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Seeing 'red flags' - Is there transparency for troubled religious orders?

When a religious community raises red flags, where should Catholics go for transparent answers?

Credit: wideonet/Shutterstock.

When Natalie Schuldt heard this spring that her bishop had invited members of the Institute of the Incarnate Word (IVE) to establish a presence in their Diocese of Fairbanks, Alaska, she was concerned.

“Just a little bit of investigation into their order drew a lot of red flags for me and for others,” she told The Pillar.

The Institute of the Incarnate Word was founded in San Rafael, Argentina in 1984 by Fr. Carlos Miguel Buela.

In 2016, the Vatican confirmed that Buela had been found guilty of sexual misconduct with IVE seminarians.

The priest was banned from being in contact with members of the institute he founded, from making statements or appearing in public, and from participating in the organization's activities.

The IVE was also close to Theodore McCarrick, the disgraced former cardinal who sexually abused seminarians for years before being publicly accused in 2018 and found guilty of abuse.

McCarrick would frequently fly to Argentina to ordain the IVE’s priests. And he lived on the grounds of the IVE seminary in Maryland – near its seminarians – during his retirement, and after he’d been ordered out of the archdiocese’s own seminary.

The close relationship between McCarrick and the IVE worried Schuldt. So did the similarities between McCarrick’s conduct and Buela’s.

But what particularly bothered her, she said, was seeing that multiple IVE webpages continued to promote Buela’s life and writings, despite the findings against him, and without any mention of his abuse and subsequent Vatican-imposed restrictions.

The IVE maintains numerous websites - a site for priestly vocations, another for its religious sisters, and another for its U.S. apostolates, among others.

Schuldt found that several of the IVE-affiliated websites included lengthy laudatory biographies of Buela and links to his homilies, articles, and books, several of which are still available for purchase from IVE Press. One site features an embedded video of Buela giving a 26-minute talk.

A Nov. 29, 2022 screenshot from ssvmusa.org

At first, Schuldt thought she was looking at old information on sites that had not been updated. But then she began to see slight changes - such as updated captions on pictures of Buela celebrating Mass.

There did not seem to be any attempt by the institute to distance itself from its founder - or even to acknowledge that he had been found abusive and placed under restrictions, Schuldt said.

The IVE America website said Buela had retired and “wanted to dedicate much of his time to leaving behind his testament to the patrimony of the Institute through his writings.”

A Nov. 29, 2022 screenshot from iveamerica.org

“I feel like the order in general is somehow flying under the radar, or the [founder] is still all over their website and being promoted,” she said.

Schuldt wasn’t sure if the matter had been addressed by the Vatican - maybe it was OK for the order to continue discussing their founder in this way? She didn’t know. But she was concerned. So on March 10, 2022, she sent a letter to Fairbanks' Bishop Chad Zielinski, and a copy to the diocesan judicial vicar, raising questions.

“I have been prayerfully and thoughtfully wrestling with concerns over the addition of members of the Institute of the Incarnate Word order to our diocese,” she said in the letter.

Citing the history of abuse among Native Alaskan communities, she added that “it would be unfair to bring members of this order into any Native village without giving the village communities the full history beforehand. Will they have contact with our Catholic schools?”

“I implore you to address this with your flock,” Schuldt said. “If there is a satisfactory explanation, please let us know.”

Schuldt never received a direct response from the bishop’s office. But she says her parish priest, Fr. Ross Tozzi, responded, saying he wanted to discuss the matter on the bishop’s behalf.

Fr. Tozzi was not available to respond to questions from The Pillar. But Schuldt said she got the impression from their conversation that Tozzi did not actually know much about the case, and she felt like he was deflecting her concerns.

She said the priest advised her to read the writings of Buela, the abusive founder, to see if she could find spiritual enlightenment within them. He also talked about St. John of the Cross being unjustly imprisoned by political opponents, Schuldt recalled.

This response was not what Schuldt had expected.

“What I really was looking for was for the bishop or somebody just to put it all to rest and say, ‘Oh, that's old information,’ or, ‘The founder is going to be exonerated.’ Or just something to be like, ‘Look, these things that look like red flags aren't really red flags’,” she said.

“I wish my bishop would have even talked to me.”

Schuldt wasn’t satisfied. So on March 28, 2022, she sent a summary of everything that had happened to the apostolic nunciature, the office of the pope’s representative to the Church in the U.S., in Washington.

In her message to the nuncio, Schuldt noted that one IVE priest had already arrived in the diocese, and the religious sisters were due to arrive in May.

“This is causing great anguish for me and others,” she wrote.

Schuldt said in her letter that Bishop Zielinski had instructed the concerned individuals’ pastors to address the matter with them. But, she added, “it appears they aren't aware of the facts of the case, or they don't believe in Buela's guilt- the only other possibility I can come up with.”

“Please instruct me on the best way to proceed. I'm not sure what else to do. As soon as the secular public, and worse - the Native community, finds out about this, I fear we will have a lot to reckon with,” she said.

Schuldt did not hear back from the nuncio directly, but she told The Pillar that within a few days her parish priest emailed her again, saying he wanted to talk again and mentioning the nuncio.

“I wasn't that excited to go talk to him again, because I just felt that there was kind of a fruitless conversation the first time, and there was really nowhere to go from there,” she said.

On April 7, Bishop Zielinski released an open letter reiterating his commitment to preventing abuse and helping bring about healing to victims. The bishops noted that priests and religious who serve in the diocese must undergo a background check and safe environment training, and have a letter of good standing from their diocese or religious community.

In the letter, Zielinski said he had visited the formation centers for the Institute of the Incarnate Word priests and sisters and found them to be faithful, joy-filled, and hard working. He did not mention the founder’s abuse, or the community’s response to it.

Schuldt’s priest, Fr. Tozzi, forwarded the letter to her that day, with a note saying Zielinski wanted him to tell her that the Vatican congregation which investigated Buela had also investigated his writings and teachings but had declined to censure them because they were determined to be in alignment with Church teaching.

Niether Zielinski nor Tozzi responded to questions from The Pillar about the extent of the Vatican’s investigation.

Schudlt said she realized her questions about the community’s promotion of Buela were not going to be answered. She decided to drop the matter and hope for the best.

Broader questions

Schuldt’s experience raises a broader question within the life of the Church: What happens when the founder of a religious institute is found guilty of sexual abuse?

The short answer is, it’s not always clear, according to Fr. John Paul Kimes, a canon lawyer who teaches at Notre Dame Law School and previously worked at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

“There’s no standard practice. It's always been dealt with on an ad hoc basis,” Kimes told The Pillar.

The Vatican might conduct an apostolic visitation, assigning a papal representative to evaluate the religious community and how it functions.

But that process is not required.

And even if an apostolic visitation does take place, its findings are generally not made public.

In the United States, Kimes said, there is a general expectation of transparency about this information that is not required by either the law or the practice of the Church.

The 2020 McCarrick Report, which examined the abuses perpetrated by former cardinal Theodore McCarrick and included his affiliation with the IVE, was an anomaly in the extent to which it made misconduct public, Kimes said.

“The McCarrick Report, to date, is a one-off in the life of the Church,” he said. “There's nothing like that anywhere in the recent history of the Church regarding any religious community or its founder that's been accused of any misbehavior.”

Even in the prominent case of Fr. Marcial Maciel, the abusive founder of the Legion of Christ, there was no information publicly released about the findings regarding the life of the community, Kimes said.

“There's nothing public from the prosecution of Maciel. There's nothing public about the apostolic visitation, or even… the work that was entrusted to Cardinal [Velasio] De Paolis regarding an examination of the leadership and the structures and the formation. There's nothing that was ever made public about the outcome of that.”

In December 2019, Pope Francis lifted the pontifical secret in cases of sexual abuse of minors. That allowed religious communities and bishops to share information about these cases, Kimes said.

But they are not required to do so.

“If it's an order of diocesan rite, then you can ask the bishop. In theory, you could. If it’s an order of pontifical rite, you could request information from the dicastery for religious, but again, there's no obligation for them to share that information.”

As a result, Catholics with concerns about a religious institute often have no clear source of information about what has been done to examine the leadership, formation, and community life of an order whose founder was abusive. It’s not possible for concerned Catholics to be certain about whether an apostolic visitation has taken place, and if it has, what was determined about the religious community.

“I understand the concerns of the faithful, particularly when they have access to some information but are unable to clarify their concerns,” Kimes said. “Unfortunately, the law of the Church just isn't there yet to require that level of transparency.”

Fr. Thomas Berg, a moral theologian and former member of the Legion of Christ, which was founded and led for years by Fr. Marcel Maciel, a sexually abusive priest, agreed that there are serious concerns presented by an abusive founder, even after he or she is removed from the community.

Berg told The Pillar that an abusive founder can have multiple layers of ramifications for a religious congregation, and raises significant questions about the community that require answers.

“An investigation would have to be necessary to establish whether he was in fact a lone actor… or, as unfortunately has historically been the case, has he abused members of the congregation?” Berg said.

Berg pointed to the example of Maciel, who abused some early members of the Legion of Christ, who then went on to commit abuse themselves.

It is possible that there are multiple generations of abuse within a religious community, and it is important to examine how widespread the abuse may be, Berg said.

And even if the founder is shown to be a lone perpetrator, he noted, “that still has enormous emotional, psychological, spiritual impacts, on a community, at every level.”

“We can't just dismiss this as ‘well, you know, he was a bad apple, but everybody else is just fine.’ Everybody else is not just fine,” he said, stressing that counseling should be offered to see how community members have been affected.

Another concern, Berg said, is the possibility that the abusive founder created a communal life of manipulation and spiritual abuse, in order to facilitate sexual abuse.

For example, he said, members of the Legion of Christ had to promise to never publicly criticize a superior, creating a shield of protection around Maciel so he had space to abuse with impunity.

“What were the rules, norms, discipline of the community? Even more specifically, what was the charism or the understanding of obedience that the founder tried to instill in the members?... What were the motivations behind that?”

A founder who has been determined to have committed sexual abuse also raises serious questions about the charism of the community, Berg said.

“It’s a question that has to be looked at. You can’t simply assume that a charism of a community is valid and intact and should therefore be vouchsafed by the Church,” he added.

It is possible for an institutional charism to emerge, through the Holy Spirit, separate from the founder, he acknowledged. But it is also possible that what appeared to be a valid charism was only a false manifestation, he added, and it is important to evaluate and see whether it is a legitimate working of the Holy Spirit.

“Obviously, the Holy Spirit can use all kinds of instruments, even fatally flawed instruments, but there's a difference between the Holy Spirit using members of a religious family and inspiring a valid charism of life in that community,” Berg said. “And I think that kind of a profound moral failure in a founder should raise serious questions about the validity of a charism.”

Lingering concerns

The Institute of the Incarnate Word did not respond to questions from The Pillar about its continued promotion of Buela, and about whether it had undergone an apostolic visitation to examine its charism and community life.

For Schuldt, unanswered questions about the IVE have also contributed to concerns about specific members.

After feeling like she had hit a dead end with her appeal to the nuncio, Schuldt let the issue drop, for a while. The IVE sisters and priests arrived in the diocese, and she decided to see how things would go.

The Servants of the Lord and the Virgin of Matará (SSVM), one of the communities founded by Fr. Buela. Credit: MiraMira / Alamy

But then she began to notice new red flags.

The IVE priest assigned to Immaculate Conception Church, the historical parish downtown where Schuldt used to be a parishioner, left abruptly and with no explanation.

The priest who was sent to replace him was Father Gerardus Hauwert, an IVE priest who had previously served in San Jose.

When Schuldt looked into Fr. Hauwert’s background, she was alarmed to discover that while serving in San Jose, Fr. Hauwert faced a 2013 lawsuit alleging that he had repeatedly sexually abused a woman who had come to him in confession.

An article in The Mercury News outlined the allegation: that the priest had exploited a troubled young woman – a rape survivor who had confessed a sex addiction.

Hauwert, for his part, has said his accuser had sent him hundreds of sexual photos and videos and tried to seduce him, despite his repeated attempts to stop her, according to The Mercury News.

Hauwert did not respond to questions from The Pillar.

The Diocese of San Jose hired an investigator to look into the claims against Hauwert. The result of that investigation was never made public.

The diocese settled the civil lawsuit with the woman in 2014. The details of the settlement were not released.

The Diocese of San Jose acknowledged that the 2012 investigation into Hauwert took place, but told The Pillar that it maintains confidentiality as a matter of policy in cases where misconduct has been alleged, for the protection of all parties involved.

“However, in criminal matters, the same confidentiality would not be afforded upon the conclusion of any proceedings, where allegations are deemed credible,” the diocese added.

But given the history of the IVE, Schuldt finds the allegations against Hauwert particularly concerning. Without knowing whether the IVE’s formation and culture have been vetted by the Vatican in light of the Buela’s abuses, she didn’t know whether she should be alarmed, or could trust that the situation had been handled by the proper Church authorities.

Shortly after Fr. Hauwert arrived in Alaska, the Anchorage Daily News asked the Diocese of Fairbanks about him. The diocese released a statement acknowledging the previous allegations, but saying that the priest had been sent there at the recommendation of his superior in the IVE and had never had his priestly faculties suspended.

“He has left each of his pastoral assignments as a priest in good-standing in the respective dioceses he has served,” the diocese said. “Consistent with the policies of the Diocese of Fairbanks, Fr. Hauwert passed the criminal background check and completed the annual safe environment training that is required to serve in this diocese.”

However, the Diocese of Fairbanks did not comment on whether Hauwert had been cleared of the allegations against him in San Jose.

The Diocese of Fairbanks did not respond to questions from The Pillar about whether diocesan officials were aware of the investigation into Fr. Hauwert and the results of that investigation at the time that he was transferred to Fairbanks.

To Schuldt, the lack of transparency is concerning.

She said Fr. Hauwert recently gave a rosary talk for children. Not knowing the outcome of the investigation into the allegations against him is disconcerting, she said.

She’s also struggled to gauge whether she’s overreacting or whistleblowing valid concerns.

“I'm not an investigative journalist so I'm coming at it like, ‘Is this even something I should worry about?’ You know what I mean? I'm just a regular person who's never called out anything in the Church before,” she said.

“Throughout this whole thing, I keep second guessing myself and being like, ‘Am I just being a jerk, or am I being a conspiracy theorist or something?’ I don't want to do that, because I love the Church and I don't want to cause any issues,” she told The Pillar.

“But accountability requires transparency,” she said.

Updated Dec. 3 to include Bishop Zielinski's open letter to the diocese.

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