“The abuse scandal and delegitimization of the episcopate has created a great power vacuum in the Church” in the United States, where there is “a corporate mentality that sees the Pope as the CEO and his bishops as managers he can simply fire”. Massimo Faggioli, professor of theology and religious studies at Villanova University in Philadelphia explains in this interview with Vatican Insider .
What emerges from the Pennsylvania report and why has it affected the public so much?
“The Grand Jury set up by the Attorney General of Pennsylvania presented a report on 14 August detailing in 1,400 pages the way in which the Catholic Church leadership in six dioceses of Pennsylvania has covered up sexual abuses committed by the clergy (300 accused priests, more than a thousand victims) over the past seventy years (a few years ago, another report had been presented on the other two dioceses of the state, including Philadelphia). What emerges is a picture of systematic concealment, defined as “text book”, of pedophilia cases committed by the clergy. A similar report, in breadth, yet much more systematic and scientific, was published by John Jay College of the City University of New York in 2004. The facts reported by the Grand Jury are not new, but largely “historical”, that is, they date back for the most part to a period that goes up to the nineties. The report has affected public opinion for a number of reasons. Firstly, almost none of the accused will go to trial, not only because some of them have died in the meantime, but because the crimes have become time-barred by statute of limitation. A second factor is the importance held by the Catholic Church in Pennsylvania, which is one of the cradle states of Catholicism in the United States, both in the history of the last two centuries, and today (Philadelphia and Pittsburgh are two dioceses that have given a very high number of bishops to the American Church). Finally, the report was published at a time when other scandals are putting together a particularly disturbing picture of the Church in the United States: the revelations on the double life led by the former Archbishop of Washington, McCarrick, which led to his resignation from the College of Cardinals (a sanction with very few precedents in history), and a series of investigations in some American seminaries (Boston, Lincoln, Philadelphia) following reports of sexual harassment suffered by seminarians within the seminary.
What are the charges against Cardinal Donald Wuerl? What do you think about his position?
“Cardinal Wuerl faces a complex situation: on the one hand Wuerl was not afraid of clashing with the tribunal over the Apostolic Signatura in the Vatican which wanted to readmit a priest from the Pittsburgh diocese to ministry (and Wuerl prevailed), while in other cases he seems to have collaborated in covering up some cases, for example by not providing with all the information regarding a pedophile priest -coming from his diocese – to the diocese he was transferred to. It is a very difficult position also because Wuerl became a symbol – bishop of Pittsburgh from 1988 to 2006 and archbishop of Washington from 2006 – beyond the specific accusations against him, from which he could not publicly defend himself. An essential element to understand the context is that scandals are also the opportunity for the neo-traditionalist Catholicism of the younger generations of American Catholics to attack American bishops and cardinals close to Pope Francis. The fact is that the scandal of abuse and the delegitimization of the episcopate has created a great power vacuum in the Church in the United States and it is a vacuum that some will fill. Those who think that the solution is the mass resignation of all the American bishops are deluding themselves: it won’t be the simple Catholic laity who will fill the void left by the bishops”.
The Grand Jury is, of course, the story according to the public prosecutor. There have been bishops who contested some interpretations regarding the covering up. What can you say about that?
“The grand jury report is not the result of a trial, but of an investigation. Therefore, the Grand Jury’s report is a DA’s document: the jurors listen and see only what the prosecutors produce in front of them, and therefore in the report there is no possibility of defense for the accused. In this sense, it is perfectly understandable that the Holy See is reluctant to rely on a report of the grand jury (and on the reactions of the press) to decide on the fate of many bishops involved in the concealment of abuses. The Pennsylvania case is different, for example, from that of the bishop of Adelaide (Australia) who resigned a few weeks ago, after the court found him guilty. On the other hand, the Grand Jury also publishes original documents which, though not final from the point of view of criminal responsibility, there is a moral and pastoral responsibility on the part of some bishops that it is difficult not to see”.
The report acknowledges that the Church has made progress in recent years. What is the perception in the United States about this? Has a culture of child protection been established?
“I would say that it is gaining ground. I can personally testify that I have had to attend two abuse prevention courses – one as a parent of children attending a Catholic school, and one as a teacher at a Catholic university. The American Church has made enormous progress since 2002 thanks to the so-called “Dallas Charter”: it is one of the positive facts that the Grand Jury report also acknowledges. The problem is that cases of sexual abuse by the clergy are reported years or decades later: therefore the Church must prepare itself for a very long period ahead – for the entire next generation at least – of revelations of abuse that occurred largely before the application of guidelines and protocols that were elaborated after the scandal was revealed by the Boston Globe in 2002 (after about a decade of reports raised by the progressive Catholic press since the nineties, and systematically ignored)”.
Why, according to you, was Francis’ letter to the “people of Godˮ on the subject of abuse so criticized? What is he expected to do?
“The letter was appreciated because it holds the problem of clericalism as the central issue. It was criticized for not stating the concrete steps that still need to be taken or have been taken in the fight against sexual abuse and silence in the Church. Especially in America it is expected that Pope Francis will go through a legislative and executive phase in the matter of accountability of bishops who have failed to be vigilant (or worse). Pope Francis is expected to do a list of American bishops, as he has already done in other cases, namely to accept the resignation or invite these bishops to resign. Then there is the issue the co-responsibility of the laity and synodality in the Church (which still remains on paper, after Francis’ speech of October 2015) and the formation of clergy in seminaries, which in America are a serious problem. The distance between the Vatican and America is also cultural: on the one hand, American culture takes the law very seriously and tends to apply a corporate mentality to the Church, in which the Pope is seen as the CEO of the Catholic Church world, and the bishops as its managers whom the Pope can simply fire. On the other hand, the American demos have always been suspicious of authority and of the elites – political, cultural, and religious: the delegitimization of the American episcopate must also be understood in this context. It must also be said that there is a problem of institutional communication on the part of the Vatican, which cannot reach the Anglophone and American world in particular: during the pontificate of Pope Francis some important things were done on the front of the fight against abuse, but there is no effective communication, which in this area is crucial, not only to defend the Pope, but also the reputation of the Church itself”.
Francis in the letter points the finger at clericalism and the abuse of power, several of his critics instead affirm that the real problem is the widespread homosexuality practiced in the clergy. How do you comment?
“The current crisis is different from that of 2002 because at that time there was Pope John Paul II who acted as a guarantor with regard to the transition of the Church from the Council to the post-conciliar period. In the last fifteen years, the American Catholic Church has been traversed by a radicalization of religious conservatism in the neo-traditionalism sense, especially in the younger generations of priests and intellectuals. They interpret the current abuse crisis as fruit of the mistakes of the Council itself and not only of the post-Council, and is linked to the emergence of the homosexual matter and the legalization of same-sex marriage in America in 2015. This neo-traditionalist Catholicism believes that sexual abuses are committed only by homosexual clergy (something that the data of the John Jay College report deny) and that the crisis of abuse can be resolved by a kind of Catholic Jacobinism that should eliminate all bishops and priests minimally engaged in dialogue with modern culture, and replaced by a young clergy marked by personal sanctity but also by a fascination for a mythical Middle Ages and the rejection of a Church-world relationship based on a principle of reality. Homosexuality in the clergy exists and is a matter that must be addressed, but the abuse crisis cannot be resolved by making homosexuals within the Church the scapegoat of a scandal that has ancient roots, well before Vatican Council II. The debate on the scandal of the abuses committed by the clergy unfortunately risks becoming another chapter in the history of the culture wars of these last thirty years of American Catholicism”.