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Polish bishops pledge greater sensitivity for abuse victims

Warsaw, Poland, May 24, 2019 / 11:34 am (CNA).- The bishops of Poland are speaking out against sexual abuse, pledging to continue to “eliminate factors conducive to crime” as well as to adopt a more sensitive attitude toward victims than in the past.

“We admit that as shepherds of the Church we have not done everything to prevent these harms,” the bishop’s conference of Poland wrote in a May 22 letter to be read at Masses May 26.

“For many believers, especially for young people sincerely seeking God, sexual scandals involving clergy become a hard test of faith and a reason for great scandal. Disappointment and indignation is all the bigger and more painful that children, instead of caring love and accompaniment in seeking the nearness of Jesus, experienced violence and brutal depravation [sic] of the dignity of the child.”

The bishops’ May 22 letter was prompted, in part, by a documentary released on YouTube earlier this month which presents allegations that abusive priests were shifted between parishes, and shows people confronting elderly priests alleged to have abused them as children. The film has nearly 21 million views.

The motion picture has prompted a nationak conversation in Poland, with Jaroslaw Kaczynski, head of the ruling Law and Justice party, promising harsher punishment for child abusers in reaction to the film, floating the idea of 30-year prison sentences.

“The film, taking into account the perspective of the victims, made us all aware of the magnitude of their suffering,” the bishops wrote.

“Anyone who is sensitive, learning the fate of the victims, experiences pain, emotion and sadness for their suffering. We thank to everyone who had the courage to tell about their suffering. We are aware of the fact that no word is able to reward them for the harms they have suffered.”

A study commissioned by the Polish bishops' conference and released this March revealed nearly 400 Polish priests were accused of sexual abuse of more than 600 people from 1990 until 2018. Just over half of reported victims were under the age of 15. Archbishop Stanislaw Gadecki of Poznan, president of the Polish bishops' conference, called the report’s findings “tragic.”

The bishops urged victims of abuse by clergy to report their experience to both Church and state authorities, and a delegate has been appointed for each Polish diocese and most religious provinces to receive reports of abuse and “to help in obtaining psychological, legal and pastoral support.”

The bishops also stressed a need for greater sensitivity for victims and their suffering, citing lessons they learned from hearing the confessions of victims, whom they said need “great sensitivity and support to find the balance of life.”

They expressed support for Pope Francis’ May 7 motu proprio Vos estis lux mundi, which mandates the reporting of sexual abuse and provides for punishment for Church authories who fail to do so. The motu proprio also puts the metropolitan archbishop in charge of investigations of accusations against suffragan bishops.

The bishops also laid out some of the measures they are taking in Poland to address the problem of abuse, including abuse prevention training programs for dioceses and religious congregations.

“Let us not let the good, that is done in the Church through their ministry, be obscured by the sins of particular persons,” the bishops urged.

“On the principle of collective responsibility, let us not also convey the guilt of particular people in cassocks to all priests. These people committed these acts and they should be punished for their actions. Let us support in these difficult times the priests who work with sacrifice so that they don’t lose their enthusiasm and receive encouragement from the lay faithful.”

Pope Francis urges Catholics to help children by supporting adoption

Vatican City, May 24, 2019 / 10:39 am (CNA).- Adoption is often a difficult and bureaucratic process, but there are many children who need homes and the Church should step up to help them, Pope Francis said Friday.

Speaking May 24 to employees and patients of an Italian hospital for abandoned children, he said, “so many times there are people who want to adopt children, but there is such enormous bureaucracy,” such as high fees or, at worst, corruption.

“[There are] many, many families who do not have children and would certainly have the desire to have one with adoption,” he continued. “Go forward, to create a culture of adoption, because there are so many abandoned children, alone, victims of war and so on.”

Pope Francis spoke about adoption in unprepared remarks during a Vatican meeting with 70 employees and children from the 600-year-old Hospital of the Innocents in Florence.

In both his casual remarks and a prepared speech, the pope referenced a past practice of some mothers when they abandoned a child at a hospital. They would leave with their newborns “medals broken in half, with which they hoped, by presenting the other half, to be able to recognize their children in better times.”

Today there continue to be many children who are alone, he added, whether victims of unaccompanied migration, of war, of hunger: “Children with half a medal.”

“And who has the other half? Mother Church,” he underlined. “We have the other half.”

“We need to reflect and make people understand that we are responsible for this other half and help make today another ‘home of the innocents,’ more global, with the attitude of adoption.”

Francis also said there must be a goal, at various levels of responsibility, of ensuring “no mother finds herself in a position of having to abandon her child.”

“But we must also ensure that in the face of any event, even tragic, that may detach a child from her parents, there are structures and paths of welcome in which childhood is always protected and cared for, in the only way worthy: giving children the best we can offer them,” he said.

The pope said children are among the most fragile members of society, such as those who are rejected, or who face “desperate journeys to escape hunger or war.”

Speaking about abortion, he said there are “children who do not see the light because their mothers suffer economic, social, cultural conditioning that pushes them to give up that wonderful gift that is the birth of a child.”

“How much we need a culture that recognizes the value of life, especially the weak, threatened, abused,” he said, adding that the Church should be concerned with creating a culture of care and beauty, not exclusion.

“A culture,” he argued, “that recognizes in every face, even the smallest, the face of Jesus: ‘Whoever welcomes one child like this in my name, welcomes me.’”

California advances bill to violate sacramental seal

Sacramento, Calif., May 24, 2019 / 09:38 am (CNA).- State senators in California have voted to approve a law that would require priests to violate the seal of confession. Senate Bill 360 passed Thursday by an overwhelming margin, with legislators voting 30-2 in favor of the measure.

The bill would require priests to report any knowledge or suspicion of child abuse gained while hearing the confession of another priest or colleague.

In a statement released Friday, Los Angeles Archbishop Jose Gomez said he was “deeply disappointed” by the result and insisted that strong child protection measures did not require the violation of the sanctity of the sacrament of confession.

A previous draft of the law would have compelled the violation of the sacramental seal any time a priest came to suspect abuse from any penitent. In a statement released Monday, Gomez acknowledged the changes but said that “no government, for whatever reason, should violate the privacy and confidentiality of that sacred conversation.”

“SB 360 still denies the sanctity of confession to every priest in the state and to thousands of Catholics who work with priests in parishes and other Church agencies and ministries.”

The sacramental seal is covered by civil law in many jurisdictions around the world. The “clergy-penitent privilege” is widely regarded as a fundamental exercise of religious liberty.

The bill’s sponsor, California state Senator Jerry Hill (D-Calif. 13), has claimed that “the clergy-penitent privilege has been abused on a large scale, resulting in the unreported and systemic abuse of thousands of children across multiple denominations and faiths.”

The senator has claimed that such abuse has been revealed through “recent investigations by 14 attorneys general, the federal government, and other countries.”

Despite the volume of investigations into the clerical sexual abuse crisis no data exists establishing or indicating the use of sacramental confession either to facilitate or perpetuate the sexual abuse of minors.

Critics of the proposed legislation have noted that sacramental confession between accomplices is invalid unless in imminent danger of death, as is the absolution of a penitent who intends to reoffend.

Similar legislation is currently under consideration in Western Australia, following the recommendations of a Royal Commission report into clerical sexual abuse.

While the commission's executive summary states that "the practice of the sacrament of reconciliation (confession) contributed... to inadequate institutional responses to abuse," it does not provide data detailing the frequency of that contribution.

South Australia and the Northern Territory have already passed similar laws mandating that clergy report suspected abuse in violation of the seal of confession.

Despite the interventions of Perth Archbishop Timothy Costelloe SDB, Western Australia’s Child Protection Minister, Simone McGurk, said the matter was non-negotiable.

"I've received calls from the Archbishop of Perth, as has the [Prime Minister], but we think the time for discussion about this has passed,” McGurk said.

“I understand that is the Catholic Church's position, however as a Government we have an obligation to put in place laws and to implement those laws to make sure that children in our community are safe and that is what we are doing."

Canon law describes the seal of the confessional to be “inviolable”, and priests are “absolutely forbidden” to disclose the sins of a penitent “in any way, for any reason.” Violation of the seal by a priest is a grave crime against the faith and is punished by an automatic excommunication which can be augmented with other penalties, including dismissal from the clerical state.  

Former airline pilot appointed to lead diocese of Saginaw, MI

Vatican City, May 24, 2019 / 04:53 am (CNA).- Pope Francis Friday named Bishop Robert D. Gruss of Rapid City, South Dakota, the next bishop of the Diocese of Saginaw, Michigan.

In Saginaw, Gruss succeeds Bishop Joseph Robert Cistone, who died Oct. 16, 2018 at the age of 69, after a battle with lung cancer. Bishop Walter A. Hurley, bishop emeritus of Grand Rapids, has overseen the administration of the diocese since Cistone’s death.

Gruss, 63, was bishop of Rapid City since 2011, where he led 25,000 Catholics across an area of around 43,000 square miles. In March 2019, the bishop announced the diocese would be celebrating a “Year of the Eucharist” beginning June 23.

A native of Arkansas, he was ordained to the priesthood for the Diocese of Davenport, Iowa in 1994, after a career as a commercial airline pilot and aviation instructor.

During his seminary formation, Gruss was a student at the Pontifical North American College in Rome (PNAC), studying sacred theology. He also received a master’s degree in spiritual theology.

He was the vice rector and director of human formation at the PNAC from 2007 to 2010, before returning to serve as pastor of Sacred Heart Cathedral in Davenport, Iowa.

In 2017, as the bishop of Rapid City, Gruss opened the cause for canonization of Nicholas Black Elk, a Lakota medicine man turned Catholic catechist who died in 1950.

If Black Elk is canonized, he will be the first official saint from the Diocese of Rapid City, according to his biography on the diocese website.

“From a very young age, there was an openness to the Spirit of God in his life,” Gruss said about Black Elk at the Mass for the opening of his cause. “God used a personal invitation from a Jesuit priest to lead this child of God, Black Elk, down a new path to becoming this great disciple in the Catholic faith for the Lakota people.”

Gruss’ installation Mass is set for July 26 in Saginaw.

The Diocese of Saginaw spans 11 counties and 6,955 square miles in mid-Michigan, and has around 100,000 Catholics.

Pro-life student group wins affiliation at Scottish university

Aberdeen, Scotland, May 24, 2019 / 01:01 am (CNA).- A pro-life group at the University of Aberdeen has been granted affiliation by the school's student association, a month after filing a lawsuit charging unlawful discrimination.

“This week, the Aberdeen University Students’ Association (AUSA) informed us that our society application has been approved, which means we have officially received affiliation,” the Aberdeen Life Ethics Society said May 17. “This is a long-awaited result to a seemingly endless battle, but we could not be more pleased to have won affiliation.”

In October Ausa had prevented the affiliation of Ales, citing its own pro-choice policy. The move limited Ale's access to funds and venues at the university.

After failing to have the policy changed, Ales filed a lawsuit April 12 against Ausa and the university, “alleging unlawful discrimination against the society and the violation of rights protected by UK law.” The suit will continue.

In its statement announcing its affiliation, Ales welcomed the assistance of both “free speech enthusiasts and pro-life advocates”, naming in particular Christian Concern and the Christian Legal Centre.

“We are grateful for the numerous pro-life students at Aberdeen who have reached out to us over the last several months because they are interested in getting involved with the society,” the group added. “Our ranks have swelled with students who are passionately committed to the pro-life cause and who will lead this society in the years to come.”

Ales stated: “We look forward to actively engaging with the student body and working to foster a civil yet honest conversation about the vitally important ethical issues surrounding human life. While there are some intolerant students who wanted our society to fail … we truly believe that there are many more students on this campus who are willing to take a fair-minded approach to this debate. These are the students we’ve heard from all along the way – they may not agree with our position, but they adamantly believe that we should be free to espouse our beliefs on campus.”

Ausa had adopted a pro-choice policy in 2017, on which basis Ales' affiliation was rejected in October 2018. The policy says, in part, that “Ausa should oppose the unreasonable display of pro-life material within campus and at Ausa events.”

The pro-life group said that the pro-choice policy was “being used as political cover to ban student speech on campus, it also treats the student body as undivided on the issue of abortion.”

In its lawsuit last month, Ales charged that the no platform policy violates the Equality Act 2010 and the Human Rights Act 1998 by restricting “the freedoms of association and belief for certain students on the basis of an ideological litmus test.”

A spokesperson for the the University of Aberdeen has commented that it is “an inclusive community and recognises different beliefs, values and cultures.”

Pro-life groups at other Scottish universities have faced similar problems.

Last year the the University of Strathclyde (in Glasgow) lifted a ban on pro-life groups following legal pressure. Strathclyde Sudents for Life argued that the student associaton's no platforming policy violated the Equality Act 2010 “by directly discriminating against a group of students based on their beliefs.”

Glasgow Students for Life were barred from affiliation by the Glasgow University's Students' Representative Council last November.

In March 2018 a joint committee on human rights of the UK parliament noted troubling barriers to free speech at the nation's universities, writing: “Whilst the original intention behind safe space policies may have been to ensure that minority or vulnerable groups can feel secure, in practice the concept of safe spaces has proved problematic, often marginalising the views of minority groups.”