Priests’ defamation suits are the latest wrinkle in sex-abuse fallout – NCR

Priests’ defamation suits are the latest wrinkle in sex-abuse fallout – NCR

As U.S. dioceses continue to pay out big settlements for lawsuits, the church is facing another nettlesome problem stemming from the abuse scandal: Priests who say they were falsely accused are suing for defamation.

In August 2018, shortly after a Pennsylvania grand jury report listed more than 300 priests in six dioceses in the state who had been credibly accused of abusing more than 1,000 minors since 1947, Nebraska Attorney General Doug Peterson asked the three dioceses in his state to turn over files on church personnel credibly accused of sexual abuse since 1978.

Archbishop George Lucas of Omaha complied with that request, and in November 2018, the Omaha Archdiocese published a list of the names of 58 priests and deacons who had faced “substantiated claims” of abuse in the archdiocese.

The fallout from that list reverberates today. One of the priests whose name was on it — Fr. Andrew Syring — is suing the Omaha Archdiocese for defamation, counted among those priests who say they have been unfairly swept up in the church’s effort to repair its reputation and put the crisis behind it.

Lyle Koenig, Syring’s lawyer, said his client’s defamation suit is one of 20 to 25 similar cases in the country. By comparison, 7,002 priests were “credibly” or “not implausibly” accused of abuse in the U.S. between 1950 and June 30, 2018, according to BishopAccountability.org, which cited published information from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Melanie Sakoda, survivor support coordinator for Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, or SNAP, noted that false allegations against priests are “relatively rare.”

“For a Catholic diocese to have accepted an allegation as ‘credible’ makes it, in my mind, even less likely that the accusation is false,” Sakoda said in an emailed comment.

“I think it would be incredibly unlikely that a priest would prevail in such a lawsuit, given that the diocese will have access to all of the records in the case,” she said.

Photo: The likeness of a priest is seen in this illustration. (CNS illustration/Tyler Orsburn)

In Nebraska, Syring, 43, is seeking $2.1 million in damages for defamation and denies the allegations made against him.

The cleric’s case dates back to 2014, when he served as an associate priest at Divine Mercy parish in his hometown of Schuyler, Nebraska. There, he was accused of inappropriate behavior that included “unwanted touching of young adults, publicly kissing and hugging minors on the cheeks and inappropriate conversations with young adults and teenagers,” according to the Omaha World-Herald. The allegations were reported to law enforcement, but no charges were filed, the World-Herald reported. Syring, at Lucas’ request, received months of counseling and therapy before being cleared to return to public ministry with the approval of the archdiocese’s lay review board, which serves as a consultant to the archbishop on abuse cases.

Syring was a resident in St. Bernard parish in Omaha in 2014, and was assigned to St. Wenceslaus parish in Omaha in 2015. He was transferred to St. Mary’s parish in West Point in the northeastern part of Nebraska in 2016.

He was immensely popular at St. Mary’s, according to parishioner CharissaSteffensmeier.

“The biggest thing is that he just drew so many people in and back to church; so many people said later that they started going back to Mass after he came,” Steffensmeier said, “because he is very relatable, very self-effacing, but mostly I would say what most people point to is his genuine love and reverence for the Eucharist. It would just shine through whether it was Mass, a homily, or a conversation. … He inspired an energy and an excitement about the church and about Mass.”

Photo: Archbishop George Lucas of Omaha, Nebraska, and other U.S. bishops from concelebrate Mass at the Basilica of St. Mary Major in Rome Jan. 14. The bishops were making their “ad limina” visits to the Vatican to report on the status of their dioceses to the pope and Vatican officials. (CNS/Paul Haring)

Then in October 2018, Syring suddenly vanished from St. Mary’s. On Oct. 30 of that year, Lucas asked Syring to resign. Koenig, Syring’s lawyer, said the priest agreed to step down because of the oath of loyalty to the archbishop that he had taken when he was ordained in 2011.

Steffensmeier points to events on Oct. 25, five days earlier, that prompted Lucas’ request for Syring to leave. On that evening, Lucas and Fr. Scott Hastings, vicar of clergy for the archdiocese, met with parishioners of St. Wenceslaus, who were upset by reports that revealed previous allegations of abuse against Fr. Francis Nigli, who had been an associate priest at the parish.

Nigli had been dismissed from the parish in June. He had been accused of sexual assault for groping and kissing a 21-year-old man at St. Wenceslaus in May, but parishioners were especially rankled because they discovered Nigli had faced similar allegations in 2013. No charges were filed, and Nigli received mental health treatment after the alleged incident in 2013.

At the time, Deacon Tim McNeil, chancellor for the archdiocese, told the World-Herald, that Syring’s resignation was the result of the archdiocese reexamining the priest’s history in light of calls from Catholics for greater transparency and higher standards for priests.

On Nov. 30, 2018, the archdiocese published the list of clergy in the archdiocese who had faced substantiated allegations of abuse. Lucas, in a letter published in The Voice, the archdiocese’s newspaper, said that no priest or deacon serving in the archdiocese at that time had been accused of abuse against a minor.

In December 2018, Lucas met with Steffensmeier and about 15 other parishioners. At the meeting, Steffensmeier said, Lucas explained that Syring had been dismissed for “boundary violations” and that the archdiocese was holding clergy to a “higher standard” for conduct.

But Syring’s civil suit, which was filed in August in Cuming County District Court, said the archdiocese had not changed its standards of conduct for clergy at the time it dismissed the priest.

Furthermore, Syring had always vehemently denied the original allegations, had obeyed the archbishop in undergoing therapy and had a clean record since returning to public ministry, Koenig, his lawyer, said.

In response to an interview request from NCR, McNeil, the Omaha Archdiocese chancellor, said the archdiocese won’t comment on a matter that is now being litigated.

Robert Flummerfelt, a canon lawyer from Las Vegas, said that under church law, if a priest is accused, the bishop must first conduct a preliminary investigation to see if the accusation is credible. During that investigation, the priest’s identity should be kept confidential but the investigation often becomes public knowledge, Flummerfelt said.

If a bishop determines the allegation is credible, he must refer the case to the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which will decide how the church should proceed.

A priest can appeal a bishop’s decision about dismissal to Rome, Flummerfelt said, but if the Vatican doesn’t overturn the bishop’s decree, the priest is out of options within the church.

What’s more, Flummerfelt said, when a priest is accused of sexual abuse, he often faces the burden of proving his innocence.

“The law is all are presumed innocent until proven guilty,” he said. “The practical situation, though, is that when someone brings forward an allegation and they appear credible, the effective presumption changes to, ‘Why would the person lie?’ So the priest is almost in a situation in which he has to prove his innocence, which is difficult.”

The veracity of allegations against a priest is also at issue in the case of Fr. Eduard Perrone in Detroit. The Detroit Archdiocese suspended Perrone from public ministry last year after it deemed that allegations that Perrone had groped a boy 40 years earlier contained a “semblance of truth,” the Detroit Free Press reported.

Last year, Perrone sued a detective in Macomb County whose report, he said, was the basis of the church’s decision to suspend him, the Free Press said. Perrone said the detective “fabricated” a rape claim against him.

In August, Perrone won $125,000 in a settlement with Macomb County, which said it settled to avoid the legal fees of a jury trial and a potentially big penalty if Perrone won.

In February, a group of 20 parishioners from Assumption Grotto Church in Detroit, where Perrone was the pastor, sued the Detroit Archdiocese for $20 million on the grounds that they have endured emotional suffering because of what they claim is an unjust suspension of their pastor.

Ned McGrath, a spokesman for the archdiocese, said that the archdiocese is seeking to dismiss the suit and that no trial date has been set, while the church investigation is now before the Vatican. He had told the Detroit Free Press that Perrone is presumed to be innocent while he is suspended.

Flummerfelt, the canon lawyer, said that dioceses face pressure to be tough in abuse cases.

“I think the dioceses are in a very difficult situation because they have an obligation to make sure that there’s zero tolerance of abuse of any sort against minors,” he said.

“A lot of clergy are put in a very difficult position of feeling alienated, ostracized during the process, and it’s a consequence of where we were as a society. The institutional church is trying to regain credibility on this issue, and so being strong and tough is seen as a way to do that. But for the individual priest, especially for the falsely accused, there could be circumstances where the reality of how he is treated is not how it should be.”

[Mark Nacinovich, a New York-based writer and editor, was formerly managing editor of the Brooklyn Tablet and has also written and edited for Catholic New York and the New York Post. He is a graduate of the University of Chicago.]

The audacious return of hope

The audacious return of hope

Like so many people last weekend, I was not prepared for the range and intensity of emotions I felt when the United States presidential election was finally called for President-elect Joe Biden. The historic significance of this election continues to settle in, with numerous and symbolic “firsts,” not the least of which is Vice President-elect Kamala Harris being the first woman — and first woman of colour — to be elected to the vice presidency of a country that only a century ago permitted women to vote and has, from its founding, oppressed and enslaved and erased generations of women of colour.

There is so much to celebrate, and many millions of people around the U.S. and beyond spontaneously took to the streets Nov. 7 to do just that. But I am also acutely aware of the deep rift of polarization that persists in our country, which has also infected our church and all other aspects of our communal life together.

While the vote count was not close nationally — as of this writing Biden is on a trajectory to win the popular vote by a margin near 5 million — our outmoded and historically problematic Electoral College system fuels a narrative of profound partisan divide, which results in key states having disproportionate significance and extraordinary tight margins at the local level that can decide the fate of the presidency. With increasingly divergent sources for information divided along pre-selected partisan lines, many people live and think in self-referential silos of opinion and spin.

After the joyful celebration that arose within me at the thought of not having an occupant of the White House whose narcissism, megalomania, ingratitude, mean-spiritedness, anti-intellectualism, racism, sexism and xenophobia (to name just a few) constantly threaten the health, safety and lives of millions of people, the sad reality of the state of our union returned to me like a ton of bricks.

Electing Biden and Harris is a significant starting point, but it is only the beginning of the work of healing a broken nation that has perhaps not seen such division since the end of the Civil War. And there is no immediate guarantee that healing is an assured outcome of the work ahead, but it is nevertheless a possibility, and for it I have hope.

Hope.

Hope is more than an erstwhile campaign slogan or a Pollyannaish embrace of naïve optimism. Hope in the Catholic tradition is a theological virtue that first refers to our human desire for God but also speaks generally of some good not yet present. As St. Thomas Aquinas explained in his Summa Theologica, “the object of hope is a future good, difficult but possible to obtain.”

As a virtue, hope stands as the mean between the two extremes of despair and presumption.

The former vice is what I, and many others, felt brushed up against during the last four years. I am reminded of the powerful and insightful 2017 essay by Ta-Nehisi Coates in The Atlantic, “The First White President: The Foundation of Donald Trump’s Presidency is the Negation of Barack Obama’s Legacy,” in which he precisely captures and contextualizes the zeitgeist of the nation before and during the last administration. Coates describes the deeply imbedded racism and fear that hibernated from sight in polite company, but that was unleashed by the perceived threat of a Black man winning and holding the highest office in the land — twice!

Despair, that giving up of faith in any possible change, is what I felt when I then witnessed an apparent groundswell supporting rhetoric of fear, hate and division in the candidacy and then one-term presidency of Donald Trump. Could anything really change?

The latter vice, presumption, is what the 2016 Clinton campaign seemed to project and, therefore, likely contributed to its defeat. It is also what the 2020 Trump campaign and its supporters seemed to have embraced about an assumed inevitable second term. Presumption is a false certainty, which relies only on oneself to the exclusion of God’s grace and support. It is a sort of self-serving fatalism, an approach to possibility that only registers inevitability.

I have been thinking a lot about hope these last few days because President-elect Biden has consistently and clearly spoken from the heart — a heart shaped by personal family loss and robust Catholic faith — about hope. While his framing has been inclusive and open, his understanding of hope has been undoubtedly shaped by it as a theological virtue — striving toward a future good, which is “difficult but possible to obtain.”

Biden has long acknowledged his love of the poetry of Seamus Heaney, the Irish Nobel Laureate, and often cites a well-known passage from the poet’s 1991 versified adaptation of Sophocles’ play, “Philoctetes,” titled The Cure of Tory. One of the stanzas regularly by Biden is:

“History says, Don’t hope
On this side of the grave,
But then, once in a lifetime
The longed-for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up,
And hope and history rhyme”.

Biden is no more a messiah than former President Barack Obama was before him, but both men — in stark contrast to the former’s predecessor and latter’s successor — are sincere, decent, generous people. The invocation of this Heaney stanza reflects that truth and points to a realism grounded in faith, both secular and Christian, that we can be better, we can support one another, we can love, and we can do all this with God’s help.

Neither Obama nor Biden are men of despair or presumption, but truly people of hope, which is what makes them such good leaders. The poetic beauty of Heaney’s austere verse is that hope can only ever rhyme with history, because hope is never the full realization of divine goodness in this life. But as Jesus Christ proclaimed throughout his earthly ministry, the reign of God that is this full realization is breaking into history here and now, the foretaste of the fullness to come, that is if we who dare to call ourselves Christian do our part. And what does our part look like? Feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the imprisoned, caring for the sick, welcoming the stranger, and so on (Matthew 25:35-36).

Jesus makes clear the truth of Heaney’s poetry, that the possibility of hope and history rhyming rests first in the rise of justice. And that requires a lot of work on our part.

Though the mountain of God’s justice we must climb together is steep, the restoration of the dignity to the office of the American president provides but one condition of the possibility to hope that progress toward justice, peace and the integrity of creation can advance. Hope is still an audacious enterprise in a nation and world so torn asunder, but its return is a welcome if recently unfamiliar feeling. And now is the time to put that hope to work again.

[Daniel P. Horan is the Duns Scotus Professor of Spirituality at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, where he teaches systematic theology and spirituality. His recent book is Catholicity and Emerging Personhood: A Contemporary Theological Anthropology. Follow him on twitter: @DanHoranOFM]

NEW SAINT EMERGES

NEW SAINT EMERGES

…To be beatified at the Papal Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi on Saturday, October 10

The tomb of #CarloAcutis was opened Saturday morning in Assisi after the Holy Mass officiated by the Bishop of the Diocese. The body of Carlo Acutis was found intact and incorruptible after 10 years of burial and has been put on public display for the glory of God!

For the first time in history you will see a saint dressed in jeans, sneakers and hoody. Holiness is not a distant thing but very much within everyone’s reach because the Lord is for everyone.

Carlo Acutis was an Italian Roman Catholic teenager. He was best known for documenting Eucharistic miracles around the world and cataloging them all onto a website that he himself created in the months before his death from leukemia.

Born: May 3, 1991 – Died: 12 October, 2006
Pope Francis declared him to be Venerable on 5 July 2018; the same pope approved a miracle attributed to him which enables Acutis to be beatified.

Acutis will be beatified at the Papal Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi on Saturday, October 10 at 4 P.M. Cardinal Giovanni Angelo Becciu, Prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, will preside.

Vatican’s Cardinal Becciu renounces the cardinalate in shocking move

Vatican’s Cardinal Becciu renounces the cardinalate in shocking move

by Joshua J. McElwee
Vatican

Editor’s note: This story was updated Sept. 25 to include details about Cardinal Angelo Becciu’s press conference following his resignation.

Vatican City — One of the highest-ranking cardinals in the Catholic Church resigned his Vatican post unexpectedly Sept. 24, with the city-state giving no explanation for the dismissal.

In a surprise bulletin late in Rome, the Vatican said Italian Cardinal Angelo Becciu had both left his position as head of office responsible for overseeing Catholic sainthood causes and renounced “the rights connected to the cardinalate.”
Photo: Cardinal Giovanni Angelo Becciu is pictured during a Mass marking the feast of Sts. Peter and Paul in St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican June 29, 2015. (CNS/Paul Haring)

The bulletin gave no further details, but it is extremely rare for a cardinal to make such a move. The last cardinal to so renounce the rights of the cardinalate was Scottish Cardinal Keith O’Brien, who had been accused of inappropriate sexual relationships with other men.

Becciu had been serving as the head of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints since August 2018. He had previously served in the Vatican’s Secretariat of State, in a role often described as akin to the pope’s chief of staff.

In that previous role, Becciu had been rumored to be connected to a controversial deal in which the Vatican invested in a development project in London.

Vatican police have been investigating the deal for months. In October 2019 they conducted a highly unusual raid of the Secretariat of State’s offices, collecting documents and electronic devices suspected to be connected to the deal.

The Vatican’s terse Sept. 24 statement said only that Pope Francis had accepted Becciu’s resignation from office and the rights of the cardinalate. It appears to indicate that Becciu remains a cardinal in title only, and would be unable to participate in any future conclaves.

The Vatican press office did not respond to a request for more information on the reasons behind Becciu’s resignations or for clarity on his status as a cardinal.

In a press conference Sept. 25, Becciu said he had resigned after a “surreal” meeting with Francis in the early evening of Sept. 24. Becciu said the pope had accused him of embezzlement, nepotism and financial malpractice.

The cardinal denied any wrongdoing, but said: “I will never betray the pope and am ready to give my life for him.”

Several Italian outlets reported Sept. 25 that Becciu had been accused of using Vatican funds while he was in his position at the Secretariat of State to support a Caritas project run by his brother in their home diocese on the Italian island of Sardinia.

Becciu told reporters that he had sent 100,000 euro ($116,000) to Caritas in the diocese of Ozieri, but that it was done to support projects helping those experiencing unemployment.

Becciu also acknowledged that the Italian bishops’ conference had previously sent 300,000 euro ($350,000) to support the same project.

“I was white in the face,” the cardinal said about his meeting with the pope. “Certainly it was not a good moment.”

Becciu said the pope had told him, ” ‘I no longer have trust in you.’ ”

Becciu has previously denied any allegations of impropriety in the London property deal, which has been described by Italian media as an opportunity to make a profit on upgrading office spaces into luxury apartments.

“An investment was made on a building,” the cardinal said in February. “It was a good and opportune occasion, which many people envy us for today.”

Becciu had previously been a Vatican diplomat, serving as the city-state’s ambassador to Angola under Pope John Paul II and as its ambassador to Cuba under Pope Benedict XVI. The future cardinal began serving in his role at the Vatican’s Secretariat of State, where he was Substitute for General Affairs, in 2011.

Francis named Becciu to the saints congregation in May 2018, and made him a cardinal in June 2018. In his role at the saints office, Becciu oversaw the canonizations of a number of prominent figures, including martyred Salvadoran Archbishop Óscar Romero.

[Joshua J. McElwee is NCR Vatican correspondent. His email address is jmcelwee@ncronline.org. Follow him on Twitter: @joshjmac.]

Vatican reaffirms opposition to euthanasia, warns such patients cannot receive sacraments

Vatican reaffirms opposition to euthanasia, warns such patients cannot receive sacraments

By Joshua J McEiwee
The Vatican is firmly reiterating its objection to the legalization of euthanasia and assisted suicide, calling the intentional killing of sick patients an “intrinsically evil act” akin to murder and warning that legislators who approve such laws “become accomplices of a grave sin.”

A new Sept. 22 document from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith likewise directs hospital chaplains and pastors that patients planning to end their lives cannot be granted access to the sacraments, including both confession and anointing of the sick.

The new text, titled “Samaritanus bonus: On the care of persons in the critical and terminal phases of life” and approved by Pope Francis June 25, also touches on a range of other sensitive medical care issues beyond euthanasia and assisted suicide and will likely be read closely by administrators of Catholic hospitals.

Although the text may not offer any surprises for those familiar with Catholic teaching on end of life issues, it appears notable for its firm language, especially regarding what actions Catholics can and cannot undertake.

In one example, the document bluntly warns Catholic hospitals that they must “abstain from plainly immoral conduct.”

“Any action that does not correspond to the purpose and values which inspire Catholic healthcare institutions is not morally acceptable and endangers the identification of the institution itself as ‘Catholic,’ ” the text states.

The document specifically forbids Catholic hospitals from making referrals for patients requesting euthanasia. “Such choices cannot be morally accepted or supported in their concrete realization, even if they are legally admissible,” it says.

Cardinal Luis Ladaria, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, speaks at a 2018 news conference at the Vatican. (CNS/Paul Haring)
Photo: Cardinal Luis Ladaria, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, speaks at a 2018 news conference at the Vatican. (CNS/Paul Haring)
Euthanasia or assisted suicide has recently been legalized in a number of European countries and in several U.S. states, usually with the intended aim of helping a terminally ill patient end their life when they are facing a situation of intense suffering.

Although several local bishops’ conferences have responded to such laws, the Vatican congregation says it felt compelled to write its own document “in order to provide precise and concrete pastoral guidelines to deal with these complex situations.”

Cardinal Luis Ladaria, the head of the Vatican congregation, said at a press conference presenting the text that a new document “seemed necessary and opportune” because of the way governments are becoming “more permissive” about euthaniasia.

Beyond the act of euthanasia itself, the text criticizes use of previously written legal orders such as do-not-resuscitate orders, saying that they can be misused and can prevent doctors from pursuing life-saving treatments.

“These protocols cause serious problems regarding the duty to protect the life of patients in the most critical stages of sickness,” it states.

The document also calls for legislators in jurisdictions that have legalized euthanasia to allow medical professionals to exercise conscientious objection to such laws.

“Governments must acknowledge the right to conscientious objection in the medical and healthcare field, where the principles of the natural moral law are involved and especially where in the service to life the voice of conscience is daily invoked,” it states.

The Vatican document spans about 17 pages. Beyond euthanasia, the text also covers Catholic teaching on withdrawing nutrition from patients in a vegetative state, on when patients can choose not to pursue so-called “aggressive treatments,” and on care for terminally ill infants.

On care for those in a vegetative state, the document says such patients have “the right to nutrition and hydration, even administered by artificial methods.”

It also acknowledges, however, that “in some cases, such measures can become disproportionate, because their administration is ineffective, or involves procedures that create an excessive burden with negative results that exceed any benefits to the patient.”

In terms of whether patients should be encouraged to pursue so-called “aggressive treatments” to prolong their lives, text states: “It is lawful according to science and conscience to renounce treatments that provide only a precarious or painful extension of life.”

“It is not lawful to suspend treatments that are required to maintain essential physiological functions, as long as the body can benefit from them,” the text continues, naming treatments such as: “hydration, nutrition, thermoregulation, proportionate respiratory support, and the other types of assistance needed to maintain bodily homeostasis and manage systemic and organic pain.”

[Joshua J. McElwee is NCR Vatican correspondent. His email address is jmcelwee@ncronline.org. Follow him on Twitter: @joshjmac.]

Pope says gossiping is a ‘worse plague’ than coronavirus

Pope says gossiping is a ‘worse plague’ than coronavirus

Pope Francis urged the faithful on Sunday to steer clear of gossip, calling it worse than the coronavirus and saying it could be used to divide the Roman Catholic Church.

“Please, brothers and sisters, let’s make an effort not to gossip. Gossiping is a worse plague than COVID,” the pope said during his weekly address from a window above St. Peter’s Square.

“The devil is the great gossip. He is always saying bad things about others because he is the liar who tries to split the Church,” Francis added in the off-the-cuff comments.

The pope has regularly warned of the risks of gossiping and has also railed against Internet trolls.

“If something goes wrong, offer silence and prayer for the brother or sister who make a mistake, but never gossip,” he said on Sunday.

(Reporting by Crispian Balmer; Editing by Frances Kerry)