ROME — As U.S. bishops work to formulate an official response to clerical sexual abuse and cover-up, a new watchdog group backed by wealthy Catholics is seeking to take matters into their own hands.
A new organization, which held an RSVP-only event on Sunday evening, plans to spend more than $1 million in the next year investigating every member of the College of Cardinals “to name those credibly accused in scandal, abuse, or cover-ups.”
“The Better Church Governance Group” held its launch on the campus of the Catholic University of America (CUA) with the stated intention of producing its “Red Hat Report” by April 2020.
The U.S. bishops founded the Catholic University of America, and all six residential U.S. cardinals are members of its Board of Trustees.
In a statement to Crux, a CUA spokesperson said, “A space on campus was reserved by a student in accordance with our space reservation procedures. The event was not sponsored by The Catholic University of America nor a university-sponsored organization.”
The organizers of the Better Church Governance group confirmed that it was a private event, and in an e-mail to Crux said there was no association between the university and the organization.
The Red Hat Report, dubbed as the group’s “flagship project,” is designed to audit all 124 current papal electors. Organizers say it will be conducted by a team of, to date, nearly 100 researchers, academics, investigators, and journalists, with the aim “to hold the hierarchy of the Catholic Church accountable for abuse and corruption, and to develop and support honesty, clarity, and fidelity in Church governance.”
In an audio recording obtained by Crux of the event’s launch, Better Church Governance’s Operations Director, Jacob Imam, said the organization was not meant as an attack on Pope Francis, though he asked the crowd of nearly forty attendees: “What if we would have had someone else in 2013 who would have been more proactive in protecting the innocent and the young?”
“Had we had the Red Hat Report, we may not have had Pope Francis,” stated one of the slide presentations accompanying his remarks.
Imam, who is currently a Marshall Scholar of the University of Oxford and converted to Catholicism from Islam three years ago, alleged that following the 2013 conclave that elected Francis, many major news outlets based their knowledge of the newly elected pope on what they could find on Wikipedia.
While insisting that he wasn’t maligning the pontiff, he added: “I think it’s fair to say that a defender of traditional values is not something he would identify himself with.”
Given the lack of knowledge many electors have about each other, Imam argued, it is an “extremely precarious situation…when the doors of the Sistine Chapel close.”
According to its prospectus, the Better Church Governance Group aims to produce its report before the next papal conclave. The estimated first-year expenditures are listed at $1,126,500.
“Many of us who were raised in a liberal democratic society don’t always know how a hierarchy can be reformed,” Imam told attendees. “But there are many tips and tricks that history gives us, and we at Better Church Governance started to systematize some of these strategies. We are here to help create transparency in the Church and we’re here to help support integrity.”
At present, the Report’s organizers are seeking graduate students to serve as research assistants with plans to offer an hourly rate of $25, working alongside a team of academic researchers and investigators.
The launch of the organization comes after a brutal summer of sex abuse fallout in the United States. The downfall of former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, who resigned from the College of Cardinals in August after revelations that he serially abused seminarians and at least one minor, has led to calls from numerous individuals for greater lay leadership in holding bishops accountable for cover-up.
Further, the release of a Pennsylvania grand jury report detailing seven decades of abuse by more than 300 abuser priests has resulted in a pledge from the U.S. bishops for a full review of their policies on reporting and accountability.
Imam said that report revealed that local individuals were aware of ongoing abuse and cover-up, hence the Red Project Report will seek to, whenever possible, carry out its research where each cardinal is based.
He went on to describe the two-fold purpose of their report: to provide information to every cardinal in hopes of better informing them about their fellow papal-electors, as well as to make the information available publicly so that lay Catholics can have access to it.
“Cardinals need to be held accountable publicly, so there has to be some sort of culture of shame,” he said. “They know if they vote for this person…the people that they shepherd, and their pastors, will know about it.”
“This is difficult. There is a dark side to this decision. We recognize that,” he added. “We are willing to take this on with prayer and fasting…because we can’t allow people to continue to allow our kids, the innocent, the young, seminarians to be devoured the ways that they are.”
Imam also said that 10 former FBI agents are involved in the investigation, with two individuals being the agency’s former lead investigators on ecclesiastic matters.
In an e-mail obtained by Crux, sent by the managing editor of the Red Hat Report, Philip Nielsen, to potential interested individuals last month, he outlined how each cardinal will be investigated.
“Each dossier will have a rating at the top for the cardinal’s connection to scandal and abuse, such as ‘severe guilt, credible accusations of guilt, clean.’ This final verdict on each will be based on our best evidence and the recommendations of best experts,” he wrote.
A revised rating system was distributed on Sunday with Cardinals receiving a rating based on “Strong Evidence of Abuse/Corruption, Some Evidence, Positive Evidence Against Abuse/Corruption.”
Imam said that, in time, they hope to expand to provide a full audit of bishops as well. He told those in attendance on Sunday that the organization did not seek to further an ideological agenda but will seek to answer how each cardinal is in “agreement” with the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican’s doctrinal watchdog.
When asked by one attendee if the report would note whether cardinals are homosexual, he replied that the report would follow civil law as necessary, but it would also follow the Church’s moral law, adding: “If there is a rumor of him being homosexual, it will be noted very carefully…but we need to be sure.”
Although the organization’s official materials maintain that it does not intend to attack any of the cardinals, the Nielsen e-mail seems to suggest otherwise.
“For example, Cardinal [Pietro] Parolin, the very corrupt Vatican Secretary of State’s wikipedia page is currently very benign, with no links to scandal included, despite the fact that he has repeatedly been linked with banking scandals and was named in the Viganò letter,” he writes.
The reference was to an 11-page letter from Italian Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, a former papal ambassador in the U.S., alleging that he briefed Francis in 2013 on misconduct concerns surrounding McCarrick, but the pontiff failed to act.
“We can change that … by the next conclave, he needs to be known, worldwide, as a disgrace to the Church. Our plan would be to make sure that his Wikipedia page shows “Church Watchdog The Better Governance Group, names Parolin, ‘Extremely Guilty of Abuse’ etc. with a link to the report. At the same time, we would add all the pull-quotes from other sources that connect him to all the financial corruption, etc.,” Nielsen continued.
The e-mail also stated that plans were underway for a launch at a Napa Institute meeting in D.C. this week, however Nielsen told Crux that as of now there are no official plans for a public announcement there.
The Napa Institute, a California-based organization founded by Tim Busch, a prominent Catholic conservative, whose annual summer conference brings together several hundred wealthy Catholic philanthropists and high-ranking Catholic prelates at his resort, is hosting a conference on Tuesday on “Authentic Reform” at the Mayflower Hotel in D.C.
As for its own oversight, the Nielsen e-mail states that the group is still in the process of forming its Board of Directors, and only one member is named in its current materials: Phil Scala, who is CEO of Pathfinder Consultants International, Inc. and previously worked at the FBI.
In addition, three individuals are named as research editors for the Red Hat Report: Professors Jay Richards of Catholic University of America’s Busch School of Economics, and Michael P. Foley and Melinda Nielsen of Baylor University.
While the organizational materials insist “we are not a faction or a lobbyist group,” Richards has previously worked for the Acton Institute, a libertarian think tank, and has been a vocal critic of Francis. Foley and Neilsen have also been associated with a number of conservative institutions and publications, including Hillsdale College, Crisis, The Catholic Thing, and First Things.
In addition, the organizational materials list the Center for Evangelical Catholicism (CEC) as its “fiscal sponsor,” which is currently collecting donations until the organization is granted official non-profit status. According to its website, the CEC is a not-for-profit corporation in South Carolina that “seeks to advance the New Evangelization by forming Evangelical Catholics equipped to fulfill the Great Commission.”
Nielsen told Crux that while many participants working at certain Catholic universities would not want their affiliation made public, the larger network is much broader than conservative allies.
He added that the group seeks to make its “aims and objections something everyone can agree with,” adding that some of the worst cases of abuse dating back to the founder of the Legion of Christ, Father Marcial Maciel, were among groups or individuals typically identified as conservative.
When asked by an attendee for the full timeline for the project, Imam replied “this project never ends.”
“We always have to be ready for a conclave,” he warned.