TRUE CONFESSIONS

Insider: Pope’s Child Abuse Commission Is ‘Smoke and Mirrors’

Pope Francis portrays himself as a man who leads by example, but his protection of bishops who protected child-abusing priests continues.

02.23.16 5:01 AM ET

Pope Francis, speaking to reporters on the flight from Mexico City to Rome last week, gave his strongest comment yet on the clergy sex abuse crisis.

Francis called such acts “a monstrosity,” according to the Associated Press. In the Holy See’s transcript, the pope went beyond current Vatican policy in stating: “A bishop who moves a priest to a different parish if he detects a case of paedophilia is without conscience and the best thing for him to do would be to resign.”

But the official church policy on such bishops remains unclear, and the Vatican reform on this issue, charitably put, is a lurching work in progress.

By using the present tense—“a bishop who moves”— Francis may be signaling a going-forward stance when new cases surface. But what is the policy on bishops with past transgressions?

The pope echoed a Vatican Radio statement earlier in the week by one of his key advisors, Boston Cardinal Seán O’Malley, who chairs the Pontifical Commission on the Protection of Minors: “The crimes and sins of the sexual abuse of children must not be kept secret for any longer.”

“We all have a moral and ethical responsibility to report suspected abuse to the civil authorities who are charged with protecting our society,” declared O’Malley.

But in the view of Peter Saunders, an international leader of the abuse survivors’ movement who was suspended Feb. 5 from the commission O’Malley chairs for giving candid media interviews, Vatican policy is “smoke and mirrors.”

“When I met with the pope and joined the commission [in December 2014] I thought Francis was serious about change,” Saunders told The Daily Beast from London in a wide-ranging telephone interview. “I don’t think so any more. I don’t see any major reform achievement.”

The Vatican historically has given de facto immunity to negligent cardinals and bishops. Francis personally has defrocked two bishops who abused children.

But in another case Archbishop Robert Finn of Kansas City, Mo. stayed in office more than a year after his conviction for a criminal misdemeanor. He had sheltered a priest who had child pornography and is now in prison for child abuse. Finn now ministers to a Nebraska community of nuns.

Former St. Paul, Minn. Archbishop John Nienstedt, who recycled abusers and resigned in a huge scandal, was working in a Michigan parish in January, according to the National Catholic Reporter.

“On the oversight of bishops, the Vatican has to set up rules regarding their conduct in response to wrongdoing,” Illinois Supreme Court Justice Anne Burke told The Daily Beast.

Justice Burke, a member of the Sovereign Order of Malta, was a founding member of the U.S. bishops’ National Review Board, which advised the prelates on reform measures back in the early part of the last decade. Burke has been critical of American bishops for failure to abide by their 2002 youth protection charter which announced “zero tolerance” for clergy sex offenders.

Finn and Nienstedt flagrantly violated the charter; the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops voiced no criticism of them, waiting for a Vatican response.

“They need world-wide rules for bishops’ conduct,” says Burke.
“An archbishop over a given region needs rules that his bishops and he have to abide by. If they don’t abide by them, then there has to be a penalty. Catholics in pews must know what the rules are.”

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Under Francis, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith at the Vatican has established a special tribunal to deal with charges against bishops; but it has been slow getting off the ground. The credibility of any Vatican policy turns on two overarching questions:

Will the tribunal accept legal findings damaging to bishops from court cases with democratic jurisprudence? Will Pope Francis promulgate a law, under the church’s monarchical governing system, specifying that cardinals and bishops lose their titles and priestly rights if found guilty?

Many complicit bishops in Western countries remain in their positions, most notably Cardinal Roger Mahony. From 2002 to 2006, Mahony spent millions of dollars in legal fees to blunt a subpoena by the Los Angeles district attorney seeking files of clergy child molesters. The DA wanted to indict Mahony for recycling predators; the cardinal claimed a freedom-of-religion privilege in refusing to turn over the files. Over four years, the appellate courts rejected the novel argument. Meanwhile, the criminal statute of limitations ran out. The DA’s indictment strategy tanked.

Mahony personally met with and apologized to many victims of priests. In 2007, the archdiocese agreed to $775 million in settlements to 554 sur-vivors. In 2013 Mahony voted in the conclave that elected Pope Francis. Now retired, Mahony is archbishop emeritus, a cardinal in good standing.

Peter Saunders’ unvarnished public criticism of complicit bishops and cardinals put him at odds with 15 of the 16 other papal advisory commission members, and with O’Malley.

In a previous Daily Beast interview, Saunders singled out one of the pope’s close advisors, Cardinal Francisco Javier Errázuriz of Chile as a particular obstacle to justice.

Errázuriz had called a prominent Chilean survivor activist, Juan Carlos Cruz, “the serpent” in an email to another cardinal which surfaced in the Chilean media. Cruz was under consideration to join the papal commission at the time; his nomination did not go forward. “What the pope said and those cardinals said was dreadful,” Saunders told The Daily Beast.

Church officials denouncing, counter-suing or trying to muzzle survivors and whistle-blowers from the clergy is a theme threading through the decades-long crisis. The hierarchy has translated crimes into sins, while putting the defense of pedophiles over justice and the human rights of children.

Saunders’s criticism of Errázuriz triggered a blow-back.

“The Daily Beast [interview] certainly got them riled up,” Saunders says of his colleagues on the papal advisory commission. “You gave me the opportunity air my opinion and not everyone wanted that. Certain members of the commission were unhappy about the piece.”

Ironically, the candor that offended his commission colleagues actually helped them with their most important constituency: sexual victims of clergy, and leading reform advocates. Because of his suspension by the commission, Saunders has become more a flash-point figure in the crisis, as the Commission struggles to demonstrate that it has leverage with Pope Francis.

“Every time Pete Saunders criticized the Vatican, the credibility of the Commission shot up in the eyes of outsiders,” Anne Barrett-Doyle, a director of the online archive BishopAccountability told The Daily Beast.

“There were Catholics and survivors starting to believe that this Commission was different from advisory boards we’ve seen in the past, which ended up being compromised by bishops,” said Barrett-Doyle. “Suspending Pete indicates that the Commission won’t produce the systemic reform we need. Pete gave them credibility as a bracing truth-teller. He’s a devout Catholic. Loyal critics are crucial to reform.”

Saunders, in phone calls and emails with The Daily Beast, described an almost surreal obsession with secrecy among commission members.

“The day before I was ejected [Feb.5], they were talking about the need for bishops to report, and O’Malley said he thought it a moral duty,“ says Saunders.

“I put forward an agenda item to discuss more openness and transparency. That was shot down,” said Saunders. “Secrecy is why we have this crisis in the first place! I wasn’t suggesting they livestream the meetings, but in our previous meeting last October, Austen Ivereigh spoke to us on dealings with the media and said that as commission members we should not engage with the press.”

Ivereigh is an activist-journalist and the author of a respected biography of Francis, The Great Reformer. He is director of a conservative group in the UK, Catholic Voices, whose agenda includes briefings for conferences of bishops on church issues.

Ivereigh’s partner in Catholic Voices is Jack Valero, the Opus Dei spokesman in Scotland. Saunders took offense at the presentation Ivereigh made to the commission.

“Austen tried to imply that the reason the press is interested in you is because you’re on the Commission. I said, ‘Sorry, Austen, I’ve been speaking to the press for years.’He tried to say that our job is to keep our mouths shut; but once he realized that wouldn’t work he gave a description of how the media work and what they’re after. Then we did a mock-interview in front of a TV camera with someone asking questions.”

“I never said they shouldn’t speak to the media,“ Ivereigh told The Daily Beast by email. He said the session had come at the request of a communications staffer at the Vatican, Emer McCarthy.

“The whole training was about helping them speak to the media,“ continued Ivereigh. “I proposed that they should not address specific cases because that was the rule that the Commission was moving to agree on. Peter wouldn’t accept that; the others did. I proceeded with the training anyway, and left it to the commission to resolve the issue at their subsequent meeting. Which they did—with the result that Peter was asked to leave because he couldn’t abide by their decision.”

Saunders has a different view: “It was all part of damage control. I’m absolutely certain that the impetus for [Ivereigh] being there was related to the interview I did about George Pell on Australian TV.”

Cardinal Pell of Australia—now an influential Vatican official—has been trailed for years by damaging news reports about his handling of clergy predators, inconsistent statements he has made, and cold response to victims.

Saunders, in a June 7, 2015 interview with the Australian news program, 60 Minutes, said Pell has a long history of “denigrating people, of acting with callousness, cold-heartedness— almost sociopathic I would go as far as to say, this lack of care.”

“I think it’s critical that George Pell is moved aside, that he is sent back to Australia, and that the pope takes the strongest action against him,” said Saunders.

Pell refused to be interviewed by the Austrailian 60 Minutes, but his attorneys in a statement to the program called Saunders’s claims "false” and  outrageous.”

Pell, 74, has recently cited health problems in refusing to return to Australia to give testimony to the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Abuse, a sweeping investigation not limited to the Catholic Church. He is scheduled to give testimony in Rome by video link on Feb. 29.

Pell is a towering, broad-shouldered man who was known for a sometimes stormy tenure as an archbishop in Melbourne and Sydney when Francis, shortly after the 2013 conclave, chose Pell as a member of the Council of Eight—top advisor-cardinals.

A police investigation is underway into Pell’s early years as a seminarian and young priest, according to fresh reports from Australia. Several years ago Pell denied charges, which were never substantiated, that he had sexual contact with a minor years earlier.

"Pell has called for a public inquiry to be conducted into the Victorian [Australia] police, saying the allegations were leaked to damage him," The Guardian reports.

Should the royal commission final report portray Pell as an obstructionist protecting clergy child abusers, or worse, Pope Francis would face a real crisis. Pell is one of the most powerful men in the Vatican.

As Prefect for the Secretariat of the Economy—a pivotal agency created by Pope Francis in response to Vatican financial scandals— Pell has a concentration of power unrivaled under the old Roman Curia bureaucracy.

The oversight powers invested in Pell’s office allow it to probe the budgets of various Vatican congregations (cabinet-level offices), bypassing the prefect, typically a cardinal or archbishop of the offices.

The turf wars within the Curia that spilled out in the Vatileaks scandal—leaks widely seen as an attempt to drive Pope Benedict’s Secretary of State, the unpopular Cardinal Tarsicio Bertone, to resign—ignited a counter-shift that some Vatican insiders believe has produced a new imbalance of power favoring Pell.

“You’ve never had a cardinal, not surrounded by a commission, with the authority to enter into affairs of another Congregation of his own will,” a well-placed source in the Vatican told The Daily Beast. “If you have a weak pope it could become a significant problem, because Pell controls the budget of other offices.”

This source speculates that Pell “may be an unfair target” in Australia, while being “an avatar of economic virtue“ in Rome.

Nevertheless, according to this insider who spoke on condition of anonymity, Pell has made his share of enemies in the Curia because “his view of transparency is whatever he wants. He does not share. He acts in a small closed circle of people. If you’re not with him, you’re against him. It’s a pretty intense mentality.”

Meanwhile, Saunders, whose TV interview put a hole in Pell’s credibility, is mulling over his place in the limbo created by the commission, which suspended him, but did not fire him.

Holding his tongue is not exactly Peter Saunders’ style.

He told The Daily Beast: “Francis has a great opportunity to put his hands up and say,‘I got it tragically wrong in my dealings with survivors in Argentina. I toed the party line like many other bishops, and now’s the time to atone.’ To get rid of bishops who are protectors and abusers, he probably needs not a commission of devout Catholics, but a body akin to an FBI flying squad who do not have an allegiance to the church but know their work and go around the world however it needs to be done and eject these people or hand them over to authorities.”

Jason Berry is author of Render unto Rome: The Secret Life of Money in the Catholic Church, and was co-producer of Frontline’s 2014 “Secrets of the Vatican.”