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Double Standard of Justice

Much Lower Standards
but its Own Court Sets
Respect Human Rights, Says the Vatican to the World,

The Apostolic Signatura is the supreme court of the Catholic Church. Its mandate says it "ensures that justice in the Church is correctly administered." In adjudicating administrative controversies between bishops and clergy, it has the power to overturn acts deemed to have violated some law, as well as to order reparations as requested by the plaintiff. For Catholic priests and nuns, the Signatura is the court of last resort against potential abuses of episcopal power. As such, it is the final guarantor of the fundamental human rights of all members of the Catholic clergy.

Unfortunately, the Signatura as presently constituted falls far short of the high standards the Vatican urges on civil governments around the world with regard to human rights. There are over 400,000 Catholic priests and close to a million nuns in the world today who might need the services of this tribunal. To represent them, the Signatura has officially accredited only 16 lawyers to appear before it, an obviously inadequate provision for such a large number of potential appellants. Moreover, the fact that appellants may be represented only by lawyers the Signatura itself has selected gives all its proceedings the appearance of systematic prejudice.

The narrow and biased gateway through which anyone must pass to gain access to the Signatura implies that the tribunal views itself as the guardian of officialdom, rather than the protector of the ordinary clergy who appeal to it. This appearance of bias quickly became reality in the case of Father Gruner.


Need For Impartiality "Not Forseen"

Neglecting Their Most Basic Duties
Prelates Sitting in Judgment on Their Own Actions, Canon Lawyers



Cardinal Jose Sanchez           Cardinal Gilberto Agustoni

Now Fr. Gruner was about to discover that a similar cavalier attitude towards the impartiality of judges also prevailed at the level of the Signatura. Here again, two members of the judge's panel had been actively involved in the campaign against Fr. Gruner and his Fatima apostolate.


When Fr. Gruner objected to this flagrant lack of impartiality, he was astonished to be advised in writing by Archbishop Sepe and Cardinal Sanchez that the right to impartial judgment "was not foreseen in the legislation" for administrative proceedings in the Church! (In a document recently filed with the higher court, Fr. Gruner asks how Pope John Paul II, in promulgating the latest Code of Canon Law in 1983, could possibly have failed to foresee the need to secure the natural right of plaintiffs to impartial judgment.)


Even before his case came before the Apostolic Signatura, Fr. Gruner had good reasons to expect proceedings there to be seriously flawed. He had already had a taste of Vatican justice from a lower tribunal, the Congregation for the Clergy, when its Prefect was Cardinal Jose Sanchez, and its Secretary was Archbishop Crescenzio Sepe. Both these prelates had been directly involved in orchestrating and executing the campaign against Fr. Gruner, writing illicit letters to Bishops questioning his priestly status, and issuing behind-the-scenes instructions to other prelates to foil Fr. Gruner's attempts to obtain incardination with a new Bishop. Yet, when Fr. Gruner's case came before the Congregation for the Clergy, these same two men sat in judgment against him.

One of these was the Signatura's Prefect, Cardinal Gilberto Agustoni. He personally devised the plan to silence Fr. Gruner, spelling it out in a letter to Bishop Gerardo Pierro (then Bishop of Avellino), which later came into Fr. Gruner's hands. Another member, Cardinal Bernardin Gantin, was the author of a letter to all Catholic Bishops opposing one of Fr. Gruner's Fatima conferences. Both these prelates clearly lacked the impartiality to judge this case under canon law.

As do most courts, the Signatura makes provisions for its members to withdraw (officially called "recusing" themselves) from judging cases in which they have a personal involvement. Despite this, Cardinal Agustoni presided as usual when the Signatura handed down a ruling against Fr. Gruner on May 15, 1995.

In a desperate attempt to obtain a fair hearing, Fr, Gruner had an intermediary deliver an appeal directly to the Pope. While this received no official response, it did seem to have the desired effect. For the first time in Church history, the Signatura's Cardinal-Prefect recused himself from the case shortly after the appeal was placed in the Pope's hands. This removed Cardinal Agustoni from further prejudicial involvement, but Cardinal Gantin remained in place. (Fr. Gruner will now seek his recusal when the Signatura considers his final appeal.)

Meanwhile, Fr. Gruner's experiences with canon lawyers acting on his behalf before the Signatura added a new level of complications. The first of the tribunal's 16 approved lawyers to be engaged by Fr. Gruner was Carlo Tricerri, a man of advanced years and fragile health (he has since suffered a stroke). Due to his infirmity, Mr. Tricerri was unable to thoroughly review all the relevant documents in the case, and proceeded to file a submission to the Signatura containing crucial errors and omissions. When the Signatura sent back a judgment to Mr. Tricerri, allowing only 10 days for an appeal, the document was simply filed away and apparently forgotten. No copy was sent to Fr. Gruner, and he did not even learn of the document's existence for many months. When an official copy finally reached him, 17 months had elapsed, and Fr. Gruner's attempts to secure his right of appeal were denied.

Having dismissed this first—and clearly ineffective—lawyer, Fr. Gruner sought a new one among the 15 remaining, in order to launch a second appeal. After receiving tentative agreements to take the case from two lawyers, only to have them both withdraw after a few days, Fr. Gruner learned the reason for their reluctance. They were being privately advised by Archbishop Zenon Grocholewski, the second-ranking official of the Signatura, not to accept Fr. Gruner's case. This is the equivalent, in the secular world, of a Supreme Court Justice interfering with a defendant's right to choose his own counsel in a case before that court. In most jurisdictions, such interference would result in the offending judge being immediately removed from the case, if not from the court itself. But Archbishop Grocholewski has been appointed to replace the now-recused Cardinal Agustoni as Judge of the court, and hence remains prominently involved in Fr. Gruner's case. The removal of Cardinal Agustoni has thus been effectively nullified, as it is now obvious that his replacement is equally prejudiced.

In explaining his withdrawal decision to Fr. Gruner, one of the two reluctant lawyers, Francesco Ligi, reported a telling admission made by Archbishop Grocholewski. Mr. Ligi said the Archbishop advised him to withdraw because, "this case isn't about Fr. Gruner's incardination, it's about what Fr. Gruner says." At no time, however, has Archbishop Grocholewski—or anyone else in the Vatican—ever challenged the truth of what Fr. Gruner says. The Archbishop's remark thus amounted to admitting that the incardination issue was simply being used to give the appearance of legitimacy to an action designed to achieve another—and quite illegitimate—purpose.

As he continued his search for a new defender, six more accredited lawyers simply did not respond to Fr. Gruner. Finally, in 1997, he was able to persuade one of the rapidly-shrinking group, Sandro Gherro, to accept his case. Now forewarned about the questionable conduct of Signatura-approved lawyers, Fr. Gruner took the precaution of engaging a second canon lawyer, Angela Racanicchi (who is not accredited by the Signatura), to assist Mr. Gherro as a partner in the case. As a further precaution, Fr. Gruner also provided Mr. Gherro with a notarized mandate obliging him "...to represent me, to defend me...and to advise me of matters which occur or which are to be done in my name...".

This legal undertaking seems to have had no effect on Mr. Gherro. Instead, he proceeded to replicate Mr. Tricerri's errors and omissions with uncanny accuracy. When Mr. Gherro received a document from the Signatura setting out an alleged (and substantially erroneous) summary of facts and giving Fr. Gruner 10 days to respond, he simply filed it away, and allowed the allotted time to elapse. He told no one, not even the other canon lawyer engaged as his partner, that the document even existed. Meanwhile, having heard nothing from Fr. Gruner during the allotted time, the Signatura officially adopted their own version of events as fact. Subsequently, relying on these "facts," the tribunal issued a second ruling against Fr. Gruner on January 20, 1998.

About a month later, Fr. Gruner finally obtained a copy of the 14-page document in question. It is riddled with falsehoods, errors and distortions, all of which could easily have been corrected or refuted, had Fr. Gruner been given an opportunity to do so. Yet neither Mr. Gherro nor the Signatura appears in any way concerned about the denial of Fr. Gruner's fundamental rights in these proceedings. The Signatura rendered its verdict without receiving a word of defense from Fr. Gruner, as if this were perfectly normal conduct for an appellant. And as for Mr. Gherro, far from acknowledging his grave negligence, he instead demanded a written endorsement of his performance as satisfactory!

A letter delivered to Fr. Gruner in early March of this year advised that Mr. Gherro would not continue to represent him unless he received, (along with additional fees!), a written statement of satisfaction with his handling of the case to date. In a further bizarre twist, the letter also asked Fr. Gruner to endorse in advance the verdict of the court, whatever it might be! It appears that Mr. Gherro, perhaps conscious of his vulnerability to a malpractice suit, sought to absolve himself against any further liability, should he be allowed to continue mishandling the case.

Once again, Fr. Gruner found himself obliged to dismiss a lawyer whose services were clearly ineffective and unacceptable. This put him back in the position of seeking a new defender among the handful of approved lawyers remaining.

Such a lawyer has now been found in the person of Alan R. Kershaw, who happens to be the only American on the Roman Rota's roster of accredited lawyers. Mr. Kershaw is a refreshing change from his predecessors, in that he is actively participating in the development and strengthening of Fr. Gruner's defense. He has already filed two new documents, seeking redress from further irregularities in the court's proceedings.

The Signatura must now deal with these new issues (as well as several others outstanding) before making a final ruling. Since there is no firm deadline for action on these matters, the case may now drag on for many more months, keeping a dark cloud hanging over Fr. Gruner and his Fatima apostolate.

Mary's Messenger
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