1. Dallas/Fort Worth, TX

  2. Lenten Mission

  3. Moscow Conference

  4. Ask Father


Who Safeguards the Rights of Priests?

Rather than acting as a prudent restraint on episcopal power, the Apostolic Signatura seems wholeheartedly dedicated to reinforcing that power. Instead of upholding the rights of ordinary clergy when they are being infringed, it sanctions and even enforces abuses. This has immediate dire consequences for Fr. Gruner and his apostolate, but it also has much broader implications for the Church at large. Every Catholic priest in the world may now ask: If this can happen to Fr. Gruner, what about me?

There is little reason to believe that any other priest appealing to the Signatura tomorrow would fare any better than Fr. Gruner in getting his case heard fairly, and judged without prejudice. It is obvious that the system is heavily tilted in favor of the Vatican officials who control it, and contains no effective safeguards against the problems Fr. Gruner has encountered, which include systematic bias, gross professional incompetence, denial of due process, and judgments founded on errors and falsehoods.

Most courts seek to reinforce their commitment to justice by conducting their proceedings in public, where justice may be seen to be done. Most courts also guarantee defendants the right to independent counsel, as well as opportunities to confront accusers face-to-face, and cross-examine hostile witnesses. The Signatura does none of these things. It conducts all its proceedings in administrative cases—however contentious—in private, and issues rulings without ever providing appellants with a face-to-face hearing, let alone a cross-examination of witnesses. In the secular world, tribunals of this nature are commonly called "star chambers" or "kangaroo courts."

The Vatican established the Signatura in Medieval times, in a world of divine-right monarchs, robber barons, serfs and slaves. In that era, it may have seemed adequate for its purposes. By today's standards, however, it is a sorely deficient institution, urgently in need of reform. It is high time Catholic priests and nuns demanded that the Apostolic Signatura be brought into line with contemporary notions of fairness, equity and fundamental human rights. At the very least, the institution ought to be obliged to abide by its own rules in conducting its affairs.

A Church that preaches respect for human rights to the whole world can not afford to be seen violating those same rights itself.

Mismanaging the Clergy

Reckless Leniency for Convicted Criminals,
Unwarranted Severity for the "Fatima Priest"

Close to half a million members of the Catholic clergy around the world constitute the backbone of the Mystical Body that is the entire Church, with its hundreds of millions of faithful. Most of these clerics are priests and bishops who are directly involved in teaching children and ministering to Catholic congregations. In recent decades, managing this vast, globally distributed organization has become increasingly problematical for the Vatican.

A worldwide shortage of vocations has severely thinned the ranks of the Catholic clergy, even as congregations have grown in some regions. This has forced numerous small, under-served parishes to resort to stop-gap arrangements, cycling scarce priests from place to place on Sundays to say Masses, hear confessions and administer other sacraments.

Even more troubling than the shortage of priests is a seemingly unending series of clerical scandals involving crimes ranging from theft and embezzlement to physical and sexual abuse. In the United States alone, the Church is estimated to have spent nearly $700 million on legal fees and reparations to victims of crimes committed by over 800 priests during the past 15 years.

Occasional misdeeds among the clergy are understandable; after all, priests and bishops are only human. What is more difficult to understand is the uneven way Church authorities deal with errant members of the priesthood.

Some examples illustrate the scope of the problem:

* In early April of this year, Austria's bishops took the unprecedented step of publicly appealing to Pope John Paul II to take action against their country's ranking Cardinal (formerly Archbishop of Vienna) Hans Hermann Groer, who has been accused of sexually molesting young boys. This urgent appeal reflected their extreme frustration at the Vatican's apparent indifference to what the chairman of the Austrian bishops' conference called "a matter of the Church's credibility in Austria."

* In a lecture less than a month earlier, the Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, startled many Catholics by lavishing praise on Father Hans Küng, a theologian who has publicly called for revisions to the Church's teaching on such things as papal infallibility, birth control, priestly celibacy and women in the priesthood. Despite professing beliefs that would have earned him suspension—if not excommunication—in earlier eras, Fr. Küng has never been disciplined by the Vatican, which has merely requested that he cease calling himself a "Catholic theologian."

* Amidst many examples of extreme leniency, Vatican officials are now one step away from imposing the dire punishment of suspension on Father Nicholas Gruner, who leads a Marian movement devoted to entirely orthodox, traditional Catholic beliefs. Fr. Gruner has never been accused of any sort of crime, nor has the Vatican ever challenged the truth or theological correctness of what he preaches.

The Vatican's eagerness to proceed against Fr. Gruner with maximum severity stands in sharp contrast to its reluctance to proceed against priests guilty of grave offenses. Hundreds of Catholic clerics around the world have been convicted of major financial and sexual crimes over the past two decades, yet a surprising number were never suspended as a consequence, and many are still functioning today as chaplains, teachers and pastors.

In some cases, the Church's reluctance to act when evidence of misdeeds surfaces amounts to criminal negligence. In several landmark cases in the U.S., courts have found the Church liable for damages to victims, because diocesan officials failed to act appropriately when evidence of abuse first came to light. Instead of removing the offending priests from active service, authorities simply transferred them to similar duties in new locations, where they preyed upon new abuse victims. A case of this nature in Dallas, now under appeal, involves a staggering $120-million verdict in favor of eleven victims of abuse by a notorious priest, Father Rudy Kos. The diocese of Bridgeport, Connecticut, recently attempted to evade a similar judgment by claiming that it was not responsible for clerical crimes because its priests were "independent contractors." The jury dismissed this argument, and ordered the diocese to pay $750,000 in damages to a single abuse victim.

Instances of priests convicted of serious crimes who have escaped suspension for years—if not entirely—are commonplace:

* Former Archbishop Robert Sanchez of Albuquerque resigned in disgrace after revelations about his sexual relationships with women, yet he is still a priest in good standing, and led a retreat for priests in Tucson, Arizona last October.

* Father Leo Daniel Wright of Brisbane, Australia, now serving a jail sentence for a series of child-sex offenses committed between 1968 and 1976, first confessed his sexual activities to a bishop in 1972, but the bishop simply transferred him and took no further action. Fr. Wright went on to commit more crimes, including an assault after Mass on a 12-year-old girl in the aboriginal community where he was serving as a parish priest.

* Fr. John Brosnan of County Kerry, Ireland, is now serving a four-year prison sentence for 13 counts of sexual abuse against four girls and a boy while serving as a school chaplain between 1977 and 1985. One of his victims complained to Fr. Brosnan's now-deceased superior, Bishop Dairmuid O'Suilleabhain, who did nothing about it. His successor, Bishop William Murray, finally suspended Fr. Brosnan in 1997.

* Fr. James Chaning-Pierce of Preston, England, remains a Jesuit priest in good standing, despite the fact that he has been entered on the British pedophile register, and is currently serving a five-year prison term for molesting four teen-aged boys while a teacher at Stonyhurst College. Complaints against Fr. Chaning-Pierce were first raised years earlier when he held a teaching post in Harare, Zimbabwe, but Jesuit officials there failed to warn their colleagues in England about him.

* The Ottawa Sun newspaper tracked 32 Canadian priests last year who had been charged or convicted in sex-crime cases dating back to the mid-eighties. At least six among the 25 convicted were never suspended, and are still functioning as priests today. One, convicted of assaulting a teenage boy in Ottawa, now works at a seminary for young boys in Haiti.

* Father Brendan Smythe, dubbed "the most evil man in Ireland," died recently, shortly after being sentenced to 12 years in prison for 74 instances of sexual abuse of 20 young people over a period of 36 years. He had already served four years in a Northern Ireland prison for similar offenses. Church officials apologized for repeatedly failing to act on complaints from parents of the abused children. Instead, Fr. Smythe was simply moved from parish to parish, in the hope that he would reform.

The Church should not be faulted for seeking to rehabilitate fallen priests, and those who sincerely repent deserve forgiveness. However, efforts to rehabilitate offenders should never take the form of placing innocent children at risk of becoming new abuse victims. Such cover-up actions compound the original offenses, and make Church authorities knowing accessories to further crimes.

While excessive leniency is clearly a widespread problem, some bishops display the opposite attitude, rushing to judgment with complete disregard for the rights of priests who become targets of unfounded accusations. Monsignor Michael Higgins, who heads an organization in San Diego devoted to protecting the canonical rights of priests, cites a shocking case of this kind. When a priest was accused of sexual misconduct by a single individual, he was immediately suspended by his bishop, a completely irregular and illegal action. No investigation of the accusation was made, and the accused priest was never interviewed by any diocesan official. Yet the suspension, in clear violation of canon law, gravely damaged the priest's reputation, and also deprived him of his livelihood. Subsequently, the accuser admitted that the allegations were completely false. Even so, the diocese refused to settle the matter until forced into action by the threat of a civil lawsuit.

Catholics everywhere have both a right and a duty to ask how the Church justifies this grossly uneven administration of justice. In particular, they might ask how the Church reconciles its gentle and indulgent treatment of convicted child molesters with the severe punishment inflicted on other priests innocent of any such crimes. If suspension is too heavy a penalty even for those convicted of criminal acts, how can it be imposed summarily on someone falsely accused, or, in the case of Fr. Gruner, on someone whose only offense is alleged "administrative disobedience"?

Amidst the rogue's gallery of errant priests that has so gravely embarrassed the Church in recent decades, Fr. Gruner seems oddly out of place. In its handling of the "Fatima Priest," the Vatican embarrasses itself not with excessive leniency, but with unwarranted severity.

Mary's Messenger
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