the faithful will continue to lose trust in their pastors.”

It’s baffling that this pope still has not enacted the bold reforms that would make the hierarchy more lawful, responsible and honest in preventing abuse and cover-up.

The problem is that the pope wants trust restored on his own impossible terms. Vos Estis reflects his refusal to accept the irrefutable lesson of this catastrophic crisis: The Catholic hierarchy cannot self-police.

It’s possible that Vos Estis, along with the removal of the pontifical secret in abuse cases, will be the final major abuse legislation of Francis’ papacy. Let’s hope it can be revised. In its present form, it will not achieve the transformation that children and Catholics so desperately need and deserve.

Anne Barrett Doyle is co-director of BishopAccountability.org, an independent nonprofit and online library based in Waltham, Massachusetts. Founded in 2003, it researches child sexual abuse by Catholic clergy and the management of those cases by the Holy See.


Joanikije was questioned for allegedly covering up pedophilia in the Serbian Orthodox Church in Montenegro

The Higher State Prosecutor's Office in Podgorica has launched a reconnaissance against the Metropolitanate of Montenegro and the Littoral (MOC) of the Serbian Orthodox Church and Metropolitan Ioannici, for allegedly covering up pedophilia, on the occasion of a report by the NGO Montenegro International, spokeswoman Lepa Medenica told Radio Free Europe. .

As she stated, Metropolitan Joanikije was questioned, and the competent judicial bodies of Serbia were asked to examine the witness, former deacon of the Serbian Orthodox Church Bojan Jovanović.

According to Medenica, the prosecution has not yet responded to the request to Serbia.

"After submitting the answers, the Prosecutor's Office will, after gathering the evidence and evaluating it, take other necessary measures and actions for which there is a need, and make a decision in the case," Medenica concluded.

Although the Prosecution has not yet responded, the media published a summons to Jovanovic for questioning in early July at the Higher Public Prosecutor's Office in Belgrade as a witness. According to the invitation, the interrogation refers to the procedure against the MOC and Metropolitan Ioannicius for participating in covering up the crime of having sex with a child.

This case was previously before the Special State Prosecutor's Office in May last year, which handed it over to the Higher, as the competent one.


Former pastor in 2 states pleads guilty to child sex charges

MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) — A former pastor in Tennessee and Indiana faces up to life in prison after he pleaded guilty to federal child sex abuse charges, prosecutors said.

Joshua Henley, 33, pleaded guilty Monday to producing, possessing and sending sex abuse material involving children and transporting a minor interstate to have sex, the U.S. attorney’s office in Memphis said.

Henley was the pastor at Holladay Church of Christ in Benton County, Tennessee, and coached the Holladay Elementary School girls’ basketball team, prosecutors said. Henley later went to work at a church in Evansville, Indiana, in April 2021, prosecutors said.

Henley drove to Tennessee in June to pick up a girl and brought her back to Indiana, where he had sex with her when she was 15, prosecutors said. Another girl later said Henley had asked her to create and send sexually explicit images, prosecutors said.

Investigators found sexually explicit images on Henley’s cell phone when was arrested in June as he was driving back to Tennessee, prosecutors said.

Henley faces 15 years to life in prison at sentencing in August.


U.S. counts Indian boarding school deaths for first time, but leaves key questions unanswered

At least 500 Native American, Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian children died while attending Indian boarding schools run or supported by the U.S. government, a highly anticipated Interior Department report said Wednesday. The report identified over 400 schools and more than 50 gravesites and said more gravesites would likely be found.


Liberty University’s Handling of Sexual Assaults Under Investigation by Department of Education

ProPublica previously detailed how the evangelical school had dismissed reports of rape and threatened to punish accusers for running afoul of its moral code. Investigators are now looking into whether Liberty violated federal law.

April 29, 6 a.m. EDT

The federal Department of Education has begun investigating Liberty University’s handling of student reports of sexual assault. In a statement to ProPublica, the school pledged its “full cooperation” with the investigation.

Federal law requires that universities receiving federal funds properly handle claims of sexual assault. Liberty students receive hundreds of millions of dollars in federal aid. Following our story, senators urged the U.S. Department of Education to investigate.

Liberty students told ProPublica that federal agents have been at the school’s campus in Lynchburg, Virginia, this week. In an email viewed by ProPublica, a Department of Education official reached out to student advocates to arrange meeting times. An agency spokesperson declined to comment, citing a policy not to discuss ongoing investigations.


Knoxville priests asked nuncio for ‘merciful relief’

KNOXVILLE (TN)
The Pillar [Washington DC]

May 3, 2022

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“Our experience of our appointed bishop varies among us, but the undersigned do share a common awareness that the past twelve years of service under Bishop Stika have been, on the whole, detrimental to priestly fraternity and even to our personal well-being.” 

“While we acknowledge the reality of suffering that comes with bearing our daily crosses, our appointed bishop seems determined to increase that suffering for his own purposes, purposes which seem unrelated to the demands of the Gospel,” wrote 11 Knoxville priests in a Sept. 29 letter to Archbishop Christophe Pierre, apostolic nuncio to the United States. 


Monk Sexually Abused Former Marmion Academy Student: Aurora Police

Joseph J. Charron, 66, turned himself into police following detectives' extensive investigation into allegations made in September 2021.

Police's extensive investigation included interviewing multiple potential witnesses, collecting evidence and presenting the case to the Kane County State's Attorney's Office, officials said.
Police's extensive investigation included interviewing multiple potential witnesses, collecting evidence and presenting the case to the Kane County State's Attorney's Office, officials said. (Google Maps)

AURORA, IL — A 66-year-old Marmion Abbey monk surrendered to Aurora police Wednesday morning after police determined he sexually abused a former Marmion Academy student, officials said.

Police charged Joseph J. Charron, also known as Brother Andre, with eight felonies, including three charges of criminal sexual assault (force), three charges of aggravated criminal sexual abuse (sexual conduct by a person in a position of authority of a victim under 18), and two charges of criminal sexual abuse (non-consensual sexual conduct).

In September 2021, Aurora police took a report from the former student detailing several instances of sexual contact with the monk while the person was a student at Marmion Academy, 1000 Butterfield Road, police said.


The monk, who taught at Marmion, didn't stop after the student graduated, according to Aurora police.

Charron was placed on administrative leave after school officials were notified of the allegations, and the monk was barred from the school's campus and other ministerial functions, police said.

Marmion Academy and Marmion Abbey both cooperated with the police's extensive investigation, which included interviewing multiple potential witnesses, collecting evidence and presenting the case to the Kane County State's Attorney's Office, officials said. Marmion's internal investigation into Charron's conduct continues, police noted.

Detectives have not yet determined if Charron had sexual contact with other Marmion Academy students, officials said. Police are asking anyone with information or anyone who might have been victimized by Charron to call the police department's investigations division at 630-256-5500 or email [email protected]


Irish priest appointed to senior Vatican role investigating abuse

VATICAN CITY (VATICAN CITY)
Irish Times [Dublin, Ireland]

April 25, 2022

By Patsy McGarry

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An Irish priest, Msgr John Kennedy has been put in charge by Pope Francis of leading investigations into child abuse allegations against the Catholic clergy worldwide.

The 53-year-old monsignor is the new secretary of the disciplinary section at the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, which has responsibility for dealing with credible allegations against clergy.

He had been serving at the office since being appointed there by Pope Francis in 2017 and his appointment is part of a major shake-up of the Vatican curia being undertaken by Pope Francis.

The Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith has two new sections: a doctrinal section and a disciplinary section. Italian priest Msgr Armando Matteo has been appointed secretary at the doctrinal section.


Appellate ruling rejects Albany diocese’s efforts to keep pedophile priests’ records secret

ALBANY (NY)
Times Union [Albany NY]

April 24, 2022

By Brendan J. Lyons

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The Roman Catholic Diocese of Albany’s effort to keep secret the psychological treatment records of suspected pedophile priests was rejected Thursday by a state appellate court in a ruling that could affect thousands of Child Victims Act cases in New York.

The appellate panel also upheld state Supreme Court Justice L. Michael Mackey’s decision ordering the diocese to turn over the personnel records of at least 48 priests whom the church determined had been credibly accused of child sexual abuse over a period stretching from 1946 to 1999.


Oakland priest convicted of child molestation allegedly kills federal worker while driving drunk

April 19, 2022Updated: April 19, 2022 12:22 p.m.
A defrocked Bay Area Catholic priest convicted of child molestation and accused by multiple families of sexual abuse and assault during his decades-long tenure has now been arrested for allegedly killing a man while driving drunk in a gated community.
Stephen Kiesle, the 75-year-old who was at the center of an Associated Press exposé on Pope Benedict, was arrested Sunday morning on suspicion of gross vehicular manslaughter and driving under the influence, Walnut Creek police told Rossmoor.com.

The crash took place at around 9:15 p.m. in the “active adults 55+” gated community of Rossmoor, Rossmoor.com reported, when Curtis and Laurelyn Gunn were walking home from an event at the nearby Gateway Complex. While approaching an intersection, a car going above the 25 mph speed limit hit the Gunns while driving on the curb, striking Curtis head-on and scraping Laurelynn. Curtis Gunn was pronounced dead at the scene, the news site said.

Kiesle was arrested about an hour later, according to Contra Costa County records. 

 


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