Maike Hickson

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Catholic intellectuals back US federal gov’t investigating clerical sex abuse as ‘necessary’

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November 8, 2018 (LifeSiteNews) – In October, news broke that, in two instances, the U.S. Justice Department has taken steps pertaining to the Church's abuse crisis. It has now issued a subpoena to multiple dioceses in Pennsylvania to release documents concerned with sex abuse, and it has also now contacted the Diocese of Buffalo (New York) with a similar request. Additionally, the federal government has sent to all U.S. bishops a letter directing them not to destroy any relevant files pertaining to sex abuse.

Several Catholic intellectuals have commented on this development for LifeSiteNews.

The reaction among Catholics to this likely widening of federal investigations into the Church's sex abuse crimes – to include a possible opening of RICO (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act) investigations – is varied, with some welcoming this development and others fearing it. LifeSiteNews reached out to three prominent and learned Catholics – Father Joseph Fessio, S.J, Philip Lawler, and Donna Bethell – asking them for comment. (Parts of the comments were initially used for an article in German, written for the Catholic newspaper Die Tagespost.)

For Father Fessio, the larger problem in addition to the abuse of minors is the homosexual culture which fosters such abuse. He says: “Horrible as the abuse of minors is, the greater problem is the much larger one of which minor abuse is a small subset: Homosexual relations between consenting clerics and seminarians. And that too, is a subset of a pro-homosexual culture whose origins are in the rejection of Humanae Vitae.” For him, the whole “culture of secrecy and cover-up” is an underlying phenomenon.

Phil Lawler – who just published his new book on the sex abuse crisis called The Smoke of Satan – sees a threat to the Church coming from these state investigations, but he also sees that these investigations are needed. He states “Yes, I am very concerned about the threats to religious freedom that are implicit whenever government officials take it upon themselves to supervise the work of the Church. But at this point, I am more concerned about the threats to the integrity of the Church that come from within.” If priests and bishops have committed crimes, they should be held accountable and prosecuted just as should happen to any citizen.

Donna Bethell – who successfully launched a petition containing more than 5,000 signatures specifically against Cardinal Joseph Tobin's becoming the new archbishop of Washington, D.C. – sees that the U.S. bishops are not sufficiently willing to face the challenge of sex abuse in the Church, and in such a manner as to root it out. This can be seen in the fact that they are not yet even facing the root problem.

Mrs. Bethell writes: “Fully 80% of the cases were homosexual assaults on adolescent boys, but the bishops pretended that it was a problem of pedophilia.” She also regards in a critical light the earlier 2002 Dallas Charter, which set new Church rules with regard to sex abuse cases. Being mindful of the victims involved, she points out that “The victims of these horrors have too often been left without knowing that their suffering is acknowledged.” Therefore, she argues, “The government’s power to seize documents and prosecute crimes appears to be necessary now. There will no doubt be some very undesirable consequences as revelations are made and the Church is further shamed. It would have been much better to do it ourselves.” But Donna Bethell also has hope: “Maybe we will end up with very few bishops and priests, but if they are holy and the people can be renewed in their own striving for holiness, we will be better off.”

Father Joseph Fessio, S.J., founder and editor of Ignatius Press:

1. What I’ve seen should be on the history channel. There have been very few cases of sexual abuse of minors since 2002. I think there were only six credible allegations in the US for 2017, and four were against one priest.

2. Horrible as abuse of minors is, the greater problem is the much larger one of which minor abuse is a small subset: Homosexual relations between consenting clerics and seminarians. And that too, is a subset of a pro-homosexual culture whose origins are in the rejection of Humanae Vitae.

3. Parallel to this greater problem is the culture of secrecy and cover-up. There is a place for privacy, confidentiality, and even (some) secrecy. But it has been massively abused. The lay faithful, justifiably, have lost confidence in Church authorities from the top down.

4. Restoring credibility in the hierarchy will require lay participation in the necessary investigations. But no one can definitively ‘represent’ the laity. One solution—and there may be much better ones—is to involve laity who are recognized as having contrasting views, but who are also recognized as fair-minded.

Philip Lawler, journalist and book author:

Recently a number of people have asked me for my thoughts about federal investigations.

In an important sense, it doesn’t matter what I think. Water will flow downhill, whether I like it or not. And public prosecutors— especially those with political ambitions— will seize opportunities to pursue cases against unpopular public figures. Unfortunately our bishops have made themselves so unpopular that they are an irresistible target.

Yes, I am very concerned about the threats to religious freedom that are implicit whenever government officials take it upon themselves to supervise the work of the Church. But at this point I am more concerned about the threats to the integrity of the Church that come from within.

Finally, I believe that priests and bishops should be held to the same standards as everyone else in obeying reasonable civil laws. If they have engaged in criminal conduct— and I don’t doubt that some have— they should be prosecuted.

Donna F. Bethell, lawyer and former Chairman of the Board of Christendom College:

For 15 years many Catholics in the United States have been dissatisfied with the Bishops' response to the revelations of sexual abuse by clergy that began in 2002. Fully 80% of the cases were homosexual assaults on adolescent boys, but the bishops pretended that it was a problem of pedophilia. The official response by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops was called the Dallas Charter. It made any priest or deacon against whom a complaint is brought subject to immediate removal from ministry pending an investigation, but without providing a process to deal with the complaint or for the accused to defend himself. The priests rightly felt that their bishops had abandoned them. The Charter also put burdensome requirements on lay people who are in contact with children under Church auspices, although lay people had certainly not been the problem. But the Dallas Charter said nothing about bishops. Under canon law, the bishops cannot discipline themselves, so they should have petitioned Rome, in fact, insisted that Rome institute an effective means of receiving and adjudicating complaints about bishops, including cover-ups. Pope Francis said he would do this but he has not.

The fact that a system of investigating and disciplining bishops was not instituted, and there was no self-investigation by the bishops, has led to the situation we have today. The bishops refused to police themselves and now the government is going to do it. I think the bishops are so discredited that they cannot investigate themselves. When Cardinal Wuerl suggested that the bishops investigate, in response to Archbishop Viganò’s allegations about ex-Cardinal McCarrick, he was just laughed at. The Pope has also failed to investigate the Viganò allegations, as the U.S. bishops asked him to do.

The government’s power to seize documents and prosecute crimes appears to be necessary now. There will no doubt be some very undesirable consequences as revelations are made and the Church is further shamed. It would have been much better to do it ourselves. Even now, every bishop should make a public statement of what he knows he has done and what has happened in his diocese. He does not need an investigation to do that. Everything must come out so that the Church can be purged of the horrible plague of homosexual activity and abuse and other sexual misconduct in the clergy. The victims of these horrors have too often been left without knowing that their suffering is acknowledged. Maybe we will end up with very few bishops and priests, but if they are holy and the people can be renewed in their striving for holiness, we will be better off. We must now work hard and be true to the Faith, because we believe in Jesus Christ, not any priest, or bishop, or Pope. 

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Maike Hickson

Dr. Maike Hickson was born and raised in Germany. She holds a PhD from the University of Hannover, Germany, after having written in Switzerland her doctoral dissertation on the history of Swiss intellectuals before and during World War II. She now lives in the U.S. and is married to Dr. Robert Hickson, and they have been blessed with two beautiful children. She is a happy housewife who likes to write articles when time permits.

Dr. Hickson published in 2014 a Festschrift, a collection of some thirty essays written by thoughtful authors in honor of her husband upon his 70th birthday, which is entitled A Catholic Witness in Our Time.

Hickson has closely followed the papacy of Pope Francis and the developments in the Catholic Church in Germany, and she has been writing articles on religion and politics for U.S. and European publications and websites such as LifeSiteNews, OnePeterFive, The Wanderer, Rorate Caeli, Catholicism.org, Catholic Family News, Christian Order, Notizie Pro-Vita, Corrispondenza Romana, Katholisches.info, Der Dreizehnte,  Zeit-Fragen, and Westfalen-Blatt.