ROME – According to one expert in Church law, carrying out the recent suppression of an Argentine religious institute is a complicated, messy and time-consuming process that no churchman looks forward to. Yet for victims thirsting for justice, explanations aren’t enough, but they want action.
“Suppression is what we call the ‘nuclear option.’ That’s the very last straw,” Father Francis Morrisey, a Canadian canonist, told Crux.
Usually an order is given a warning and offered a specific timeframe to clean up its act. If this doesn’t happen within the allotted time, then the Vatican pulls the plug, he said, noting that this is a last resort.
Personally, Morrisey said these are his least favorite cases to work on. “I hate having to deal with them,” he said, adding that, “they’re the worst,” in large part because “you’re dealing with different values and different starting points.”
In June, the Vatican suppressed Argentina’s Hermanos Discípulos de Jesús de San Juan Bautista after several former members issued both canonical and civil complaints against the order’s founder, Father Agustin Rosa, and another prominent member of the order, Nicolas Parma, known in the community by his religious name, “Father Felipe.”
Similar to other orders such as the Legion of Christ founded by the late Mexican Father Marcial Maciel Degollado or the Sodalitium Christianae Vitae (SCV) launched by Peruvian layman Luis Fernando Figari, ex-members of the Hermanos endured a wide range of abuse and manipulation, including psychological abuse, abuse of power/authority, and sexual abuse, including involving minors.
Three former members of the community – Valeria Zarza, Yair Gyurkovitz and a third person who chose to remain anonymous – made criminal complaints against Rosa and Parma who were both charged on counts of sexual assault and rape of minors in 2016.
Crux’s repeated attempts to contact legal representation for Rosa and Parma have been unsuccessful.
In the decree of suppression, the Vatican tasked Archbishop Carlos Azpiroz Costa of Bahía Blanca to carry out the particulars – a job that is messy, involved and incredibly time consuming.
Though the order was of diocesan, not pontifical right – meaning the local bishop has primary responsibility over the case – Morrisey said if the Vatican is contacted about it, both the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, which deals with the institution, and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which deals with abuse cases involving individual clergy, can step in.
According to Morrisey, when the “nuclear option” is employed, there are a series of things that need to happen, none of which are simple or clear cut.
Properties must be dealt with, ongoing legal cases must be resolved, individual members must be evaluated, and decisions must be made about what to do with the order’s money.
The main issue to deal with, Morrisey said, will likely be handling the order’s property – confirming whether they own land, and if they do, determining whether there were any conditions attached when the land was given and if the property is available for distribution.
When it comes to any money the order has left over, Morrisey said a sum is typically always set aside to handle any outstanding debts or legal cases the order might have had at the time of suppression, but the rest is typically put toward another charitable purpose, which the Vatican’s delegate will determine.
“In a lot of countries, we have charity laws and you can’t just simply divide the spoils,” Morrisey said, explaining that in some cases, part of the money is given to former members of the institute “to help them adjust to a new existence,” but these cases are rare.
Most often, he said, religious institutes keep their money in a 501c3, the designation for non-profit organizations exempt from federal taxes, meaning the money can only be deposited into another 501c3. “You can’t just pocket the money,” he said.
In terms of community members, Morrisey said it is a “delicate” issue given the complexity of each individuals’ personal status.
Religious institutions of diocesan right, he said, do not have the right to incardinate priests into a diocese, so if a priest ordained in Mexico is assigned to a community house in Argentina, then the priest is technically “on loan” to Argentina, but still answers to the bishop of the diocese where he was incardinated.
What makes this complicated, Morrisey said, is that for each member of the suppressed institute, “we have to find the bishop who incardinated them,” and when this happens, “is he going to be willing to give them a pastoral assignment? Or is he going to push for their dismissal from the clerical state?”
“A lot is going to depend on the facts. Some guys are totally innocent and there’s nothing preventing them at all from continuing ministry under a different heading,” he said, adding, “Hopefully that’s the majority, but you never know.”
Things get even more complicated when visas and pension plans come into play. For some priests, they have been out of their own diocese for so long that even though they are still incardinated in one diocese, their pension plans are offered by the diocese in which they’ve been serving. In these cases, Morrisey said, an arrangement would have to be made between the bishop where the priest is, and the one where he belongs.
An evaluation of the visa status must be made for members from other countries, and the local bishop must determine whether it is possible to give priests belonging to the suppressed order another assignment, or if they are too tainted by the order’s scandals for this to be considered.
“It’s never the same exactly for two people, there are always different conditions…It’s a wrinkle that has to be ironed out in each case,” he said, adding that due to the complexities, it could take up to two years or more for a suppression to be fully implemented.
However, while the complexities of the case are clear for those who understand canon law and the inner workings of ecclesial politics, this doesn’t always translate to the victims or those seeking justice, many of whom are impatient for answers and closure, and are frustrated by the Church’s silence in their cases.
Pushing for Action
Juan Bo, a former member of the Hermanos who issued his own canonical complaint and has helped other former members to do the same, is frustrated by both the process victims must undergo to issue a complaint, and the Church’s lack of communication about their cases.
Though he was never sexually abused, Bo told Crux that for years he had dreamed of becoming a priest, but he left this dream behind in 2014 shortly before his diaconate ordination after several fellow brothers confided in him that they had been sexually abused by members of the order.
Coming from a wealthy family, Bo said no one in the community touched him physically, but Rosa formed a close relationship with him and used him for his contacts with other wealthy individuals.
Bo said he had heard of several members leaving after “something bad happened,” but it wasn’t until two fellow brothers whom he had taken to church for the first time approached him and confided that they had been sexually abused by members of the order.
Soon after, more brothers began confiding in him about abuse. The more he asked around, the more stories of abuse and rape he discovered, until finally he decided to leave the order and make a formal complaint.
Bo, who has since become a point-man for other ex-members wanting to issue complaints, criticized the ecclesial process, saying the procedures make it nearly impossible for many victims to finish it.
Not only did he have to travel from Salta to the headquarters of the Argentine Bishops’ Conference in Buenos Aires to make his complaint, but several months later he was called back to listen to a reading of his testimony and make corrections. After hearing nothing for nine months, he was called back again to “correct the correction” – a process he said lasted some 12 hours, during which “I wasn’t even offered a glass of water.”
“I have money, I come from a family with resources,” he said, noting that making a complaint is nearly impossible for many victims who don’t have the financial means to travel back and forth.
Bo said the monsignor present for the re-reading of his testimony was also aggressive and pinned blame on him, asking how he tolerated certain behaviors and why he didn’t pick up on warning signs. Many victims who gave their testimonies, Bo said, “left in tears.”
Some former members have complained that victims have received no compensation or pastoral care from the Church, and that many have left the Catholic Church disillusioned not only by their abuse, but by how their testimonies have been handled.
Now working as a psychologist, Bo is supporting several ex-members of the community. Five are currently living in his house, and he is financially supporting several others.
He has compiled a list of abusers and their victims based on people who have confided in him – a list containing some 90 abuse allegations and more than 30 abusers. Ex-members continue to reach out to him for advice and comfort, and he routinely counsels those who want to commit suicide.
“It’s tiring,” he said, but “I need to help all those who ask.”
Bo said he doesn’t go looking for victims, arguing that this would be the same modus operandi as the abusers, but he waits until they come to him.
Though he hailed the suppression of the order as a step in the right direction, he criticized the Church’s handling of victims’ complaints and the slowness of the process, saying there are many priests who should be defrocked, and many others who, though guilty, will likely never face justice because the victims are too afraid to come forward.
“They didn’t abuse me,” he said, “but I know who they abused. And I know where they are celebrating.”
Follow Elise Harris on Twitter: @eharris_it
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