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(LifeSiteNews) — In a highly unusual move, Pope Francis himself has sent the sisters of the Institut des Dominicaines du Saint Esprit (Dominicans of the Holy Spirit, based in Pontcallec, Brittany) a letter of personal apology for the “shortcomings” of the Roman Curia in handling their “accompaniment” through a crisis that emerged about 10 years ago. Excerpts from the letter were quoted by La Croix (English here).

The Institute is a female educational Dominican Third Order Apostolic Society founded in 1943 by Fr. Victor-Alain Berto. For many decades, it welcomed boys up to 14 years old, often hailing from difficult families and from Far-East countries under communist persecution. It presently runs five girls’ schools and boarding schools all over France, offering high-standard literary, historical, and philosophical education.

The Pope’s letter was signed on December 23, 2021, and read to the community one month later, on January 28.

By taking responsibility and offering his apologies for the acts and deficiencies in which he was not personally implied, Pope Francis seems to have had three objectives.

On the one hand, he designated two targets. One was Fr. Victor-Alain Berto, the founder of the Institute who was, incidentally, Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre’s theologian at the Second Vatican Council, and a staunch defender of the traditional liturgy and doctrine which were already under fire before his death. This brilliant theologian was looked down upon in modernist circles for his traditional approach to liturgy and ecclesiology. The other is the Ecclesia Dei commission that carried out the “accompaniment” of the sisters from 2014 onwards when it was tasked with an apostolic visitation following serious dysfunctions within the Institute. The Ecclesia Dei commission was scrapped last year after having looked after relations with all the traditional institutes created after Bishop Lefebvre consecrated four bishops without Rome’s consent in 1988.

On the other hand, the Pope’s letter clearly aimed to justify decisions taken with regard to the community during a second apostolic visit that was launched in 2020 under the leadership of Cardinal Marc Ouellet, that led to harsh decisions, to changes, and potentially to a greater alignment with Pope Francis’ vision for the Church.

The Pope’s apologies would thus be less penitential than they would seem, and this is confirmed by the publicity given to the letter that was made public and partially quoted by La Croix, the unofficial daily of the French episcopate, which appears to have obtained the privilege of full access to the document.

The French edition of La Croix referred to a “decade of grave turmoil” experienced by the Dominicans of the Holy Spirit, noting that the recent “highly publicized expulsion of one of its members” had “crystallized” tensions. It suggested that their “new beginning” hailed by the Pope together with his personal “encouragement” means that the troubles are now a thing of the past. And all thanks to Pope Francis.

The daily was referring to the exclaustration, followed by the permanent expulsion of Sr. Marie Ferréol after 35 years as a teaching Dominican nun following Roman “administrative” decisions (between November 2020 and April 2021) that were all attributed to Pope Francis’ personal authority but had not been signed by him in person. These acts have now been publicly endorsed by the Pope in his letter of apology. At 55, Sister Marie Ferréol was suddenly placed in total isolation from her religious sisters, family and friends in a Novus Ordo Benedictine abbey. Six months later, having by now moved to a solitary location close to a more congenial abbey, she was told by Rome that she was not made for the religious life, and “relieved” of her vow of virginity, which she says is closer to her than her own life, and that she must take off her traditional Dominican habit.

La Croix quotes the Pope’s letter as follows: “I have personally followed the developments in your situation, because it has become clear to me that, since the beginning of my pontificate, you have not always received adequate support from the authorities of the Holy See who were responsible for watching over you.”

In fact, as the daily points out, difficulties have grown for about a decade. In the beginning, some of the younger sisters suggested opening a process for the canonization of Fr. Berto. This suggestion was met with accusation of child abuse on the part of a former male student. La Croix also mentions accusations of “ambiguous gestures” that the priest (who died in 1968) is said to have made towards “several nuns.”

At the same time, La Croix soberly reports, the novitiate experienced further troubles — this was between 2011 and 2014. Some of the novices were subjected to repeated exorcisms by the chaplain at the time, who claims to have acted with the approval of the bishop of Vannes, Raymond Centène — who denies, however, having given him the power to perform exorcisms.

This is the case that the Ecclesia Dei commission was tasked with investigating and sorting out in 2013, after “whistle-blowing” in Rome by several nuns — including sister Marie-Ferréol (the now-excluded Sabine Baudin de la Valette). The Pope’s letter accuses Ecclesia Dei of having mismanaged the case, despite the meticulous enquiry it commissioned, resulting in a 1,500-page report that included the assessment of accusations against Fr. Berto.

Not a single act of child abuse or “pedophilia” can be blamed on him, Ecclesia Dei concluded, and this is not in dispute. It also dismissed accusations of freemasonry and other, even wilder accusations that had been made against the founder on the faith of declarations made by one novice during exorcisms: The Pope’s letter does not appear to mention them.

On the other hand, regarding the “ambiguous gestures” with adult women dating back to the years 1950 to 1960, the commission declared that it was not in a position “to judge with certainty as regards their moral gravity.” “They argued that the now-deceased priest could not defend himself and, in any case, the alleged acts were beyond the statute of limitations,” writes La Croix. Fr. Berto, whose portraits and works had disappeared from the public eye in all the houses run by the Institute, was to be “cleared of all suspicion,” it said, and all the sisters were to “refrain from questioning this judgment.”

Pope Francis is now accusing the former Ecclesia Dei commission of having too hastily whitewashed Fr Berto’s reputation. “The unqualified rehabilitation of your founder cannot be maintained because of elements that came to light” during a second apostolic visit conducted in 2020 by Dom Nault, Abbot of Saint-Wandrille, and by the Abbess of the Cistercian Sisters of Boulaur, Mother Emmanuelle Desjobert.

Both are close to Cardinal Marc Ouellet, prefect for the Roman Congregation for Bishops, who has taken charge of the Dominicans of the Holy Spirit by bypassing the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, of which Ecclesia Dei had become an element. Before Traditionis Custodes, that Congregation would have been the normal place to go to conduct an apostolic visitation.

According to sources consulted by LifeSiteNews, these “ambiguous gestures” — perhaps no more than — which are being quoted to justify the opprobrium that has once again been cast on Fr. Berto, now by the Pope himself, were “ambiguous” in the primary sense: that is, susceptible to innocent interpretation. While devoid of objective gravity, they may — or may not — have been a sign of a breach of chastity in intent.

This raises a question: Is absolute impeccability a requisite to be honored, not as a canonized saint, but as the founder of a beautiful and fruitful work of Catholic education?

It should be added that the crisis of 2011 and the following years was only very partially mentioned by the Pope (or, to be more precise, by La Croix quoting from his letter). The problem at the time was that of a psychological hold facilitated by several sisters acting under the influence of the Institute’s chaplain at the time, a follower of the “Agape therapy” sessions in the French town Le Puy-en-Velay, which a number of them attended.

These are sessions of a psycho-spiritual nature, based on a quasi-psychoanalytical rereading of the first years of life in order to discover childhood “wounds” to be forgiven. They are very often characterized by the accusation and then the “forgiveness” of retreatants’ parents because of real or fictitious acts or attitudes, which are recorded in the memory by means of very precise psychological techniques, as I was able to personally verify when I had the opportunity to consult the booklet given to retreatants together with the injunction never to show it to third persons.

On occasion, these sessions result in a break with the family or with a father figure perceived as an obstacle to spiritual growth. The French Bishops’ Conference has repeatedly warned against these practices, noting their dangerous confusion of the psychological and the spiritual, of the internal and external forums.

The Ecclesia Dei commission put an end to this by removing — with discretion and without moral violence — the chaplain and some of the sisters responsible. In 2016, it also appointed a prioress general who was not involved in these questionable practices.

Pope Francis’ letter also denounces this as a “dysfunction,” on the grounds that Ecclesia Dei did not appoint a council to assist her, but, showing “a lack of knowledge of religious life,” itself played that role.

However, the prioress general appointed at the time, Mother Marie Pia, did surround herself with the advice of sisters — including sisters who had been hurt by the decisions of Ecclesia Dei — in the hope of restoring unity.

The Pope mentioned a third failure on the part of “Rome”: complaints from sisters “who were sexually abused by another nun” were not properly processed, he wrote. These adult “victims of abuse in 2012–2013,” according to a statement by Mother Mary of St. Charles, the current prioress general, had not been accompanied with “adequate support.”

Given that Sister Mary Ferréol was brutally expelled from the Dominicans of the Holy Spirit under the second apostolic visitation initiated in 2020, as the rift developed between the more traditional nuns and those who were closer to those in charge before 2016 and were hoping for change in the community, it would be easy to surmise that there was a link between the two events.

However, Sr. Marie Ferréol was expelled by a papal decision without due canonical process after 35 years of religious life, and it was made clear by the apostolic visitation that this was because there was no suspicion of any crime that would have allowed the following of a normal “judicial” path. It also appears that the nun accused in the letter has no longer been part of the community for several years.

To be accurate, the Dominican sisters of the Holy Spirit have been going through an identity crisis that was compounded by the questions raised by the present pontificate. The exact nature of their status of virginity, which was particularly dear to Fr. Berto who was precursor regarding the role of consecrated virgins who signify the spousal relation of the Church with Christ, was under interrogation. The desire of some for more contemplation within this essentially educational order, whose members have a vow of virginity but mere “promises” of poverty and obedience, also played a role. The desire of some indiscriminately to follow Pope Francis’ innovations also led to problems with the more traditionally minded. And while it seems there is no question of the Institute abandoning the Traditional Latin Mass — one of Traditionis Custodes’ main proponents, Cardinal Ouellet, has “reassured” them on this point — some current students in the Institute’s high schools have been surprised to hear positive language about Communion in the hand, the Pope’s new teaching on the death penalty, the welcoming of Islamic migrants in France, and the “riches” of the Arab civilization.

Finally, the Pope’s letter reiterates his confidence in Cardinal Ouellet, adding that the prelate will continue to provide “Roman supervision” of the case of Dominican Sisters of the Holy Spirit.

This raises questions both because of the Cardinal’s support of Traditionis Custodes and because of his friendly and intellectual closeness, for several years, with a nun of the Institute whom he has made a trusted collaborator: Sr. Marie de l’Assomption is in fact one of the organizers of the current symposium on vocations and the priesthood currently underway in Rome under the direction of Ouellet.

During the crisis that led to the expulsion of Sr. Mary Ferréol, Sr. Marie de l’Assomption appeared as her adversary, notably as the author of a doctoral thesis on nature and grace in the works of Saint Thomas Aquinas which offers an unusual approach based on the works of Henri de Lubac. The thesis was presented by Sr. Marie de l’Assomption in Paris in 2019 in the presence of Cardinal Ouellet, who wrote a preface to her work.

The history of the Dominicans of the Holy Spirit is now marked by events that some senior specialists in canon law consider highly questionable, and that came to a head in the expulsion of a sister who stood for fidelity to its traditional mindset and its original “charisms.” That story would also deserve to be told. It has received wide media attention in France.

Since 2020, two other sisters have been the object of less drastic and temporary measures of exclusion decided by Rome, and six more have requested and obtained the possibility of taking a sabbatical during this school year. The Institute has also decided to disengage from one of its schools, in Draguignan in the south of France, now lacking a number of experienced sisters and also novices to meet the needs of all the establishments it runs.

All this supports the idea that a “new beginning,” hailed by Pope Francis, is indeed underway. It has all the makings of a takeover.

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Jeanne Smits has worked as a journalist in France since 1987 after obtaining a Master of Arts in Law. She formerly directed the French daily Présent and was editor-in-chief of an all-internet French-speaking news site called She writes regularly for a number of Catholic journals (Monde & vie, L’Homme nouveau, Reconquête…) and runs a personal pro-life blog. In addition, she is often invited to radio and TV shows on alternative media. She is vice-president of the Christian and French defense association “AGRIF.” She is the French translator of The Dictator Pope by Henry Sire and Christus Vincit by Bishop Schneider, and recently contributed to the Bref examen critique de la communion dans la main about Communion in the hand. She is married and has three children, and lives near Paris.