To lie, or not to Lie? That is the question.
From the outset, let me say that Cardinal Pell is, in this Earthly Realm, innocent until proved guilty – like every other man. Yet, he has – again – been accused of inappropriate sexual advances to boys during the 1980’s. The accusations are under investigation by police of the State of Victoria in Australia – in which country he was priest, bishop, archbishop and then Cardinal of the Catholic Church. It is not the first time he has been accused for he was previously accused – and cleared – of the allegation that he abused a 12-year old boy at a camp in the 1960s. The new matters for investigation are separate incidents of touching boys inappropriately and stripping naked in a locker room in front of three boys in the 1980s. Cardinal Pell has denied the charges, which were broadcast by the Australian Broadcasting Company after the allegations were leaked. Cardinal Pell remains a specific object of press interest, however, not only for his Curial governorship of the Vatican’s wealth in its worldwide dimensions, but also for his contributions to a recent Royal Commission Inquiry into child Abuse in the Australian Catholic Church in which he appeared to admit, somewhat sullenly, that he did not take some reports of child abuse very seriously at the time they were reported to him.
I don’t know, of course, when Cardinal Pell is telling the truth or a lie. Only he knows – and presumably, his God, in the Heavenly Realm, knows too. One thing I do know – from personal experience – is that “Truth” is not the prerogative of priests, bishops and Cardinals just because they wander around in swirling robes, mitres and white collars – and cry from Sunday pulpits to proclaim the Truth of Jesus Christ, their Redeemer. I know this because priests do lie – and they have lied about matters I know to be true. I know those matters, related to the clerical sexual abuse of a minor, are true – because they happened to me. In the category of clerical lies – I include any attempt to suggest that the truth – which was told to them and which they have previously admitted to knowing – may now not be discerned because of the lapse of time between the present and the historic event which they seek now to enshroud with doubt.
Of course, if Cardinal Pell is lying, he is also taking a gamble. There are a few tosses of the dice he must consider. A double six – that God does not exist anyway – would be the best option because that would mean that the Redemption thing and Heaven and Hell are of no consequence. Any other score – and there are many permutations – pose a problem – such as will he be able to get to a Confessional Box in time before a thunder bolt strikes him down? I used to worry about this myself when I was still a child – because even touching myself “inappropriately” in the days of my youthful exploration of my own bodily capabilities – caused panic. That terrifying spiritual, physical and mental state of agitation was induced by priests of the Passionist Order who routinely threatened me with the Fires of Hell and Everlasting Damnation. A “Believer” – as I presume Cardinal Pell to be – has much, therefore, to worry about.
Do the Comboni Missionary Order subscribe to “Cheap Grace”
Yet even if Cardinal Pell is lying and makes it to a Confessional box in time, not all the problems disappear. He has to consider whether the theological theories of “cheap grace” and “hyper-grace” that once echoed against the walls of Catholic Cloisters and Sacristies in the late 19th and early 20th centuries were true or not. Many clerics did believe in these “unorthodox” theories even into the middle of the last century and beyond – and so I need to explain what was expounded about them.
“Cheap Grace” was a proposition of Dietrich Bonhoeffer that emphasized the benefits of Christianity without any of the costs. For example, if one believed in the Redemptive power of Baptism or of the Crucifixion or both combined, which absolved all sins and saved all mankind for eternity from everlasting Hell fires – then Christianity has no personal cost to a “sinner” – because they have already been saved. Hence the word “cheap” – because there was no subsequent loss – in terms of the cost of a ticket to Heaven – attached to sins committed. “Hyper Grace” was a bit different. The term “hyper-grace” is a similar theory, but it emphasizes the grace of God to the exclusion of other teachings and maintains that all sin, past, present, and future, has already been forgiven, so there is no need for a believer to ever confess a sin and nor to submit to penance.
Yet there is another matter – which is more “thorny” – that Cardinal Pell must consider. Enter the Apostles. Paul preached in (Acts 20:27): the “whole counsel of God” – which meant that all teachings must be understood as one message and you cannot select the bits of it that you like. Thus he stated that it was true that Christians have been forgiven by God, but that does not imply that we never have to confess and demonstrate sorrow for our sins. Indeed, even in pre-Christian times (Psalm 51:4) it was suggested that if we are to confess our sins to each other in demonstration of remorse and re-commitment, then why should we not need to confess them to God, because every sin is against God. The final words on this subject really come back to the central difficulty for Cardinal Pell – which is his ultimate decision as to whether to lie or not lie about the allegations. The very last words, perhaps, rest with Saints Jude – and again Paul. The former implies that to rely on the facts of the Redemption without personal responsibility: “perverts God’s grace into a license for immorality” (Jude 1:4) – and St Paul maintains that the act of repentance is conditional only on a sincere resolve never to commit the same sin again.
My regular readers will know that all of the above is a preamble to something about the Comboni Missionary Order of Verona, Italy. This occasion is no exception and so I now allay any increasing disappointment in the direction of my progress. The subject, moreover, is also the same as usual: clerical child sexual abuse, clerical indifference and clerical lies. The matter in discussion today, however, is “confession” – and what was understood by clerics of the Comboni Missionary Order of Verona, Italy, as being the purpose of confession. What were they taught as young seminarians and as novices and scholastics already under religious vows and preparing for the priesthood within that Order? By whom were they taught? I cannot answer these specific questions, but there is one incident that gives rise to the doubt that they were much aware of the “final words” on the matter of confession and penance that I have attributed to Saints Jude and Paul above.
The Confession That Said It All
My doubts about a lack of understanding within the Order of the “orthodox” Catholic theology of confession relates only to one incident known to me. That is a limitation I have to accept – as does the reader. That event happened in the late 1960s when Father Luciano Fulvi, – who was based at the St Peter Claver College Seminary in Mirfield, Yorkshire, England and which was run by the Comboni Missionary Order of Verona, Italy – heard one of a number of reports from different seminarians that he had been sexually abused by a priest of that same Order and House. The response from Father Fulvi was not that the boy should give him permission to make sure that the Rector heard about the allegation straight away which the boy, using the meeting as a cry for help, had probably anticipated. Neither did Father Fulvi advise that the boy must have the courage to report the matter himself to the Rector so that it could be dealt with appropriately and the boy could get professional assistance. Father Fulvi did not say that it was a crime that had been committed against the boy and that the matter should be reported – not only to the Police because it was against Civil Law, but also to the Vatican Curia as even Canon Law demanded. These can be deemed to be serious failures on the part of Father Fulvi. Those failures were perhaps an attempt to protect the accused brother priest from action against him, but most likely, they were the result of a dearth of appropriate training by the Order, or knowledge of the instructions in the Code of Conduct ratified by the Order. Alternatively, these failures may have been the result of perceptions of the priest himself as influenced by the “cheap grace” and “hyper grace” theories. I have to admit that I do not know which, but the evidence allows me to speculate.
The latter “cheap grace” and “hyper grace” theories are certainly possible – for Father Fulvi’s response was merely akin to: “You must always remember that Father Pinkman has at his disposal an act of Confession to another priest”. This can be interpreted in a number of ways. For example: “It does not matter that much if Father Pinkman has sexually abused you because he will be forgiven – so just go away and forget about it – and take that into account if he abuses you again”. That is a bit of a stark explanation some might think – as they jump to the defence of Father Fulvi. Yet – are not Father Fulvi’s words proposing the very same as those that St Jude decried in his statement to the effect that redemption without personal responsibility “perverts the grace of our God into a license for immorality”. Were those words not implying the opposite to St Paul’s words that “repentance is conditional on a true and strong resolve never to commit the same sin again”.
Moreover, not for the first time, let me recapture here what was the general response of all the clergy of the Comboni Missionary Order at St Peter Claver College, the Mirfield seminary – when sexual abuse was reported to them. Those facts are: that 18 boys alleged that priests of the Comboni Missionary Order abused them at the St Peter Claver College Mirfield Seminary. Also, that some 1000 acts of sexual abuse were perpetrated against them – each act of abuse a crime in its own right. In addition, that 23 reports were made by seminarians themselves at the time of the abuse and 3 reports of the abuse were made by parents of seminarians. Furthermore, that those Victims of clerical sexual abuse have stated that 50 witnesses have provided statements in support of their allegations and 5 statements were made to the West Yorkshire Police – who subsequently determined that crimes had taken place. Finally, that a number of requests for extradition to the United Kingdom of one surviving priest against whom allegations have been made – have been refused. The Order at the St Peter Claver College Mirfield, held no inquiries to which any of the complainants attended. No reports were made to the Civil Police or Welfare authorities. No reports were made to the Vatican Curia. For years, no action at all was taken against the priests who continued to abuse more seminarians without relent.
The alarming fact is that the inaction of Father Luciano Fulvi mirrored that of every other member of the Comboni Missionary Order at the St Peter Claver College Mirfield Seminary to whom disclosures of abuse were made – and so I am making no comment about him that did not apply in general to his confreres. The Comboni Missionary Order have yet to explain how an Order, said to be founded to spread the Mission of Jesus Christ throughout the world, through the Gospels and Acts of the Apostles – could have failed so horrendously those very children that were in their care. Not only that. They need to explain also why they still seek to cast doubt upon the allegations, rather than submit to the “Truth” of events about which they have always known full well – and have admitted in the past, but now continue to deny at every opportunity.
Ultimately, the Comboni Missionary Order has the same choices as Cardinal Pell: to lie or not to lie! If they truly believe in an all-embracing way what they profess, they can either continue to lie and to make an unseemly rush to the confessional every time they open their mouths – or they can submit to the less than likely theories of “cheap grace” and “hyper grace”. It appears to me that they may have adopted the latter long ago as their survival strategy. So be it – but they need to be aware that those theories are just “theories” – and they might just be caught out individually on their day of Judgement!
As for Father Luciano Fulvi, there is no attempt here to undermine his personal mission to do good to fellow men. He was, perhaps, the most well liked of all the priests that spent time at the St Peter Claver College Mirfield Seminary in Yorkshire, England. I have a photograph of him – as he was laughing amongst a group of boys – myself included – covered in coal dust, after we had all emerged from the deepest and furthest tunnel of a Yorkshire coal mine. Yet – Father Fulvi was, at the very least, a product of a cruel system that was imbued, not only with moments of grace, but with a potential for evil. That “evil” was exhibited in abundance at the St Pater Claver College Mirfield Seminary in the 1960s and 1970s – and it has resurfaced in some of its members – principally in its Superiors – in each decade since – and it is still there amongst them in the present today.
No individual in the Order has some form of corporate insurance cover against the Day of their personal Judgement. The ultimate choice – to lie or not to lie – is theirs individually – and theirs alone in the face of their Eternal Judge. Moreover, their silence is no protection either. Silence can be as much a denial of truth as is a spoken lie. As for Cardinal Pell – he is a mere mortal – as are we all – and despite having the rare honour of owning a scarlet-tassled cap – he has the same choices as do we all in moments of personal crisis: to lie or not to lie – to be silent or to speak the truth. This is the question that, from time to time, we all have to answer – and then live with the consequences. The difference for an individual between the truth and the lie is the subsequent knowledge of personal “Honour” or the misery of perpetual human “Degradation”. The dignity of our self-perception will forever thus depend on the way we respond.
(Written by: Brian Mark Hennessy – with apologies to Mr William Shakespeare – to whom I have to admit that “to be or not to be” has so much more of a “philosophical” ring about it!