The Vatican’s mishandling of high-profile abuse cases prolongs its most significant crisis

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VATICAN CITY — Three years ago, Pope Francis said the Catholic Church was committed to eradicating the “evil” of abuse. The pope and other church leaders have drawn up new guidelines to handle the charges. They promised transparency. They said the needs of the victims would come first.

“A change of mentality”, called it Francis.

But two major recent cases suggest that the church, despite all its wishes for improvement, is still falling into familiar traps and prolonging its most significant crisis.

Although the cases are markedly different – ​​one involves a Canadian cardinal accused of touching a trainee inappropriately; the other involves a Nobel Prize-winning bishop in East Timor accused of abusing poor children – anti-abuse advocates say both cases reflect a pattern of secrecy and defensiveness. They say the church is always closing ranks to protect the reputation of powerful prelates.

In the case of the cardinal, Marc Ouelletthe Vatican did look into the accusations — but he delegated the investigation to a priest who knows him well, a colleague of a small religious association. The priest determined that there was no reason to move forward – a conclusion that the prosecutor’s lawyer considers dubious, given the possible conflict of interest.

Justin Wee, the lawyer, said Father Jacques Servais interviewed his client in a 40-minute Zoom call, but rather than verifying the details of the allegations, he seemed more interested in probing his motives and asking him if she still believed in God.

“If the Vatican is dealing with cases like this, it means if you’re powerful, nothing will happen,” Wee said. “No one should be above the rules.”

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In the case of Bishop Carlos Ximenes Belo, the Vatican sanctioned him in 2020, a year after Holy See officials said they learned of the charges. But these restrictions – which included banning Belo from contact with minors – were kept secret by the church until a recently published Dutch news story investigation which describes the abuse of several boys dating back to the 1980s.

Belo had risen to fame in the church by winning the 1996 Nobel Peace Prize for his work in finding a peaceful solution to the long struggle for independence in East Timor. But six years later, the Vatican announced it was stepping down – two decades ahead of the usual retirement age – citing a canon law which refers to health or other “serious” reasons. The Vatican did not respond to questions about whether officials were aware of the abuse allegations at the time of Belo’s early retirement. He eventually found himself as an assistant parish priest in Mozambique. He said in a interview 2005 that his duties there included teaching children and leading retreats for young people.

“Both cases are further indications that the whole accountability initiative is crumbling, proving superficial and ineffective,” said Anne Barrett Doyle, co-director of BishopAccountability.org, an abuse information center. “It makes you wonder: what has changed?”

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The Vatican has launched a campaign to regain credibility against the abuses after a wave of accusations not only against parish priests, but also against bishops and cardinals – the church’s power brokers. Francis in 2018 called bishops to Rome for a unprecedented summit on child abuse, which took place months later. And then the church left new rules and guidelines on how to handle cases, including cases where bishops are accused of concealment or abuse.

The church has shown progress on several counts. Dioceses around the world have set up reporting desks, giving suspected victims an easier way to alert the church to potential crimes. And in one case, the church submitted to an unprecedented act of transparency, releasing a 449 page report in the abuse of the defrocked American cardinal Theodore McCarrick, with revelations who bruised the reputation of Pope John Paul II.

But since then, the Vatican has not been transparent about any discipline against other prelates. And it has routinely ignored its own procedures, which provide specific instructions on who should be responsible for investigating bishops.

“It’s very frustrating, to be honest,” said one person who has consulted with the Vatican on its handling of abuse, who spoke on condition of anonymity to speak candidly. “When big names come out – the Vatican and the curia – the shield comes down. It’s incredible.”

Belo could not be reached for comment. The investigation by Dutch publication De Groene Amsterdammer included interviews with two adults who described Belo’s abuse as teenagers, after which, they said, the bishop gave them money. The publication said the allegations against Belo were known to aid workers and church officials. The Salesians of Don Bosco, a religious order to which Belo belonged, said in a statement that they learned of the accusations with “deep sadness and bewilderment”.

The statement offered no timetable and referred further questions to those with “skills and knowledge”.

Ouellet, 78, has refuse accusations of inappropriate touching. He is widely considered one of the most important figures in the Roman Curia, the Vatican bureaucracy, as the head of the department that oversees and controls the bishops. Francis allowed him to stay in the role well beyond the normal five-year term. He has a reputation as a moderate – a rarity in the ideologically divided church – and has served under several popes, including Francis, with whom he has near-weekly meetings.

The charges against him surfaced publicly in a recent class action lawsuit against the Archdiocese of Quebec, in which more than 100 people allege sexual misconduct against dozens of Catholic clergy, lay pastoral and religious personnel. or volunteers. Many victims say they were minors at the time of the alleged assaults.

The charges date back to when Ouellet was Archbishop of Quebec. A woman identified in legal documents only by “F.” says that in the fall of 2008, when she was a 23-year-old intern, working as a pastoral worker in a Quebec diocese, he forcefully massaged her shoulders during a dinner party. When she turned around, according to the suit, she saw that it was Ouellet, who smiled at her and patted her back before leaving.

In 2010, during the ordination of a colleague, F. alleges that Ouellet told him that he might as well give her a hug because there is no harm in “taking care of yourself a little”. He hugged her and slid his hand down her back to above her buttocks, according to the lawsuit. She says she felt “chased out” and when she told others about her experiences she was told she wasn’t the only one having this “problem” with him.

F. eventually tried to publicize the matter through official Church channels, first to an independent advisory committee designed to receive Church cases, then—on the advice of the committee—in a letter to Francis himself. A month after her January 2021 letter to the pope, she was informed that Father Jacques Servais would be conducting an investigation. She alleges he appeared to have “little information and training” about sexual assault.

The Vatican did not respond to a question about why a close associate of Ouellet, who had known the cardinal since at least 1991, was tasked with conducting a preliminary investigation. Church guidelines warn against a conflict of interest.

Wee, the alleged victim’s lawyer, said there was no follow-up to Servais or anyone in the Vatican after the Zoom call in March 2021.

Servais did not respond to a request for comment.

Wee, who declined to make F. available for an interview, said he learned the Vatican determined there was insufficient evidence for a canonical investigation based on a Vatican press release after the allegations against Ouellet became public in August. He said she had not been informed privately beforehand.

Jean-Guy Nadeau, professor emeritus of religious studies at the University of Montreal, deplored the lack of transparency in the file. He said Servais should have recused himself given the appearance of a conflict of interest.

“I don’t understand how this choice was made,” Nadeau said of Francis’ decision to appoint Servais to lead the investigation. “I really don’t understand how such a choice could have happened.”

Analysts said the case highlights the need for outside investigators to investigate allegations of misconduct. David Deane, associate professor of theology at the Atlantic School of Theology in Nova Scotia, said clergy often close ranks and cannot be trusted to investigate each other.

“Letting the clergy handle the investigation is a real problem. It’s a real problem,” he said. “As long as that happens, it will be very difficult to have both responsibility and trust of the public in the process.”

Stefano Pitrelli contributed to this report.

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