On Ides of March, the Scandals Strike... Again
Whispers in the Loggia
March 16, 2016
Simply put, in the long, horrid road of American Catholicism's tragic history of sexual abuse and cover-up, few days have been as stunning as this.
Add in the mounting questions swirling around Rome over the Pope's commitment to tackling the global storm, and at least on some levels, it almost feels as if the ghost of 2002 has returned....
And yet again, just in time for Holy Week.
* * *
Early this morning, word circulated from San Antonio that Fr Virgilio Elizondo, the widely-hailed godfather of Latino theology in the US – and with it, long the lead prophet of a Hispanic ascendancy that's since come to comprise a plurality, if not the current majority of the nation's 70 million faithful – had been found dead at 80 yesterday, amid the looming cloud of a lawsuit alleging his abuse of a seminarian in the 1980s.
While the city's newspaper only relayed the statement of the cleric's assistant that Elizondo "died of a broken heart," an independent local news-site, The Rivard Report, cited unnamed sources in saying that the vaunted theologian had taken his own life by "a self-inflicted gunshot wound." The shocking news confirmed shortly thereafter by a Whispers op appraised of the situation, later in the day it emerged that the Notre Dame professor's death had indeed been ruled a suicide.
Ordained for San Antonio in 1963, Elizondo first rose to notice five years later at the side of his then-ordinary, Archbishop Robert Lucey, as the prelate's aide during the second plenary of CELAM – the decennial mega-conference of the Latin American bishops – at Medellin in 1968. Building upon the experience, shortly thereafter the young priest secured the founding of what's now known as Mexican American Catholic College (MACC) in his hometown, which quickly established itself as the US church's principal institute for the study and encounter of the burgeoning Latino reality both in the States and the Catholic world at large.
His work bolstered by the triumphant 1979 arrival of Patricio Fernandez Flores as the city's first Hispanic archbishop – an appointment made after a significant local campaign pushed for that result – Elizondo was named rector of San Fernando Cathedral four years later. Serving a dozen years at its helm, the 1731 landmark built at the site of the city's founding attained a fresh luster and prominence as the stage for Elizondo's concept of inculturated ministry, culminating in the wide TV broadcast of a bilingual weekly liturgy, "Misa de las Americas," on Sunday mornings, which was said to have reached a million viewers at its peak across the continent.
The author of some dozen books and scores of other contributions, in 1997 Elizondo became the first Hispanic-American to be awarded Notre Dame's Laetare Medal, the US church's most prestigious honor, and remains its only Latino laureate. Three years later, he was named to the university's faculty as a professor of pastoral and Hispanic theology, commuting to the Indiana campus from San Antonio.
Last May, a county court lawsuit filed in the Texas city accused Elizondo of one 1983 incident of kissing and "fondl[ing] the genitals" of a seminarian who, according to the filing, sought the priest's help in dealing with another cleric who was abusing the student. The suit said that the claimant was a minor at the time.
Recounting that he "fought off Father Elizondo and then ran from his vehicle" as the assault took place, the plaintiff explained that he didn't come forward for three decades due to "believing that he would only continue to be abused, be dismissed, made ashamed, and be touched again and again, should he ever attempt to seek the assistance of the church again." The suit likewise accused the San Antonio archdiocese of inaction toward Elizondo despite being made aware of the man's claims.
Responding to the charge, Elizondo told local media that "the allegations made against me are not true and have absolutely no basis in fact," denying "all the claims which have been asserted against me."
Reflecting the ongoing divide between the Stateside church's twin realities – one ever bleeding out as the other continues to blossom – while the suit's release spurred significant shockwaves among academics and in Hispanic church circles, it barely made a blip in Anglo news or discussion at the national level. In one of the few exceptions to the lack of interest or awareness, shortly after the case's emergence the Survivors' Network those Abused by Priests called for Elizondo to be suspended. Though no record exists of the cleric's faculties being officially removed, indications are that he was informally keeping out of view as the suit neared trial.
Over today, meanwhile, social media and conversations with Elizondo's friends and admirers have reflected a thoroughgoing shock and no mere grief, but a sense of devastation. In a statement released overnight into today, San Antonio Archbishop Gustavo Garcia-Siller said his clergy were "saddened and stunned" by "an occasion of great sorrow."
Avoiding any reference to the cause of Elizondo's death, the archbishop termed the loss "a devastatingly sad time" for the theologian's family, colleagues and friends, asking prayers to "commend him to the saving mercy of our God, who is compassionate and full of mercy and love."
Yet even as the moment became the latest staggering toll the scandals have exacted on the life of the church, no mention was made of Elizondo's alleged victim, the lawsuit, nor anything in relation to abuse and those who've suffered it.
* * *
Hours after that first jolt, at midmorning another press conference was called in Midstate Pennsylvania, the attorney general again presiding.
Two weeks after a Commonwealth grand jury leveled a searing indictment of generations of leadership in the diocese of Altoona-Johnstown, today saw the other shoe drop as charges were announced against three former provincials of the area's Third Order Regular (TOR) Franciscans, all indicted on child endangerment and conspiracy counts in enabling prolific abuse by one of their own.
Fourteen years after Boston, the move represents a watershed: never before have the superiors of a religious community been held criminally liable for facilitating a cover-up among their confreres. And with all of two US church administrators having faced similar charges until now, with today's development, the number suddenly stands at five.
The case against Fathers Giles Schinelli, Robert D'Aversa and Anthony Criscitelli stems from the trio's alleged negligence in supervising Brother Stephen Baker over their respective terms as provincial of the TORs province of the Immaculate Conception, a period which spanned their eight-year terms from 1986 to 2010.
Based in Hollidaysburg in the Altoona diocese, the community was founded a century ago to minister to Italian immigrants to the area. (On a context note, given the prominence of the order's ministry at the Franciscan University of Steubenville, it's worth making clear that the college is part of a separate province of the TORs with its own distinct governance.)
According to a 33-page indictment against the friars issued by the grand jury today, evidence on Baker found the brother's abuse of "over 100 children" during his eight years (1992-2000) as a teacher and sports coach at a diocesan high-school in the Pennsylvania church, alongside 11 earlier allegations against him filed by former students at another high-school in Ohio, which were settled by the Franciscans out of court in 2013.
Among other damning claims, the grand jury found that, upon learning of a second allegation of abuse by Baker in 2000 – after an initial report received by Schinelli in 1988 – D'Aversa moved the brother from the Pennsylvania school to become the community's vocations director, a post which would obviously presume at least a modicum of interaction with young people, not to mention a lack of supervision. From 2003-06, the brother was then assigned to the order's outreach ministry in a Midstate shopping mall, and not banned from all public work until 2010.
In early 2013, Baker committed suicide by stabbing himself days after the Ohio settlements were announced.
The disclosure of the Ohio cases against Baker provided the initial impetus for the Pennsylvania Attorney General's office to impanel the Altoona-Johnstown grand jury, whose two-year probe resulted in no charges against diocesan officials due to deaths and the expiration of criminal statutes of limitations. Even so, the investigation and today's indictment highlights a salient ecclesial reality in the scandals' wake: that, since the mechanisms of reporting and audits which determine compliance with the Dallas Charter and Norms are only required of the nation's dioceses and eparchies, religious orders have largely operated on a freer plane in their response to cases that arise in the confines of their communities.
To be sure, there are two important codicils to that. Firstly, most of the due diligence involving male religious overlaps in a diocese's requirement that, upon being appointed to a diocesan work by his provincial (contingent on the acceptance of the local bishop), a religious priest or deacon would undergo a now-mandatory background check and safe-environment training before receiving the necessary faculties for public ministry in a parish, school or other diocesan-bound institution, as would any non-ordained brother, woman religious or layperson being employed in those same venues. At the same time, however, as opposed to the penalties of a permanent life of prayer and penance or dismissal from the clerical state for a credibly accused diocesan priest, the understanding of profession into a religious order is considerably different in that, despite a similar removal from holy orders, a professed man nevertheless remains a brother and full member of his community, which precludes his ejection from their number while also providing the supervised "restricted life" stipulated by the US norms given the nature of living in common and the orders' operation of houses which engage in minimal public ministry, let alone to children.
Still in all, the same accounting and disclosure of credibly accused religious by the orders is not demanded in (particular) canon law as it is in a diocesan context, and over the years some communities have fought dioceses to prevent the names of their deceased or elderly accused from being made public alongside those of implicated secular clergy. Accordingly, as the approach cited above has been the predominant understanding on the communities' side to date, much like this grand jury's blistering account of the Altoona-Johnstown Chancery's cavalier neglect of allegations years into the post-2002 era, today's filing – and what portends to be a lengthy, bruising and high-profile trial – has the potential to invite further scrutiny of the response by the 210 communities of men serving in the US church, whether in media, by civil authorities or both.
Ordered to surrender to Pennsylvania authorities by Friday, two of the charged ex-provincials are currently serving in Florida, according to an Associated Press report, with the other in the already beyond beleaguered church in the Twin Cities. Two of the friars are pastors of parishes, the third in ministry in an order-run retreat center.
In a statement provided to the Washington Post – which, oddly enough, wasn't circulated to local outlets – the province responded to the charges as follows:
We are deeply saddened by the news released today by the Pennsylvania Office of Attorney General. With compassion for the victims and their families, as well as for the Catholic family and the community at large, the Province and its leadership have worked to cooperate with the Office of Attorney General throughout this investigation in the hope that this information could shed light on events that the Province, too, struggles to understand.
The Province extends its most sincere apologies to the victims and to the communities who have been harmed. It invites the community to join it in prayer for healing and understanding, and for all the priests and brothers who honor their vocations and the Church.
Reportedly inundated with new information called into a state hotline opened in the wake of the grand-jury on the diocese, the Attorney General's probe is ongoing.