Friday, October 29, 2010

Survivors' "Reformation"... Vatican's Retrenchment?

Every Halloween, history recalls the ghost that haunted a long, painful ecclesial age. This year, though, Sunday's anniversary of Martin Luther's nailing of the 95 Theses to the doors of the parish at Wittenberg in 1517 will be met with a Roman reminder of our time's most prominent ad intra hot-button....

Yet, so it seems, the Vatican has barred the door.

While B16 has met with victim-survivors of clergy sex-abuse five times since 2008 in sessions invariably proving intense, emotional and powerful, the church's response on the issue has hit no shortage of snags over the last decade. On the global stage, the latest of these came in July, when the Holy See served to undermine many of the church's inroads made in the court of public perception with the release of long-awaited CDF norms that, despite emboldening the procedures on pedophilia cases in place since 2001, became predominantly interpreted as equating the gravity of the attempted ordination of a woman with the abuse of a minor.

Even for the enhanced stringency of what has amounted to a decade-long global "zero-tolerance" policy enforced at Headquarters, what was widely viewed as the Vatican's "epic" message-failure ended up winning the bulk of attention and providing fresh ammunition to those seeking to advance that the church still didn't grasp the magnitude of the problem. Three months later, the confusion and "outrage" remaining fresh in some quarters, a repeat of the debacle now risks itself in the response to a weekend demonstration led by two Boston-area survivors, one of whom met the Pope at Benedict's first-ever encounter with victims in Washington on his 2008 visit to these shores.

Both victims of the late Joseph Birmingham -- the Boston cleric claimed to have abused at least 50 boys over three decades in ministry before his 1989 death -- the leaders of the "Reformation Day" effort have presented the event as a moment to express solidarity with and among survivors, and to keep up awareness of the plague of abuse in society at large.

Originally announced in April with an eye on St Peter's Square -- where they had sought to hold a candlelight vigil and place baskets of letters at the doors seeking support from Vatican officials -- in recent days the group's plans have been made to change: organizers say they've been denied permits to gather in the Piazza, and according to a Tuesday release from the group, a senior official of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications has told inquiring media "that they will not be allowed to cover the Reformation Day event or film from the grounds of the Vatican."

The traditionally-deferential Italian press keeping mum, the "alarm" in the Vatican over the event was first reported by The Tablet's Rome correspondent, Robert Mickens, who held out hope that the group would be acknowledged by the pontiff at Sunday's Angelus, but quoted an unnamed campaigner for survivors who couldn't help but "imagine the possibilities if Pope Benedict actually welcomed them," while seeing the response to date as saying, in effect, "Get lost, we’ve already apologized."

In the meanwhile, the planners have reported that survivors from at least 12 countries are expected to attend -- a first meeting will be held at Piazza di Spagna tomorrow night, with the Sunday vigil (during which a "Year of the Survivor" will be declared) now to take place by Castel Sant'Angelo, roughly a quarter-mile from Bernini's Colonnade. Likewise, at the beginning of TV's all-important November sweeps month (when advertising rates are set... and pieces tend to run particularly "hot" to drive ratings as a result), at least one outlet from Boston has already launched its coverage and is sending a crew to Rome to follow the gathering.

In an interview with Boston-based NECN, lead "Reformation" organizer Gary Bergeron said that he had written all of the "sitting" US bishops asking them to encourage a 60-second moment of silence for survivors at Masses over the weekend. In response, he claimed to have heard from just two prelates, characterizing the replies as "one said he's not willing to support it; the other said they're doing enough."

As the scandals began bearing down on the Boston church in 2002, Bergeron and the event's other top planner, Bernie McDaid, earned sufficient trust to be turned to for input by both Cardinal Bernard Law prior to his resignation and, following his much-acclaimed 2003 arrival, then-Archbishop Sean O'Malley OFM Cap. Earlier that year, on their first trip to Rome, the men met with then-Msgr James Green, then the top English-language official at the Secretariat of State (now papal nuncio in South Africa). And five years later, on the recommendation of O'Malley -- since made a cardinal -- McDaid was among the group of five survivors who met the Pope at the historic encounter at the Apostolic Nunciature in Washington, during which McDaid placed his hand on Benedict's heart, telling the Pope that a "cancer" existed in the church which he "need[ed] to do something about."

At the time, McDaid came away so satisfied with the pontiff's response that he successfully had a message conveyed to the pontiff before his departure from New York -- "Thank you from my heart and soul." Now, according to the website of the group organizing the Rome demonstration, he's concluded that his call "apparently fell on deaf ears."

The unprecedented papal move "meant they had to do something to follow up," McDaid said in an April TV interview.

"So our hope was that they going to do something more, and it never materialized."

Come Sunday, "we are not protesting or marching," he underscored in another interview.

"Our numbers will speak words... at the Vatican we’re going to wear all white -- white shirts, white pants."

* * *
Notably, the weekend's events come precisely at the fourth anniversary of Benedict's first public comments as Pope on the crisis.

In his ad limina speech to the bishops of Ireland on 28 October 2006, the pontiff first outlined what's become his frequently-repeated four-point plan for addressing revelations of abuse.

"In your continuing efforts to deal effectively with this problem," he told the prelates, "it is important to establish the truth of what happened in the past, to take whatever steps are necessary to prevent it from occurring again, to ensure that the principles of justice are fully respected and, above all, to bring healing to the victims and to all those affected by these egregious crimes.

"In this way," the Pope added, "the church in Ireland will grow stronger and be ever more capable of giving witness to the redemptive power of the Cross of Christ."

In his latest intervention on the issue, at his September Mass in London's Westminster Cathedral, the Pope again voiced his "deep sorrow to the innocent victims of these unspeakable crimes," asking "all" the church "to show your concern for the victims and solidarity with your priests." Hours later, Benedict met with a group of British survivors.

This weekend coincides with the annual observance of World Priest Day, organized by the Worldwide Marriage Encounter.