Seminary allegations, St. John Paul II, and a failure to communicate

The Friday Pillar Post

 Happy Friday friends,

And especially a happy feast of St. John Paul II. Like a lot of Catholics of my age, JPII remains a central reference point for my life in the Church. 

He was the pope who exhorted us to be saints at World Youth Day, he was the author of encyclicals which shaped our first intellectual encounters with the faith, and his was the name said at Mass for the first two decades of our lives.

For me, he was someone who simply inspired confidence. Listening to him speak, reading his writing, it was hard not to feel, well, loved by the pope — like he was personally invested in my salvation, and that if he said I could be a saint, I should aspire to nothing less. 

When you’re the pope for more than 26 years, you tend to leave a heavy footprint behind — today lots of people will be playing the pope-saint’s greatest hits, talking up his best known works, and quoting from his most famous speeches. 

But we at The Pillar wanted to give you some things to read and watch that maybe you don’t already know by heart. So for today, we’re happy to offer some of our favorite JP II deep tracks (and one papal deepfake). Enjoy.

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Seminary allegations

This morning we reported that three former seminarians from the Diocese of Cleveland allege they were spiritually coerced and sexually harassed by a priest who quietly left ministry this month. They say the diocese did not take their allegations seriously. 

The seminarians each gave similar accounts: being pressured in 2019 to take naked swims with the priest, who would ply them with alcohol and insist they be “naked before God.” One seminarian says he was photographed by the priest, despite telling him no. 

They say they complained to the diocese and even talked with an investigator, but the priest was still allowed access to the seminary, even after a break from ministry. 

The young men say they were offered private apologies and money for counseling by the diocese but that a public acknowledgment of what happened might help others to come forward. One also said the seminary’s culture needs to be re-examined. 

The diocese told us that nothing the former seminarians reported to them “involve[s] any conduct that could be reasonably considered to be coercive [or] harassing.”

The ex-seminarians called that response “dehumanizing” and a “farce.”

We’ve learned in the last three years what can happen when a diocese or seminary does not handle these kind of allegations appropriately. That’s why this story matters.

You can, and should, read it here.

Quick links

Elsewhere in the news this week, we took a look at the strange case of a Catholic congressman facing federal charges that he lied to the FBI, when questioned about illegal campaign contributions from a foreign donor

The actual source of the money was, apparently, a Lebanese-Nigerian billionaire who channeled campaign donations through U.S. citizens, which is what my sainted grandmother would call “illegal as hell”. But that same billionaire is also a senior papal knight and a serious defender of persecuted Christians in the middle east and elsewhere. Indeed a lot of the players in this story, including Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, cross over each other in advocacy for Middle Eastern Christians. 

Fortenberry is not charged with involvement in the illegal contributions, but with lying to the FBI about what he knew after. You can read about the whole thing here. 

Bonus: We also found a coincidental link to the Vatican financial scandal, because you just knew there would be one, right? 

The news cycle has given a lot of coverage to a recent test of a Chinese hypersonic orbital missile delivery platform — a kind of ICBM drone, which could kick off a new arms race and, potentially function as an ultimate deterrent to U.S. intervention should Beijing make a move against Taiwan.

With such a move at least more likely than it has maybe ever been, I had a think about what the annexation of Taiwan might mean for Vatican diplomacy. The Holy See is, after all, Taiwan’s most senior diplomatic partner. While most people could and would guess that a likely Vatican response would be “no response,” that would itself come with a diplomatic price tag.

Read all about it.

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In the wake of the independent report into clerical abuse in France, there has been a public spat in that country about the sanctity (and legality) of the seal of confession. 

It’s not the first time the seal has been raised in the context of preventing abuse, and the lines tend to be fairly quickly and predictably drawn. But in this case, the row over the issue made it all the way to an exchange between the French Prime Minister and the Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Parolin. 

One of these days, a government is going to disagree forcefully with the Church about the sanctity of the sacrament, and this one is worth watching.

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November is almost upon us, and with it the next USCCB meeting -- Remember those? Key on next month’s agenda in Baltimore is going to be the debate over much anticipated draft text of a document on what some have taken to calling “Eucharistic coherence.”

You can expect the issues of abortion, communion, and Catholic politicians to once again dominate the media coverage before and during the fall assembly — but I doubt you will see abortion and politicians feature much, if at all, in the “Eucharistic coherence” text itself. 

I called my shot a little bit this week, and laid out what you should expect to see —  and not see —  in the document when it is released. You can read it here. 

Feel free to hold me to my predictions when we see the final document.

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What we have here is a failure to communicate

As most of you are probably sick of hearing, I recently became a father. And, as many of you probably knew already, there’s not much to compare with the frustration of being unable to communicate with the furious muppet who suddenly rules your every waking moment. 

I don’t know what The Child wants half the time, and the half that I do, she doesn’t seem to take it when it’s offered. That is, in a word, maddening. There’s nothing worse than being unable to communicate with someone, let alone someone you love. There’s an urgency, a near panic to it, it leaves you desperate, and delirious. It makes you irrational.

In that vein, since Herself isn’t much inclined to sleep at night, she and I have been spending some quality time watching rubbish television. One of my favorites, which the kid and I gave a try together, is Netflix’s “Love Is Blind.” 

The basic premise is that groups of men and women in their late 20s, more or less, are sequestered for a week in what look like upmarket dorms. They spend their days going on “blind” dates with one another, basically in hipster confessionals, where they can speak to one another, but never take sight of each other. Love is blind, see?

At least, until the inevitable marriage proposals.

I know what you’re thinking. No rational person would possibly propose or accept marriage, even in the debased, dissolvable, secular conception of marriage, to a total stranger with whom they have shared only a handful of conversations. But on this show, they do. And therein lies the fascination.

Grown men and women — lawyers, accountants, business owners — dissolve into tears almost from the get-go, pouring out their insecurities and emotionally latching on to strangers, over hours of interminable prattle. 

For anyone born before 1985, the conversations are immediately recognizable as the kind of tedious deep-but-shallow phone calls you have with your first high school sweetheart. But on this show, real, unmediated, viva voce encounters with another adult, unmediated by texting or TikTok, seem to feel like true love. 

I won’t spoil the ending for you, but I’d say things work out about as well as you’d expect, statistically — probably on a par with those high school romances. What I took away from it is how deeply stunting it is for all of us to lapse into virtual, push-button conversations in place of real human interaction.

It isn’t just what we’re missing in the moment, it’s what we’re left ill-equipped for when it does come. 

As we weigh how far back out of our covid shells to crawl, that’s worth thinking about.

It is not only the eligible members of Gen Z, by the way, who seem to be strangers to normal human interaction. 

Since my wife and I moved back to Washington some three years ago, I have infrequently received correspondence from my old friends at Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs Service, cheerfully reminding me to file my annual income tax self-assessment. Now, as a point of legal clarity, you only need to do this if you are (1) self-employed and (2) living and working in the UK; I stopped doing both in 2018, so far as Her Majesty’s taxman should be concerned. 

I’ve tried to make this point to them by return of post, lightheartedly pointing out that they must know this already, since they are mailing me in a foreign country. That didn’t seem to work. I tried using their website, which appears to have been designed by vindictive Russian trolls, to update my tax status online, but to no avail. 

Well, now they have served me with an eye-watering penalty notice for a tax return I didn’t file for 2019, a year in which I didn’t live or work or earn money in the UK, and, thanks to COVID, I didn’t set foot on the island at all.

I tried calling them, at considerable expense, but their agents have always been “very busy,” too busy to answer my calls, in fact, and they usually disconnect the call after a (very expensive) half-hour on hold. In fact, the only way I have been able to elicit a human response from HMRC is by tweeting at them.

Hurray, I thought, there are people in there somewhere. Alas, the upshot of their advice was to try chatting to the robot app on their website (see above). 

So here I am, a reasonably proud Anglo-American, living in the U.S., being unjustly hounded for taxes by the impersonal imperial machine back in London, deaf to all entries, blind to every olive branch petition. I’d revolt, but I am just too tired.

See you next week,

Ed. Condon

editor

The Pillar