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The Vatican has been reining in the progressive leadership of American nuns, creating a political test of wills over the future of a faith with one billion adherents worldwide as it braces for an historic papal transition. Described as a modern ‘Inquisition,’ this punitive campaign against the nuns lands on the 50th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council and raises fundamental questions about the mission of a global church and the role of nuns who were inspired by Vatican II in taking the social justice gospel directly to the world’s poor.

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Former archbishop of Boston Cardinal Bernard Law (C) attends a mass held by Pope Benedict XVI with newly appointed cardinals at the St. Peter's Basilica on November 25, 2012 in Vatican City, Vatican. (Franco Origlia/Getty Images)

Bishops investigating US nuns have poor records on sex abuse cases

Vatican selections include bishops and cardinals who protected pedophile priests.

VATICAN CITY — From its 17th century palace, the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith monitors compliance with Roman Catholic moral teaching and matters of dogma for the oldest church in Christendom.

These issues have little bearing on most of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics. Faith, for them, rests in parish life and the quality of their pastors. In the 1980s, for example, when the CDF punished theologians who dissented from the papal ban on birth control devices, the 85 percent of Catholics who support contraception did not change their opinion.

But as the CDF accelerates a disciplinary action against the main leadership group of American nuns, many sisters and priests are reacting to a climate of fear fostered by bishops and cardinals who have never been investigated by the church for their role in the greatest moral crisis of modern Catholicism: the clergy sex abuse crisis.

As the Vatican lowers a curtain of scrutiny across communities of religious women in America, a small but resonant chorus of critics is raising an issue of a hypocrisy that has grown too blatant to ignore. The same hierarchy that brought shame upon the Vatican for recycling clergy child molesters, a scandal that rocked the church in many countries, has assumed a moral high ground in punishing the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, a group whose members have put their lives on the line in taking the social justice agenda of the Second Vatican Council to some of the poorest areas in the world. 

Many nuns from foreign countries wonder if the investigation is an exercise “in displaced anger,” as one sister puts it, for the hierarchy’s failure in child abuse scandals across the map of the global church.

“Is the church saying that such men are no longer a public threat to children?”
~John Marshall Lee, Voice of the Faithful

Cardinals and bishops involved in the LCWR investigation have suffered no discipline for their blunders in their handling of clergy pedophiles, according to news reports and legal documents.

Cardinal Bernard Law was the prime mover behind the “apostolic visitation” of all American nun communities, other than monastic ones, and the subsequent CDF investigation of the LCWR, according to sources in Rome, including Cardinal Franc Rodé, the retired prefect of the congregation that oversees religious orders.

Law, who refused to comment for this article, has not spoken to the press in 10 years. He resigned as Boston archbishop in December 2002 and spent 18 months living at a convent of nuns in Maryland, with periodic trips to Rome. In 2004, the Vatican rewarded him with a position as prefect of Santa Maria Maggiore, a historic basilica; he took an active role in several Roman Curia boards, and became a fixture on the social circuit of embassies in Rome. Boston was a staggering mess.

Abuse settlements there have cost $175 million. Mass attendance since 2002 has dropped from 45 percent to 16 percent. Declining financial support has caused a storm of church closings, from 400 parishes in 2002 to 135 today.

Six years after Law found redemption in Rome, clergy abuse cases exploded in Europe.

“You have suffered grievously and I am truly sorry,” Pope Benedict XVI wrote to Catholics of Ireland in a letter on March 19, 2010, as the Irish reeled from a government report on a history of bishops concealing clergy predators. “Your trust has been betrayed and your dignity has been violated,” the pope continued. “You find it hard to forgive or be reconciled with the Church. In her name, I openly express the shame and remorse that we all feel. At the same time, I ask you not to lose hope.”

Despite the uncommon tone of contrition, the pope’s letter offered no procedures to remove complicit bishops or genuine institutional reform.

On April 4, 2010, as cases of clergy abuse in other countries shook the European heartland, the German newsmagazine Der Spiegel criticized Benedict for “reluctance to take a firm stance ... [on] a crisis for the entire Catholic Church, a crisis that is now descending upon the Vatican with a vengeance and hitting its spiritual leader hard.”

Two years later, the drumbeat of criticism has subsided; but the core problem is unchanged. Under the logic of apostolic succession, in which each bishops stands as a descendant of Jesus’s apostles, the power structure gives de facto immunity to cardinals and bishops for gross violations