Catholic abuse scandal
December 4, 2019

The Vatican announced Wednesday that Pope Francis has accepted the resignation of Bishop Richard Malone of the Diocese of Buffalo, New York. No reason was given for Malone's departure, two years before he turns 75, the mandatory retirement age for Catholic prelates. But under Malone's watch, the Buffalo diocese has become engulfed in scandal over the handling of sexual abuse cases; it now faces an FBI investigation and more than 220 lawsuits, and in one recent poll, 86 percent of Buffalo Catholics wanted him to quit.

Malone was appointed Buffalo's bishop in 2012, and a 2018 sexual abuse allegation against a priest in the diocese set off a flood of more complaints. The list of credibly accused abusers in March 2018 was criticized as incomplete by a whistleblower who said she had found a 300-page dossier in a closet, next to a vacuum cleaner. Pressure mounted in September after a Buffalo TV station broadcast audio secretly recorded by Malone's priest-secretary in which the bishop lamented that a seminarian's sexual harassment accusation could "be the end of me as a bishop," and the seminarian, Matthew Bojanowski, then publicly accused Malone of failing to take action against his alleged abuser.

The pope appointed Bishop Edward Scharfenberger of Albany to lead the diocese on a temporary basis. Peter Weber

August 21, 2019

An Australian appellate court Wednesday upheld the 2018 conviction of Cardinal George Pell on charges of sexually molesting two 13-year-old boys in 1996 and 1997. The 2-to-1 verdict in Victoria's Court of Appeals sends Pell back to prison, where he is serving a six-year sentence. Pell's lawyer said the 78-year-old prelate will likely appeal the decision to Australia's High Court, though there's no guarantee the nation's final arbiter would agree to hear his appeal. Pell, the former Vatican finance minister and archbishop of Melbourne, is the senior-most Catholic prelate convicted of sexual abuse. He maintains that he is innocent.

Chief Justice Anne Ferguson said she and Justice Chris Maxwell "decided that it was open to the jury to be satisfied beyond reasonable doubt that Cardinal Pell was guilty," adding that dissenting Justice Mark Weinberg "could not exclude as a reasonable possibility that some of what the complainant said was concocted."

Advocates for sexual abuse victims cheered the verdict, the Australian Catholic Bishops' Conference said it respectfully accepted the verdict, and the Vatican, which is conducting its own investigation of Pell, confirmed "its closeness to the victims of sexual abuse and its commitment to pursue, through the competent ecclesiastical authorities, those members of the clergy who commit such abuse." Peter Weber

May 9, 2019

Pope Francis issued a new set of sweeping laws Thursday to enforce accountability and punish cover-ups of sexual abuse in Catholic parishes around the world. The new rules, contained in an apostolic letter titled Vos estis lux mundi ("You are the light of the world"), take effect June 1. For the first time, all Catholic priests and members of religious orders are required to report any suspicion of abuse or cover-up to their superior and, if need be, directly to the Vatican. Municipal archbishops are newly empowered to investigate priests and bishops in their jurisdiction, with Vatican help.

By June 2020, all Catholic diocese in the world must establish clear and accessible ways to report sexual abuse allegations, and they are encouraged to include lay experts in abuse investigations. Pope Francis wrote in the introduction that the new laws are necessary so the church will "continue to learn from the bitter lessons of the past, looking with hope toward the future." So that sexual abuse can "never happen again," he added, "a continuous and profound conversion of hearts is needed, attested by concrete and effective actions that involve everyone in the church."

The rules also raise the age of adulthood for purposes of abuse to 18, from 16, and require all priests and bishops to follow civil reporting laws in their countries or local jurisdictions. Church officials can't order people who report abuse to remain quiet, and there are new whistleblower protections.

"The new apostolic letter is known to have been the subject of intense debate among Vatican officials in recent months, some of whom were expressing concern about the breadth of its scope in mandating reporting of abuse and cover-up," National Catholic Reporter says. This is Francis' second decree on sexual abuse since a Vatican summit on sexual abuse in February. His earlier efforts mostly withered amid opposition. Read more about the rules at National Catholic Reporter. Peter Weber

March 7, 2019

In a surprise verdict Thursday morning, a court in Lyon, France, convicted Cardinal Philippe Barbarin of not reporting child sexual abuse by a priest in his diocese, Rev. Bernard Preynat, to civil authorities.

Barbarin, the archbishop of Lyon and one of France's top Catholic prelates, was given a six month suspended prison sentence his lawyer said will be appealed; Barbarin himself was not in court. Five other defendants were acquitted, and Preynat, who has admitted to abusing Boy Scouts in the 1970s and 1980s, will be tried separately later this year.

The statute of limitations on some charges had expired, and even the prosecutor argued against convicting Barbarin, citing a lack of grounds to prove legal wrongdoing. Still, the court convicted him for not reporting the abuse in 2014 and 2015. Barbarin says he became aware of Preynat's alledged crimes only in 2007, but Preynat's victims argue that church officials knew as early as 1990 and covered up the abuse.

"We see that no one is above the law," said Francois Devaux, president of a group of Preynat's victims. "This is a victory that sends a strong signal to lots of victims and a signal to the church as well." Peter Weber

January 8, 2019

On Monday, the global Catholic group Opus Dei acknowledged that in 2005 it had paid $977,000 to settle sexual misconduct allegations against a prominent priest, Rev. C. John McCloskey. McCloskey, who provided spiritual direction at the Catholic Information Center in Washington, D.C, was "the closest thing to a celebrity the Catholic Church had in the region," The Washington Post reports, and was widely known as the priest who converted Newt Gingrich, Larry Kudrow, Sam Brownback, and other prominent conservatives to Catholicism.

The settlement was paid to an unidentified woman who told the Post that McCloskey groped her several times while he counseled her over martial troubles and depression, then absolved her of her "misperceived guilt over the interaction" in confession. "I love Opus Dei but I was caught up in this coverup," she said. "I went to confession, thinking I did something to tempt this holy man to cross boundaries." Opus Dei said another woman told the community that "she was made uncomfortable by how [McCloskey] was hugging her," and the group is investigating a third, potentially "serious" but so far unsubstantiated misconduct claim against the priest.

Opus Dei went public with its settlement at the request of the first woman, who said she hoped it might help other potential victims come forward. Opus Dei Vicar Msgr. Thomas Bohlin said McCloskey's actions were "deeply painful for the woman" and "we are very sorry for all she suffered." McCloskey was removed from the Catholic Information Center a year after she made her complaint, Bohlin said. McCloskey was then sent to England, Chicago, and California for assignments with Opus Dei, his contact with women purportedly curtailed. Opus Dei said McCloskey, now in his 60s, "suffers from advanced Alzheimer's" and "has not had any pastoral assignments for a number of years." This is the only sexual misconduct settlement Opus Dei has ever paid in the U.S., spokesman Brian Finnerty said. Peter Weber

December 21, 2018

This year was nothing short of a reckoning for the Catholic church.

Thousands of sexual abuse allegations surfaced against priests and religious leaders worldwide. Pope Francis addressed the scourge in a major year-end message to cardinals Friday, and had an especially harsh message for abusers.

"To those who abuse minors I would say this: Convert and hand yourself over to human justice, and prepare for divine justice," Francis said on Friday, per The Washington Post. These "sins and crimes of consecrated persons are further tainted by infidelity and shame," Francis added, and they "disfigure the countenance of the Church and undermine her credibility." Francis also admitted the Vatican had made serious mistakes in handling abuse cases throughout its history, and thanked the "honest and objective" media for exposing these wrongdoings, NPR reports.

Looking to the future, Francis mentioned the importance of an upcoming February "abuse prevention summit," USA Today says. Francis also said the church would "never seek to hush up or not take seriously any case," despite dozens of bishops and leaders doing so in the past.

Throughout the still-ongoing scandal, Catholics and non-Catholics alike have grown disenchanted with the church. But Francis promised Friday the church would become stronger once it addressed these wrongs, saying it was time to "lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light." Kathryn Krawczyk

December 13, 2018

A court in Melbourne, Australia, has convicted Cardinal George Pell, the Vatican's finance chief, on five counts of "historical sexual assault offenses," according to several media reports. The trial, which began Nov. 7, has been subject to a strict gag order in Australia. Pell has denied all allegations of sexual abuse. In the case at hand, Pell, 77, was convicted Tuesday of sexually assaulting two choir boys at Melbourne's St. Patrick's Cathedral in 1996, when he was archbishop of Melbourne. He will be sentenced and taken into custody in February, Crux reports, though his lawyers are likely to appeal the convictions.

Pope Francis appointed Pell as the Vatican's secretary for the economy in 2014 and placed him on his nine-member council of advisers, or the C9, in 2013. Pell, who took a leave of absence in 2017 to fight the abuse charges, was removed from the council at the end of October, the Vatican said Wednesday, along with Chilean Carcinal Francisco Javier Errázuriz Ossa — who stands accused of covering up for abuser priests — and Congolese Cardinal Laurent Monsengwo Pasinya.

"The Holy See has the utmost respect for the Australian courts," Vatican spokesman Greg Burke said Wednesday. "We are aware there is a suppression order in place and we respect that order." Pell, the highest-ranked Catholic official ever tried and now convicted of sexual abuse, still faces additional charges dating back to the 1970s. Peter Weber

October 12, 2018

On Friday, the Vatican announced that Pope Francis has accepted the resignation of Cardinal Donald Wuerl, the Catholic archbishop of Washington, D.C. Wuerl, who previously served as Pittsburgh's bishop, was named by a Pennsylvania grand jury as one of the Catholic officials who covered up clergy sexual abuse of children. He also became embroiled in the scandal centered around his predecessor in Washington, former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick. All bishops submit their resignations to the pope when they turn 75; Wuerl turns 78 in November. The Vatican did not immediately name Wuerl's successor.

Wuerl, once viewed as a reformer on clergy sex abuse, flew to the Vatican in mid-September to discuss his resignation with Francis. The pope's "decision to provide new leadership to the archdiocese can allow all of the faithful, clergy, religious, and lay, to focus on healing and the future," Wuerl wrote in a statement released Friday. "It permits this local church to move forward. Once again for any past errors in judgment I apologize and ask for pardon. My resignation is one way to express my great and abiding love for you the people of the Church of Washington." Peter Weber

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