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Zanchetta, St. John of God, and 8 CDs for a penny

Hey everybody,

JD Flynn here, and this is The Tuesday Pillar Post.

I have got a lot to tell you about today, so let’s get to it!

The News

We put some planned reporting on hold over the past few days to cover thoroughly a major development in a story that some Catholics have been watching for years: the saga of Bishop Gustavo Zanchetta.

Zanchetta, an Argentine friend of Pope Francis, became a bishop in 2013, was accused of serious sexual and administrative misconduct in 2015, 2016, and 2017, resigned from his diocese in 2017, and then - to the surprise of many - ended up in a pretty significant Vatican job, in a specially created assessor position at APSA, the Holy See’s sovereign wealth management institution. 

Of course, the bishop was eventually charged with sexual assault back in Argentina, but continued to work in his Vatican job while both a criminal and - ostensibly - a canonical case proceeded against him. He did leave the Vatican in 2021, to stand trial in Argentina this year, where he was convicted last week and sentenced to prison on Friday. 

You can read our reporting on the bishop’s conviction and prison sentence - along with more detail on that unusual timeline - right here.

It is worth noting that the outcome of the Vatican penal process Zanchetta faced is unknown, and the bishop still had priestly faculties when he was incarcerated Friday.

Again, read all about that here.


The Zanchetta story is serious, and it was unfolding within the Apostolic See at the same time that Catholics were reeling from things like the Pennsylvania grand jury report, the McCarrick scandal, and the promulgation of Vos estis lux mundi, the pope’s signature policy document on addressing episcopal administrative or personal misconduct. 

In an analysis Friday, Ed and I asked how the Zanchetta affair will impact Catholic confidence in Pope Francis’ efforts for reform on handling sexual abuse allegations

With Zanchetta’s criminal conviction — which came despite the Vatican’s decision not to hand over any of its own files to prosecutors — some Catholics will again ask whether they can trust in the pope’s reform efforts, while he invited an accused, and eventually convicted, bishop to work in the Vatican — and allowed him to stay in post even after ordering a canonical investigation and canonical trial of his misconduct.

The pope’s assignment of Zanchetta to a management position at APSA will also raise questions about papal commitment to financial reforms, given that Zanchetta was frequently accused of financial improprieties in his diocese, and, at the very least, possessed something less than an unimpeached reputation on the financial front when he was given the job. 

That analysis is right here.

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I looked at the Zanchetta affair in another way yesterday.

I wondered over the weekend exactly how it happens that a bishop - even the Bishop of Rome - takes in and tries to rehabilitate a cleric with serial allegations, and somewhat flimsy excuses — like Zanchetta’s famous claim that his phone contained pornographic selfies because it had been hacked. 

I wrote yesterday about the myopia that close pastoral relationships can develop, and the way that pastoral myopia has probably impacted a lot of high-profile cases over the years, including the case of Fr. Marcel Maciel, the notorious abuser who founded the Legion of Christ.

Of course, close pastoral relationships are a good thing - to be encouraged, not avoided - which is why victims’ advocates generally call for just procedural safeguards that would prevent the conflicts-of-interest which cause fuzzy thinking on serious matters.

Do we have those procedural safeguards? I’m not so sure. Do bishops have an awareness that no one can white-knuckle just impartiality? Some obviously do. But recent cases suggest that others clearly don’t.

So what do we do?

A cover-up doesn’t always require a conniving sense of institutional self-protection. It doesn’t prove some goal of personal advancement, or some act of blackmail, or the existence of a “lavender mafia.”

Sometimes a cover-up requires only the blinding and deeply disordered sense of loyalty that leads to bad choices — the good intention of fatherly leadership, but without regard for a broader sense of justice.

Victims’ advocates say that can be addressed when bishops know the victims of clerical sexual abuse, and have heard their experiences — when they understand the damage that’s wrought when a spiritual leader abuses power or influence to coerce, manipulate, or force themselves, often in the name of God. 

Familiarity with that pain, advocates say, helps bishops overcome the tendency to see an offending cleric as primarily a wounded and struggling soul — and thus to aim at his healing, rather than at protecting the community. 

Of course, some victims and their families find that the prospect of litigation — even as a faint specter looming in the background — makes bishops afraid to have honest and candid conversations with them. But until they do, advocates say, most bishops will be tempted naturally towards trying to help wayward clerics, but actually doing offense to the good of justice, and to the needs of victims. 

Read some thoughts on that here.

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On March 7

Since he was installed as Bishop of Crookston in December, a lot of Catholics have had their eyes on Bishop Andrew Cozzens, who promised to work toward Christian reconciliation and healing, after his predecessor, Bishop Michael Hoeppner, became the first U.S. bishop to resign after a Vos estis lux mundi investigation.

Cozzens announced Monday that Hoeppner “will not be doing any public ministry” in the Crookston diocese, and will see cuts to his retirement stipend and benefits.

Crookston chancellor Janelle Gergen told The Pillar there has not yet been a decision on whether Hoeppner will be permitted to be buried in Crookston’s cathedral, a right rarely taken from bishops in the dioceses they lead.

All of this is interesting, in part, because it is first: Hoeppner was the first U.S. bishop to be investigated under Pope Francis’ approach to episcopal misconduct, the first U.S. bishop to resign after such an investigation, and Cozzens is the first bishop charged with rebuilding in a diocese after such an investigation and resignation.

Papal reforms were meant to begin a new day in episcopal leadership — that means accountability for accused bishops, but it also means opportunity for the bishops who follow them, to chart a path aimed at Christian renewal in dioceses that have suffered.

Cozzens’ approach to Hoeppner may well set a precedent, so it’s worth continuing to keep an eye on the northwestern corner of Minnesota.

Read about it here

An Irish businessman backed up a truck yesterday, through the gates of the Russian embassy in Dublin

Before he was arrested, by police who seemed fairly nonchalant about the whole thing, the driver said he did it because he wanted to “create a safe corridor for the Russian ambassador to leave Ireland” as quickly as possible.

As he was led away, the driver told the assembled crowd that he’d “done my bit.”

Now, for our purposes, here’s where the story gets really interesting. The truck looks like this: 

It’s the delivery truck of a church supply business — the kind that sells hosts, altar wines, vestments, and other liturgical necessities to parishes and other religious institutions. 

I telephoned the Desmond Wisley Ecclesiastical Supply company Monday, shortly after TruckGate, to see if the firm’s owners might have a comment on the creative use of their vehicle.

The woman who answered said I’d need to ask the owner.

So I texted Desmond Wisley, to ask what he thought of what had happened. Desmond didn’t get back to me. It was a half hour or so before I realized that Mr. Wisley didn’t return my text because he was otherwise occupied — on his way to jail, presumably, with the police who’d arrested him. He was the driver.

It sounds like Wisley won’t actually spend much time in the clink, and he was released on bail Tuesday morning. He’s been charged only with property damage and a moving violation. He does not face the sort of domestic terrorism charge police probably could have sent his way - it seems no one thought that kind of charge fit the bill.

But whatever his legal troubles, I’ll make two predictions now, of which I feel quite certain:

  • Desmond Wisley is about to become the number one Church supplier in Ireland.

  • Desmond Wisley will never again pay for another drink, for the rest of his life.


Is Vigano ok?

I was struck yesterday by the latest missive released by former apostolic nuncio Archbishop Carlo Vigano, who was once an ordinary ecclesiastical figure, was briefly at the center of attention in 2018 when he wrote a letter on the McCarrick scandal, and has since become a kind of manifesto-machine, cranking out from seclusion frequent and lengthy essays, each of which tends to blame a fledgling New World Order for social or political dysfunction, while criticizing the Second Vatican Council, the Novus ordo, the pope, and whomever else has caught his attention that day.

This week’s release was on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine (you can read it here, if you want). It took up various pro-Putin, anti-globalism, and anti-semitic positions while reminding readers that the Church’s “hierarchy is held hostage by apostates.”

“Perhaps Providence has ordained that Moscow, the Third Rome, will today in the sight of the world take on the role of κατέχον [restrainer] of eschatological obstacle to the Antichrist,” the archbishop mused.

There have long been questions about who is writing these  “Archbishop Vigano” essays — it seems unlikely it’s actually Vigano. They are a pretty radical departure from the syntax, style, structure, and voice of Vigano when he was the pope’s ambassador to the U.S., and even from the tone of his 2018 letter on McCarrick, which gave him a place in the popular Catholic imagination.

But whatever Vigano says, I am aware of no attempts from the Holy See to clarify the archbishop’s place in the life of the Church, to indicate whether he is well, or to address the most common claims of his letters, which, to little surprise, gain a pretty good foothold of followers online, especially since the Vigano letter praised by President Trump in 2020.

It’s worth asking why. 

First, the Holy See is just not in the ordinary practice of correcting doctrinally suspect or confusing statements from controversial Churchmen in the media — whether the cleric in question is Vigano, or  someone like Fr. James Martin, another figure whom Catholics frequently ask about, with many also wondering why the Holy See doesn’t clarify elements of his media presence.

Now, not all such media figures are assessed equally in Rome. It is obvious that some who raise concern in the U.S., e.g. Martin, do not raise similar concern in Rome.

But it is possible that, in general, Rome believes weighing in on controversial figures saying controversial things would become a full-time job, fraught with internal politics and nearly impossible to manage.

Given budget cuts, financial trials, and short staffs, there are a lot of things not getting done in Rome right now, and work is piling up on the desks of lots of hardworking Vatican people. So maybe this just doesn’t seem like something that could be tackled. 

It’s also possible the Holy See underestimates the cultural influence of such figures, assuming that a figure like Vigano is saber-rattling, making noise on the internet, without real world effect. 

On the other hand, it is also plausible I overestimate their cultural influence, and they actually have precious little place in the popular imagination of most practicing Catholics. 

I don’t think that’s the case though, because when I go to a parish, whether my own or somewhere else, it usually isn’t very long before someone strikes up a conversation with me about Vigano. Maybe I give off a Vigano vibe or something like that, but I doubt it. 

I’ve also perused the Facebook posts of my parents’ friends — practicing Catholics, but not of the “extremely online” variety or nebby religious hobbyists —  and I notice that among them are a pretty good smattering of Vigano or Martin (never both, obviously) article postings. That’s not scientific data-gathering, but it’s something.

So I’m curious what you think: 

Is there wisdom in not addressing essays like Vigano’s, or periodic claims from other controversial clerics, left or right? Or is the Holy See unaware of the impact of such figures? Am I overestimating that impact? What can/should Church authorities do about Churchmen with large platforms, and unusual or confusing positions, or even just plain erroneous takes on Catholic doctrine?

I reported last year on some elements of this phenomenon, although that reporting was focused on U.S. bishops, and not the Holy See.

I’ll be eager to read (charitable!) discussion of this in the comments of this newsletter! Get to it! (and remember that The Pillar’s comment policy is simple: Be charitable!)

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On March 8

Fifty-one years ago, Muhammed Ali and Joe Frazier fought one of the most hyped and anticipated boxing matches of all time. When it was over, they fought two more times, in a sporting rivalry that defined a moment of American cultural, and athletic, history.

Of course, almost no one cares about boxing anymore. MMA killed the rope-a-dope star, it turns out.

But still, check out the first and last round of “The Fight” - March 8, 1971 in Madison Square Garden, right here:

And then check out the best Muhammad Ali tribute song I’m aware of.

Eight years after Ali-Frazier I, on March 8, 1979, Phillips introduced the future of audio: The compact disc.

The future is now the past, of course, but there was a time when you could buy 8 CDs, or even 12, for a penny. To read about how that worked, here’s an oral history of the Columbia House CD club. (Warning: some readers will not appreciate language used by those interviewed in this article.) And here’s a shorter history. (With cleaner language.)

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March 8 is also the feast of St. John of God, a 16th-century Portuguese soldier who at 42 had a kind of reconversion while listening to St. John of Avila preach.

At first he became pretty extreme, publicly flagellating himself in penance for his sins, and shouting repentance in the street. He was incarcerated in an institution that was effectively an asylum. He seems to have had what would now be recognized as mental health challenges.  

St. John of Avila urged the new convert to channel that energy into service of the poor. He did so in the hospital, caring for patients, until he secured a release. He then began taking care of sick people too poor to pay for their medical care. John would beg for alms, and try to sell wood that he found, to feed poor and sick people in the streets of Granada. 

Eventually, he rented a house for sick people, carrying them to the house himself, and the hospital grew over time. But even as John’s ministry grew, his impulsiveness, personal poverty, and even his manner of speech left some with the impression he was a “madman” — he was taunted with that name for much of his life. 

One night, the hospital he built caught fire. John moved through the smoke and the flames to carry the sick patients to safety. He went in and out of the burning building, and over and over, and the flames never seemed to touch him as he walked through the fire. He was reportedly entirely unscathed, and he saved that night a lot of lives.

One of John’s habits was to collect scrap wood or driftwood to sell for care of the poor. In 1550, when a local river flooded, he hurried to it to collect as much driftwood as he could. As he and companions collected, one helper fell into the river, and John dove in after him without a moment’s hesitation. He caught pneumonia, and died on March 8, 1550, his 55th birthday.

Poor people whom he had loved lined up across Granada to mourn him. He was canonized Oct. 16, 1690. 

St. John of God, pray for us!

Thank you

I remind you briefly of our Lenten almsgiving initiative at The Pillar. 

For every person who signs up for The Pillar’s mailing list this Lent - paid subscriber or not - we’ll be donating $1 to the Ukrainian Catholic Eparchy of Philadelphia’s War Victims and Humanitarian Crisis Fund. And for every new paid subscriber, we’ll donate $10 to the same fund. 

If you are not already a subscriber, now is a good time to become one.

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Be assured of our prayers, and please keep praying for us. We need it.

Yours in Christ,

JD Flynn
The Pillar

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