16,000 Protest Vatican Efforts to Silence Priest
Buffalo, N.Y., April 29, 1998
Free speech within the Catholic clergy is becoming a hot issue as the Vatican moves to silence a Canadian priest who heads a growing conservative movement. Over 16,000 followers of the Fatima Crusade have signed a Public Appeal published in Rome, asking the Pope to halt the impending suspension of their leader, Father Nicholas Gruner. Suspension is the clerical equivalent of disbarring a lawyer or revoking a physician's medical license. Based just over the Canadian border in Fort Erie, Ontario, the Fatima Crusader has a large U.S. following, estimated at some 500,000.
"They're trying to silence Father Gruner and behead his movement," says Christopher A. Ferrara, a practicing lawyer in Fairfield, N.J. who has assisted Father Gruner and his organization, "and they're trampling on both his fundamental rights and ours in the process. The procedure they've used is legally deficient in so many ways it's just a travesty of justice.
"They've allowed his accusers to sit in judgment against him, repeatedly discouraged various canon lawyers from taking his case, denied him any genuine hearing, and have even issued a ruling against him which simply ignores his most important arguments and defense, as if they didn't exist. And all this has been done in secret proceedings."
Over 1500 priests, brothers and nuns, 16 bishops, and seven archbishops have also signed the published appeal letter to the Pope on behalf of Father Gruner. It was published in the largest Roman daily newspaper, Il Messaggero April 2 and subsequently was seen by millions on Italian National TV news.
Father Gregory Hesse of Vienna, an accredited lecturer in Church (Canon) Law denounced the Vatican's action against Father Gruner as "politically motivated, pure and simple. There's no moral or theological basis whatsoever for silencing Father Gruner," he explained. "What he preaches is entirely within the framework of traditional Catholic belief, and no one has ever said otherwise. Nor has anyone ever questioned his moral character. They're trying to silence him simply because they don't like the conservative causes he promotes, and the growing number of supporters he's attracting. In the secular world, this is like silencing the political opposition by arbitrarily throwing its leader in jail."
The Apostolic Signatura, which adjudicates disputes between bishops and clergy, has issued a ruling against Father Gruner for an alleged technical offense regarding his residence as a priest. He was originally incardinated (i.e., accredited to a bishop) in the diocese of Avellino, Italy, but has had official permission to reside for the last two decades in Canada, where he developed the Fatima Crusade. He has resisted an order to return to Avellino, both on legal grounds and because it would cut him off from the movement, and threaten its continuation.
"Suspension is a severe punishment that is supposed to be imposed on priests who have committed civil or canonical crimes," said Mr. Ferrara, "and even then, they're supposed to get a fair hearing before it's done. In this case, the Vatican is abusing its power to deny a priest's natural right to free speech. What's more, they've violated their own rules repeatedly in the way they've proceeded against him."
"As long as he's not preaching heresy," added Father Hesse, "a priest ought to have the same right to free speech as anyone else. By silencing someone like Father Gruner, the Vatican is abridging the rights of every priest who holds views, however legitimate, that lie outside the politically correct' domain of the past thirty years in the Church.
"That's contrary to the Church's own canon law, which gives priests not only the right, but at times the duty, to make their views known to pastors and the faithful. The Vatican ought to be a shining example to the world in the way it administers justice to its own people. Instead, it's creating a repressive atmosphere where the rights of legitimate criticism are systematically denied by hook or by crook."
Father Gruner is currently seeking permission to make a final appeal against his imminent suspension. If granted, this appeal would be heard by the same tribunal, the Signatura, that has already ruled against him three times. In theory, the Pope may overrule the Signatura, but in practice, the current Pontiff has made it clear that he chooses not to interfere in such matters.