By Hilary White, Rome correspondent

ROME, February 17, 2010 ( – Five prominent members of the Vatican’s Pontifical Academy for Life are calling on the pope to remove Archbishop Rino Fisichella as the Academy’s president following their plenary meeting in Rome last week.

According to these key PAV members, Fisichella has manipulated both the media and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) in order to deflect blame for damage to the Church caused by an article he wrote last year in which he appeared to condone the abortion of twins in Brazil.

Fisichella told Catholic News Service on February 12 that a state of “harmony” existed in the PAV. He said that the mood at last week’s meeting was “serene and calm.” He also accused his critics of “misconstruing” his article “for reasons of political exploitation,” in order to create “a situation of conflict.”

But a statement by five members of the Academy, sent today to LSN, accuses Fisichella of attempting to create a false front of unity while serious questions about his leadership remain unaddressed.

The statement says that members held back from a direct confrontation last week, believing that an open challenge at the time would have merely caused the Vatican’s Curia to “close ranks” around one of their own “because of the clericalist culture of that body” and despite the “lack of support” for Fisichella himself.

“There is credible information that Fisichella is widely perceived in the Curia to be an inappropriate President of PAV and there is a reasonable hope that the Holy Father will recognise the need to provide him with an occupation better suited to his abilities,” the statement said.

The statement’s signatories include Monsignor Michel Schooyans, Professor Emeritus of the University of Louvain, Belgium; Professor Luke Gormally, the former director of the Linacre Centre for Healthcare Ethics; Christine de Marcellus de Vollmer, head of the Alliance for the Family in Venezuela; Dr. Maria Smereczynska a corresponding member from Poland and Dr. Thomas Ward, president of the National Association of Catholic Families.

It says that Fisichella’s claim that the Academy “is moving forward and working to speak as a united body” is belied by the reality and that it gives a distorted and false impression to the Church at large of the situation in the Academy.

They call it “absurd” that the Vatican’s Pontifical Academy for Life, is “being led by an ecclesiastic who does not understand what absolute respect for innocent human lives entails.” The situation is one that can “be rectified only by those who are responsible for his appointment as President.”

Pro-life leaders, as well as the Catholic laity at large, were shocked in March last year when Archbishop Fisichella, in the Vatican’s newspaper L’Osservatore Romano, appeared to defend the doctors who decided to “help stop the pregnancy” of a nine year-old rape victim. The decision, he said, had been a “difficult” one “for doctors and for the moral law.” He accused the local bishop in Brazil of being “hasty” in announcing the excommunication of the mother and doctors who procured the abortion.

Fisichella has steadfastly refused to recant, clarify or correct his statements throughout the scandal that followed, despite numerous letters from pro-life leaders and members of the PAV. News media around the world ran with the story, claiming that the Catholic Church was softening its stand on abortion. Months later, a clarification was issued by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith that strongly reiterated Catholic teaching utterly condemning abortion in any circumstance.

But the PAV members claim that even this statement by the CDF was printed only after Fisichella insisted on new wording being inserted into the opening paragraph. The published statement said that the Vatican had received letters “explaining the confusion that has been created in various countries” following the “manipulation and exploitation” of Fisichella’s article.

At the meeting last week, the group said, it became clear that Fisichella believes the wording exonerates him of blame for the scandal, and even vindicates the content of his article.

“In this way he has been permitted to disclaim, with the apparent authority of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, all responsibility for the damaging impact of his article on the defence of innocent pre-born human lives,” they said.

This last claim, they said, is “grave” since it implies that “there are difficult situations in which doctors enjoy scope for the autonomous exercise of conscience in deciding whether to carry out a direct abortion.”

Many Academicians are reportedly “disturbed” by the attitude of aggrieved victimhood Fisichella has displayed. This attitude, they said, is exemplified in his attempts to dismiss criticism, most prominently by the eminent Belgian philosopher Michel Schooyans. One PAV member told LSN that some have concluded that he will continue to refuse to give a thoughtful response to the substance of the criticism and to attribute “base motives” to the critic. Under such leadership, said this member, it is impossible to foster genuine unity.

The group said that the reluctance of some members to challenge Fisichella at the meeting, “has created the unfortunate impression that Academicians are behind his presidency, resignedly or otherwise. This is an impression he is evidently interested in propagating.”

To read the complete statement click here.

Read LSN’s extensive coverage of the “Recife Affair”here.