Signs of the Times

Austrian Seminary Closed Where Porn Was Found

In consultation with the Vatican and the local bishop, a Vatican-appointed investigator has announced the closing of the seminary in the Diocese of Sankt Pölten effective immediately.

Bishop Klaus Küng of Feldkirch, Austria, whom Pope John Paul II appointed to investigate the diocese and its seminary, where thousands of pornographic photographs had been found on computers, made the announcement on Aug. 12.


The bishop, in a statement published on the Sankt Pölten Web site, said several of the seminarians were healthy, holy, committed men who would be assisted in finding a new place to continue their studies for the priesthood. Unfortunately, the bishop said, serious erroneous trends were found among many of the seminarians. He cited in particular the practice of viewing and downloading pornography from the Internet and the development of active homosexual relations among members of the seminary community.

Without directly criticizing Sankt Pölten’s Bishop Kurt Krenn, Bishop Küng said, "Over the past years, too little attention was paid to the necessary criteria for accepting candidates for the priesthood." "The more pressing the lack of priests," Bishop Küng said, "the more balanced, more sincere and more virtuous must be those chosen to become priests."

In late July, Pope John Paul appointed Bishop Küng to make an apostolic visitation of the seminary and the diocese. The appointment came after a student was arrested on charges relating to child pornography and after an Austrian magazine published photographs police had found on the seminary computers. The student pleaded guilty on Aug. 13 to downloading child pornography and was given a six-month suspended sentence.

The seminary rector and vice rector resigned after the photos were published showing staff members and seminarians kissing and fondling each other. Bishop Krenn initially downplayed the seriousness of the photos, saying they were part of a boyish prank during a Christmas party.

After Bishop Küng was appointed, Cardinal Christoph Schönborn of Vienna, president of the Austrian bishops’ conference, said the conference and the nuncio to Austria had warned for months that Bishop Krenn was dangerously ignoring the rules of recruitment by admitting students to the Sankt Pölten seminary without investigating why they had been rejected elsewhere. Bishop Küng said all past and future candidates for the priesthood in the Sankt Pölten Diocese would undergo pastoral and psychological counseling, for their own good and the good of the church.

Archbishop Testifies at Bankruptcy Hearing

Archbishop John G. Vlazny of Portland, Ore., testified on Aug. 6 before a federal bankruptcy court, saying it was ultimately his decision, not the Vatican’s, to file for Chapter 11 federal bankruptcy protection for the archdiocese, a first for any Catholic diocese. During the four-hour bankruptcy hearing, attorneys for those who have claims against the Archdiocese of Portland sought possible Vatican liability. The archbishop, while allowing that he must comply with certain church laws, said that talks with the Vatican before the filing were appropriate, satisfactory and within the law, but that, in the end, it becomes my decision to file for Chapter 11.

Archbishop Vlazny explained that the bankruptcy was seen as a way to satisfy all plaintiffs in sexual abuse cases, not just a few, and to allow the church to continue its mission. I thought it was a way of bringing everyone around the table and seeing what we could do, he told the court.

The key issue of whether land, buildings and savings that belong to parishes and schools are part of what creditors can claim is expected to be decided by the court in the coming months. But appeals could make the process drag on, perhaps for years.

Despite objections by the archdiocese, U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Elizabeth Perris set a date for the claimants’ attorney to file motions on the relationship of parish property to the archdiocesan property. If she sides fully with plaintiffs on the issue, it would set an estimated $500 million as the amount to be parceled out, more than 25 times the assets the archdiocese now reports.

Thomas Stilley, an attorney for the archdiocese, had put forward a plan to negotiate settlements for current and future lawsuits before tackling the thorny issue of property ownership. The issue might have been moot, Stilley said, had his plan been accepted.

Perris’s move surprised David Skeel, a bankruptcy expert and a professor at the University of Pennsylvania Law School. I had predicted that the judge would probably postpone ruling on the property issue, and would have waited to see if it looks likes the parties were able to work out settlements, Skeel told The Catholic Sentinel, Portland’s archdiocesan newspaper. That way she wouldn’t have to rule on a tricky and sensitive issue, he added. The fact that there may be a ruling on the property issue is very interesting and important.

In July, the archdiocese filed papers claiming about $19 million in assets, saying that canon law holds that parish and school assets belong to the parishes and schools, not the archdiocese. Money from parishes and schools deposited with the archdiocese is held in trust, according to church attorneys. Trust law, not church-state relations, as some media reported, may well be at the center of the bankruptcy case.

Plaintiffs claiming sexual abuse have so far sued for a total of $307 million. Another 41 cases do not yet have specific dollar amounts, and 20 lawsuits have yet to be filed.

On Aug. 5, the national leader of a group for victims of sexual abuse by priests visited Portland and asked Catholics not to regard sexual abuse victims as enemies of the church. We are the sons and daughters of Catholic families, who have been raped and sexually assaulted by priests of the Catholic Church, and we are seeking healing, said Barbara Blaine, president of Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests.

After a visit to the archdiocese’s pastoral center, Blaine said she was hopeful about relations between victims and church leaders. In a press conference in front of the archdiocese’s pastoral center, local leaders of the group said they know Archbishop Vlazny is committed to victims and urged even more outreach to them.

More Bishops Weigh In on Communion Debate

Catholic politicians or candidates who support keeping abortion legal have been barred from receiving Communion in any Catholic church in the Archdiocese of Atlanta and in the dioceses of Charleston, S.C., and Charlotte, N.C. In a joint letter dated Aug. 4, Archbishop John F. Donoghue of Atlanta and Bishops Robert J. Baker of Charleston and Peter J. Jugis of Charlotte said the ban can be lifted only after the politician’s public disavowal of former support for procured abortion and with the knowledge and consent of the local bishop.

But in North Carolina’s other Catholic diocese, Bishop F. Joseph Gossman of Raleigh is taking a different approach to the question of church sanctions against those who want to keep abortion legal. "The church’s longstanding practice is not to make a public judgment about the state of the soul of those who present themselves for holy Communion," Bishop Gossman said in a statement on July 8. In Georgia’s other Catholic diocese, Bishop J. Kevin Boland of Savannah did not sign the joint letter. His spokeswoman, Barbara King, said that the bishop told her that he has decided to take another approach and he’s still studying the matter.

Cardinal Says Pope Seriously Weakened

Concelebrating Mass with Pope John Paul II in Lourdes, France, on Aug. 15, Belgian Cardinal Godfried Danneels saw up close what millions saw on television: The pope’s health has seriously weakened. Pope John Paul’s difficulty kneeling at the Shrine of Our Lady of Lourdes on Aug. 14 and in reading his homily at Mass the next day appeared even more serious, given the various interpretations of a phrase spoken by the pope at the Lourdes grotto. The Vatican’s English translation of the pope’s remarks before the evening rosary said, Kneeling here, before the grotto of Massabieille, I feel deeply that I have reached the goal of my pilgrimage. Rather than goal or the Italian translation’s equivalent, meta, the French text used le terme, the end.

Cardinal Danneels, archbishop of Mechelen and Brussels, told a Belgian newspaper on Aug. 16 that by saying he had reached the end of his pilgrimage, the pope could have meant two things, his farewell to Lourdes or maybe to his life. The cardinal later clarified, saying he did not believe the pope was on the verge of death, but that the pope realized the end is approaching.

Trial-and-Error Helps Diocesan Review Boards

Diocesan review boards, mandated by the 2002 Charter for the Protection of Children, have been learning from their experience over the last two years. It’s the trial-and-error process, said Judge Michael Talbot of the Michigan Court of Appeals. Talbot is chairman of the Detroit archdiocesan review board, which investigates cases of sexual abuse by members of the Catholic clergy and recommends actions to Detroit’s Cardinal Adam J. Maida. We have no model to work with, said the judge. Even dioceses that already had formed a similar board years before had to modify them to conform to charter provisions.

Judge Talbot was one of about 20 members of review boards from around the country who attended a meeting in Washington, D.C., organized this spring by the bishops’ Office of Child and Youth Protection. The goal was to learn from the example of others and find some consistency, said Talbot. We are at a maturity we didn’t have before.

The meeting allowed board members to judge what are the best practices being used and what options are available to improve performance, he said. One possible result is the developing of resource materials to be sent to review boards, he said.

John Rapp, chairman of the Diocese of Rockford, Ill., review board and a retired Illinois Appellate Court judge, said he has noted differences in the way diocesan review boards examine cases. Some diocesan boards operate almost as a trial court, calling witnesses, he said. The Rockford board, on the other hand, has a trained investigator do all the interviewing, with the information going to the review board, said Rapp. Talbot said that in Detroit the review board gives the accused and the accuser the opportunity to address the board, but it is not a requirement.

Several review board members said a major problem is the surfacing of cases that are decades old involving priests who have died or left the diocese years earlier without leaving a trace. Rapp refers to these as dead cases but still sees a role for the review board in these situations because it can recommend services the diocese can provide to the accuser.

Several review boards have started publishing reports on their activities in keeping with charter provisions asking dioceses to provide public information about how the sexual abuse situation is being handled. The charter asks dioceses to develop a communications policy that reflects a commitment to transparency and openness while respecting the privacy of the individuals involved in the cases.

Making a public report sounds good. It gives an air of openness, said Susan Massopust, chairwoman of the review board in the Diocese of Rapid City, S.D., and a registered nurse. She added that the Rapid City board plans to issue a report annually.

In Detroit, the public report was issued in February in the form of a letter from the board to Cardinal Adam Maida. The idea is transparency, to be as forthcoming as we can while respecting confidentiality, and to give confidence to the people in the pew, said Talbot. The two-and-a-half-page letter noted that board recommendations resulted in seven priests being placed on administrative leave, with further church legal action possible.

It also praised the Michigan bishops for successfully lobbying for a state law requiring clergy to report to state authorities any suspected child abuse learned outside of the sacrament of penance. We urge all victims to come forward. They will be heard, said the letter.

Vatican Ready to Mediate U.S.-Iraqi Standoff in Najaf

The Vatican said it was ready to help mediate a solution to a standoff between U.S. troops and Shiite militants in the holy city of Najaf in Iraq. Italian media reported that the request for the Vatican’s help in negotiating an end to the standoff in Najaf came from al-Sadr’s spokesman, Awas al-Khafayl. The Vatican’s former foreign affairs minister, Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, told the Italian daily La Repubblica that the request for mediation is a sign of the prestige and great moral authority the Islamic world attributes to Pope John Paul.

News Briefs

In the U.S. bishops’ annual Labor Day statement, Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick of Washington, D.C. urged U.S. leaders to look at trade policies from the bottom uphow they touch the lives of the poorest families and most vulnerable workers in our own country and around the world.

The chairman of the U.S. bishops’ international policy committee said there was no question that the killings in the Darfur region of Sudan represented ethnic cleansing. After meeting with displaced persons in Darfur during a visit to Sudan on Aug. 1-5, Bishop John H. Ricard of Pensacola-Tallahassee, Fla., said that the Sudanese government is engaged in a policy to Arabize and Islamize the population.

The scene was quite horrific at the Gatumba refugee camp, where some 160 ethnic Tutsi were massacred, said Archbishop Paul Gallagher, papal nuncio to Burundi. Hutu rebels, apparently assisted by Hutu from Congo and Rwanda, entered the U.N. refugee camp late at night on Aug. 13, burned the tents while people were sleeping, shot some of the victims and hacked others to death.

Bringing Turkey into the European Union would put European culture at risk, said a top Vatican official. Europe is a cultural and not a geographical continent, said Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, head of the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

As terrorist threats persist and intensify, the Catholic Church must reassert a commitment to nuclear disarmament and to using war as a last resort, said the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Bishop Wilton D. Gregory of Belleville, Ill., said commitment should have content beyond slogans, and he called on Catholic policymakers and public leaders to make the work of peace a fundamental imperative of their individual vocations. The bishop made his remarks in a statement released on Aug. 6, the anniversary of the U.S. atomic bombing of Hiroshima, Japan, in 1945.

Robert F. Drinan, S.J., a professor at Georgetown University Law Center and a former member of Congress, received the American Bar Association’s 2004 A.B.A. Medal, the association’s highest honor, on Aug. 9 at the organization’s annual meeting in Atlanta.

Two suspended priests of the Diocese of Tucson have been involuntarily laicized by the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, with the approval of Pope John Paul II. Bishop Gerald F. Kicanas of Tucson announced in a letter on Aug. 5 to Catholics in his diocese that Robert Trupia and Michael Teta, both 56, had been dismissed from the clerical state following credible allegations of sexual misconduct with minors.

Pro-life leaders must continue to do what they can to transform a culture of death into a culture of life, Cardinal William H. Keeler of Baltimore, Md., told a group of pro-life directors from around the country. More than 100 diocesan and state pro-life leaders gathered in St. Louis, Mo., on Aug. 5-7 to share their ideas, network and talk about their accomplishments and challenges within the pro-life movement.

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