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Vatican commissioner for Franciscans of the Immaculate refuses to issue court-arbitrated retraction, launches counter-suit

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ROME, February 19, 2015 (LifeSiteNews.com) – The man who was put in charge of investigating one of the Catholic Church’s most faithful religious orders is now balking at a court-mediated agreement to retract his public statements accusing the family of the order’s founder of absconding with the order’s assets. Fr. Fidenzio Volpi also signed an agreement to pay the family 20,000 Euros in restitution by the beginning of March.

However, Fr. Volpi has now refused to adhere to the agreement, publishing instead a reiteration of his accusations against the family of Fr. Stefano Manelli, accusing them of carrying out a “campaign of defamation,” and announcing a law suit.

The Italian language site Corrispondenza Romana obtained the minutes of the Mediazione Forense del Tribunale di Roma (the forensic mediation of the Roman Tribunal) dated February 12, which revealed that Fr. Volpi had accused Manelli’s family of an illegal “transfer” of “movable and immovable property of the Institute,” essentially of theft or embezzlement of some of the order’s assets.

The court documents revealed that Fr. Volpi, who is thought to have opted to settle the case, had accused the Manelli family of “operations” that were “gravely illicit morally and canonically, with both civil and criminal implications.” Fr. Volpi added that “a similar thing happened also to the works of apostolate: publishing, television.”

The agreement was to have Fr. Volpi issue a letter to the family and to the members of the order to “confirm, contradicting himself and what he wrote at the time,” that there was no involvement of the “family” of Father Stefano Maria Manelli in any financial misconduct. The apology was also to be published on the website of the FFI, www.immacolata.com, where it was ordered to remain for at least three consecutive months.

In a letter dated February 18, however, Fr. Volpi continues to accuse the Manelli family of a campaign of “lies and malice” against him. Posted in English and Italian on the order’s website, the letter offered a “clarification” of the court case, accusing the Manelli family and un-named others of distorting news about the case “with the clear purpose of harming fraternal communion in the Institute” and of “a malicious attempt to generate scandal.”

Fr. Volpi recalls his readers to a letter he circulated in December 2013: “Referring to changes made to the Statutes of the two Associations with legal personality under civil law which own the physical assets of the Institute, I stated that these goods had been placed under the control of persons that include some family members of Fr. Manelli. This statement was no lie, and could easily be verified.”

He says that the settlement was the result of his having “reached for a settlement agreement … which did not involve any acknowledgment on my part except by way of a clarification, and which had the sole purpose of avoiding further civil proceedings before the Court of Rome, with consequent additional costs to the Institute.”

But he says that before he could comply with the agreement, “an article appeared in an electronic publication,” by a source described as “close to the Manelli family” that defamed him: “Father Volpi, after having admitted his crime of slander and lies, was sentenced on the 12 February...” the article read.

He wrote that there could only be one purpose to such a description: “to diminish my prestige and the authority conferred upon me” before the members of the FFI order, whom he describes as his “dear confreres.”

“I have not, in fact, been convicted of any offence, nor subjected to any criminal proceedings; nor have I ever—in court or outside—admitted committing a crime, or uttering slander or lies,” Volpi continues.

“I have therefore instructed my lawyers to prepare a lawsuit for the crime of defamation through the press against those responsible, and I have made known to the members of Fr. Manelli’s family my intention to no longer comply with the terms of the agreement signed on February 12, 2015, which I consider no longer valid on account of a severe failure of compliance by the counterparty.”

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He adds to the remaining members of the order that the suit was an “attempt to undermine the harmony which, until now, has animated all of us in promoting the good of the Institute and the Church.”

Shortly after the election of Pope Francis in March 2013, the Catholic world was shocked when the Vatican announced that the Franciscan Friars of the Immaculate were to be commissioned, their elected government suspended and replaced by an Apostolic Commissioner, Fr. Volpi. In the months that followed the Catholic world watched in horror as one of the largest, youngest, and most faithful religious communities was systematically demolished by Fr. Volpi.

Despite their global reputation for absolute Catholic fidelity, the Apostolic Commission, under the direction of Fr. Volpi, has resulted in the near decimation of the once-thriving order. Although the current administration is careful to ensure that little solid information leaks out, it is believed that there is only a fraction of the seminarians remaining in training for the order.

Fr. Volpi himself in a circular letter claimed that the order to reform the friars’ structures came directly from the “Vicar of Christ,” adding that the FFI “has become the battleground of a struggle between different currents in the Curia, with the specific involvement of persons in opposition to the new pontificate of Pope Francis.”

From the earliest days of Francis’ pontificate, the persecution of the FFI has been one of the most painful scandals among faithful Catholics. Raised to the status of pontifical institute of religious life by Pope John Paul II in 1998, the FFI are known for their dedication to the customs and traditions of the Franciscan order, and to the entirety of the teachings of the Catholic Church. Many Catholics who had seen the nearly total collapse of religious orders following Vatican II had looked to the Franciscan Friars and Sisters Immaculate for a sign of hope for renewal not only of the religious life but of the Church’s life in general.

Many have suggested that it was this, together with their enormous popularity among the laity and their success in attracting young vocations, that made the FFIs a target for the “progressive” faction in the Church. It was widely noted that the order Fr. Volpi belonged to, the Capuchin Franciscans, were foremost among the orders in the Church that were aging and dying out through lack of vocations.

Since Fr. Volpi was appointed as the order’s de facto leader, the once thriving institutions of the community have been closed and many of its spiritual customs reportedly abolished. The founder, Fr. Stefano Maria Manelli, has been sent to live under virtual house arrest, not allowed to leave his friary, communicate with the order’s members, make phone calls or even visit his parents’ graves. Fr. Volpi described the FFI’s devotion to their founder as “unhealthy” and a “cult of personality.”

The friars’ seminary has been closed and its seminarians sent to other universities in Rome and no new ordinations to the priesthood have been allowed. He ordered all new priests to sign an oath that they accept the “teachings of the Second Vatican Council” and the liturgical changes. Moreover, in a move that some canonists have called unprecedented, some of the priests have reported being refused the dispensation to leave the community to seek shelter to act as priests under the jurisdiction of more sympathetic bishops.

Apart from the accusation of financial misconduct against the Manelli family, Volpi’s main criticism of the order was that they had succumbed to a “crypto-lefebvrian and definitely traditionalist drift,” a code word among the Church’s progressives meaning that the order had attempted to return to older styles of liturgy and religious life. The final straw may have come when, following the 2007 document released by Pope Benedict allowing a wide usage of the traditional, pre-1960s Mass in Latin, the FFI order warmly embraced the papal encouragement to greater solemnity in their liturgy.

But things have changed since Pope Benedict’s resignation, and for the Vatican’s newly ascendant progressive faction even an appearance of attachment to such forms is unthinkable. In fact, one of the first orders that Fr. Volpi imposed on the friars was to forbid them from saying the Latin Mass.

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