Religion, Faith and Sprituality

Where Are the Women?

Saturday, January 4, 2020

The Two Popes: A Romantic Comedy

The Two Popes is a good-looking film. Director, Fernando Meirelles and writer Anthony McCarten do a fine job attempting to render the internal features and external workings of two men, both popes, who “meet cute,” if contentious and friskily, in an attractive setting in a beautiful city; then clash, make up, and leave the audience feeling good and confident that happy endings are possible. If you think this sounds like a rom-com, you’re not wrong. 

At one point in the film the emeritus pope, Benedict XVI, departs his private quarters in the Apostolic Palace through a wrong door. Before his minder can stop him, the former pontiff finds himself in rooms open to visitors to the Sistine Chapel. The assembled are stunned by the appearance of the actual pope. A mistake has been made but it is a good mistake, a gesture born of Benedict’s newly ignited interest in engaging with people and the material world, an outward sign of some kind of little conversion.  

The ceiling’s bright azure should be the tip-off to suggest that manipulations are under way. The room is airy and aglow, but as anyone who has ever visited the Sistine Chapel without some special status knows, however, that the rooms are normally dimly lit, crowded, and annoyingly abuzz with hushed chatter of tightly packed throngs and busy with shout-whispered directives of Vatican security charged with herding packed galleries of tourists, pilgrims and art mavens through the rooms as expeditiously as possible. It is neither easy to pray nor feel the full holy force of the art under those conditions. One feels more power, there, than the glory. 

The Two Popes offers audience an educated guess about what the emotional life of two pontiffs might be, an approximation of what a conclave is, and a hope-fueled scenario in which it is possible for popes to crave and obtain absolution for some of the most egregious sins imaginable. The filmmaker’s consideration of the two popes’ quests for reconciliation and absolution is the strongest aspect of the film, but mostly, The Two Popes is a billet doux for the special Jesuit pope who doesn’t want to wear the red shoes. 

The theatrical release of the The Two Popes,  in November, coincided (the same week!) with the Amazon Synod, the investigation of Bishop Richard Malone in Buffalo, NY and other stories that weren’t very good for Vatican Optics. The synod highlighted institutional Catholic Church misogyny with its teasing of the woman deacons issue, and the Malone investigation was a mess in more ways than can be explored in this short review. (The investigator, Vatican clergy sex abuse accessory Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio wound up accused of raping an altar boy. Cardinal Dolan was supposed to go but for some reason Rome sent DiMarzio in his place to take the heat, or the perhaps, the fall.) 

The film began to air on Netflix during the around the time ( Christmas season)  news of a new spate of serial rapes committed by (deceased) Mexican Legionaries of Christ leader Marcial Maciel Degollado broke. Around the same time, the putative abolition of the pontifical secret was announced, and the resignation of the McCarrick friend and enabler Cardinal Angelo Sodano made news.  The Two Popes seems to hope to invite audiences to consider that that popes being human sin, can be forgiven, and can be trusted to cleanse the temple. But it’s a push. Obviously, this coincidence was not planned, but Meirelles knows there is an audience of sentient, Catholics interested in a vision of a church that has not become a moral and political cesspool. It is clear from his interviews that Meirelle craves that experience also. He was enamoured of the current pontiff before he made the film. 

I have believed from the time of Benedict’s resignation, that the bold and carefully calculated move, part strategy and part public relations maneuver, was seen as a way to address the exodus from the Catholic Church of Catholics living in western Europe and the Americas in the wake of the clergy sex abuse and financial scandals, as well as in reaction to Rome’s promulgation of misogyny and homophobia. The church may be (is) dying in western Europe and North America but it is still paying the bills for missions in regions where Catholicism is growing. The resignation of Pope Benedict XVI was a way to push the reset button. The elevation of Bergoglio was a way to retire the man who had (likely on orders of his pope) allowed clergy sex to abuse to proliferate unchecked, and to repalce him with a warmer, more telegenic pontiff. The conversation about the benefits of elevating a Latin American was already in the air when Ratzinger was elevated. 

When Ratzinger was elevated, he was the right pope to keep the theological football out of the hands of the post Vatican II Liberation Theologians and cardinals (e.g, Carlo Maria Martini) who were interested in debating such radical matters as ordaining women and allowing more priests to marry. But the Circle of Secrecy child sex trafficking, and money-laundering scandals —which broke just before Benedict XVI resigned —were shrinking the parts of the church that fork over the most cash. Ratzinger as CDF Prefect had dropped the ball on hundreds of sex crime cases. Keeping LGBTQ, divorced and remarried, and feminist Catholics in the pews tithing became an imperative. A pope who would be beloved was needed. McCarten and Meirelles got this part right. 

There’s no way to know what Ratzinger and Bergoglio said to each other when they were alone in a room, but if he was at all compos mentis, Pope Benedict XVI was in accord with terms of his own almost unprecedented resignation, and it is likely that he had a reason other than elderly man’s fatigue for stepping down. Bergoglio had played both sides against the middle in the context of the “Dirty Wars” could, therefore be trusted to be determinedly moderate while retain his humble style.  He could be trusted to enchant the liberal church while refraining from doing anything too substantive to move the magisterial needle. This rebranding of the papacy was sure to help (what Benedict XVI and John Paul II began to call) the “new evangelization” along. (“New evangelization” generally refers to modes for bringing baptized Catholics back into practice.) A “whom am I to judge?” pope might have better luck, the cardinals may have believed, than “God’s Rottweiler,” when it came to bringing disaffected and lapsed Catholics back into the fold.  

Screenwriter McCarten and director Meirelles take a reverential course. To the film’s detriment, they treat Vatican child sex trafficking as if the depravity were not ongoing, and thy ignore both the misogyny and homophobia problems that plague the institutional Catholic church almost entirely. Ratzinger’s “Nazi Youth” membership, (beyond a quick “Nazi” characterization exclaimed by a football spectator in a bar) is not much incorporated. All this erasure helps to boost the rom-com radiance — It’s hard to root for Nazis and bigots in a story about love—but detracts from the thoughtful and expert handling of the theology the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Indeed Meirelles’ and McCarten’s fleshing out the biography of Jorge Bergoglio, without which the uncritical, saintly characterization of Bergoglio would be hard to take—and impossible to take seriously, redeems the film, and saves it from being full-on fluff.  

Jorge Bergoglio was the Provincial Superior of the Jesuit order in Argentina during the time of the U.S. backed military-led genocide led by Peronist dictator Jorge Rafael Videla in Argentina between 1976 and 1983. There are conflicting historical versions of the truth as it relates to Bergoglio’s conduct and situation in the context of “dirty wars,” but my sense is that the writer and director hit the mark in the way they imagine Bergoglio’s regrets and remorse. Jonathan Pryce’s performance (as Bergoglio) captures the torments and hope beautifully. Only a man within the very tight circle surrounding these two protagonists can know how accurate the particulars of The Two Popes are: how Pope Benedict XVI’s decision to resign came about, and how the voting in the conclave went, and how the banking scandals which rather immediately preceded Pope Benedict’s resignation figured in. 

I’ve read a complaint or two about how dry the portrayal of Benedict XVI is. As one who very much enjoyed Josef Ratzinger’s writing while very much disliking his pontificate, I found it hard to believe the author of so much thoughtful, intelligent, impassioned and sometimes imaginative writing should be so lacking in dimension (as Meirielle’s Pope Benedict XVI seemed to be). I also found the good-pope/bad-pope construct one-dimensional. But such complexity is almost invariably absent from rom-coms! Pope meets prelate. Pope loses prelate. Pope helps elevate pope and the two popes wind up happily ever after in a world redolent with incense and white smoke and divine refulgence. That’s what the director and writer are going for in The Two Popes.

Overall, the actors’ performances are excellent, and the writing is good.  However, as a Catholic writer and student of theology engaged, at present, in studying the criminal conduct of the institutional church, I found the film’s nostalgic preciousness distracting. What I have come to think of as the Bells of St. Mary’s factor, whereby a blanket of certain purity is thrown over the dark side of the Catholic Church — in this case, over the systematic child sex abuse, the succession of banking scandals, the hideous patriarchy, and punishing bigotry — detracts from what is useful and most true in the film. The smart choice to delve into Jorge Bergoglio’s experience as a Jesuit Superior during the “Dirty Wars” takes a step in the right direction, but the overall erasure prevents the filmmaker from going far enough with these truths. The director makes no secret of loving the church — but chauvinism is not love. 

Michele Somerville 
CDMX 12/24/19
Revised, Brooklyn 1/3/20 

Thursday, October 17, 2019

Frank Pavone, Grifter Priest

Frank Pavone, Grifter? Priest?

As one who observes or interacts with Catholic on twitter knows that Twitter has a toxic priest problem. Being more focused on more prominent, less conspicuously maniacal clerics, I admit I was not paying close attention to “Father” Frank Pavone until recently when I read a tweet by a Catholic writer and noted Pavone’s history of fiscal misconduct. I’d spent a little time researching Pavone on a whim last summer after I had become interested in the Rachel Project to wFrank Pavone, Gifter? Priest?hich the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops refers women who feel conflicted, confused remorseful about terminating their pregnancies, and Pavone’s name surfaced in connection with this minisitry for women. It quickly became clear that he had made something of a career of thumbing his nose a multiple bishops and that he was grifter whose game seemed to me to modeled on the style made popular by Rev. Jim Bakker and the Praise the Lord Club. Pavone, to his credit, does not even aim conceal his unwavering support for Donald Trump, and his twitter output is heavy with MAGA messages. Because I have long been interested in the violation by cleric of tax law as it pertains to the tax-exempt churches, I wondered, where the heck is this guy’s bishop? Why do the Bishops allow grifter Pavone to cash in on his ordination thus?Why doesn’t the Vatican stop him?

My concerns about Pavone and ministering to women escalated rapidly, by the way, when I learned that he had been disciplined but not defrocked! for using a dead human fetus as a prop in his celebration of the Holy Mass.

The unrelenting misogynist messaging in Pavone’s bizarre and hysterical output alarmed me still further when I thought of this “priest” conducting himself in this manner in the physical presence of vulnerable women in search of healing. (While I recognize the need for some women to find healing after having abortions within their Roman Catholic practice, I have always found Rachel Project/ Rachel’s Vineyardthey are connected — from a theological standpoint. and indeed suspect. There are far better approaches.) Frank Pavone has engaged in public blasphemy, is campaigning for Trump in plain sight, spends more time on social media than a 13 year-old (Remind you of anyone?) and uses donation dollars to fly around the United States giving speeches, rubbing elbows with pols and lobbyists and gobbling up Narcissistic feed. My concerns about Pavone and ministering to women escalated rapidly, by the way, when I learned that he had been disciplined (not defrocked!) for using a dead human fetus as a prop in his celebration of the Holy Mass. Pavone claims that his aim an hope was that the dead fetus might “witness.” This is perverse. Why did Rome not step in and remove him immedately?

The church that ordained Pavone, from whom his authority as a cleric emanates, is a tax-exempt religious organization prohibited by law from campaigning for a particular candidate.

Over the past two days, I researched Pavone further. In 2016, his organization Priests for Life travel expenses alone in 2016 amounted to over $490,000 , during which year “expenses” were in excess of $9 million. His bishop Patrick J. Kurek in Amarillo Texas first embraced, but then cut Pavone loose. Pavone moved to Staten Island where Cardinal Timothy Dolan ostensibly, publicly “cut ties with” Pavone. Pavone moved to Titusville, Florida in 2017 where, according to the generally unreliable Church Militant (They like Pavone.) media outlet, Pavone’s bishop circulated a letter exhorting his brother priests in the Orlando Diocese to refrain from allowing Pavone to speak in their parishes. Currently, Pavone is using donations to travel about the United States defending “the babies” and stumping for Donald Trump. The church that ordained Pavone, from whom his authority as a whose authority is a tax-exempt organization prohibited by law from campaigning for a particular candidate. Although high ranking priests in that church have detached from the possible con-artist, they have not moved to defrock Pavone. The Canon Code prohibits desecrating the altar and mass. A priest who has not been officially defrocked and who is stumping daily for a presidential candidate may, possibly (I’m not a lawyer.) be violating Tax Law. Pavone appears regularly as “Father Frank Pavone” on his Facebook ‘television channel’ sporting a Roman collar. It is not clear to me yet whether they are airing Pavone’s programming at present, but EWTN, Eternal World Television Network, the largest religious media outlet in the world (of Mother Angelica fame) helped to put Pavone on the map. A cabal of clerics run Priests for Life, as priests, not as private citizens. Why have the United States Bishops and the Vatican not moved to stop Pavone?

It was then that Pavone went rogue. He began to run his Staten Island-based “ministry” via Skype from a Texas convent, an Alex Jones-style desert father, besieged by snakes and other menacing creatures:

“I had to reach you [the donor] right away and address some important issues that concern you, me, and our work together at Priests for Life, and the entire pro-life movement here in the United States. Before I go into that with you, I must first tell you that it is critically important that you send me a response of any kind to this letter”…
The demand for immediate action is classic a 700 Club move:
unconditional support for Priests for Life … Right now…that means doing whatever is necessary to send Priest for Life the largest gift you possibly can today. Not tomorrow. Not next week. But right now!
Bishop Patrick J. Zurek was still direct donors to Pavone in 2012, after The Amarillo News-Globe exposed the grifter priest: Pavone lost his tax-exempt status in 2010, but continued to run his Gospel for Life Ministry as a Roman Catholic priest:
Gospel of Life Ministries — one of three nonprofits at the heart of a dispute between Pavone, the charities’ self-described frontman, and Amarillo Bishop Patrick J. Zurek — continued to feature on its website an online donation form that refers to contributions as tax-deductible. The IRS revoked the group’s tax-exempt status in May 2010…
“If it still is collecting tax-deductible donations, it’s collecting under false pretenses,” said Vaughn James, a Texas Tech University Law School tax law expert.
Pavone was finally removed from ministry by Bishop Patrick J. Zurek who alerted his brother bishops about the thieving priest
Zurek… sent a letter to every other U.S. bishop declaring that he had so many concerns about the group’s $10 million budget that Pavone shouldn’t be trusted with donors’ money.
It was then that Pavone went rogue. He began to run his Staten Island-based “ministry” via Skype from a Texas convent, an Alex Jones-style desert father, besieged by snakes and other menacing creatures:
the New York-born priest was stuck in a convent in the Texas panhandle where he served as chaplain to an order of nuns in a place called Prayer Town, a virtual prisoner in a war of words with Zurek, who had blasted his “incorrigible defiance of my legitimate authority as his bishop.”
As I write this, on the morning of October 17, 2019, Frank Pavone’s twitter feed (@FrFrankPavone) is filled mostly with images of Frank. Frank waxing prosaic about “the babies,” Frank asking devout Catholics on fixed incomes for more money because abortion is “worse than nuclear war,” Frank quote- tweeting Trump booster Candace Owens. Frank wearing a red MAGA cap. Pavone’s tweets announcing his Facebook programming feature Pavone front and center, always upstaging Jesus, God and Mary, Blessed Sacrament monstrance and Rosary are featured; moved by the spirit no doubt, but dashing the spirit of the law which prohibits clerics from using their religious authority to stump for a political candidate to unholy smithereens.

I don’t believe the US. Bishops wish to restrain him. He is an embarrassing necessary evil, a forceful if doltish cleric, in their view, to be tolerated but not celebrated.

He is an embarrassing necessary evil, a cleric to be tolerated but not celebrated. Until two years ago Pavone’s Gospel of Life Ministry operated out of the Archdiocese of New York, yet somehow it was not until 2014 that Cardinal Timothy Dolan cut ties with Pavone , perhaps due to Pavone’s history of fiscal misconduct. (By the way, I think this cutting of ties was pro forma. Done for reasons of Optics.) Pavone has been disregarding bishops in plain sight for more than a decade. I don’t believe the US. Bishops wish to restrain him. He is an embarrassing necessary evil, a forceful if doltish cleric, in their view, to be tolerated but not celebrated. This is why Pavone’s superiors in the Roman Catholic hierarchy continue to go back and forth about whether to banish or support Frank Pavone. In 2014, Pavone’s own bishop cut ties with him. In 2015 in time for Election Day 2016 (in November of 2015). Cardinal Renato Martino, a longtime supporter of Pavone and Priests for Life, sent Pavone a letter of commendation. Currently, Pavone’s center of operations appears to be in Titusville, Florida, today. (I write “appears to be” because it is, by Pavone’s design — part of the lack of trasnparency — hard to know.) Although Bishop Noonan of Orlando Diocese circulated a written exhortation addressed to priests in his diocese to refrain from inviting Pavone to speak in the his parishes, he seems not to be doing much to stop Pavone from operating what looks quite a bit like a Ponzi scheme out of Titusville, Florida.

Are Frank Pavone’s fiscal misconduct, disregard for his bishops, maniacal support of Trump and public blasphemy being… because “no investment is too high for the diffusion of the word of God?”

Who are the people who actually pay for Pavone’s elaborate stumping for Trump speaking schedule? Do they have any sense of how this cash is being spent? Pavone’s bio on this Priests for Life travel itinerary, by the way, includes his status as “Pastoral Director, Rachel’s Vineyard.” The United States Bishops’ website still directs women to “the Rachel Project.” Are vulnerable women still being directed to obtain support from to this deranged huckster? Has EWTN (Eternal World Television Network) the global network funded by billionaires, aligned with the traditional Catholic Church and by extension with Catholic pro-Trumpers, broken with Pavone? ETWN’s Chairman and CEO Michael C. Warsaw is a consultant to the Vatican’s Dicastery of Communications. (Reverend James Martin, S.J. is, as well.) Just last month at the plenary assembly for the Vatican’s Dicastery for Communications, Pope Francis said the following in a text statement:
“No investment is too high for the diffusion of the Word of God”…
Are Frank Pavone’s fiscal misconduct, disregard for his bishops, maniacal support of Trump and public blasphemy being tolerated by the Roman Catholic hierarchy in the United States because he’s an earner committed to overturning Roe v. Wade, and because “no investment is too high for the diffusion of the word of God?” Yes.
Many Catholic women have abortions. Some agonize over it. Others do not. Roughly half of Catholics reject Magisterial teaching on abortion, and many of them are women. Perhaps because I know so many Catholic women who continue to worship Catholic without feeling any need of special formal religious interventions in the wake of terminating their pregnancies, the Rachel projects had long rather fallen off my Catholic radar. Although I find the idea that Pavone, who identifies as the “Pastoral Director” of Rachel’s Vineyard might still be “counseling” vulnerable women horrific, I find my sense that Pavone is not really interested in the women or “the babies” strangely comforting. I think Pavone is interested in the money, attention, and power.

Unless Pavone does something truly egregious in the eyes of the Vatican — something truly heinous, like, say, ordaining a woman — Pavone will continue to decompensate unchecked. He’s helping. to keeo the Roman Catholic Church safe for misogyny; no Catholic bishop will much obstruct him in this.

So why do the Vatican and Roman Catholic hierarchy in the nation in which Pavone operates allow him to grift amok? I am not sure. I worry, however, that Pavone enjoys this license because bishops, the media network that made him, anti-abortion Catholics too refined to favor the use of a dead human embryo in a mass want him to continue to stump for white supremacist, nationalist candidates. They find Pavone distasteful. They dislike his means, but very much approve of his ends. Half of Catholics do not embrace Catholic teaching on abortion. The other half, roughly speaking, voted for Trump. The factions are at war, in a sense. Saints are always a little off, deranged, Narcissistic. Frank Pavone, is, like his fellow grifter hero Donald Trump, a Malignant Narcissist, a television-loving lens louse who wants to give speeches, get rich, and feel powerful. Priests for Life is a front, a kind of Ponzi scheme, but it also gets the message out. The U.S. Bishops know it. At least one cardinal in Rome knows it. The pope knows it. Unless Pavone does something truly egregious in the eyes of the Vatican — something truly heinous, like, say, ordaining a woman — Pavone will continue to decompensate unchecked. He’s keeping the Roman Catholic Church safe for misogyny; no Catholic bishop will obstruct him in this way.

Priests for Life 2016 Tax Returns:


Priests for Life 2016 Travel Expenses:

Michele Somerville, 
October 17, 2019, Brooklyn

Saturday, May 25, 2019

Women and Vatican Optics: What Happens in the Vatican Does Not Stay in the Vatican

painting by Münster’s Lisa Kötter

I often find myself asked how I can be both a feminist and Catholic. My short answer is that I am still “a believer.” Another is that I am an artist, and Roman Catholicism has always had a mysterious hold on artists within and beyond the Catholic Church. On a less ethereal plane are the pragmatic reasons to stay. If feminists like me all walk away, those who embrace or tolerate the systemic misogyny win. Feminists within the church know how dangerous the misogyny of the institutional Catholic church is. I’m not sure feminists outside the church do. This for me, suggests another possibly reason for remaining Catholic. The truth is that often it is when I am most appalled by the clerical hierarchy, the homophobes, the women mired in internalized misogyny, the integralists, and the fifty percent of my church in the United States who support avarice unchecked and white supremacist /white nationalist policy, the more I want to stay, because I have come to believe it is feminists driven by both belief and conscience who are best situated to cleanse the temple and beat back the misogyny which does not confine itself to Catholic women in the pews. In United States and throughout the world, Catholic teaching affects non-Catholics in critical ways, because what happens in the Vatican does not stay in the Vatican. It ramifies. So for now, I remain Catholic. I stay, I pray, but never do I pay.
I’m neither a “Vaticanist” (Yes, there is such a thing.) nor a “professional theologian.” But I am an insider who has studied the Catholic church both formally and informally for two decades. The Vatican is secretive, and the opacity of the Vatican’s operations creates great potential for misconduct behind its veil, so to speak. Catholic media is highly sophisticated and, by design, keeps Catholics and non-Catholics in the dark on matters of fiscal misconduct, and, of course, in the context of the clergy sex abuse crisis. The Vatican tends to circle the wagons when secular media outlets get a whiff of scandal, and the Vatican press people allow select Catholic media, organizations run by Catholics who take special interest in Catholic news, access. There is tremendous overlap among Catholic publications Catholic academics, many of whom are paid, whether directly or indirectly by the institutional church. This is one of the reasons so few people know, for example, that the much vaunted for its brutal honesty (2004) John Jay Report was commissioned by the institutional church. Its data was collected by Catholic clerics. The release of this was packaged and sold, in a sense, to the public, by public relations experts. Catholics rejoiced. At least one prominent Roman Catholic theologian I know believes the John Jay Report underreported incidences of child rape, as it was based on diocesan records alone, and thus discounted accounts of Catholics who had reported only the Police Departments or District Attorneys’ Offices and not to the dioceses in which the alleged sex crimes took place. There’s a reason half of the many Catholics with whom I discuss the report do not know this. Catholic publications depend, to varying degrees, upon the institutional church for economic support and readership. A de facto nihil obstat often applies. Many Catholic church-funded media outlets and universities exist in part, to fence in what gets reported and what gets taught in order to keep it in reasonable accordance with magisterial teaching. (The magisterium is the teaching body of the church.) The Vatican center of operations itself, Catholic media outlets (especially EWTN, one of the world’s largest multimedia corporations) and a network of Catholic universities comprise an informational fortress dedicated (again, to varying degrees) to releasing — and spinning — Catholic news and information. In many instances the very reason for being of these agencies is to evangelize, to keep Catholics in the fold and tithing. 50% of Catholics believe abortion should be legal, yet I cannot remember the last time I read a pro-choice opinion piece in a Catholic publication. Furthermore, several women theologians affiliated, whether as students or professors, have told me that Catholic women scholars, today, in 2019, are marginalized on the grounds of non-seriousness when they attempt to study the history/ecclesiology of women priests and deacons in the Catholic Church. Catholics who teach and write under the auspices of Catholic institutions lose their perches and posts when they report honestly on the church, and the institutional church dramatically limits access for secular reporters. Hence the great veil of opacity.

I recently discussed Catholic news coverage with a twenty-something non-Catholic journalist. “People who don’t have a stake aren’t as interested,” she said. She makes a good point, but she’s wrong. Non-Catholic women do have a stake, because what happens in the Vatican does not remain in the Vatican. Don’t like Trump? Traditional Catholics helped elect him. Did the Alabama Abortion bill shock you? Long before Roe v. Wade became federal law, the institutional Catholic Church was using parish donations to fund efforts to overturn it. Got a problem with Brett Kavanaugh? His conduct and his misogynist arrogance are an unofficially sanctioned, no — promulgated norm in secondary Catholic schools for white prosperous male students in the United States. Catholic white supremacy built those schools.

Once you start noticing the way the Vatican optics works, it becomes impossible to look away. It is never an accident, for example, when tender pontifical moments make the news just in time to push a slew of sex crimes involving children off of the proverbial “front pages.” The Catholic hierarchy’s tradition of secrecy and “Vatican optics” work in tandem to entrench a dangerous lack of transparency. The Vatican has the best publicity team its vast wealth can buy and a coterie of Vatican groupies ever jockeying for position.

Pope Francis has spoken more expansively than his predecessors about the need to increase women’s voices in the Catholic Church, but he has most energetically opposed to even cracking opening to “the door” to discussion of ordaining women. Like most of his brother bishops, Pope Francis defaults to sexist tropes of the feminine when he speaks of women. Despite this, multitudes of “liberal” women in Catholic world adore him, discounting, somehow, his choice to uphold misogynist and patriarchal doctrine. I have not been entirely immune to Pope Francis admiration, but there can be little doubt that the Holy Father, who has famously described women as “the strawberries on the cake,” is a sexist man promulgating sexism. He regularly reaffirms misogynist Catholic doctrine.
“It takes a long time to turn a big bus” is the misogyny-friendly liberal Catholic’s favorite argument. Even feminist Catholic theologians sometimes stoop to parrot this unfortunate rhetoric, most of whom would deem it abominable were it to be applied to any ethnic group. Every time the bishops convene, Catholic “journalists” announce the desire on the part of the hierarchy to increase “women’s voices in the church.” There’s a reason for this. The Vatican is in a sticky spot when it comes to women, and has little choice but to pay a certain amount of lip service in order to stay in business. Vatican optics around women in the church is complex. In the United States, and much of the world, women do disproportionate work of running Catholic parishes. Despite that the institutional Roman Catholic Church is likely the wealthiest businesses in the world, much (most, possibly) of women’s labor is done on a pro bono basis. In moderate and “liberal” Catholic families it is most often women who preside over the catechesis of children. (Some Traditional Catholics seem to be moving away from this.) The Vatican needs to counterbalance its misogynist by projecting an illusion of respecting women, while actively engaged in discriminating against and exploiting them (us). The new evangelization (code for increasing the fold) absolutely depends upon it.

Often Rome’s balancing act entails the strategic dangling the of the carrot of ordaining “deacons.” Here’s how it goes. Rome leaks news about the possibility of women “deacons” (deaconesses, really). “Liberal” Catholics in the know celebrate. Trad Catholics vituperate, and the whole thing quiets down until the Vatican needs it again. Think: Peanuts. The Catholic Church is Lucy. Charlie Brown is deeply believing, self-respecting Catholic women. Deaconesses are the football, and you get the idea. Coverage of the recent Amazon Synod in Rome was lousy with women deacon mania.

Another further complicating the way Catholics and “non-stakeholders” consume news of the church, is the prevailing ethos among Catholic experts that only Catholic experts, which is to say “professional theologians,” canon lawyers, and clerics, are competent to fathom, parse, analyze, opine and report on Catholicism. This “don’t try this at home” elitism extends beyond the media. Its tentacles reach into the pews. The Catholic Church has both a formidable intellectual tradition and a disgraceful history of conditioning Catholics in the pews to believe they lack the intelligence to understand their own faith and sacred scripture. Despite this, no Catholic in any pew anywhere has ever been asked to pass a pop quiz on Summa Theologica before tossing legal tender into that offertory basket on Sunday. Many well-educated Catholics, because they are well-conditioned, via generations of Catholic formation, not to probe, are unaware that their portions of their Catholic school tuition, diocesan appeal, and parish collection donations are funding efforts to systematically strip women and LGBTQ people of their rights in the United States.

Most sexually active Catholic women of child-bearing age use artificial contraception. More than 50% of United States Catholics support a woman’s right to a safe, legal, medical abortion. Despite this, many Catholic feminists in the United States contribute, each week, to efforts to strike down Roe v. Wade in United States Courts. Catholics who do not wish to fund such campaigns should consider skipping that offertory donation, and giving, instead, directly to persons in need, bearing in mind that parishes kick back to dioceses, and dioceses kick back to the Vatican.

“Get rid of those scruples that deprive you of peace,” wrote Phalangist Spanish priest Josemaria Escriva, the founder of the Opus Dei prelature. Opus Dei was founded in Spain, by (literal) fascists, under Generalissimo Francisco Franco, during the Spanish Civil War. Many Opus Dei and other traditional Catholics are “integralists”; they believe secular law should evolve in such a way as to aligned itself with Catholic doctrine. In recent years, Opus Dei has been quite successful in using their power and financial assets to infiltrate elite universities, financial institutions, and secular government. Like their “traditional” counterparts, most Opus Dei believers embrace the doctrine of “complementarity” (to define it broadly: a kind of theological “separate but equal”) views about men and women. Attorney General William Barr’s likely treacherous choice to erase most of Robert Mueller’s report on Trump makes perfect sense when one considers Barr’s ties to D.C.’s Catholic Information Center (located two blocks from the White House) and to the traditional Opus Dei “prelature.” Deceased Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia was a traditional Catholic and a putative member of Opus Dei as well. To imagine that traditional, pre-Vatican II Catholicism has its hooks in the operations of the United States Government is not conspiratorial paranoia. It’s ongoing, at present.

This structural misogyny does so much damage globally. While a majority of women in North America and western Europe ignore Catholic teaching on contraception, premarital sex, abortion, and divorce and remarriage; Catholic women in the very poor regions of South America, Africa and Asia are often more compliant. Women being fed, educated and cared for medically by Catholic teams who caution women not contracept under penalty of eternal damnation are less likely to plan their families. (I want to say that many Catholic missionaries report that they decline by choice to promulgate misogynist and hateful teaching when they feed, heal, teach and that this is something of a norm among radical Catholics working in the developing world.) Still, at the church’s urging, many women living in very poor regions still give birth to more children than they can feed because church workers tell them they must. In regions in which the incidence of HIV/AIDS is growing, this teaching is especially pernicious. Women who cannot afford the medicine that cures the illness are still taught, via “Catholic teaching,” that to contracept artificially imperils their immortal souls.

I decided fifteen years ago to “boycott the basket,” but I’m still worshipping Catholic. I try never to give the institutional church money. I love my church, but I recently decided to add abstinence from donating “time and talent” to my boycott, for reasons of conscience. I do donate goods when possible, and I donate to select Catholic social justice organizations I support. But I never contribute to diocesan churches because I know that a diocese can seize any money it wants from a parish.
The institutional Catholic Church is in crisis, but I believe that my church might still find a way to cleanse and rescue itself. I do not believe this will happen without a bold move in the direction of ordaining women. This would have to happen during Pope Francis’s pontificate, and if he remains in his misogyny corner, the liberal church will lose out. Hence, one more reason to boycott the basket. So, for now, my plan is stick around, document from inside, and report, because I still love my church. And because I know that what happens in the vatican does not stay in the vatican. I plan to bear witness, to stay, to pray, and never pay. Not until there’s a woman celebrating mass on that altar, at least.

Michele Somerville 
May 24, 2019; Cambridge, MA
Revised: November 23, 2019, Brooklyn, NY 

Thursday, March 7, 2019

Boycott the Basket for Lent

The recent Vatican Sex Abuse summit is over. One high-ranking cardinal has just been defrocked for, and another convicted in an Australian court, for raping children. A Catholic, still practicing, I expected little to come of the recent Vatican Sex Abuse summit, and in my judgment, I was correct. It was pro forma, a publicity stunt. What ame out of the summit was a plan of action over which a team of prelates, many of whom have publicly admitted to failing to report multiple child rapes, will preside. Catholic teaching, by design, keeps Catholics in the candle-lit dark. The seal of confession, vows/promises of obedience priests are required to take, help to maintain the problem opacity. How can any Catholic defend the institutional church after seeing so much depravity, misogyny and corruption on full display? Denial? Maybe so. The mix of the Catholic hierarchy’s sense that they are “above the (secular) law and lay Catholics’ erroneous belief that they lack power to bring change has proven to be a toxic one. But Catholics in the pews do have economic power. Fear of losing contributions often catalyzes reform in the Church. As I struggle to stay Catholic, I am often comforted by a decision I made 12 years ago to withhold contributions. 

Knowing I no longer help to finance an institution which shields men who rape children from justice, launders money through the Vatican Bank, and enacts misogyny on a daily basis is no longer a sin for which I repent every time I pray the Confiteor at mass. My offertory dollars are no longer used to oppose same-sex marriage in federal courts, strip women of health care, or oppose Child Victims Act legislation — Because I boycott the basket.

Many Catholics don’t know what happens to the money they contribute to the Church. They are unaware that often parishes kick back to dioceses: and dioceses, to the Vatican. They don’t know that in many (possibly most) cases, in the U.S. at least, dioceses own everything a parish has. Some don’t know that many of the same Catholics protesting the sex abuse crisis actually contributed financially to the hierarchy’s efforts to bock Child Victims Act legislation. Millions of women who identify as feminists donate cash every Sunday to a church that teaches girls it “catechizes” (starting at age 7) that they are unworthy of ordination.

I have never taken the decision to boycott the basket lightly, because I know from my own church work that the Catholic Church does a great deal of good on behalf of people in need. Early on in my withholding I worried, as the basket on a stick sailed by, about being seen as a deadbeat — the sort who swipes a servers’ tip off a restaurant table. But here’s the thing: Catholics can increase their support for these organizations by cutting out the middlemen. I can give my bishop’s “take” to the Catholic Worker, for example.

Catholics often speak of contributing in terms of “time, talent and treasure.” With this in mind I give goods whenever possible, and “treasure” to organizations whose missions reflect my Catholic beliefs. Boycotting the basket has demanded that I be more mindful about giving. Over the course of two decades, while working as a teacher, writer and mother of three (one with special needs), I contributed time and talent in many ways. I worked in an overnight respite for unsheltered women. My whole family and I worked in a food pantry, with our parish’s monthly dinner for people living with HIV/AIDS and in LGBTQ and other ministries. (My favorite boast: For 15 years I cooked two 25-pound turkeys every Thanksgiving: one for my family, one for my HOPE dinner beloveds.) I visited the homebound, served on the altar, sang in a Gregorian chant schola, was a lector, helped decorate the church every Christmas, led writing groups, bought/wrapped gifts every December, worked with children whose parents were incarcerated, and clergy sex abuse survivors; served on Pastoral Council, co-founded an annual World AIDS Day service/memorial; played lawyer on a pro-bono legal team which helped poor people obtain medical insurance, food supplementation and tenants’ rights information.

I asked three priests in three different orders the following question recently, and each was quick to answer in the emphatic affirmative. “If every Catholic who objects to the misogyny of the institutional church were to boycott the basket for one year as a protest against male-only priesthood, would the Vatican change course on ordaining women?” Answers varied slightly: “Of course!”, “Are you kidding?” and “Sure!”

Our only hope for “cleansing” the Catholic “temple” may be economic. Lent begins this Wednesday. Catholic worship is free. We care called to contribute, but we are also taught to discern. To Catholics who feel like bolting in disgust, might consider staying, and giving up the basket for Lent — and Easter.

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

The Fish Rots From the Head: The Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report





The Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report


The recently published Pennsylvania grand jury report chronicles more than 300 alleged sexual assaults on more than 1,000 victims (and likely many more) over a period of several decades. The first reasonable question to pose is: “Why didn’t bishops who knew about these sex crimes report them to law enforcement?” The two-fold follow-up question might be: “Who at the Vatican was in charge of investigating and addressing sexual abuse cases internally, and why did concern for the victims involved not prompt them to investigate more strenuously?” Yesterday the pope released a three-page letter to from the pope to “the faithful”. He spelled out a plan to meet with victims. Pope Francis to the rescue. This letter prompted some Catholics to rejoice. The problem here — the problem with the letter is that nothing the pope is saying about this wave of reports is new. What Pope Francis offered in yesterday’s letter is a more lyrical version of what his two predecessors and many other prelates along the way have said and done. It is hard for me to suggest, here, that Pope Francis might be a part of the problem, because I am aware that many of the most wrong-headed Catholics have been waiting for the day the “liberal” pope might be unseated.

But Pope Francis is a part of the problem. He must act.


The Institutional Catholic Church is, at least in part, a criminal organization.


Can Pope Francis get away with a “Is there gambling, here in Casablanca?”disposition on the matter of the Pennsylvania grand jury report?

No. Many of those currently targeting the pope are Catholics who want a pre-Vatican II church. They preach anti-LGBTQ prejudice, misogyny, and antisemitism. They insist on a quasi-fundamentalist reading to the “rules and regs” of Roman Catholicism. Jorge Bergoglio, on the other hand, is no rebel. He was a member of the College of Cardinals for seventeen years before being elevated. There are a only a little over 200 cardinals. They speak to each other. Many have known each other for several decades. It is likely that a few have been friends for half of the past century, and many serve as each others’ confessors.Can Pope Francis get away with a “Is there gambling, here in Casablanca?” disposition on the matter of the Pennsylvania grand jury report?

No. This fish rots from the head.

The institutional Roman Catholic Church is in many (possibly most) respects a criminal organization, and every cleric, person employed by a Catholic publication or Catholic university, college or school is, whether directly or indirectly, on its payroll.

Catholic Worker co-founder Dorothy Day wrote the following lines in 1968 at around the time Vatican II changes were taking hold, in a letter to Gordon Zahn, a professor, scholar, sociologist, pacifist, and author and co-founder of Pax Christi:
As a convert, I never expected much of the bishops. In all history popes and bishops and father abbots seem to have been blind and power-loving and greedy. I never expected leadership from them.”
I’m no convert, but two days ago I added my signature to a petition currently circulating which calls for the resignation of all of the U.S. bishops. I had mixed feelings about signing it because I knew nothing would come of it. I went ahead and signed it anyway, on principle. The United States is not Chile. There is way too much money to be had in the United States, and if there is anything thing the U.S. Bishops like almost as much as God and Jesus — it’s money.

Much of the Vatican sexual abuse scandal boils down to money and holding onto it. The institutional Roman Catholic Church is in many (possibly most) respects a criminal organization, and every person employed by a Catholic publication, Catholic university, or religious order is, whether directly or indirectly, on the payroll. I have never had much faith in the bishops, and now I have less than none. I continue, however, to have faith in the church of Dorothy Day. The institutional Catholic Church is not “the Catholic Church.” The two are not one and the same.


Why continue to beg bishops to police themselves? The myth of the “liberal” pontiff.


I know several survivors of clergy sexual abuse (In the case of forcible penetration of adults and all assaults of children, itis critical that we call it “rape.”) and I attended a few Voice of the Faithful meetings in 2000 in support of a friend who was a survivor of sex crimes committed against him, by a priest, as a child. This friend, now in his eighties, was brave enough to report, as a child, that he was being abused by priests. He was arrested by NYPD, at the time, and taken into custody. Here are my predictions in the wake of the Pennsylvania grand Jury Report: The prelates will apologize for a while, then hit the mattresses, then ask for prayers, then remind us that the church and Jesus are all about forgiveness, then emerge again, not out of ashes, but out of hiding, once the shooting dies down, to ask for peace. Even as a father, grandfather, and rather model citizen and Catholic, my friend was regularly insulted, scorned, and ridiculed by Catholics within and outside of his relatively speaking, welcoming parish. I was moved by the devotion and dignity of all who spoke out about this abuse at VOTF meetings, but I found the pattern of requesting support from bishops to be absurd and possibly masochistic. Why continue to beg bishops to police themselves?
I see some of this same religious masochism among some Women’s Ordination advocates. (Why beg a hierarchy maddened by its own quasi-royal power to return to us the freedom to worship and minister which was stolen from us in the fourth century?) Martin Luther King Jr.’s words from Letter from a Birmingham Jail do apply:
We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.”
The authority of bishops emanates from one of the most (if not the most) wealthy and powerful business operations in the world, the Vatican. The U.S. bishops, some of whom are also members of the College of Cardinals, are the last people to whom Catholics should run in search of relief and remedy in the matter of the Vatican clerical child rape scandal. These prelates have been covering up these crimes for years.

That Pope Francis is not really progressive doesn’t matter all that much, because the “liberal” Catholic Church itself is not progressive.

A difficult question arises; is it fair to ask the U.S. bishops to resign without asking the College of Cardinals and Pope Francis I to resign? I’m not sure. Even many “liberal” or “progressive” Catholics writers, religion experts and and clerics who know the pope probably is complicit in the coverup are loath to call for his resignation because 1. He’s the pope, and can do what he pleases in this regard. 2. They know Pope Francis is the best pope Catholics are likely to obtain. That Pope Francis is not really progressive, doesn’t matter, because the “liberal” Catholic Church itself is not progressive. It still upholds misogyny, homophobia and the idea of a maintaining a measure of chauvinistic feeling regarding Catholicism’s priestly caste. Pope Francis took five whole days to respond directly to the grand jury report. In a letter made public on August 20, he invited “the faithful” to engage in fasting and prayer. He accepted responsibility in the way every other bishop speaking out had.

I stopped expecting anything much from Pope Francis the moment I read that he had described the women of the church as “strawberries on the cake.” No man who is not a misogynist says such things.


The day before the pope’s letter came out, I turned to my husband in the car shared by predictions re: “the strawberries on the cake” angle. “Watch. They’ll all go ham on the Blessed Mother in their rhetoric, focusing on her gentleness and forgiving nature. Then, they’ll make the move of inviting the women to come in and bat cleanup.”A few days later, I had the not very satisfying opportunity to hear him say, “You sure called it!” Once Pope Francis did speak, multitudes of Catholic writers waxed prosaic on the “Francis to the rescue” bluntness, power, and beauty of the pontiff’s letter (in which he, of course, name-checked Mary). I stopped expecting anything much from Pope Francis the moment I read that he had described the women of the church as “strawberries on the cake.” No man who is not a misogynist says such things. Some Catholics — even some who identify as feminist! — find this somehow excusable, citing the “It takes a long time to turn a big bus.” Some have built whole quasi-scholarly careers out massaging this kind of prejudice into a polite defense for the misogyny that morally compromises the entire Roman Catholic Church. If I were not a woman, perhaps the “five Church doctors and it takes a long time to turn a big bus” reasoning might strike me as sound. It is not sound. It is bigotry, and bigots rarely confine their bigotry to one category of bigotry. To defend Catholic magisterial teaching on the matter of an all-male priesthood is to defend sexism, misogyny, and the practice of conditioning Catholic children in Catholic school classrooms that to be female is to be less than. The popes and prelates like to haul out Mary when they sense a need to extol the merits of womanhood, pointing, usually, to her docility. I doubt that any bishop who promulgates misogyny under the guise of “complementarity” (most do) can ever fully grasp the full significance of Mary. Nonetheless, I give Pope Francis credit for reminding the world, this week, that Mary was “the first disciple.”

Benedict VXI dropped the ball, but it was “Saint” Pope John Paul II who was the more culpable pope,for he was soft on rapists like Marcial Maciel Degollado and Theodore (“Uncle Ted”) McCarrick.

Pope Francis is a company man. In the wake of the Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report, Pope Francis also pointed to Pope Benedict XVI, the brilliant man on whose watch so much torture of children went unaddressed:
“I make my own the words of the then Cardinal Ratzinger when, during the Way of the Cross composed for Good Friday 2005, he identified with the cry of pain of so many victims and exclaimed: ‘How much filth there is in the Church, and even among those who, in the priesthood, ought to belong entirely to [Christ]!’”
Before becoming Pope Benedict XVI, Joseph Ratzinger served as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, under whose jurisdiction tracking and addressing sexual abuse cases falls, between 1981 and 2005. Benedict VXI dropped the ball, but it was “Saint” John Paul II who was the more culpable pope, for he was soft on rapists like Maciel Marcial and Theodore (“Uncle Ted”) McCarrick.

Pope Francis I has been a member of the College of Cardinals for more than seventeen years. There are only about 450 active bishops in the United States. Some are members of both the USCCB (United States Conference of Catholic Bishops) and the College of Cardinals. They speak to one another. Some have ordained each other and consecrated (made bishops of) each other. It is naive to imagine that what was chronicled in the 2002 Boston Globe Investigation, in the 2004 John Jay Report, the 2011 Cloyne Report, or the many other investigations, surprised any prelate. Were any of them completely shocked by the Pennsylvania grand jury report? Unlikely. Watch some pretend to be.




The genius Vatican Optics of elevating Jorge Bergoglio

NOT Bergolio! but close.

The Vatican has been losing Catholics in Latin America to Pentecostal and other Protestant churches in recent years and is desperate to slow the exodus out of the church. The humble Bergoglio, is Latin American. These comprised the perfect Vatican Optics.


Elevating a cardinal who refused to live, as his two predecessors had, two floors up from the Vatican bank, just as Vatican Bank money laundering news was making headlines in the Financial Times, was a stroke of Vatican Public Relations genius. The new pontiff’s choice to take the name from the saint most associated with poverty, to jump-start his pontificate with a “greed is sin” message, to be a “1st” (as in Pope Francis I) sent a walloping out with the old in with the new message. As a progressive Catholic I have sometimes felt encouraged by the words of our current pope. He was chosen to serve as a brand ambassador for a novel, contemporary but still essentially medieval brand. The Vatican has been losing Catholics in Latin America to Pentecostal and other Protestant churches in recent years and is desperate to slow the exodus out of the church. The humble Bergoglio, is Latin American. These comprised the perfect Vatican Optics. Unlike his predecessor, Pope Francis lacks the regal countenance Catholics have come to associate with out-of-touch, corrupt hierarchs. Pope Francis presents as a human being, not as a prince.

Elevating a cardinal who refused to live, as his two predecessors had, two floors up from the Vatican bank (This, just as Vatican Bank money laundering news was making headlines in the Financial Times), a prelate who took his name from the saint most associated with poverty and who jump-started his pontificate with a “greed is sin” message was a stroke of Vatican Public Relations genius. Pope Francis I rode the bus, washed prisoners’ feet, and publicly exhibited other impressive Christlike conduct. Even Bergoglio’s status as a Jesuit was part of the plan. Educated liberal Catholics love the Jesuits. Sometimes I saw the elevation of Bergoglio to pope as encouraging. At other times I more saw it as a Machiavellian move designed to keep “Cafeteria Catholics” in the United States and Western Europe in the pews, tithing and spawning Catholics.

I often wonder whether some of cardinals who helped to elect Pope Francis might not have screened Nanni Moretti’s charming film, Habemus Papam, released a year before the emeritus pope resigned, and perhaps, been inspired by it.


In 2012, secular newspapers and mainstream media reported on the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s surveillance of women religious. The Vatican was looking for heretic women involved in the growing women’s ordination movement. Even conservative Catholics found the Office of Inquisition’s spying on nuns in their own homes, looking for heresies like Yoga, repugnant. At the time Bergoglio became Pope Francis, I fraud investigations involving the Vatican bank were under way. In June of 2013, three priests — one of them a bishop — were arrested for laundering money through the Vatican bank. Then came the film Habemus Papam.While not normally one to subscribe to conspiracy theories, I often wonder whether some of cardinals who helped to elect Pope Francis might not have screened Nanni Moretti’s charming film, Habemus Papam,released a year before the emeritus pope resigned, and been inspired by it. The film depicts the journey of a reluctant, newly elevated pontiff, a charming, humble cardinal/priest who sees a therapist and rides a bus through Rome. I do not mean to suggest that Moretti’s film served as a blueprint for the selection of the pope — I offer it as musing, not as a soft conspiracy theory. However, the film was directed by an Italian, features the church, was reverential enough in tone, softly radical in vision, and well-and widely reviewed.

What was most needed from a Vatican Optics standpoint, when Benedict XVI resigned in quasi-disgrace, was a pope as telegenic as John Paul II, and, at least on the face, less interested than were John Paul II and Benedict XVI in policing Catholics’ private conduct. The policing was chasing Catholics out of the pews in Western Europe and the Americas, and they were taking their wallets and spawn with them. Ratzinger’s/Benedict XVI’s smaller, purer (compliant) church ideal is problematic in practice from a fiscal standpoint. The hierarchy of the Catholic Church has its greatest hopes pinned on growth of the global church, but at present, Catholics in the Americans and Europe fund ministry in those regions. The cardinals may not miss the amoral, hyper-secularized Catholic defectors of North American and western Europe when they depart, but Vatican misses their money. Pope Francis was perfect for the job of keeping “liberal” Catholics enthused. He would also have the gift for doing so without aiming to make any substantive doctrinal changes.

Saint Pope John Paul II with “Uncle Ted” / Cardinal McCarrick


Moving Forward, How to Clean the Temple



Once installed, Pope Francis kept Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, whose alleged sexual misconduct began to come to light as early as 1994, in place. Pope Francis did not just attend Bernard Law’s funeral in In 2017, he offered the (deeply solemn and significant) final prayer of commendation over the body of the pedophile-shuffling fugitive prelate. (Pope Francis’s predecessors helped Cardinal Law elude prosecution for his alleged crimes against children by fleeing to Vatican City, a sovereign nation.) Once safe in Vatican City, Law, a fugitive, received a church and a posting from Pope Benedict XVI. Law should have been tried for his crimes, but with papal support, he was permitted to live out his life as a priest, in the Vatican, a sovereign nation from which he could not be extradited. Francis hastily made a saint out of Pope John Paul II: this sham express canonization was performed in the interest of sanitizing the latter’s legacy (It will not work.) As of today, August 21, 2018, Pope Francis has not removed Cardinal Donald Wuerl, the bishop in charge of the Diocese of Pittsburgh (from 1988 to 2006) who was implicated in the Pennsylvania grand jury report. Wuerl, head of the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., is named more than 200 times in Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report for transferring priests he knew had engaged sexual misconduct to new parishes, for silencing survivors and for mishandling complaints against predator priests under Wuerl’s watch. Despite that the wrongdoing to which Wuerl publicly admits is more than enough to warrant his removal, he has not been removed from his position.

People charged with crimes have a legal right to be seen as innocent under the law until they are proven guilty, and several accounts this week suggest the possibility that not all of the U.S. Bishops knew what their priests were raping children. But an adult man who knows that a child is endangered and fails to inform law enforcement is guilty of a heinous crime. Such a man is an accessory after the fact. Any bishop who puts costs before justice in this regard is unfit to serve.If he knowingly places a child within reach of a predator, such a man is guilty of child endangerment. Any pastor or bishop who transferred a pedophile must be required to step down and must be held accountable under the law.

Secular law.

A society that claims to care for its children always errs on the side of (legally) protecting them. Should not guidelines for protecting children in religious organizations at least meet the standards secular criminal law, at least in theory, aims to uphold? Mandatory reporters of abuse — classroom teachers, doctors, nurses — who fail to report such abuse as that which clerics like Donald Wuerl ignored, lose their jobs. Yet today, it is likely that a few hundred bishops or more who are guilty of failing to report these crimes are still in place. All but a few will be in place one year from now, and they will still insisting that they can police themselves. Some will be assigned the task of leading the purge. To allow a man who failed to report the rape of a child to continue to minister is deeply sinful. To allow such a man to remedy the sex abuse problem is to put a fox in charge of a hen house.


Bishop DiMarzio tries to muscle local pols. NY Post, May 31, 2009

Prelates must stop using donations made by Catholics in the pews to lobby against Child Victims Act/Statute of Limitations legislation, and must support, energetically, the prosecution of all sex offenders working under the supervision of the institutional Catholic Church.


It is obvious now that every bishop in the United States, given the circumstances at hand, should have been militating vigorously to help a Child Victims Act pass into law.

Each time there is a report of widespread clergy child rape and coverup, various bishops offer their own variations on the heartfelt commentary. The statement made by Timothy Dolan, cardinal of the Archdiocese of New York, begins with a quasi-defense/clarification of details pertaining to Archdiocese of New York personnel named in the report, and ends with the pro forma remorseful lament. Dolan moved money in Milwaukee to hide it from plaintiffs. Dolan paid abusive priests to disappear. Dolan supported an accused priest in suing a plaintiff for slander. Once Timothy Dolan cleaned up the Milwaukee diocese’s fiscal troubles, he was dispatched to New York, where he took over for notorious pedophile-shuffler Edward Egan. (Egan’s Bridgeport diocese was one of the first to be exposed in 2001–2002.) Dolan’s substantive, up-close experience with so many suffering victims of clerical sexual abuse was not sufficiently moving to deter him from strenuously opposing the Child Victims Act, legislation designed to expand “the window” for “looking back” and the statute of limitation for reporting incidents of child sexual abuse. Should New York Catholics trust Timothy Dolan to support efforts to obtain justice and healing? They must not. Nicholas DiMarzio, the (allegedly) Opus Dei bishop in charge of the Brooklyn diocese in which I have worshipped and worked in ministry for two decades, has also lobbied tirelessly against the Child Victims Act. He sent his representatives into the church I have attended for two decades to campaign, on the altar, for a candidate who won the bishop’s support by resolving to oppose this legislation which would expand the statute of limitations for reporting sex crimes committed by priests. DiMarzio wrote about his concern that the Child Victims Act would bankrupt his diocese in his column in the diocese newspaper and made robocalls (for notoriously corrupt and now deceased Brooklyn/Queens assemblyman and kingmaker Vito Lopez and one of Lopez’s proteges) as his part of the agreement. It is obvious now that every bishop in the United States, given the circumstances at hand, should have been militating vigorously to help a Child Victims Act pass into law.

In Archbishop Lori’s video address, he asks for forgiveness, but neglects to mention that in 2002, in Bridgeport, he sent three men credibly accused of sex crimes back into ministry…


In 2015, I sponsored my goddaughter/niece in the Sacrament of Confirmation. The bishop who leads the diocese of Wilmington, Delaware presided. After the mass, the niece and I shook his hand, and took a photo with him. Something about this bishop caused me to cringe, but I didn’t quite know quite what. Two years later I watched 2017 film The Keepers, and realized Bishop Francis Malooly — who denies the wrongdoing dramatized in the film — was the creepy prelate in our Confirmation photo! The Keepers’ depicts Malooly as having taken part in a Baltimore Diocese coverup of both serial child rape and the murder of Sister Catherine Cesnik, a nun engaged in investigating sex crimes committed against children by Baltimore priests known to her. The film has led the Baltimore police to investigate anew. Has the Vatican moved to further investigate Malooly? Does it matter to them? How committed is William Lori, the current Archbishop of Baltimore, to helping to crack this case? The current archbishop of the Archdiocese of Baltimore, William E. Lori, also recently responded to the Pennsylvania grand jury report. He is one of the relatively “clean” bishops. (This may explain why he was sent to clean up Edward Egan’s dirty Bridgeport.) In Lori’s video address, he asks for forgiveness, but neglects to mention that in 2002, in Bridgeport, he sent three men credibly accused of sex crimes back into ministry; this he did in the wake of a vigorous effort mounted by his predecessor’s legal team to conceal their identities and prevent their files from being obtained by lawyers for plaintiffs.

One interesting aspect of the Vatican response to the various investigations is the way relatively “clean” prelates like Lori and Dolan, who have a knack for fiscal management (“earners” as the racketeers in the Bronx and uptown Manhattan where I grew up would call them), are moved around the chess board like . . . bishops. Lori was sent to clean up Egan’s mess. Egan was sent to New York, as a reward, perhaps, for his silence and imperious defiance in the face of questioning, and Dolan was then sent to clean up the Archdiocese of Milwaukee. He did such a good job protecting (moving, concealing) Milwaukee money that the Vatican posted him in New York where there was a lot more money to move and to hide in order that it not be used for damages awards in child rape cases.



Disobeying one’s superiors and bringing scandal upon the Roman Catholic Church are, for many Catholics, sins more egregious than that of raping a child.


The Vatican has never been interested in policing itself. The reasons are complex, and discussion of these reasons goes beyond the scope of this commentary. It is helpful to point out however, the enduring concern for protecting “the church” from scandal is often at the root of this secrecy, as is a belief that the sacrament of Holy Orders changes a man in a deep essential way that renders him above secular law. Many of the men now in charge of cleaning up Catholic church child sex trafficking view themselves as being above secular law. They are beholden to supernatural law alone. Catholic doctrine holds that the church is eternal, supernatural, and, in a sense, changeless. Under this view of things, the obligation of the those who lead the Roman Catholic Church to shield it from scandal. The Catholic Church, they believe, offers a path to redemption. If the “Church Militant” (earthly church) falls, human souls lose access to the “Church Triumphant.” Heresy is seen as a mortal sin, because it is thought to suggest a lack of perfection in the Roman Catholic Church. The Roman Catholic Church must be perfect because it was instituted by Christ himself. Some of these lying bishops may actually believe that in remaining silent about child rape, they are choosing was the lesser of two evils. Disobeying one’s superiors and bringing scandal upon the Roman Catholic Church are, for many Catholics, sins more egregious than that of raping a child. Those who believe this are often reluctant to declare it publicly.



The Role the Theology plays

Roman Catholic/Christian theology accords the body special importance insofar as it is “the Word” is, through Christ, made flesh and the flesh Jesus is believed to have chosen to inhabit is human. The body is evanescent, and the body of a child is no exception. But the church is eternal. The Roman Catholic Church Militant makes eternal salvation possible, extends its opportunities for grace to all initiated human creatures. Without the institution of the church, the boys in that “circle of secrecy” who suffer in this life, whom clerics allegedly photographed nude on a cross for pornographic photos, lose eternal life. Further complicating this analysis is the enshrinement in Catholic theology of suffering and martyrdom, and clericalism itself.

“Superior General” is the formal title, for example, of the superior of the Jesuit order. Priests promise or vow, as part of their ordination rites, never to refuse their bishops or superiors. It is easy to see how this vow or promise to obey protects predators.


Furthermore, the way leadership works in the priesthood is highly defective. When men are ordained, they make promises or take vows of obedience to either their diocesan bishops (in the case of diocesan priests) or (for many who join orders) or the superiors of their orders. If you are thinking that “superior” sounds faintly militaristic, you are not wrong. “Superior General” is the formal title, for example, of the superior of the Jesuit order. Priests promise or vow, as part of their ordination rites, never to refuse their bishops or superiors. It is easy to see how this vow or promise to obey protects predators. If a bishop directs a priest under his charge not to report a crime against a child, that priest is obliged by his promise/vow of obedience to obey to refrain from reporting that misconduct. Bishops and superiors, in turn, must obey the Vatican — and the Vatican muscles everyone.


The sin against the child, though horrific, jeopardizes the existence of the child alone, but bringing scandal to the church jeopardizes the survival of the entire institutional church.


We saw how this worked in in 2012 when Maryknoll priest Roy Bourgeois was defrocked for refusing to recant his support for ordaining women. Pope Benedict XVI moved decisively and quickly to laicize (defrock) Bourgeois despite the fact that many of his brother priests petitioned the Vatican in his defense. I suspect that Bourgeois’s Maryknoll superior did not wish to defrock Bourgeois, but the Vatican, then led by Benedict XVI insisted. While the Vatican will judiciously wait decades to laicize a man who rapes a child, it acts immediately in the case of heretics because heresy poses a threat to the institutional church. The sin against the child, though horrific, jeopardizes the existence of the child alone, but bringing scandal to the church jeopardizes the survival of the entire institutional church. Father Bourgeois was defrocked for attending a woman’s ordination and refusing to publicly recant on his public support of women’s ordination. That’s heresy. Heresy imperils Mother Church.



The survival of the global Catholic Church will require the ordination of women. The current push to ordain more married men on a viri probati basis is a hedge against pressure to ordain women or allow women to become deacons.


Once a priest is ordained into the priesthood, his secrecy profile, so to speak, changes. We might compare it to security clearance. We all know about the extent to which priests are bound to maintain the seal of confession, but the secrecy involves more than what happens in confession. Seminarians enter a male-only club. They are strongly encouraged in their seminary formation to develop friendships with brother priests who understand the unique challenges and stresses of the life of a cleric, and a sense of fraternity, as one might expect, develops around this. Many priests live on call, and spend inordinate amounts of time around the sick, suffering, and dying. For those who do it right, it is not an easy job. All Catholic priests are required to be chaste. Most are not permitted to marry. (By the way, priests in orders take chastity vows. Priests who answer to a diocesan bishop do not. The promise of celibacy is a promise or vow not to marry. It is also useful to know that there have been married Roman Catholic priests since 1951. The current push to ordain more married men on a viri probati basis is a hedge against pressure to ordain women or allow women to become deacons.)

Having grown up around NYPD cops, I find the secrecy of among “brother priests” to be reminiscent of the “blue code of silence.”


The combination of obedience and secrecy yield a toxic, warping mix. The refusal to ordain women and the handling of the clergy sex scandal are related. If the Vatican were to honor women’s call to ordination, women priests would have to be complicit with the secrecy or break the silence. Having grown up around NYPD cops, I find the secrecy of among “brother priests” to be somewhat reminiscent of the “blue code of silence.” Most priests I count as friends would welcome women priests, but the fear that women will blab, push back against the hierarchical structure, be soft, apply moral ethics to the analysis of the evils at hand, challenge the Magisterium’s reproductive policies (on which the current hierarchy of the church literally banks) is what the institutional hierarchs most fear. Women can’t be trusted. Increasing the fold is everything. And we are, as Pope Francis says, “the strawberries on the cake.”

I say “No.” I do not believe women priests would have remained silent about the Vatican’s child sex trafficking.

Many people are unaware that the current pontiff’s is not only head of a church that refuses to ordain women; he has also reaffirmed his predecessor’s choice to prohibit formal discussion of ordaining women in Catholic educational settings, this while preaching regularly on the sins of bigotry and hipocristy. There’s no substantive, legitimate impediment to ordaining women. (See my Open Letter to Pope Francis.) It is a holdover — the vestiges of the patriarchy of of the Roman Empire and late antiquity. Would women clergy have allowed the crimes described in the Pennsylvania grand jury document to remain veiled in secrecy? We can never know. I say “No.” I do not believe women priests would have remained silent about the Vatican’s child sex trafficking.


Why continued homophobic scapegoating of gay priests will catalyze the decline of the education, caring male cleric capable of ministering in the Christ exemplified.

Some bishops and priests kept silent in an effort to keep lids on their own personal scandals. In 2002, shortly before the Milwaukee clergy sex scandal in that dioceses came to light, Timothy Dolan’s predecessor in Milwaukee, Rembert Weakland, paid $450,000 of diocese money to silence a man who had been his (consensual, adult) lover. It is hard to know whether or to what extent the fear of exposure led this particular bishop to shrink from acting decisively when priests in his diocese sexually assaulted children, but this example demonstrates how the potential for blackmail and fear of bringing scandal to the church connect. Over and over again, we see this dynamic play out in secular politics. (This potential for blackmail and his sexual sin was what got President Bill Clinton impeached.) Over and over we must ask: how many hungry people might that $450,000 have healed, fed, housed over the course of a year?

The traditional wing of the Catholic Church tries to pin the depravity on gay men. (Most of these charges, in my opinion, originate with closeted or ‘converted’/’former homosexuals.”) Some priests are chaste and many are not. Sexual activity among priests falls under two categories: consensual sex and harassment (“Me Too”). Some priests engage in consensual sex with adults; some don’t. Many a young seminarian has experienced the kind of treatment to which unctuous film and television executives subject young “actresses.” That is harassment. When a man engages in sexual conduct with a child, it is “rape.”

It is likely that many of these clerics who kept silent when they should have called law enforcement agencies did so out of fear of exposure, or in exchange for favors/support. (The smart investigator of the bishops’ culpability in sexual abuse cases will always pay close attention to who “consecrated” whom. Theodore McCarrick, for example, consecrated Nicholas DiMarzio.) A lapse in chastity, once it has been addressed, confessed, and absolved, is probably not, in the view of most Catholics, grounds for defrocking a priest, but for gay priests, this is more complicated, as the Magisterium still views LGBTQ people as “disordered.” It is still dangerous for even a chaste gay priest to come out. I suspect this will improve as people as a whole begin to evolve and catch up with what scientists and psychologists have long known about sexual attraction and sexual identity, but it is imperative, today, that gay priests not become the sacrificial lambs in whatever purge may be forthcoming. Some Catholic groups are now blaming the Vatican clergy sex crisis on gay men, but a gay man is no more likely to abuse a child than straight a man is. Most pedophiles identify as heterosexual.

Caligula Obelisk in Saint Peter’s Square, Vatican



What’s Next? The best Vatican Optics money can buy.

How will the Vatican proceed in the aftermath of the new report? I believe the Vatican will wait it out. Pope Francis will find it necessary to ask for a few resignations, pro forma. McCarrick and Wuerl will top the list. Lots of bishops will skate. and beyond that the Vatican will do what it always does: look for a sacrificial lamb or two, and then — radio silence. Look for the best Vatican Optics money can buy. Look for shiny objects that deflect attention away from the findings of the Grand Jury Report. report. Ireland just made abortion legal. Many Catholics construe this development as a collective thumbing of the nose aimed at the Vatican. Pro-lifers care a lot less for a baby once it passes through the birth canal, so notice the several ways in which Catholic reporting on Ireland eclipses the Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report. The pope will soon meet face-to-face with survivors of clergy sexual abuse. This is good Vatican Public Relations move.

The Caligula party is over, the emperor’s crew will call the washerwomen in to scrub the blood, semen, wine and fattened calf drippings from the floor.

Look for some pro forma, pro-woman lip service from the Vatican. Expect talk of “deaconesses” and female deacons (not the same thing). Catholic feminists will chase that carrot for a spell before the hype quiets down. Expect that the humility of Mary will be stressed, and her discipleship and apostolic nature downplayed as Catholics all over the world are reminded that that women can do all of the work of the church, possibly better than men can. If only they were not unfit for priesthood. Look for more “greater role for women” palaver. Expect many women, even “feminists,”to play along. Following the show of humility, the imperial Vatican will behave imperiously, as it always does in the wake of a scandal. Look for the “We are the Church of Rome” how of defiance. This show of force enables the hierarchy to announce that these investigations don’t really matter. The Catholic Church belongs to them; they do what they please.

Their organization is a multi-billion-dollar company housed in a sovereign state. They’re in charge.

I see story after story in news outlets today asking, “How could this happen?” I have been watching this crisis closely for more than fifteen years. I have been hearing from survivors for fifteen years. I was not at all surprised by Pope Francis’s choice to take part in Bernard Law’s Mass of Christian Burial, because I know that asking the bishops to address the clergy child rape crisis is like asking the fox to guard those chickens.



Can the temple be cleansed?

How would it look — if the Catholic hierarchy were to wake up tomorrow and decide to to address the problem in substantive, ethical ways?

· Any prelate who reassigned a pedophile would be removed.
· Any prelate who concealed records from law enforcement would be removed.
· Any prelate who aimed to smear or sue plaintiffs for slander would be removed.
· Any prelate who actively campaigned against bills that would expand statutes of limitation in order to report them, would be removed.
· Any prelate who moved money to insulate it from seizure would be removed.
· Any prelate who used information gathered in counseling sessions or via confessions to be used against clerical sex abuse plaintiffs would be removed.
· Any prelate who subjected any child to avoidable harm would be removed.
· Remaining prelates would turn over all records to the appropriate law enforcement agencies in their states.
· Dioceses would pay court/legal fees of plaintiffs who prevail in clergy sex abuse cases against clerics in their dioceses.
Meanwhile, Catholics! Dioceses tithe to the Vatican and all parishes to the dioceses in which they are located. Stop giving them your money.

Prelates’ resolutions to self-correct, at the present time should be ignored. The foxes are incapable of bringing justice to the hens. The Bishops will be whining, playing innocent, playing dumb and making the same promises a year from now, and Catholics will somehow, for some reason, continue to drop tender into the offertory basket on Sunday, even knowing that parishes kick back to their dioceses, and dioceses to the Vatican. Stop funding them. Continue to worship. Continue to give directly to organizations that help the needy without going through the church collections. Force the dirty U.S. bishops to resign, to be held accountable.

Time to cleanse the temple.

Michele Somerville, August 21, 2018
Provincetown, MA