ROME – Catholic life is almost always chock full of illustrations of the old wisdom, “Be careful what you wish for, for you will surely get it.” Even so, the last week gave us a couple of especially juicy cases in point.
One of those object lessons came in Peru, the other in Rome.
In Peru, Archbishop Jose Antonio Eguren Anselmi of Piura prevailed in his battle against journalist Pedro Salinas, seeing a local court convict Salinas of defamation and sentence him to a one-year suspended jail term and a fine of $24,000.
Eguren had filed defamation charges after Salinas, known for his reporting on abuse scandals involving Peru’s controversial movement Sodalitium Christianae Vitae (SCV), accused Eguren of covering up for the group (the archbishop himself is a member) and compared him to a bishop in Chile linked to abuse scandals there.
The thing is, however, Eguren’s win may well turn out to be the most Pyrrhic victory since King Pyrrhus himself won the battle but lost the war against the Romans in the third century BCE.
After the sentence against Salinas was announced, the bishops’ conference in Peru released an extraordinary statement essentially cutting Eguren loose and praising journalists who uncover abuse scandals. Moreover, the conference more or less said Pope Francis is on Salinas’s side.
“The Holy Father has praised and thanked the world of journalists who, through their investigations, contribute to denouncing abuses, punishing the perpetrators and assisting victims. The pope underlined that the Church needs their help in the difficult task of fighting against this evil,” the conference said in an April 10 statement.
A national bishops’ conference is many things, and typically core among them is a gentleman’s club in which public criticism of fellow members is a serious violation of the unwritten rules. For an entire conference effectively to disown a brother bishop is remarkable, especially when the conference adds insult to injury by suggesting the pope is none too happy either.
The impact on Eguren’s credibility can perhaps be glimpsed from the fact that shortly after the statement appeared, a court in Piura agreed to an appeal filed by another journalist charged with defamation by Eguren, Paola Ugaz, that her case should be transferred to the national capital of Lima in order to ensure a fair trial.
Piura courts had rejected such a petition from Salinas, and since the two cases are more or less identical, most observers are likely to chalk it up to Eguren losing ground.
(As a footnote, one has to give the Archdiocese of Piura credit for chutzpah. It issued a statement after Ugaz’s victory framing the result as proof that Eguren does not wield “omnipotent power” in the city … which, setting aside the redundancy of that phrase, was described as a “falsehood manifested arbitrarily again and again by both Mr. Salinas and Ms. Ugaz, creating a lot of misinformation in public opinion.”)
In a further irony, Salinas’s conviction also prompted Peru’s Bancada Liberal party to propose a bill moving charges of honor, such as defamation, to civil rather than criminal courts. In other words, Eguren’s “victory” could also end up decriminalizing the very offense he sought to vindicate.
Eguren has maintained throughout the legal battles that his aim is to defend his good name. It’s not clear right now, however, that a “good name” is terribly likely to be the final result.
In Rome, meanwhile, Pope emeritus Benedict XVI stirred controversy this week with a lengthy essay on the clerical sexual abuse scandals published in an obscure Bavarian periodical for clergy. Mostly, what set tongues wagging was the retired pope’s suggestion that “homosexual cliques” in seminaries were part of the picture – which, to some, appeared to lend legitimacy to the prejudice that gays are somehow predisposed to be pedophiles.
Less noticed in Benedict’s essay has been his discussion of canon law vis-à-vis the abuse scandals. Basically, his argument is that by the time the crisis erupted in the early 2000s, such an overweening emphasis had been placed in church law on the rights of the accused that convicting anyone of a crime was effectively off the table. What had to happen, he suggests, was to trim back those due process guarantees in order to make convictions of abuser priests – which typically means defrocking – faster and easier.
Interestingly, Benedict says the reason things got out of whack wasn’t to protect abuser priests, but rather dissident theologians after the Second Vatican Council (1962-65).
“As a counterweight against the often-inadequate defense options available to accused theologians,” he wrote, “their right to defense by way of guarantorism was extended to such an extent that convictions were hardly possible.”
When the sex abuse crisis exploded, reformers clamored for a firmer response from Rome, demanding swift and sure justice – including fast-track procedures for weeding abusers out of the priesthood. In the main the Vatican has satisfied that request, greenlighting scores of laicizations in a short arc of time and without the possibility of appeal.
Under the heading of the law of unintended consequences, however, there’s no reason these fast-track procedures have to be restricted to sex abuse cases. They could be employed to prosecute any crime under Church law – including prosecutions of those very dissenting theologians whom progressive-minded reformers in the 1970s and ’80s worked so hard to protect.
That may not seem an especially live prospect under Francis, who’s shown little propensity to engage in theological head-hunting, but he won’t be pope forever. Someday a more conservative, doctrinally-minded pope may once again be in power, and that pope could easily decide to apply the same “no debate, no appeal” process that’s become standard operating procedure on abuse cases elsewhere.
Whether such a crackdown would be bad or good is a debate for another time, but the point is that it could happen, and the reform camp might rue the day it tossed that particular boomerang into the air.
If so, no one ought to profess surprise – after all, Benedict laid it out for us this week.