Responsibility. Accountability. Transparency. Those are the themes of the working days scheduled for the meeting on child protection, which opens tomorrow in the Vatican. Organizers and participants of the meeting have a long row to hoe before they can begin to convince anyone they are serious about any one of those three themes, which are not conversation-starters for shop sessions, but prerequisites for morally competent leadership of any organization of any size or scope, and basic requirements those who are ruled make — in justice — of their rulers.
Everyone you talk to has a theory — often a variation on a theme — regarding what’s wrong, who’s to blame, and how to fix it, but there are two points on which there is broad and deep agreement among Church-watchers across the spectrum of Catholic opinion: this crisis of leadership is the worst the Church has seen in at least five hundred years; Church leadership at the highest levels still is not close to serious about dealing with the crisis.
Responsibility and accountability sound easy, but really aren’t. There needs to be lots of hard work to get those two right — and there are going to be missteps along the way. Transparency, on the other hand, is a no-brainer. At least, it ought to be — and it ought to be the starting point: insisting on transparency is the first, the absolute, the condicio sine qua non of sincerity. Practicing transparency — especially when it hurts — is always the best and most powerful driver of cultural reform within institutions.
There was plenty of talk about transparency at the Holy See Press Office on Monday, during the press conference presenting the meeting, but it took two journalists — the National Catholic Reporter’s Joshua McElwee, and this writer — repeated questions to extract any sort of statement from interim Press Office Director Alessandro Gisotti regarding the status of Msgr. Joseph Punderson, a priest of the Diocese of Trenton and a long-serving official at the Apostolic Signatura, which is the highest ordinary tribunal in the Church’s judicial system.
NCR’s question at the presser on Monday was, in essence, whether the Vatican can expect to speak credibly in the fight against abuse, if it is unwilling to be responsible, accountable, and transparent when it comes to its own precincts and personnel. Msgr. Punderson was the case-in-point.
Trenton listed Msgr. Punderson as “removed from ministry” last week, owing to a credible abuse allegation against him, but offered no information at that time about the exact nature of the allegation, or regarding when the alleged abuse took place. La Croix International — which broke the Punderson story last Friday — quoted a priest of the Trenton diocese, Fr. John Bambrick, as saying he’d heard from an alleged victim of Punderson some fifteen years ago.
“I knew [Punderson] to be an abuser,” Fr. Bambrick told La Croix. “I have always known he was an abuser, but he was powerful and had a great deal of influence here and in Rome. He had many friends in our curia and the pope’s curia,” Bambrick also said.
On Monday, February 18th, the Vatican didn’t want to say whether Msgr. Punderson has resigned, or was fired, or placed on leave pending an investigation. Under pressure, Gisotti offered, “Msgr. Punderson is not at the Tribunal of the Signatura in this moment,” and directed journalists to the Diocese of Trenton.
On Wednesday, Feb. 20th, the Catholic News Service reported that Punderson had been deemed credibly accused in 2003, of abuse that allegedly occurred 26 years earlier. Trenton’s Director of Communications, Rayanne Bennett, issued a statement saying, “The allegation was also reported to the Holy See, and Msgr. Punderson submitted his resignation in 2004.” The statement continued, “The Holy See, however, permitted him to continue in office but under specific restrictions regarding public acts of ministry initially imposed by the Diocese of Trenton in 2003.”
Bennett’s statement also says it was Msgr. Punderson’s bishop, who ordered him to resign from the Apostolic Signatura in the Fall of 2018.
The timeline of the case suggests that three Popes and as many as four Prefects of the Apostolic Signatura had oversight of Msgr. Punderson after the Vatican was informed of the allegations against him: Cardinals Agostino Vallini, Raymond Burke, Dominique Mamberti, and possibly Cardinal Mario Francesco Pompedda, who resigned in late May of 2004.
Cardinal Burke and Msgr. Punderson served together in junior positions at the Signatura: Burke was Defender of the Bond when Punderson came to the Tribunal in 1993 as a deputy Promoter of Justice.
It is still not clear who knew what, or when they came to know it. Other high-ranking Churchmen have served for years under secret restrictions, more or less officially imposed and spottily enforced. The case of Theodore McCarrick is one.
The better analogy, however, may be that of Bishop Alexander Salazar, auxiliary of Los Angeles, on whom the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith imposed secret restrictions sometime after Los Angeles reported an allegation against him in 2005. Salazar served as many as thirteen years under those restrictions — until last December, when Pope Francis accepted his resignation.
The Press Office of the Holy See announced Bishop Salazar’s resignation, but gave no reason for it. The Archdiocese of Los Angeles revealed the circumstances of the case in separate statements.
Also at the Monday presser, in answer to a question from CNN, Archbishop Charles Scicluna — adjunct secretary to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and a principal organizer of the child protection meeting — spoke of the need to escape and condemn the cultural and institutional structures that foster opacity and favor coverup.
CNN’s Delia Gallagher asked a question regarding the hypothesis that some clerics’ illicit behavior — Cardinals’ and bishops’ as well as priests’ — might make them unwilling to denounce one another, and that such relationships in the hierarchy might enable coverup.
Archbishop Scicluna said, “[T]he fact that we’re going to insist on transparency is not something that’s — you know — it’s deliberate. Because, a system that ensures coverup is a no-go. We have to move forward from that, and condemn it, and condemn it without any hesitation.”
Gallagher had put her question first to Cardinal Cupich, who responded, “You were right in saying it’s a hypothesis, and hypotheses have to be proven — and I think that is something that has to remain at that level — of hypothesis.” In the meeting opening Thursday at the Vatican, transparency is last on the list.
Interested readers can find the program of the meeting at www.pbc2019.org.
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