Red Hat Report founders vow to investigate and ‘score’ cardinals but deny policy agenda

Pope Francis creates new cardinals during a consistory in St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican on June 28. (CNS photo/Paul Haring) Pope Francis creates new cardinals during a consistory in St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican on June 28. (CNS photo/Paul Haring) 

In the wake of revelations that a powerful American cardinal rose through the church ranks despite allegations of sexual misconduct, and ongoing accusations of past sexual abuse by clergy against children, a group of Catholics wants to raise more than one million dollars to investigate cardinals and publish their findings.

Calling itself Better Church Governance, the group plans to enlist the help of former F.B.I. agents to investigate the cardinals who will vote for the next pope and assess how they handled allegations of sexual abuse and whether they have remained faithful to their own vows.

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“We hope to separate the wheat of credible accusation from the chaff of rumor or calumny through objective and dispassionate inquiry,” Michael Foley, a professor of patristic theology at Baylor University, told America in an email interview.

“We hope to separate the wheat of credible accusation from the chaff of rumor or calumny through objective and dispassionate inquiry.”

Mr. Foley identified himself as an editor for the group, which was first reported on by Crux earlier this week. The group held a preliminary meeting on the campus of the Catholic University of America on Sept. 30, though both the university and representatives from the group say there is no affiliation with the university.

According to a flier advertising the meeting, published on Monday by the National Catholic Reporter, the group’s “flagship project” is called the Red Hat Report, which will research each cardinal elector, including “their responses to abuse, their patronage and financial ties, and theological and pastoral priorities.” The group plans to “score” each cardinal in order to promote “a clear understanding of their record of governance and fidelity,” and then publish the reports before the next papal conclave.

On its flier, the group said that it is “not a faction of a lobbyist group” but is “motivated by our sense of duty and love for the Church and want to offer our professional skills in support of our priests and leaders.”

But the initial reporting by Crux, which obtained an audio recording of the meeting, suggests that some church politics may be at play. Members of the group were critical of Pope Francis and his deputy, Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin, who is seen as a possible successor to Francis.

Better Church Governance will use investigators, journalists and researchers to compile the dossiers on each voting cardinal and will distribute the information online. A representative from the group said that the investigations will be managed by Philip Scala, a former F.B.I. investigator.

A letter shared with America from the new group’s executive director, Philip Nielsen, takes issue with early reports about the group’s genesis and goals.

Mr. Nielsen wrote that his organization has “a very long way to go to reach our million dollar goal which will be required to properly investigate every cardinal elector in the college” and refuted claims in the Crux article that wealthy Catholic political conservatives and libertarians were instrumental in founding the group.

Better Church Governance will use investigators, journalists and researchers to compile the dossiers on each voting cardinal and will distribute the information online.

Melinda Nielsen, a professor of classical literature at Baylor University and Philip Nielsen’s wife, wrote in an email that the group has received no financial support from Timothy Busch, the politically conservative co-founder of the Napa Institute who is reported to have played a role in helping to publish allegations against Pope Francis made by a former papal diplomat. Mr. Busch, who has deep connections to the Catholic University of America, has denied that he was involved in crafting the letter from Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò that accuses the pope of covering up sexual misconduct charges against a former cardinal.

Ms. Nielsen added that the group, as of Oct. 1, “had no significant donors.” She declined to elaborate on who has contributed to the project.

“The truth is that our project could not have had more humble beginnings, as I personally conceived of this project as a concerned [layman] in response to the most recent round of scandals,” Philip Nielsen wrote. “The tremendous momentum our project has gained comes from the fact that many others have sympathized with this vision from the outset. It is not due to outside funding.”

Some Catholics questioned if the new group aimed to influence a papal conclave, which could be a violation of canon law.

Mr. Nielsen wrote in his letter that while some of his early ideas included influencing the election of a pope, the group no longer seeks that as a goal. He wrote, “our purpose is to highlight those few cardinals credibly linked to corruption and abuse.”

Ever since allegations surfaced earlier this summer that former cardinal Theodore McCarrick harassed and assaulted seminarians, some Catholics have sought to paint the abuse crisis as a homosexual issue, despite pushback from high-ranking church leaders.

One of Better Church Governance’s two full-time staff members, Jacob Imam, reportedly said in response to a question during the Sept. 30 presentation at Catholic University, “If there is a rumor of [a cardinal] being homosexual, it will be noted very carefully…but we need to be sure.”

“If there is a rumor of [a cardinal] being homosexual, it will be noted very carefully…but we need to be sure.”

Mr. Imam said in an interview with America that the group seeks to highlight if bishops covered up for abusive priests or if they engaged in sexual misconduct themselves. He said sexual orientation is not a motivating factor when it comes to reporting on cardinals and bishops, but that charges a bishop broke his vows would be included in the reports, which will be made public online.

“There are many dark corners in the church and we must shed light upon them so that we can help the laity be vigilant,” said Mr. Imam. “Once sins are identified, hopefully people can repent.”

Mr. Foley said he agreed to join Better Church Governance in part because of “the clear conviction among its founders that this would not be a witch hunt of any kind.”

“If you examine the questions we are investigating in our mission statement, you will see that sexual behavior is not listed among them,” Mr. Foley wrote in his email to America. “That said, if there are credible reports of a bishop, for example, having a mistress and illegitimate children, this information has bearing on his ‘job performance’ and is relevant to our concerns; at the very least, such a lifestyle will likely warp that man’s moral judgment and render him susceptible to blackmail and manipulation.”

He added, “And no, we will certainly not ‘out’ a priest or bishop just for having same sex attraction; that would be reprehensible. Our investigation is limited to activities and decisions that gravely compromise the faithful exercise of a person’s ordained ministry and inflict harm on the innocent.”

In his letter, Mr. Nielsen echoed those comments.

“Mr. Imam did not say we would search out cardinals with ‘homosexual tendencies’ or cardinals with ‘homosexually sympathetic teachings.’ He simply noted that if our investigators discovered an avowedly celibate bishop or cardinal engaged in homosexual acts, we would note this in our report,” Mr. Nielsen wrote. “We would also, just as obviously, note it if the same avowedly celibate bishop were engaged in any heterosexual acts.”

“We would also, just as obviously, note it if the same avowedly celibate bishop were engaged in any heterosexual acts.”

There have been a number of lay responses to revelations of clergy sexual abuse. In the early 2000s, a number of lay-led groups were founded following revelations that church leaders had covered up for decades.

Some, such as Voice of the Faithful, wanted the church to change its teaching to so that laypeople and women were included in decision-making processes. Others, such as the National Leadership Roundtable on Church Management, sought to implement best managerial practices into existing church structures. The group BishopAccountability.org began publishing documents and news articles about how bishops handled abuse allegations, and other reform-minded groups, including Call to Action and the victims-advocacy group Survivors Network for those Abused by Priests, or SNAP, received new attention following the first wave of scandals.

Some Catholic leaders at the time viewed those groups with skepticism, fearful they would use the abuse crisis to push for reforms such as women priests, lay voting for bishops and more lay control in parishes.

Following the latest wave of allegations, which includes a nearly 900-page grand jury report chronicling decades of abuse by priests in Pennsylvania, a number of lay-led groups have organized—though this time they appear to include individuals both supportive of Pope Francis and those who are opposed to many of his reforms.

In June, a group based in the United States called Ending Clergy Abuse: Global Justice Project launched in Seattle. Life Site News unveiled a project called Faithful Shepherds that collects data on U.S. bishops, “especially those who deviate from the Church’s magisterium.”

“We are not trying to change the structure of the hierarchy; rather, we are promoting the sanctity and reliability of its members.”

Mr. Foley offered praise for BishopAccountability.org, but he said Better Church Governance will differ because it will conduct its own investigations.

The group, he wrote, is “not limiting our inquiry to sexual abuse or its coverup; we are concerned about all forms of grave clerical corruption.

”We simply want to bring grave corruption into the light of day so that the responsible Church authorities can do something about it,” he added. “We are not trying to change the structure of the hierarchy; rather, we are promoting the sanctity and reliability of its members.”

Reaction to the concept of Better Church Governance, which plans to release more information about its goals and members later this month, has been mixed.

Cathleen Kaveny, a professor who teaches in the law school and theology department at Boston College, said when it comes to the lay response to the sex abuse crisis, she would like to see "nonpartisan groups looking more at structures of accountability and transparency."

“I think there are two competing narratives about the cause of the crisis and what to do about it,” she said. “The conservative position says the problem is gays in the priesthood and the liberal position says that clericalism is the problem.”

She said she would support a Catholic version of a truth and reconciliation process, but added she is wary of lay initiatives that would investigate cardinals and bishops before a specific allegation is levied.

“If there's a charge, it should be investigated, but not a general investigation,” she said. “It’s like a witch hunt.”

“We are glad to see Catholics trying new and creative ways of addressing the problem of clergy sexual abuse,” SNAP Tweeted on Monday, adding the hashtag #EnoughIsEnough.

But Daniel Horan, O.F.M., a popular writer and speaker, took a more dim view.

“This is some sick, underhanded, slanderous stuff in the works,” Father Horan tweeted. “When has self-appointed vigilante ideologues going after their perceived political targets ever been a good idea?”

Bill McCormick, S.J., writing at The Jesuit Post, said the existence of a group like Better Church Governance is not surprising given the low level of trust Catholics have in their leaders today.

“With citizens worldwide ambivalent about political and social institutions, it was perhaps only a matter of time before lay people would take it upon themselves to investigate the scandals independent of ecclesial structures,” he wrote.

“Moreover, it is not surprising that this Better Church Governance Group has emerged in America,” Mr. McCormick added. “The United States has become both a flashpoint for many intra-ecclesial conflicts and a deep reservoir of suspicion toward power. Now those dynamics are intersecting in ways that deeply challenge the life of the Church.”

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Ernie Sherretta
5 months 3 weeks ago

Why not change the structure? It's the catalyst for such behavior and abuse. Read George Wilson's Book: Clericalism The Death of Priesthood. The "fraternity" of clerics is a haven for secrecy, power, and competition. "An argument started among the disciples as to which of them would be the greatest." Lk 9:46 The hierarchy mimics the Roman system of government with the emperor (Pope) and senators (Cardinals). Really, would Jesus endorse this structure? these titles? these robes? Criticizing the Pharisees, he said: "Everything they do is for show. On their arms they wear extra wide prayer boxes with Scripture verses inside, and they wear robes with extra long tassels". Mt 23:5 Catholicism is now losing its credibility and relevance as people learn about Jesus from many sources outside the traditional Church. We must return to the simplicity and inclusion of Jesus and the early Church. We are all anointed priest, prophet, and king at baptism but only men are able to participate in the ministry of priest. Patriarchy is wrong because it instills prerogative and unchallenged authority. "And seating himself, he made the twelve come to him; and he said to them, If any
man has the desire to be first, he will be last of all and servant of all." Mk 9:35 No more needs to said.

Antoinette Carbone
5 months 3 weeks ago

You are correct about the clerics losing their way. I joined the voice of the faithful when it started, stayed for one year. I left when they started on other goals, women in the priesthood, etc. drifting away from the sexual abuse by the clergy issue. I want reform. I want another St. Francis, another St. Catherine of Siena. Their lifestyle changed the church. Action within can change the structure . We can change the structure. We can put pressure on our diocese to open up to lay participation in the many sections of the diocese. We are not out to destroy but to change as Jesus sought to change what was going on in the temple.

Nora Bolcon
5 months 3 weeks ago

Antoinette both I and Ernie want women priests. There is nothing in the entire New Testament stating women should not lead in the church or be priests. Nothing! so why are you so sexist minded? I and many women have been called to ordained priesthood, and it is very hurtful your just kind of writing your own Sisters in Christ off!

Antoinette Carbone
5 months 3 weeks ago

You are correct about the clerics losing their way. I joined the voice of the faithful when it started, stayed for one year. I left when they started on other goals, women in the priesthood, etc. drifting away from the sexual abuse by the clergy issue. I want reform. I want another St. Francis, another St. Catherine of Siena. Their lifestyle changed the church. Action within can change the structure . We can change the structure. We can put pressure on our diocese to open up to lay participation in the many sections of the diocese. We are not out to destroy but to change as Jesus sought to change what was going on in the temple.

Antoinette Carbone
5 months 3 weeks ago

You are correct about the clerics losing their way. I joined the voice of the faithful when it started, stayed for one year. I left when they started on other goals, women in the priesthood, etc. drifting away from the sexual abuse by the clergy issue. I want reform. I want another St. Francis, another St. Catherine of Siena. Their lifestyle changed the church. Action within can change the structure . We can change the structure. We can put pressure on our diocese to open up to lay participation in the many sections of the diocese. We are not out to destroy but to change as Jesus sought to change what was going on in the temple.

Antoinette Carbone
5 months 3 weeks ago

You are correct about the clerics losing their way. I joined the voice of the faithful when it started, stayed for one year. I left when they started on other goals, women in the priesthood, etc. drifting away from the sexual abuse by the clergy issue. I want reform. I want another St. Francis, another St. Catherine of Siena. Their lifestyle changed the church. Action within can change the structure . We can change the structure. We can put pressure on our diocese to open up to lay participation in the many sections of the diocese. We are not out to destroy but to change as Jesus sought to change what was going on in the temple.

Nora Bolcon
5 months 3 weeks ago

So True Ernie - Even this change group seems more afraid of the most obvious cure to our problems - changed laws on hierarchy structure. So what help are they?

I love how these groups pretend to care about the kids above all else. Bull! Sexism, especially sexism in religion, has been directly linked to pedophilia, and was a strong reason for the amount of abuse in our church crisis, yet this is what we see below:

"Some Catholic leaders at the time viewed those groups with skepticism, fearful they would use the abuse crisis to push for reforms such as women priests, lay voting for bishops and more lay control in parishes."

"”We simply want to bring grave corruption into the light of day so that the responsible Church authorities can do something about it,” he added. “We are not trying to change the structure of the hierarchy; rather, we are promoting the sanctity and reliability of its members.”

Translation won't actually be pushing for justice for women and other actual cures to the pedophilia crisis and many other of our problems.

FYI - Supposed Better Church Governance and actual Red Hat Church Leaders -There is no link or evidence that either homosexuality or celibacy causes child abuse of any variety.

However, there is absolute certainty that an all male leadership in religion does cause pedophilia and other corruption in our church.
This is true for several reasons:

1 Because women abuse at half the rate men do, including married men, this alone would have lowered our rate if we had women bishops and priests all along.

2. Women are also more likely to point out abusive behavior against both children and women than men are, especially if they are at the same authority level as the abusing males.

3. Male abusers tend to use their state of higher respect or admiration from women to "groom" the families of their victims, and to gain access in order to attack their children. This was often the case in our church crisis, as many predatory priests sought to become more intimate friends with recently divorced and widowed women or single women with mental disabilities who had children still living with them. They used their priestly aura and reputation of spiritual potency to enchant these vulnerable often lonely women which gained them intimate access to their vulnerable children.

4. Also, if we had priests who were male and female,and married, we would have no vocation crisis, and would have ample candidates for priesthood and therefor be able to deny more of the questionable priestly candidates the church ordained out of desperation.

Add up all of these elements and we see we needed and still need women ordained priests and immediately and we need women bishops too and cardinals. Obviously, if we had this already we would have had a far more just priesthood and one that discriminates based on character, talent and apparent passion for Christ and his Church, instead basing acceptance of priestly candidates on what kind of chest does the candidate have? bumpy or smooth?

We would also likely have had a much better set of bishops, and a far more just church overall if the people were allowed to vote which priests in their diocese that they wanted to represent them as a bishops. Also , bishops would feel the need to care more about what the laity wants in liturgy, social justice matters, and political activism if they know they must be voted in.

Sounds like This Governance Group is just a bunch of conservative laity, with money, who want to push in more conservative cardinals and popes - NO Thanks - That would be like adding acid on top of the gaping open wound we are already suffering. I am done with conservatives and many of these abusive priests and bishops were ultra conservative so no thanks. You will get no money from me.

James M.
5 months 3 weeks ago

This whole thing is an atrocious idea. As for this:

“Better Church Governance will use investigators, journalists and researchers to compile the dossiers on each voting cardinal and will distribute the information online. A representative from the group said that the investigations will be managed by Philip Scala, a former F.B.I. investigator.”

- putting it online is blatant interference with the Church’s independence & sovereignty, and with her right to govern her own affairs freely, without coercion or undue influence from any other parties. No power on Earth, of any kind - not even the USA - has any right whatsoever to interfere with the Church’s freedom to rule, govern, propagate or reform herself.

MICHAEL GRIFFIN
5 months 3 weeks ago

The apparent lack of an effective organizational ability for priests, bishops or cardinals to be held accountable, as evidenced by the massive number of scandals that have occurred (some brought to light only by investigative journalism or by public investigators), created the conditions for the creation of this Red Hat group. In a way, the Church's incapacity and lack of forthright action has brought this vigilante group into existence. I don’t know if their agenda is to attack Pope Francis or not (hope not), but maybe the Church bureaucracy needs something like this at this time. Personally, I am suspicious of the motivations of a wealthy group of people who may try to move the Church back to pre Vatican 2. I guess we will find out.

Vincent Gaglione
5 months 3 weeks ago

The idea smells…and not of incense! The players smell….and not of beeswax candles.

The reports purport to be some kind of witness for the Faith. Rather, they will be more outrageous scandal, the obverse of the kind of logic that Bishops used to cover up predator clergy.

I tend not to prefer judgmental and condemnatory reactions by the Church, often which result in unintended consequences to the well-being of Church life. In this instance I lean to excommunication of any persons who pretend to substitute their wisdom for that of the leaders of the Church.

Molly Roach
5 months 3 weeks ago

There is no evidence that the Cardinals and bishops are willing to be accountable for protecting clerical sexual predators in the Church. Until they are prepared to be accountable this kind of investigating is only to be expected.

Jeffrey More
5 months 3 weeks ago

This is beautiful. Someone needs to investigate these whited sepulchres, and we certainly can't trust them to do it themselves.

Michael Ward
5 months 3 weeks ago

This is what happens when you don't do your job. Other people step in and do necessary things, like it or not. Vacuums get filled. If you're lucky you get to keep your job. That';s how it works in the real world as compared to say...inside the church bureaucracy. Want "lay empowerment"...there it is. Oy Veh. The people who wear various shades of red hats have no one but themselves to blame for this being foisted on us. Just add it to the list to all the things that we are grateful to them for these days.

Allison Quinn
5 months 3 weeks ago

All the liberals want “FBI investigations”, but are complaining about investigating Cardinals? I can assure everyone that deep Vatican state sodoclericalism is more diabolical than anything a Jesuit prep grad did.

first time
5 months 3 weeks ago

Richard Lamoureux
Tell me why not let Red Hat do their investigation? It may bring many problems with the whole system to the fore-front.

All of that stated however, if credible information is provided, where the Pope is in fact associated with any of this secrecy; lets hope not, then what course of action do we have available. NONE. The only way the Chair of Peter can be vacated is if the Pope resigns; & not under any type of duress; otherwise he will remain until the Good Lord calls him.

The second point I would like to address, which does have a bearing on this is the "Alta Vendita" & "The Community Party Infiltration of the Catholic Church" which I believe predate nineteen sixty, could, if properly validated, be part of the problem. I believe there was also an article on Patheos which stated something like 7,000 priest don't really believe what they preach. Where did that come from.

Thusly, as I have stated previously, none of this can be solved by human hands; it's going to take Heavenly Intervention. Lets hope its not the Lord of the Old Testament. Thanks for listening.

A Fielder
5 months 3 weeks ago

This so-called Better Church Governance group is not about governance at all. Their plan involves waiting for cardinals to make terrible mistakes so that they can go in and point fingers at the appearantly guilty parties. I agree with Kaveny, we should be focused on accountability and transparency to help create a culture that will prevent misdeeds before they occur, and to encourage honesty and integrity at all levels of the church. Lay people should be partners with our ordained leaders, not private investigators lying in wait.

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