Catholics Wrestle with New Allegations of Abuse and a Feuding Church
Minneapolis Star Tribune
September 1, 2018
Ask Cindy and Craig Vana about the state of the Catholic Church and the longtime worshipers will say this: We need to know more about some of the recent headlines before we know what to think, we need to stay with our faith, we need to pray.
The couple have spent 49 years, the length of their marriage, as members of the Church of St. Charles Borromeo in St. Anthony, and they take pride in its mission, its community of some 1,500 families, and in the stunning renovation completed four years ago of the neighborhood church’s altar and worship space.
But like other Catholics in recent days, they’ve learned of a damning report out of Pennsylvania of clergy sex abuse, one that was quickly followed by an Archbishop’s allegation that, in yet another sex scandal, high-ranking Vatican officials, including Pope Francis, were long aware of the victimization of seminarian students.
The culmination of reports has engulfed the church in an ideological civil war, with some bishops going so far as to call for the pope’s resignation.
“I would have to say that I’m really unprepared to come to any conclusions,” said Cindy Vana, adding that she wants to see the documents behind the claims of widespread moral failings within the Vatican’s leadership. “We’re talking about the Holy Father here, and we have to be very cautious.”
Cautious, unsure of who to believe, and wanting answers to questions that have rocked the faithful, Minnesota’s 1 million Catholics have been left aching after yet another painful revelation about a problem that has haunted the church for years.
In pulpits from Duluth to Rochester, priests last Sunday implored the faithful to stay, warned that more troubling reports may be forthcoming, and made unprecedented calls for an investigation of the Vatican and a “purification” of church leadership.
“There is much that is going to happen in the coming days,” the Rev. Joel Hastings said in his sermon last Sunday at St. Benedict Catholic Church in Duluth, casting the spiritual crisis as a moment of Catholic reckoning long overdue.
It’s also a time of heartbreak for Catholics who thought that clergy sex abuse cases detailed in high-profile lawsuits out of Boston, Los Angeles and elsewhere were more or less resolved after settlements worth hundreds of millions of dollars.
The Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis this summer agreed to pay $210 million to some 450 victims of clergy sex abuse, the largest bankruptcy settlement ever made by an archdiocese or diocese.
“I am guilty of thinking that the sins of the clerical sex abuse crisis against minors was a thing of the past,” said the Rev. R.J. Fichtinger in his Sunday sermon last week at Saint Thomas More Catholic Community in St. Paul.
“There’s a lot of sadness and a lot of anger,” said Evan Markel, a University of Minnesota sophomore and member of a Catholic student organization on campus.
The scandals have galvanized Markel and his Catholic friends to become even more faithful, he said, to make the church what it’s supposed to be. “We’re doubling down rather than doubling back,” he said.
A churchgoer from the Church of St. Charles Borromeo, who had attended morning mass last week, put her feelings about the church’s recent turmoil into one succinct thought:
“I’m not going to leave Jesus,” the woman said, “because of Judas.”
The stunning disclosures from Pennsylvania that at least 1,000 children were preyed upon by some 300 priests over decades drew a remarkable response from within the church as well, with an almost unheard-of public condemnation of the Vatican and of Pope Francis by Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, the former Vatican ambassador to the U.S. and known critic of Francis.
In a letter published Aug. 26, Vigano alleged that the pope and other high-ranking church officials that he named were aware of abuse allegations against retired Archbishop Theodore E. McCarrick, who was accused of making sexual advances to seminary students and punishing those who turned him down.
Critics said it seemed like Vigano might be settling scores: He’s widely known to have been upset over the Vatican’s handling of his career, and he’s clashed with Francis over the church’s position on homosexuality.
Catholics in Minnesota will also remember Vigano, when he was the U.S. papal representative, as the person alleged to have shut down an investigation into allegations of sexual improprieties by former Archbishop John Nienstedt.
Nienstedt eventually resigned as head of the Twin Cities archdiocese. (Nienstedt recently stepped down from a contractor position at the Napa Institute, a Catholic organization in California, after a magazine editor raised Nienstedt’s history in Minnesota.)
In recent days, churchgoers have had to contend with a flurry of finger-pointing from across the Catholic world: The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has said an investigation of Vigano’s claims is warranted, placing the spotlight on the Vatican and Pope Francis, who so far has not substantially responded to Vigano’s claims.
In a letter issued late Friday, the Twin Cities’ Archbishop Bernard Hebda said he trusts both Francis and Archbishop Vigano: “I am personally at a loss as to how to evaluate the claims that have been made by the Archbishop,” he wrote, adding that “some form of independent review” of the allegations will be the only way to restore trust.
Leading Catholic theologians, meanwhile, have passed a petition calling for the resignation of U.S. Bishops as “a public act of repentance and lamentation” for the church’s failings in handling clergy sex abuse cases. The petition has drawn 5,000 signatures from Catholic theologians, educators, parishioners and lay leaders.
And yet more calls have been made on editorial pages and elsewhere for Pennsylvania-style investigations of the Catholic Church in every state. To date, there’s never been a nationwide review of clergy sex abuse allegations, only individual efforts in a handful of states, cities, and parishes.
‘Tip of the iceberg’
Vigano’s letter resonated with some Minnesota parishes when it targeted homosexuality, saying that it was at the root of the clergy sex abuse crisis.
Whether the church can accommodate homosexuality has become one of the clearest fault lines in the ideological battle between the church’s conservative and progressive wings.
While Francis has won progressives’ support as he urges dialogue and an end to condemnation, conservatives like Vigano have hardened their position that the church’s teachings won’t accommodate homosexuality.
Clergy abuse survivor and former St. Paul resident Al Michaud said he’s not surprised to hear priests linking homosexuality and sex abuse, a connection he rejects.
“When you prey upon a vulnerable person, for whatever perverse sexual reason ... that has absolutely nothing to do with being a homosexual,” he said.
Michaud, whose molestation allegation against a St. Paul priest was among those brought against the Archdiocese by attorney Jeff Anderson, said he views that discussion about homosexuality as a distraction from the real issues. The most recent report, he said, “is just the tip of the iceberg.
“The church still doesn’t get it,” he added. “The church still fights tooth and nail for every one of these victories, which is the sad part about it.”
The furor that’s erupted over the Pennsylvania report is tragic, said longtime Catholic Jack Quesnell, but he said he’s pleased that Vigano addressed the issue of homosexuality.
“We’re glad that that’s finally being spoken of,” he said.
Quesnell said he and his wife, Alice, both members of Church of St. Charles Borromeo, believe the church has been a target for too long by people who want to lump all priests together.
“We have to realize that the victims have been terribly hurt, but sometimes in the rush to judgment there can be others that can be hurt. We do stand with the Holy Father; we’re not pushing for his resignation at this point,” Jack Quesnell said.
Parishioner Craig Vana, Cindy’s husband, counseled vigilance: “I would say to my fellow Catholics, ‘Don’t turn away from the church.’?”