Thursday, December 13, 2018

Down Under, The Verdict Is In... Just Don't Tell The Locals

In a word, it is epochal – for the first time anywhere, a civil court has found a cardinal guilty of sexual abuse.

Capping an 18-month process that predated the wider church's re-immersion in the scandals, the conviction of Cardinal George Pell – reportedly rendered on Tuesday in the Australian state of Victoria – represents the pinnacle of a thread that's marked this fresh round of the crisis across the globe: an emboldened secular effort to enforce accountability where the church's own response is perceived as having failed.

Yet even as the full effect of that reckoning is just beginning to emerge, it'd be difficult at best for any subsequent process to land a more high-profile or ranking target than the 77 year-old brawler who Pope Francis recruited as the Vatican's first-ever "CFO," armed with a broad mandate to clean up the Holy See's famously-troubled books.

First reported by the US-based Daily Beast on Tuesday, then echoed by a host of other outlets, reporting the story has been exponentially complicated by a "suppression order" issued in June by the court, which has banned all media coverage of Pell's months-long trial within Australia, and subjecting local outlets to legal penalties – including imprisonment – should they violate it. Nonetheless, a Whispers op close to Pell confirmed the guilty verdict early Wednesday, while the precise details of the charges remain difficult to fully ascertain.

Arguably the most polarizing figure in Australian public life over the last three decades, even Pell's most embittered critics at home did not expect a conviction, in particular due to the caliber of the cardinal's "celebrity lawyer," described by a source as Down Under's "Johnnie Cochran." (For younger folks, Cochran was the attorney who secured OJ Simpson's 1995 acquittal on the murder of his ex-wife.)

In light of the ban – which the Australian press has addressed in very oblique terms – Melbourne's Herald Sun ran the following on the front page of its Thursday editions....

Before the court-ordered halt to what became a daily press scrum (and with the details of the charges already restricted during the pre-trial hearings), it was understood that the cardinal was to face two separate trials for "historical sexual offenses" alleged in discrete periods, with one set of charges from the 1970s – when Pell was a priest overseeing Catholic education in his native Ballarat – and another from the 1990s, by which time he had become archbishop of Melbourne, Australia's largest local church. However, the specifics of the charges that came to trial remain unclear as several counts were dismissed on lack of evidence during the preliminary hearing, the bulk of which took place in sessions closed to the media and public.

The trial on the second round of charges is slated for March.

An emblematic voice of the aggressive orthodoxy that came in vogue over the last two pontificates, Pell was named archbishop of Sydney (the Oz church's most prominent post) in 2001, and given the country's sole red hat in 2003. As previously relayed, an abuse allegation against the then-archbishop had surfaced in 2002, which saw Pell publicly step aside on his own volition as a retired judge conducted a diocesan investigation that quickly found the report as lacking credibility.

Regardless, the prior claim was used by the cardinal's Roman enemies to block Benedict XVI's intent to name Pell as prefect of the Congregation for Bishops in 2010 – a turn of events that ostensibly burnished his reputation with Francis, who quickly recruited the onetime Aussie Rules footballer known for being a "bull in a china shop" to assemble a new Secretariat for the Economy: a move intended to consolidate all the Vatican's financial and personnel operations under one roof (as opposed to the seven Curial "silos" across which they were spread).

Even before taking on the daunting reorganization – and finally landing the Roman post that he was widely believed to have coveted for decades – within a month of his 2013 election, Francis named Pell to the new kitchen cabinet of cardinal-advisers that became known as the "C-9." In a separate development from the court case, the group's latest meeting this week ended with Wednesday's announcement that, in late October, the Pope wrote to Pell and another scandal-tarred member – the Chilean Cardinal Francisco Javier Errazuriz Ossa – "to thank them for the work they have done in these five years," indicating their respective ousters from the council, whose principal role is to advise Francis on his impending reform of the Roman Curia.

Notably, while Errazuriz said in November that he had met with Francis and had left the "C-9," his statement wasn't made to sound as if the Pope had taken the initiative on the move – and, until now, no mention whatsoever has been made of Pell's removal alongside the Chilean's. Yet amid both the fallout of the court proceedings and the more general sense that Pell had excessively roiled the Vatican waters in seeking to assert his office's dominance – a bureaucratic turf-war that ended up dealing several high-profile setbacks to the Economy arm – it has long been expected that the Australian would not be returning to Rome whatever the trial's outcome, all the more as Pell is 30 months past the retirement age of 75.

At yesterday's standard wrap-up briefing on the latest "C-9" talks – the group's 27th meeting since its creation – the Vatican spokesman Greg Burke cited the Holy See's "respect" for the court order in declining any further comment on Pell's status.

All that said, though the cardinal plans to appeal, it bears recalling that from the time the Australian charges were leveled on him in June 2017, Pell has never been placed under any kind of canonical suspension or penalty, instead stating that he would voluntarily withdraw from public ministry and his Vatican role, yet continuing to wear his collar throughout the court process.

Under the precedent established earlier this year in the case of now-Archbishop Theodore McCarrick – whose two allegations of abusing minors remain to be judged in a Vatican tribunal – a civilly convicted Pell would initially forfeit his place in the College of Cardinals, and a subsequent canonical trial could result in the deprivation of his office as a bishop or outright dismissal from the clerical state. On another front, the cardinal's replacement at the helm of the Economy office has been delayed to avoid the appearance of prejudicing the civil proceedings.

With the Australian church still reeling from last year's release of the damning findings of a years-long national inquest on the church's response to abuse, the Pell verdict comes atop a successful appeal by now-retired Archbishop Philip Wilson of Adelaide, whose July conviction on failing to report an allegation in the 1970s was overturned last week by a higher court. As the 68 year-old prelate was pressured to resign his southern archdiocese in the wake of his first trial – at which time he was sentenced to a year of house arrest – though Wilson could theoretically be restored to the post (his successor has yet to be named), the archbishop's disclosure of his diagnosis with Alzheimer's disease in the run-up to the trial would ostensibly preclude his return to office.

While the suppression order was slated to last until Pell's second trial and sentencing next year, emergency arguments on the widespread flouting of the media ban outside Australia will be held on Friday. In a preliminary court session this morning on the conviction's emergence, the prospect of five years' imprisonment for journalists who violate the order was floated by a state prosecutor, as well as the draconian possibility of extradition for overseas media who've run the story. (Indeed, it's worth noting that the Aussie reporter cited as the "pinup boy" for shirking a court ban on covering a sealed trial was jailed for publishing about a 1980s proceedings against an abusive priest.)

In the end, however, transparency isn't just a necessary value in any civilized democracy – these days, it's of infinitely more critical import for this church. Accordingly, while a state court in Australia has its rightful jurisdiction – which its citizens have little choice but to heed – it doesn't supersede the First Amendment guarantee of the freedom of the press for an American news-outlet any more than an Iranian clerical court's rulings could determine the practice of religious freedom in these States.

And if that means this scribe won't be booking a trip to Sydney Harbour anytime soon, well, so be it.


Sunday, December 09, 2018

For Advent II, A Word of "Comfort"

Don't know about you, folks, but Advent is zipping by on this end – and with this year's calendar, by midweek it'll already be half over.

This scribe's been hoping to catch a breather as these days allow, if only events would make room for it... and, well, there'll be more of that this week. Still, as January's currently expected to bring the all-important appointment to Washington, while February will be headlined by the even more critical Vatican abuse summit and its run-up, it's as good a time as any to keep in mind that, as levels of news-import go, not every day is "Christmas" – but even if it's coming, there's prep needed for all that, to boot.

Anyways, with an eye to some "good news" on this Second Sunday, given the traditional focus of this weekend's readings on the prophecy of the Anointed, lest anyone can use it to reflect – or just play in the background while working on cards, lists and the like – here's Handel's Messiah in full (libretto text) for your Advent enrichment....

To one and all, every grace of these days, above all their peace and light... and here's hoping the next two weeks don't roll by too quickly.


Wednesday, December 05, 2018

While most folks these days still (gratefully) know what happened in 1776, odds are you'd be lucky to find a similar understanding of 1787... let alone the year when the Constitution – and the concept of a church in full on these shores – became reality.

On April 30, 1789, atop the staircase that looms over Wall Street into today, George Washington first uttered the 35 words from Article II, Section 1 which, enforcing the mandate of the people, "ordained" him as President of the United States.

As this Wednesday brings a secular All Souls' Day of an extraordinary degree in this National Day of Mourning and state funeral for the 41st President, we turn to the other great American "high priest" raised to his office in that year – John Carroll, the elected mission superior of the early nation (and its 13 priests), who was named the founding bishop of the US church six months after Washington's oath.

A cousin of the lone Catholic to sign the Declaration of Independence – his elder brother a Framer of the Constitution – Carroll first delivered the following Prayer for the Nation in August 1791.

Usually run here on major civic holidays, on this day of tribute, it's even more fitting....
We pray, Thee O Almighty and Eternal God! Who through Jesus Christ hast revealed Thy glory to all nations, to preserve the works of Thy mercy, that Thy Church, being spread through the whole world, may continue with unchanging faith in the confession of Thy Name.

We pray Thee, who alone art good and holy, to endow with heavenly knowledge, sincere zeal, and sanctity of life, our chief bishop, Pope Francis, the Vicar of Our Lord Jesus Christ, in the government of his Church; our own bishop, N., all other bishops, prelates, and pastors of the Church; and especially those who are appointed to exercise amongst us the functions of the holy ministry, and conduct Thy people into the ways of salvation.

We pray Thee O God of might, wisdom, and justice! Through whom authority is rightly administered, laws are enacted, and judgment decreed, assist with Thy Holy Spirit of counsel and fortitude the President of these United States, that his administration may be conducted in righteousness, and be eminently useful to Thy people over whom he presides; by encouraging due respect for virtue and religion; by a faithful execution of the laws in justice and mercy; and by restraining vice and immorality. Let the light of Thy divine wisdom direct the deliberations of Congress, and shine forth in all the proceedings and laws framed for our rule and government, so that they may tend to the preservation of peace, the promotion of national happiness, the increase of industry, sobriety, and useful knowledge; and may perpetuate to us the blessing of equal liberty.

We pray for his[/her] excellency, the governor of this state, for the members of the assembly, for all judges, magistrates, and other officers who are appointed to guard our political welfare, that they may be enabled, by Thy powerful protection, to discharge the duties of their respective stations with honesty and ability.

We recommend likewise, to Thy unbounded mercy, all our brethren and fellow citizens throughout the United States, that they may be blessed in the knowledge and sanctified in the observance of Thy most holy law; that they may be preserved in union, and in that peace which the world cannot give; and after enjoying the blessings of this life, be admitted to those which are eternal.

Finally, we pray to Thee, O Lord of mercy, to remember the souls of Thy servants departed who are gone before us with the sign of faith and repose in the sleep of peace; the souls of our parents, relatives, and friends; of those who, when living, were members of this congregation, and particularly of such as are lately deceased; of all benefactors who, by their donations or legacies to this Church, witnessed their zeal for the decency of divine worship and proved their claim to our grateful and charitable remembrance. 
To these, O Lord, and to all that rest in Christ, grant, we beseech Thee, a place of refreshment, light, and everlasting peace, through the same Jesus Christ, Our Lord and Savior. Amen.

Monday, December 03, 2018

On 41's Passing, Recalling "Bush's Bishop"

Given the tide of mourning over Friday's death at 94 of George H.W. Bush, when it comes to this beat, one piece of the 41st President's legacy bears particular note, all the more as its impact extends into the present.

At its core, next year marks the 35th anniversary of the establishment of full relations between the Holy See and the US. Though the bilateral ties are easily taken for granted today, if anything – fraught as it was with anti-Catholic prejudice and conspiracy theories – the path to Washington's diplomatic recognition of the Pope took almost a century to accomplish, and were it not for Bush, odds are the wait would've stretched even longer.

In a way, that owed itself to a quirk of history... well, one among others.

In 1974, six years before the Texas bureaucrat's election as Ronald Reagan's Vice President, the Federal government finally got around to giving its #2 an official residence: a house on the grounds of the Naval Observatory, located along the Massachusetts Avenue heart of "Embassy Row." Yet as it happened, the move would be an unwitting boon for the Vatican – since 1939, the Holy See's base of operations in the States, then known as the Apostolic Delegation, was located right across the street.

At the time, the state of affairs meant that, in the absence of formal relations, the Apostolic Delegates – in place since 1893 – were the Pope's emissary solely to the US church, with no status before the government. (On the flip-side, after President Franklin D. Roosevelt proved unable to establish full relations due to lingering suspicion toward the church from Protestant senators, the late 1930s saw FDR institute a "personal representative" of the President to the Holy See, who served as an ambassador in all but name.) Yet by the time the Bushes arrived at the VP's house, their presence joined other sea-changes on the global front in giving the century-old impasse the momentum to shift.

Despite the absence of full diplomatic ties, the early 1980s already saw a tightening of American and Vatican interests. In 1978, the election of John Paul II brought to Peter's Chair a figure whose deep personal experience with the States was without precedent for a Pope, an attribute born from multiple extended visits, and just as much through a network of Polish-American contacts who quietly funneled sizable aid for their homeland's suffering church and its resistance to the Communist regime in large part through the cardinal-archbishop of Krakow.

In that light, per custom at the change of pontificates, the new Pope made the Washington posting a key early target of his geopolitical strategy, naming Archbishop Pio Laghi – whose prior assignments in the Holy Land and Argentina made him a heavyweight of the Vatican's foreign service – as his Delegate to the US within days of Reagan's election. And while the courtly Italian, whose patrician bearing masked his simple upbringing, would openly execute one revolution – stacking the American hierarchy with prelates who reflected a bolstered sense of Catholic identity – a second, stealth effort would fuse Pope and President in a multi-front campaign to dismantle the Iron Curtain, a push in which Reagan's deputy would play a linchpin role long before Bush's own administration presided over its formal demise.

Having moved into their respective sides of Mass Av at the same time in early 1981, in typical Bush form, the Vice President's bond with Laghi was forged on the tennis court. Both in their mid-50s, the new neighbors were longtime avid players – and as Maureen Dowd's appreciation of Bush in today's New York Times put it, just as "H.W. used sports as a way to do personal diplomacy," in the Pope's Delegate, the high-church Episcopalian had met his match. (With Bush as Vice President, the duo are seen above in an undated photo aboard Air Force Two – Laghi at far left – along with Barbara Bush and one of the archbishop's key US appointees, Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston.)

Given Bush's own strong-suit in foreign policy, burnished by stints as ambassador to China and the United Nations, the dynamic between the Vice President and Apostolic Delegate made for a symbiotic fit, so much so that Laghi would come to be seen as "a close family friend." And with the church's on-the-ground presence across the Communist bloc – not to mention Latin America, another "hothouse" of the time – providing key intelligence networks for the US to tap into, the synergy of personal ties and shared priorities arguably made for the halcyon period of the Rome-Washington axis, which finally secured the establishment of full bilateral relations in 1984, granting Laghi ambassadorial status as Pro-Nuncio. (At the time, the Holy See's practice was to reserve the title "Nuncio" solely to the Catholic countries where, by law, its representative was ex officio dean of the diplomatic corps; the distinction was abolished in the late 1990s.)

Having remained in the post through his friend's election to the Presidency and the fall of the Berlin Wall – while internally overseeing a sweeping recast of the Stateside bench in John Paul's image and likeness – Laghi was recalled to Rome in 1990 as prefect of the Congregation for Catholic Education and made a cardinal months later.

Since his departure, no occupant of the Washington posting has approached his length of tenure in it.

Almost always seen as the most influential Vatican legate the US has known in its era as a hegemonic superpower, Laghi's decade in the capital still endures as a point of reference, and the man himself was discreetly sought out for high-level American efforts or advice in Rome practically until his own passing in 2009.

In the best-known of those moments, as the White House push for a second war in Iraq gathered steam in early 2003, the former Pro-Nuncio was tapped by John Paul as his personal emissary to President George W. Bush, tasked with returning to Washington to convey the Pope's intense opposition to the campaign.

While the choice of messenger indicated the most concerted engagement for peace that the Vatican could make, of course, the mission (carried out during 40-minute Oval Office talks with "43") proved futile. Upon departing the capital, the cardinal "realized that the Bush administration was very naïve about the consequences of war" – a sense that would only be revealed after his death.

Though all but a handful of Laghi's appointees are long gone from office, several of the young local aides from his US posting were subsequently named to the bench and remain atop the American hierarchy: a group led by the sitting cardinal-archbishops of New York and Chicago, two of the nation's three largest dioceses.

Of all the "Laghini," however, the DC aide invariably described as the most beloved was Msgr Bernie Yarrish, a son of Scranton whose own elevation was precluded by a two-decade battle with multiple sclerosis. At 67, Yarrish died of the disease in June, with Tim Dolan – who brought his onetime Nunciature-mate to Rome as his Vice-Rector at the North American College (Yarrish's final major assignment) – leading the sendoff at the fallen cleric's boyhood parish.

Laghi's fifth successor at 3339 Massachusetts, the current Nuncio to the US, Archbishop Christophe Pierre, will be the Holy See's representative at Wednesday's state funeral for Bush in Washington National Cathedral – sitting not with the delegations of ecumenical clergy, but the diplomatic corps.

In keeping with the procedures on the death of a former President, President Trump has declared Wednesday as a national day of mourning; among other entities, the Federal government will be closed in tribute, as will the financial markets, and mail delivery will be suspended.

On another protocol note, church institutions with flagpoles are advised that the US flag is to be flown at half-staff until sunset on New Year's Eve – 30 days from 41's passing. However, where applicable, the custom does not extend to the Vatican flag – as it represents a sovereign entity, the Holy See's banner is lowered solely upon the death of the Roman pontiff through the subsequent Novemdiales, the nine-day mourning period that precedes a Conclave.


Thursday, November 29, 2018

In "Land of Enchantment," A Double Hit

As if Wednesday's descent on Houston Chancery by the civil authorities wasn't enough on its own, only later did it emerge that, at the very same time, things were likewise brewing across the other side of Texas.

While the 12-hour search of the headquarters of the US' sixth-largest diocese – which, it's since become known, involved Federal agents alongside state Rangers and county-level law enforcement – dominated the headlines, reports from New Mexico subsequently brought word of a similar warrant served on the archdiocese of Santa Fe amid a previously announced statewide probe, one of the 15 currently underway across the country.

According to the local New Mexican, the seizure of files was ordered by state Attorney General Hector Balderas due to "a disagreement over a layer of confidentiality that covers certain documents investigators are seeking," which the AG claimed would inhibit the investigation were the records to remain sealed. In addition, the prosecutor alleged that church officials had missed his deadline to voluntarily provide the documents.

Fresh from that development, however, this afternoon saw a second shoe drop for the 330,000-member church, as Archbishop John Wester announced the archdiocese's intention to file for Chapter 11 reorganization, citing a combination of "diminished resources" and the expectation of more litigation ahead.

With its plan set to be formalized next week, Santa Fe becomes the 17th US diocese to declare bankruptcy upon a wave of abuse suits – a figure that now brings the proportion of the nation's local churches which've taken that step to just under 10 percent. Yet far more significantly, the New Mexico process would be the first diocesan Chapter 11 case to occur alongside a full civil inquest of abuse and its cover-up, both proceedings likely to wend on for years.

At a press conference following today's emergency meeting of his presbyterate, Wester said that the archdiocese faced 35 open lawsuits – five of them brought in recent weeks once the bankruptcy decision had been made, according to local reports.

On a broader front, meanwhile, the double-whammy of the raid and a reorganization is but the latest rough turn for one of the US' most tormented venues over the long history of the abuse crisis; a diocese that's undergone a full quarter-century of tumult, beginning from the 1993 resignation of Archbishop Robert Sanchez upon revelations of the prelate's misconduct with three teenage girls.

One of two senior US prelates forced from office over a sex scandal in the early 1990s, the fall of Sanchez – who, two decades earlier, made history on becoming the nation's first Latino archbishop – simultaneously unearthed the first lawsuits alleging Santa Fe's history of negligence in overseeing abusive priests: a steady stream of cases that, over decades, was estimated to number into the dozens. (In the wake of August's Pennsylvania grand-jury report, the Albuquerque Journal found that another 60 suits were filed against the archdiocese between 2010 and 2015 alone.)

As previously noted, the confluence of the rapid spread of civil investigations and a new cycle of legal claims – the latter aided by emboldened calls for state-level "window" legislation that would suspend the statute of limitations on filing suits – all portend another long, costly slog for the US church: one that, by its end, could exact an even bigger financial toll than the crisis' first nationwide outbreak in 2002.

With the majority of the nation's state legislatures set to convene for new sessions in January, the ongoing wake of the landmark Pennsylvania report – and a political environment that's only recently seen "taking on the church" become palatable or, indeed, even desirable across the partisan divide – is likely to bring another round of scandal-related civil proposals to enforce accountability and/or liability all across the map.

Though most diocesan bankruptcy filings have ended up with smaller settlement amounts than had Chapter 11 not been filed, the largest such deal by far was reached earlier this year – the $210 million June payout from the archdiocese of St Paul and Minneapolis to resolve the cases brought by 450 victim-survivors, now the second-biggest settlement made by the US church.


Wednesday, November 28, 2018

In H-Town, A Hard Day's Night

(SVILUPPO: And, well, it's over – per a Whispers op, the sweep ended around 9.45pm local/Central: almost exactly 12 hours after it began.)

Ten hours into the prosecutorial operation Houston Chancery doesn't want to be described as a "raid," the senior officials of the US' sixth-largest diocese – led by the sitting president of the bench – remain shut out of their offices and huddled in a conference room at 1700 San Jacinto as a crowd of "at least 50, if not more" state law enforcement agents continue poring through the files....

Between the symbolism, substance – and, indeed, surprise – of the moment, there's a lot in the air, and at least as much to be untangled.

Ergo, with this long day's "late edition" in the works – and no shortage to unravel over time ahead, both here and beyond – the reminder's in order that these pages only keep coming your way thanks to your support....

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(11.45pm CT) – Just to be clear, when it comes to Houston Chancery, the adage "Where there's smoke..." doesn't apply like it usually would.

Along those lines, on the eve of today's warrants – which, according to a Harris County op, have actually been expected from the Montgomery County DA for the last several months – late Tuesday saw the Cardinal-President of the US bench give his most significant off-script talk before or since this month's cataclysmic USCCB meeting in Baltimore to the NBC affiliate of his home-church: the nation's fourth-largest city and its 1.8 million Catholics (a fold grown six times over since 1990).

That the tape began with an ask to confirm Whispers' reporting from a month ago was rather amusing... then again, given how Texas first received word of its watershed red hat, that Houston media still haven't learned how this beat works under good circumstances leads one to wonder how they can duly cover this. (To wit, that a lead anchor in a major market can even think that the US has "246 dioceses" – 49 over the mark – let alone say it on air is clearly something beyond this scribe's pay grade.)

As the venerable Pietro Sambi (blessings and peace be upon him) famously warned DiNardo before dropping the scarlet bomb: "Sit down"...

...and 11 years later, the wisdom of that word needed well elsewhere – yet in the final year of a term he had to be dragged to accept in the first place – here now, the President of the United States (Bishops):

On the other side, meanwhile, the "Appetite for Destruction"-esque decibel levels that accompanied the Fall Classic – which only seemed to increase with one's distance from the Floor – served to drown out the most striking crisis-induced shift that the helm of the US' largest religious body has ever witnessed, even if the beginning of its effect still remains to emerge:

If history's any indicator, it'd be a shock if 5 percent of this readership bothered to click into either of these clips... yet in a time when some kind of "leadership" from the trenches is the cry – a task which begins with listening – even more than usual, folks, ignoring what's right in front of you is even less of an excuse.


Amid Warrant for Files, Houston Chancery Has(n't) Been Raided

Eleven years ago this week, the eyes of American Catholicism were on the South, as the church's epochal ascent in Texas was capped by the region's first-ever red hat.

Now, with Cardinal Daniel DiNardo leading the US bishops through the bench's signal crisis of its modern history, another sign of the times hit Houston Chancery this morning, as the home-base of the 1.8 million-member fold was served with a search warrant by Texas Rangers, joined by a wider horde of law-enforcement officials sent by a local prosecutor.

To be clear, early indications are that the search is limited in scope – the order for files issued by the district attorney of one of the ten counties that comprise the Galveston-Houston archdiocese (and not its demographic core in Harris County, at that), jurisdictional issues are bound to arise quickly. Accordingly, in the broad sweep of things, the significance of today's move is more symbolic than anything – and to a staggering degree, at that.

With at least 14 states and the District of Columbia already under statewide probes – not to mention the even more seismic launch by the US Department of Justice of what could become a nationwide investigation – the civil sweep of the South's most prominent local church nonetheless adds the home base of the USCCB president to a list of Stateside outposts under inquest that already included the bulk of the nation's 15 largest dioceses (by size, New York, Chicago, Brooklyn, Rockville Centre, Miami, Newark, Philadelphia and Detroit), encompassing well over a third of American sees in total, and now brings the specter of the ongoing crisis into the place which has represented the Stateside church's most marked growth and vibrance over the last quarter-century.

In response to this morning's development, the following statement has just emerged from Houston Chancery:
"This morning, the District Attorney of Montgomery County executed a search warrant for records and information related to an ongoing investigation. The Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston continues to cooperate, as we have since the outset, with this process. In fact, consistent with Cardinal DiNardo’s pledge of full cooperation, the information being sought was already being compiled. Also, “secret archives” is merely a Church term pertaining to confidential documents kept in a secure manner for the protection of the privacy of individuals — not unlike medical records. Pending additional information or developments, the Archdiocese will have no further comment on this ongoing investigation. Finally, please note any use of the term “raid” is an inaccurate and unprofessional reference to a request for records to a party that has been cooperating and will continue to cooperate fully."
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On a related note, as this morning's news now means that investigations of one sort or another are underway in five of the six largest states, it might seem that the one glaring exception to date is California – led by the 5 million-member behemoth in Los Angeles (the biggest local church American Catholicism has ever known), home to one-sixth of the nation's 75 million faithful all told.

Despite the appearance, however, Whispers ops on the ground out West have been on high alert for weeks in anticipation that the files of the Golden State's dozen dioceses will likely be subpoenaed by Attorney General Xavier Becerra for a statewide probe. Though that step hasn't yet been taken, Becerra's office recently launched a webpage to solicit "information from the public" on clergy sex-abuse cases.

Having already spent in excess of $1 billion to settle lawsuits – topped by LA's $660 million payout in 2007, still by far the largest deal ever reached by a US diocese – a legislative attempt at a second "window" suspending the civil statute of limitations (15 years since a prior opened the floodgates) was vetoed earlier this month by departing Gov. Jerry Brown. Yet with the onetime Jesuit scholastic set to leave office in January, Democratic Gov.-elect Gavin Newsom is reportedly in favor of the legislation.

Developing – more to come.

SVILUPPO: A later update.


Sunday, November 25, 2018

"The Mouth That Roared," Madison's Morlino Dies at 71

Even as the US bench is known for its fair share of bomb-throwers, it's an according shock that the most gleeful and fearless among them has been stilled.

Fifteen years into an ever-controversial stewardship of Wisconsin's capital fold, Bishop Robert Morlino of Madison died late Saturday, three days after an unspecified "cardiac incident."

A month shy of 72, the Scranton-born ex-Jesuit was, bar none, the American hierarchy's ultimate provocateur. And just to be fully clear, it was a distinction he didn't mind one bit.

Assembling a full slate of Morlino's various skewerings would take the rest of the year, but among others that suffice to tell the tale, there was the Sunday morning homily in the midst of the 2008 campaign that turned into a spontaneous diatribe against Nancy Pelosi; his blast of the liberal anthem "All Are Welcome" as a lie unsuited for liturgical use; the early depiction of his wildly progressive turf's civic attitude as being "highly comfortable with virtually no public morality"; a Chancery clarification that could've been read as denying funeral rites to openly gay Catholics; the warning to graduates earlier this year that "your peers in this generation and so many others are running toward hell with much more enthusiasm and strength than so many mediocre people are running toward heaven"... and to cap it off, a decade-old academic talk that helped lay the groundwork for a Vatican inquest of the US' religious women.

All told, some would cheer, many would cringe, but the method was simple: to leave no thought unspoken. (That Morlino's diocesan column was always published with a disclaimer unique among the bench – namely, that his musings were intended solely for his own faithful and no one beyond them – merely reinforced the point... the warning, however, was usually honored more in the breach than the observance.)

A late-life favorite of John Paul II – with whom he bonded over their shared Polish heritage – the bishop once noted privately of how, upon his transfer to Madison in 2003, he was told that "Rome wanted a fighter" in the secularist mecca, and that's precisely what they got. Absolutely no one agreed with everything he said – he would've found that boring – yet whatever one made of it, the tidal waves of reaction only went to prove how he could never be ignored.

Still, the octane level of the quotes in print obscured the piece that made it work – the telling glint in the eye that his bark was far worse than his bite. In other words, even if Morlino's zingers made it sound like he'd chew your leg off (if not both), in reality, odds were he'd end up cooking you dinner instead... and sitting down to eat in an open shirt, still wearing his apron – then running back and forth to serve everything himself – those meals were something to behold.

The penchant for controversy hid something else, too. Given Madison's brutal winters, you'd think the day the locals call "Skin Friday" – the end of the first warm spring week – would see the college kids thronged in the streets and down on the lakes, not packed into a downtown adoration chapel at mid-afternoon... but there they were.

Indeed, well beyond recruiting a crop of seminarians that peaked at 35, some 40-plus already ordained – both stunning figures for a diocese of less than 300,000 – Morlino drove an uptick of youth ministry and engagement that would be a standout boast anywhere in the American church. And with the "living stones" already bolstered, last year brought the culmination of the effort: the dedication of a sprawling, almost majestic new Catholic Center on the University of Wisconsin campus (above), replacing a structure wrecked in the '70s whose baptismal font was literally a derelict above-ground swimming pool, its tabernacle a plexiglas black box.

For a bench that usually goes years without a diocesan vacancy upon a bishop's death, the opening of the Wisconsin post is the US' third to occur within four months following its ordinary's sudden illness – in July, Bishop Richard Garcia of Monterey died at 71 after a weeks-long bout with early-onset Alzheimer's, while Saginaw's Bishop Joseph Cistone succumbed in mid-October at 69 to what was thought to be a mild, easily treatable lung cancer.

There will be a time to talk the Madison succession, and this isn't it. For now, it nonetheless bears noting that the void in Morlino's wake adds yet another challenging personnel-choice on top of a docket already brimming with them... but considering the unique state of the diocese the big man leaves behind – one which, among other aspects, hasn't had a cathedral since St Raphael's burned to the ground in 2006 – who takes his place in the "People's Republic" might just be the most fascinating pick of all.

*  *  *
As a boy in Scranton, Morlino once told a friend that he was taught to be faithful to three institutions in life: "The Church, The New York Yankees – and The Republican Party."

Much as that was a private remark, per usual, it was one he left few illusions about in the open...

...but this scribe knows the line as he said it to me.

Practically from the beginning of the Whispers experience, Madison's fourth bishop has been a devoted friend, confidant – and, as you can well imagine, one of the greatest "quote machines" a beat-writer ever could've dreamt to have.

(In just one of a million priceless examples, while walking into the election that would see Tim Dolan shatter precedent to win the USCCB Presidency, I threw my arm around Morlino and asked him to predict the outcome, which sprung this reply: "I don't know what's gonna happen, but I'm gonna make like Chicago today – vote early and VOTE OFTEN!"

(...and because we can't help ourselves, on another vivid front, while going through the morning papers with the bishop during a visit to Badger Nation, one of the day's headlines – what could've been termed his daily "hate-reading" – was Madison's decision to fly the Tibetan flag over City Hall to mark a visit by the Dalai Lama....

("Now, look, I actually don't mind that" – the inimitable cadence went – "I'd just want them to do the same thing for us if the Holy Father came here, which I very much doubt they would.")

Easy temptation that it is, the tendency to caricature the other and celebrate or demonize it on the sole basis of one's own views is one of the crimes of our age. When it happens in the context of a church, it's all the more a counter-witness – a sign that, far from heeding our better angels, we've imbibed the most toxic excesses of a secularized world. Especially as Morlino's champions and critics have lent themselves more to this dynamic over him than possibly any other figure in the discourse – at least, outside of the Pope himself – to measure the man solely on the basis of his shock value is as much a facile disservice to the truth as it'll be a predictable occurrence over the days to come.

Ever the son of Scranton – and woe to anyone who forgot it – the bishop once told me that the happiest act of his ministry wasn't any of the scores of ordinations, confirmations or church dedications he performed, no speech he ever gave, but when he was asked to be lead celebrant for the St Ann's Day Mass at her national shrine in his hometown.

Of course, part of that was the irrepressible local boy in him. But even more, the role spoke to a piece of his life more significant than anything he'd harp on in the public square: an only child whose father died young, Morlino was raised by his widowed mother and her own mother – the beloved Polish "granny" who was his only family for several decades after his Mom died, until her own passing at 99.

Given the mix of her role and his Northeast Pennsylvania roots, both Bob Morlino's "granny" and the Lord's loomed eternally large for him... and as this scribe's own grandmother reached her final years back in Philly, she found an unexpected adopted grandson in the bishop from Wisconsin.

Every time The Boss fell ill over her final lap, as soon as any mention would be made of it, without fail, Morlino was always the first to call promising prayers – and invariably had to be assured that, no, he didn't need to send flowers. Once recovered, she'd get on the phone with him from her nursing home... yet most memorably of all, the one time he made it through town during that stretch, nothing could keep the Midwestern prelate from barreling through her door to exclaim, "Hello, Granny!" just as if he had come home.

Indeed, loved as she was by no shortage of this crowd, Morlino was the only bishop who met Boss before we lost her six years ago... and the mental snapshot of the two lions – both as frequently misunderstood as they were stubbornly faithful (or, sometimes, just faithfully stubborn) – simply basking in each other is as unforgettable a moment as it sounds.

As we left her that day, Boss told Morlino – much like him, in no uncertain terms – "Faddah, I gotta get outta here and go home so I can make you dinner." In that light, shocking and difficult as this loss is, that he would be taken in the week of her birthday, on the calendar's ultimate feast of triumph (not to mention, given his lifelong affinity for Notre Dame, as a come-from-behind Irish win over USC unfolded) makes for a comfort of the kind only Providence can give.

Still, though his long-awaited banquet has come due too soon, as our dear bishop-brother returns to his "granny" and mine, Morlino and his twin specialties – his osso bucco... and no shortage of the most raucous lines any of us will ever hear – will be missed beyond all telling.

May the angels lead him into Paradise, and may his spirit of fortitude and friendship be ours as we strive ahead.