ROME – Back in long-ago 1998, I spoke to a member of a small conservative Catholic watchdog group in the U.S. that had just publicly accused a prominent local priest of sexual abuse. I asked why all the churchmen this group targeted seemed to be liberals, and the answer was unhesitating: “Where there’s smoke, there’s fire.”
What he meant is that if a cleric is doctrinally and politically suspect, at least in this group’s eyes, then there’s likely moral corruption too.
In other words, what one might call the “weaponization” of clerical sexual abuse charges as part of the wars of culture in Catholicism is nothing new. Decisions to lodge such charges or to make them public, as well as whether people are inclined to believe or reject them, often are tied up with politics, try as reasonable souls might to remain objective.
This comes to mind in light of a recent controversy surrounding Venezuelan Archbishop Edgar Peña Parra, the “substitute,” or number three official, in the Vatican’s Secretariat of State. He was appointed to that role by Pope Francis last year, and it’s a key one – the substitute, who’s responsible for the Vatican’s daily workflow, is the only person, including the Cardinal Secretary of State, who can simply walk in on the pope unannounced.
When Peña Parra was appointed a year ago, the Italian newsmagazine L’Espresso published a letter suggesting negative reports about him as a seminarian in Venezuela, but they mostly concerned his sexual orientation and didn’t clearly suggest abuse.
Yet in early July, Italian Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, the former papal ambassador in the U.S. who accused Francis of covering up charges against ex-cardinal and ex-priest Theodore McCarrick – today, by the way, marks the one-year anniversary of that bombshell – gave yet another clandestine interview in which he alleged there’s a “terrifying” dossier in the Vatican, containing reports that Peña Parra sexually abused two minor seminarians in Venezuela and that he was also involved in two suspicious deaths.
Those accusations were originally contained in an interview Viganò gave to the Washington Post, but when the Post couldn’t confirm them and chose not to publish that part, he gave the information to the right-wing Catholic outlet LifeSite News.
From there, the rumors about Peña Parra made the rounds of the internet, compelling the leadership of the Venezuelan bishops’ conference to come to his defense.
On Friday, the president and vice-presidents of the conference released a statement responding to what they called “a series of calumnious accusations” against Peña Parra. They claimed that in some instances, the accusations contain dates and places that don’t correspond with where Peña Parra actually was at the time.
The attacks on the 59-year-old substitute, the statement said, while ostensibly justified in the name of the truth, in reality are motivated by “other ends” – specifically, they said, the goal is “to undermine the credibility of Pope Francis, sowing doubts and suggesting that his teaching and his actions are marked by an incorrect choice of collaborators.”
What’s really going on, the bishops assert, is an effort “to delegitimize [a pope] who has clearly affirmed that poverty and the destruction of our common home both have their roots in an unbridled economy devoid of humanity.”
The bishops said the reports stem “from certain groups that want to ignore the moral value of the papal magisterium, because they have a different intent.”
Here in Italy, the widely read Catholic site Faro di Roma, edited by veteran Vatican writer Salvatore Izzo, carried an editorial applauding the Venezuelan prelates but insisting they didn’t go far enough.
“Taking for granted that this is an attack on the pope from capitalist circles unfortunately close to the Catholic Church and, partly, even inside it,” the editorial said, “it has to be asked why the bishops of Venezuela stigmatized these circles without clearly condemning, once and for all, the economic bloc formed by Trump in combination with the local oligarchy with which these Catholic circles are contiguous?”
For activists and reformers who have invested their lives in helping the Church recover from the abuse scandals and to do real justice to survivors, it has to be distressing to see reports of abuse turned into a political football.
Without a doubt, the fact that these allegations stem from Viganò, whose ideological allegiances are well known, and that they surfaced through LifeSite News is enough to give anyone reason to wonder if political axes are being ground.
On the other hand, by leaning so heavily on the supposed political motivations of the accusers, defenders of Peña Parra – and, by extension, of Francis – arguably risk creating a situation in which genuine abuse survivors may hesitate to come forward for fear of being accused of engaging in an ideological smear campaign. That may be especially true if, as in this instance, the alleged perpetrator is perceived as someone close to the pope.
In an ideal world, such political factors would be kept out of the way the Church reacts to abuse allegations. (At the moment another papal aide, Argentinian Bishop Gustavo Zanchetta, is also facing abuse charges, and the following applies equally to his case.)
When a charge surfaces, no matter who it comes from or why it was voiced, there would be a preliminary review by the competent authority. If the charge is deemed credible, the process would unfold from there; if not, the accused would be cleared. Either way, the case would be handled transparently.
At least that we know of publicly, there has not yet been such a review with Peña Parra.
The other shoe waiting to drop is this: If someone subject to ecclesiastical discipline is shown to have deliberately brought a false charge, or to have been reckless in voicing rumors without due regard for the truth – whether the motives were political, personal, financial, or anything else – there would be consequences for that too, also imposed through a transparent and objective judicial process.
Also so far as we know, no such process has been initiated with Viganò.
Perhaps the idea that justice could ever truly be blind always has been a bit utopian. When it comes to sexual abuse, however, at least we ought to be able to make sure it doesn’t have a party preference.
Follow John Allen on Twitter: @JohnLAllenJr