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.
“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.”