Pell on Becciu, Word on Fire, and what happens next
The Friday Pillar Post
Happy Friday friends,
It has been a bit of a week for news, hasn’t it?
There’s much to get through, but before all let’s remember that it is Mother’s Day this Sunday in the United States. This is not to be confused with the far older occasion of Mothering Sunday, on the fourth Sunday of Lent, when Catholics are encouraged to visit the church of their baptism — their “mother church.”
“Mother’s Day,” the American event, was started by Anna Jarvis in a West Virginia Methodist church in 1907.
Jarvis, who was passionately devoted to her own recently deceased mother, wanted the movement to grow into a national holiday, without any particular religious connection. She came to regret the instant commercialization of the day, and spent much of her life and fortune campaigning against it.
And with that, on with the news
Cardinal Angelo Becciu was back in court in Vatican City yesterday, telling judges why and on whose authority he arranged all kinds of financial deals at the Secretariat of State.
For example, Becciu said yesterday that Francis personally authorized a budget of up to 1 million euros to secure the release of a religious sister to be spent through his private spy, Cecilia Marogna.
And he confirmed earlier press reports that a serious of unusual and, according to Becciu highly classified, payments to an Australian tech security firm during the trial of Cardinal George Pell.
This opens up a fascinating new development in the Vatican financial scandal and trail because…. Actually, let’s stop there for a moment.
To those of you readers who follow our Vatican financial coverage — you know who you are — and try, like us, to keep pace with the ins and outs of the sprawling trial underway right now, thank you for making the effort.
I know this is complicated, and I know the temptation is to just shrug and skip on down the line. But the bottom line here is: accountability happens when rumors lead to accusations which lead to investigations which lead to trials, hopefully with journalists pitching in along the way. But little of that happens, and less of it leaves a lasting impact, if people aren’t invested in seeing accountability happen.
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Late last week, a story came out accusing the leadership of Word on Fire, the media apostolate founded by LA’s auxiliary Bishop Robert Barron, of mishandling an investigation into sexual misconduct by an employee.
The story, which seemed to “go viral” on social media fairly quickly after Catholic writer Chris Damian wrote about it, is a set of allegations from former Word on Fire employees, who say that Bishop Barron did not appropriately handle an investigation, and that there are some dysfunctional elements of culture at Word on Fire.
After it came out, Word on Fire issued a statement saying it had handled the allegation correctly, and then - this morning- Word on Fire issued another statement, which charges that one former employee acted unethically. It charges that Damian “attempted to smear Word on Fire,” and “defamed Bishop Barron.”
It is a surprisingly direct statement.
All of that is interesting, as these things go, and the entire affair has got a lot of attention, and generated debate among a lot of Catholics about Word on Fire itself - with critics of the media apostolate saying this confirms their criticisms, and supporters saying this seems like some kind of Barron Derangement Syndrome.
Welcome to the Church in 2022.
For our part, we got mostly curious about how all of this will unfold within the Church. We confirmed that at least one former employee raised complaints against Barron through the third-party, McCarrick-inspired, Vos estis lux mundi reporting hotline, meant for reporting allegations of bishops mishandling sexual misconduct, among other things.
Now, whatever you think of the actual allegations made against Barron, we were curious about what an ecclesiastical response might look like, in the post-McCarrick Church environment.
In an analysis yesterday, JD pointed out that even if they were judged to have some substance, the criticisms of Barron would almost certainly not lead to an ecclesiastical investigation, because, so far as we can tell, there’s no jurisdiction: Word on Fire doesn’t seem to have a juridic canonical identity, which would make Barron’s leadership there a kind of ecclesiastical extra-curricular activity.
Canon law regulates the ability of clerics to get involved with businesses, political parties, and public office. It doesn’t regulate similar involvement at non-canonical religious nonprofits, like Word on Fire appears to be, even if the differences might seem to lack much distinction.
As JD argues, this is actually a strange situation for both Barron and his critics — without an ecclesiastical investigation, Barron can’t be formally exonerated, if he should be, and neither can those raising complaints perceive they’ve been addressed by Church authorities.
That leaves the whole thing to be tried in the court of public opinion - a rather fickle forum, light on due process and dispassionate evaluation. JD wondered if Pope Francis might decide actually to modify canon law to address clerical “side gigs” at non-profits — and it’s a question worth asking.
It’s a common part of Catholic life to talk about making our parishes welcoming and “accessible” places, especially for Catholics with disabilities. But what does that mean, exactly?
In his “conversation with an interesting person” this week, our own Charlie Camosy talked to Michele Chronister, the former co-chair of the Council on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities for the National Catholic Partnership on Disability and the author of books like the “Handbook for Adaptive Catechesis.”
Michele has some important things to say about mindset, as much as practicalities in parish life:
“To make a parish truly accessible, we need to start from the firm belief that it is not just good but necessary to have a parish where all the members of the baptized are fully engaged and present in parish life.
We need to shift from thinking ‘What do we need to do to make sure we are not excluding people with disabilities and that we are offering ministries for them?’ to thinking ‘Our parish is poorer without the contributions of those with disabilities, and it is essential that they are able to fully and actively participate’.”
What do inclusion and accessibility for people with disabilities look like at your parish? Let us know in the comments.
Hong Kong’s 1,500 member Election Commission will meet on Saturday to vote on a new chief executive for the special administrative region’s government. John Lee Ka-chiu is expected to be elected: he is the only candidate approved to appear on the ballot.
Lee’s “campaign” for election, if you can call it campaigning when you are the only one running and the general citizenry don’t get a vote, is an interesting example of another type of Catholic in Hong Kong. We hear a lot, and rightly so, about the local Catholics whose commitment to civil liberties has cost them their careers, their businesses, and in many cases their freedom.
But assuming that “Catholic” and “pro democracy” are synonymous in Hong Kong would be a mistake — Lee for example, has made it clear that introducing direct democracy into the election system is “not a priority” for him, and his views on what constitutes a free press, or free speech, do not align with mine, to put it mildly.
Lee’s actually “running” to replace another Catholic, Carrie Lam, a chief executive. As security minister, Lee worked closely with Lam to try to bring in the 2019 extradition bill which triggered months of demonstrations across Hong Kong, with the mainland government imposing the draconian National Security Law and election reforms further curtailing local democracy in response.
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As we all heard earlier this week, the Supreme Court does appear set to overturn Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey, the rulings which have stained this country for a generation by enshrining a “right” to end the lives of the innocent unborn.
First off: I was wrong. At least it looks that way. I sincerely never thought we’d see a decision as clear and definitive as the draft which leaked earlier this week. Of course, nothing has been published yet, and things could yet change.
The political press is full of speculation about whether Chief Justice John Robert’s might be able to fashion a less sweeping decision in exchange for a bigger majority. I’m confident he’ll try, though I do not hope he will succeed.
I’ve long been of the opinion that the Chief Justice, for all his vaunted reputation as an “institutionalist” and towering juridical mind, doesn’t so much have the wisdom of Solomon as an absolute preference for cutting the court’s precedential children in half to win a consensus.
But assuming the leaked 5-4 ruling does get published, the pro-life movement, including the Church in this country, is going to have to shift it’s efforts.
In the more than a dozen states with so-called trigger laws on the books, which will outlaw abortion overnight should Roe fall, Catholics and other pro-life groups are going to have to redirect their focus, and quickly, to ensure that the vicious lie of the abortion industry — that we don’t care for the welfare of pregnant mothers or their children at all, only banning abortion — is shown to be exactly that.
This will mean turning the full force of lobbying efforts from seeking to limit abortion to ensuring every woman has access to the pre and post-birth support she and her baby need: medical, financial, emotional, practical, and every other kind. And it will need a radical up-scaling of funding and volunteer support for crisis pregnancy centers and similar institutions.
For bishops in states like California, New York, Illinois, and Colorado, which look set to enshrine maximum abortion permissions there, and even act as a kind of ghoulish magnet to attract women to end their children’s lives there, they have a new challenge too.
Will the bishops in such states who have previously argued that ending abortion shouldn’t be termed the “preeminent” national social concern by the Church concede that it may soon become the preeminent problem in their own back yard?
Much as their brother bishops in places like Tennessee have done for years over the death penalty, bishops in “pro-choice” states will have to bear a loud and unpopular witness against what is being done in their states. Their state Catholic conferences and local Catholic groups will need to find renewed enthusiasm to lobby hard to chip away at the naked infanticide of full-term abortion and, perhaps, try to erode the abortion absolutism of state leaders in favor of (as a start) the significant limits on abortion the vast majority of voters, even in states like New York, want.
How quickly can this be done, and how ready are state Catholic conferences for the change that looks set to come? We will have some reporting for you on that next week, so stay tuned.
And finally, this week marked the 41st anniversary of the hijacking of Aer Lingus Flight 164.
In our modern world of snaking TSA lines and general perma-alert for potential acts of terrorism, it’s hard to believe that not-so-long-ago a former Trappist monk could emerge from an airplane bathroom soaked in petroleum, make his way to the cockpit, and direct pilots to divert their Dublin-London flight to France, as a pit stop before heading to Tehran.
On the tarmac in France, Laurence James Downey, who was presumably fairly dry by that point, engaged in an 8-hour standoff with French authorities. Downey had the pilot throw a 9 page statement from the window of the plane, which he wanted printed in the Irish press, and in which he made his chief demand: the release of the Third Secret of Fatima by the pope.
The French eventually stormed the plane, resisted the urge to surrender to Downey, and the matter was resolved without a shot fired or a life lost. Downey was subsequently convicted of piracy and sentenced to five years in prison.
Not one sentence of this could happen today. We live in changed times.
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