The Friday Pillar Post
Welcome, friends, to the Friday edition of The Pillar Post in your inbox.
It has been another full week in our little newsroom. As we try to find our normal working rhythm at The Pillar, we have seen some interesting stories shake loose:
Politics as usual
On Wednesday, we broke the news that lawmakers in North Dakota have introduced a bill that would eliminate the ministerial exception to mandatory reporting laws, meaning priests who learned about or suspected a case of child abuse or neglect in the confessional would be legally obliged to violate the sacramental seal or face jail time.
The North Dakota bill is by no means the first attempt to create a legal obligation on priests to break the seal - which is about one of the most serious canonical crimes (and gravest sins) open to a member of the clergy.
Similar laws have been proposed in Australia after the Royal Commission report on sexual abuse in that country. Several U.S. states have also made attempts at legislating the confessional through mandatory reporting laws, most notably California in 2019. The California bill was dropped in the face of massive public outcry and opposition — It is hard to see the North Dakota measure making it onto the statute books, still less able to survive an inevitable court challenge.
So why would such a bill be introduced in the first place?
The recent North Dakota AG’s report did not uncover any crimes by priests from either of North Dakota’s two dioceses which had not already been publicly and voluntarily disclosed. And, there is no body of evidence anywhere, even anecdotally, to suggest that the seal of confession has contributed to clerical sexual abuse.
More likely than any expectation of success, it is possible the legislators are engaged in a kind of gesture politics, signalling for voters their willingness to take aim at First Amendment freedoms when the issue is serious enough - like child protection.
It is also worth noting that two of the three sponsors of the bill in the senate are Republicans - challenging the popular perception that either party can be expected to guard the Church’s interests and freedoms as a matter of course.
Also this week, JD tracked the fallout of last week’s Capitol craziness and the vote to impeach the President, again.
He also noted that the U.S. bishops would likely put out a statement, and, if they didn’t, people would want to know why.
As JD noted, statements from the USCCB can, at times, seem to falleth like the gentle summer rain - on the pressing and the trivial alike. The conference put out more than 60 of them last year, each the product of a laborious process which can hamper their timeliness and utility. Can anything be done to make the conference more agile?
Crossed wire transfers
Vatican finances is something of a hobby horse for me, and I have been reporting on it for as long as I have been in Catholic journalism. The ins-and-outs of the last five years of Vatican finance would easily make for a film that was half Dan Brown and half “The Big Short.” That said, I know our reporting on the minutiae can be a little hard to follow, but the details are important - even if it means getting into the weeds a little from time to time.
We’ve begun adding quick breakdowns at the top of complex finance stories to help you know the gist, even if you don’t dive into the details.
This week’s stories on the subject are fairly straightforward. First there was the news that after working with Vatican authorities for several weeks, the Australian financial watchdog AUSTRAC found it overestimated the amount of money sent into the country from Vatican City since 2014 by some $2 billion - that’s billion with a ‘b’.
Crikey. You can read about it here.
Austrac said the mix up was due to a coding error, and the real figure was closer to $9 million - red faces and apologies all around.
At the same time, Australian officials doubled down on the investigation into some suspicious transactions between the countries. According to The Australian, investigations include four transfers that came from the Vatican Secretariat of State, including two that were reportedly sent by Cardinal Angelo Becciu to a company in Melbourne, at the height of Cardinal Pell’s trial in the same city.
As we said:
“Some supporters of Pell, in Rome and Australia, have speculated that Becciu may have played a role in financially supporting the case against him. Those suspicions will be lent new seriousness and credibility by the report that both Vatican and Australian financial watchdogs have identified millions in transfers authorized by Becciu to a Melbourne company at the time of Pell’s prosecution.”
Conspiracy theories, about which I’m still skeptical, to one side, the ongoing investigation… raises some questions. More on that here.
Marching through the storm
Yesterday, we reported on the extra security measures which have followed the Jan. 6 invasion of the Capitol. The area remains fenced off, and there are, well, a lot of National Guard troops currently deployed. All the signs are this is going to be the new normal, at least through the inauguration next week.
Of course, the week after that, on Jan. 29, the annual March for Life is set to wind up on Capitol Hill in front of the Supreme Court. How much that event, which has drawn hundreds of thousands in protest against the genocide of abortion, will be affected by ongoing crowd control concerns remains to be seen.
Many of the events around the March have already announced a shift to online this year, in response to the pandemic. But the buses are still coming.
This year’s slate of speakers is decidedly apolitical, but the absence of politicians will not mean an absence of politics. How that all shakes out in the coming weeks will be worth watching.
This week’s magic word is.... “Comrades!”
I used the salutation in a few tweets last week while announcing our podcast’s rollout on different platforms. Some of you noticed, and more than a few of you have expressed your concern at a possible Red Scare here at The Pillar.
By way of explanation, when I worked in the House of Commons all those years ago (for the Conservative Party, believe it or not) it was actually common for some Tory members to address each other as “comrade,” enraging any nearby communists by appropriating their term of endearment.
I confess I thought my usage last week was clearly ironic, and I certainly meant it as a lighthearted joke. But I want to reassure those of you who have written in with your concerns.
So, in the preferred formula of the U.S. Customs and Immigration Service: I solemnly affirm that I am not now, nor have I ever been, a member of the Communist Party.
See you next week, and forward the revolution,