Maike Hickson

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Pope Francis attends the weekly general audience, at the Vatican, Wednesday, Dec. 19, 2018. Massimo Valicchia/NurPhoto via Getty Images

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Catholic mom lays out what’s wrong with Pope’s letter to US bishops on abuse crisis

Maike Hickson Maike Hickson Follow Maike

January 4, 2019 (LifeSiteNews) – Yesterday, when sitting at a table while my children were taking their piano lessons, I read the eight-page letter written by Pope Francis on January 1 and addressed to the U.S. bishops. There were important things that I found missing in this new document dealing with a great moral and spiritual crisis in the Catholic Church.

Let me say from the outset that I, as a mother (and together with my husband), have read this letter as a sort of potential mother of an abuse victim. Yes, I read this letter through the lens of a concerned mother who wishes that never, ever, would any of this evil crime of priestly sexual abuse befall my own children. Nor that any other child of other Catholic parents should undergo it ever again.

But let me also explain that I have, as a journalist, come to know several people who themselves have been the victim of clerical sexual abuse or who are the parents of victims. Thus, I know from close-up the deep suffering that this crime committed by clergymen has caused in people. I know about the wounds that go deep and remain and affect a victim's life for the rest of one's temporal life. It causes anger and despair, in some cases drug or alcohol abuse, sometimes an incapability to ever enter a marriage bond or to keep it. It nearly destroys a life, but for the grace of God and the supportive love of others.

In an even more personal context, I did myself, as a child, witness at fairly close contact sexual abuse, though not within the framework of the Church. Out of respect for the persons involved, I leave it at that, but say that I know how the stains of such abuse and broken trust can remain ingrained in one's soul, to flash up from time to time, leaving ugly stains in one's unhealed memory, with often destructive effects on one's own moral life. Sexual abuse is a deeply sensitive abuse, affecting one's inner core.

Needless to say, this topic is close to my heart, from different perspectives.

In this context, Our Lord's words that those who scandalize the little ones deserve to be thrown into the sea with a millstone around their neck, has often come back into my mind. Our Lord, I am sure, had such evil deeds in mind when he spoke those words.

Abhorrence of sin

What we are witnessing here is the darkness of sin, the evil effects of sin, and its utter ugliness. Such sin leads to hell. 

It is, truly, in this light that we in the Catholic Church should consider the ways of healing and of reparation, but also of penance and of punishment – in part in order to deter future abuse.

But, what do we do when we have a Pope who, in his moral teaching, tends to pander to the sins and weaknesses of man, rather than to instill in them a deep abhorrence of it? We now have a Pope who tells those in “irregular” situations that God sometimes wishes them to remain in their sinful relationships, such as a second marriage without a previous annulment. He is a Pope who – as again in this new letter of his – speaks in a demeaning manner of “rigoristic” approaches, “issuing stern decrees,” and strongly rejects “false certainties,” “rigid formulations,” and the constricting idea of reducing catholicity to a “question of doctrine or law.” He warns us against “reductive ways of thinking” and a “climate of hatred and rejection.” Instead, Pope Francis calls for a “change of mind-set,” for “dialogue,” and for a further reflection on “our handling of money and power.” He also says that we are called to holiness. “Credibility,” he adds, “is born of trust.” At one place, Pope Francis also speaks of transparency.

But how, then, can we restore deep trust, foster transparency, and try to grow in holiness?

One way would be by growing again in the abhorrence of sin. All the Saints had it. They loved God so much that they had a strong sensitivity toward those acts that offend Him and hurt man.

If I know in which ways I have greatly offended God and men, and if I am aware of how terrible these offenses are, I will strive more to avoid them and grow in virtue which will finally lead to a more humane dealing with others. But in dealing with others, if I have committed grave sins or errors that affect many people up until today, I can only rebuild trust by admitting my sins and faults. If my faults or sins are such that they have contributed to the destruction of the lives and happiness of many – to include, perhaps, their loss of the Faith – then I would feel urged to make public amends.

Restoring trust

Thus, in order to restore trust, the leaders of the Catholic Church have to “come clean” with their own past and their own present. Some bishops have given good examples in this, in that they went sincerely through all their files, sought out abuser priests and punished them, and made public statements about their own past shortcomings. When something like this happens, a Catholic faithful sees that just change also happens, a sincere change, and that trust may slowly be rebuilt.

But for this to happen on a large scale, the Pope himself would have to set an example. In light of the terrible McCarrick case – which has many ties directly to Pope Francis, his predecessors, and the Vatican – it would be advisable that Pope Francis and Pope emeritus Benedict XVI sit together and reflect upon what went wrong in this case – and possibly in other cases – over the last two decades or even more. 

Their silence does not set a good example for the rest of the Church's leaders.

Why not have a statement issued together, where they both tell us what they believe, looking back (and in Francis' case looking at today), they have done wrong. Should Pope Benedict have taken more timely and more rigorous steps against McCarrick? Should he have stopped when he ignored the sanctions imposed upon him? Should not reports about McCarrick's homosexual activity with subordinate seminarians have been enough of a reason to remove him from the priesthood? Is homosexual activity on the side of priests in itself not anymore a sin against the Sixth Commandment that leads to suspension and more?

But this set of questions also leads to Pope Francis.

Pope Francis, in order to re-establish a measure of trust, would also have to answer the question as to whether he knew of McCarrick's immoral behavior and whether he chose to ignore it and work with him closely in many matters, such as in China, Iran, and in Cuba.

But there are also other cases of leniency toward immoral priests. It was the German theologian, Dr. Benjamin Leven, who only recently revealed that, among others, Cardinal Francesco Coccopalmerio, a papal confidant and defender of Amoris Laetitia, as a member of a review commission at the Congregation for the Faith (CDF) established by Pope Francis, always argued for leniency in dealing with the punishment of abuser priests. (The Wall Street Journal just reported that actually one-third of all the cases coming before this panel receive less strict punishments.) Of course, it is also known that Pope Francis himself decided to re-instate the abuser priest Don Maurizio Inzoli, against Cardinal Müller's own counsel at the time. And then we also have the case where Pope Francis unjustly intervened and stopped an investigation into abuse allegations against the now-deceased Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor, with the sudden intervention itself thereby forestalling a correct and just closing of that case, thus fostering further mistrust.

There is no sign for us to see that Pope Francis has realized that this lenient approach toward sexual abusers was a grave mistake.

Which leads us back to the topic of sin. Cardinal Gerhard Müller said only recently in an interview with EWTN's Raymond Arroyo that it was the moral leniency and vagueness of the 1960s and the 1970s that contributed to the sexual abuse crisis in the Church.

Cardinal Müller also recently told LifeSiteNews that the new 1983 Code of Canon Law's omission of certain clear and obligatory penalties posed upon an abuser priest – as well as the omission to mention explicitly homosexual acts as a priestly violation of the Sixth Commandment – was a “disastrous error.”

Penalties and preaching

Therefore, in the face of the enormous suffering of so many Catholic souls whose lives have been maimed by abuser priests, would it not be the logical conclusion to re-insert in canon law strong penalties against abuser priests? Should the Church not then realize that she needs to return to the more “rigoristic” teaching on sin and its ugliness? That, of course, would also include that she starts preaching again more forcefully on the Four Last Things: Death, Personal Judgment, Heaven or Hell. 

For some reason, this “old” and “rigid” teaching has brought forth good fruit, and, most of all, the fruition of many Saints – whereas a lenient attitude toward the violation of the innocence of God's little ones has led to their further destruction.

Which leads us, last but not least, also to the consideration of the aspect of homosexuality with regard to the Church's abuse crisis. Once more, we quote Cardinal Müller who has made it very clear that – in the many cases he himself had to deal with as the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith – at least 80% of the victims of clerical sex abuse were male (with most of them being adolescents, not children). That is to say, there is a firm link between homosexuality and abuse in the Church. That is why the German Cardinal now says: “In the Church's law, one also once again has to present and sanction homosexual acts by priests as a grave offense against the priest's ethos.” 

When I was speaking with different priests in Europe, as well as in the U.S., about this matter, they all confirmed to me the morally lax situation at priestly seminaries, and this has been the case for the last decades. In many seminaries, there has existed for decades now an open homosexual culture and network.

Yet, this topic is not even mentioned by Pope Francis in his new January 1, 2019 letter to the U.S. bishops. He has only chosen to mention sexual abuse as a subordinate topic, in third place, when even speaking about it. He speaks two times about sexual abuse, and each time he mentions “the abuse of power and conscience and sexual abuse.” This sort of approach, of course, is what his new editorial director for Vatican media, Andrea Tornielli, has also tried to do when he dared to claim that McCarrick's abuse was not about homosexuality, but, rather, about an abuse of power. McCarrick “did not have homosexual relations,” he stated.

If we look to Germany to get some clues as to how the Vatican under Pope Francis might now try to address the problem of clerical sex abuse, we then see that the German bishops, too, for the most part, utterly ignore the link between homosexuality and the abuse crisis. On the contrary, Cardinal Marx' own general vicar in Munich has recently claimed that establishing such a link is wrong (“I explicitly reject that,” he said), and he publicly stated that his own diocese has homosexual priests who do a lot of good work. 

Thus, instead of addressing the obvious link, many German bishops and theologians now wish to discuss the “defective” sexual morality of the Church and wish to liberalize the Church's teaching on homosexuality. Just recently, the Vatican re-instated as rector of a Jesuit post-graduate school a priest – Father Ansgar Wucherpfennig – who himself has already blessed homosexual couples and who claims that the Bible did not know of homosexuals as we know them today.

That Pope Francis himself would also be inclined to discuss these moral matters in a liberalizing manner, has been confirmed by Cardinal Reinhard Marx, a member of the Pope's Council of Nine Cardinals (now reduced in numbers). Just before Christmas, Marx stated that he has spoken several times with the Pope about the matter of the Church's sexual morality, adding: “I see that he is not so fixed here [in discussing the Church's sexual morality].” The root cause of the sexual abuse crisis, in Marx' eyes, is not homosexuality, but an abuse of power. As Marx explains, the Church has so far only spoken about sexuality in an “odd and touchy [“verschroben”]” way, and now she needs “to speak about sexuality in a different manner, also about homosexuality.”

“As you know, this is highly controversial,” Marx admitted, “also theologically and dogmatically.”

To sum it up, after my reading of Pope Francis' letter to the U.S. bishops, I am still as troubled as before. I do not see that he even addresses the real underlying problems – even putting the evil of sexual abuse merely on the third place – and I still detect the same demeaning tone against the very laws and rules that have helped to protect God's little ones and foster many Saints throughout the centuries. A moral laxity will not help address the problem that was fostered by the moral laxity and provocative weakness of the 1960s and 1970s.

It is worth considering what German Bishop Rudolf Voderholzer recently said about the German reform proposals in response to the German abuse crisis. He told the Austrian news website Kath.net that “some circles – also within the Church – abuse the cases of sexual violence in order to offer once more their recipes, which have already not been helpful in the past, and to twist the crimes into an occasion to create, finally, their own 'different Church'. This is what I call an abuse of the abuse.” In another interview given to CNA Deutsch, he made it clear that “it was not Catholic sexual morality which led to the deplorable crimes [of sexual abuse], but the fact that one notoriously defied it.”

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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.