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Excommunicated priest rejects Pope Francis, misconduct allegations

Denver Newsroom, Aug 11, 2020 / 01:47 pm (CNA).-  

A Sacramento priest excommunicated last week says he stands by his claim that Pope emeritus Benedict XVI is the true pope. In addition to charges of schism, the priest is suspected of misconduct and improper relationships with at least two adult women; he confessed his love to one of them in a video message circulating online.

“I continue to regard Benedict as retaining the Office of Peter, as mysterious as that might be. Therefore, I do not regard Bergoglio as the Supreme Pontiff of the Roman Catholic Church,” Fr. Jeremy Leatherby wrote this week in an open letter to the Sacramento diocese.

Leatherby added that although he was already prohibited from public ministry, he had been celebrating Masses in recent months in private homes, offered “in union with Pope Benedict, not with Pope Francis. Many who have joined me hold, like I do, that Benedict remains the one true Pope.”

On Aug. 7, Sacramento’s Bishop Jaime Soto announced that “by his words and actions” Leatherby was “in a state of schism with the Roman Catholic Church.”

Soto declared that the priest had incurred a latae sententiae excommunication. “This means that by his own volition he has separated himself from communion with the Roman Pontiff, Pope Francis, and other members of the Catholic Church,” the bishop said. He called on Leatherby to “repent of the harm he has inflicted on the Church.”

A formal declaration of a priest's excommunication is a rare phenomenon.

In a private Aug. 3 letter to Leatherby obtained by CNA, Soto urged the priest to change his ways before the excommunication was announced.

“I have received a number of testimonies reporting that you have offered Mass publicly in violation of my withdrawal of your faculties…In the exercise of these illicit rites…you have preached against the Holy Father and omitted the inclusion of his name and mine from the Eucharistic prayer.”

Soto added that he had heard recordings of the priest’s sermons, and both spoken telephonically and corresponded with the priest about those matters.

“Do not heed the voices or sentiments that have driven you to do this. These are not the fruit of the Holy Spirit. You are wounding the Church you have previously promised to serve. Your actions have placed you and others in grave moral danger. Listen to the voice of the Good Shepherd, in whose name I speak with fraternal solicitude.”

After the excommunication was announced, Leatherby, 41, said that he accepts the bishop’s judgment.

“Bishop Soto’s sentence of excommunication against me is consistent with my relationship with Jorge Bergoglio (Pope Francis), with whom I cannot morally, spiritually or intellectually, in good conscience, align myself,” he wrote.

“I deservedly incur excommunication if Bergoglio is indeed the valid Successor of Peter, and I am guilty of causing great division within the Mystical Body of Christ. However, I could not in good conscience do otherwise….When all is revealed, if I am mistaken, I will humbly repent of my sin and error, for I love the Holy Roman Catholic Church.”

Leatherby has been without an assignment in the diocese since March 2016. At that time, he was removed from ministry at a Sacramento parish, amid allegations that he had engaged in an inappropriate sexual relationship with a woman at the parish. He was prohibited from public ministry and his sacramental faculties were withdrawn.

Leatherby’s supporters claim those allegations were trumped up, as retaliation against his family, because the priest’s father, a deacon in the diocese, reported to Church authorities that some priests in the diocese were involved in a homosexual affair.

The Diocese of Sacramento told CNA that claim is “not true.”

“The original matter regarding Fr. Leatherby was triggered by an allegation of a ministerial boundary violation with an adult woman. We have no comment on rumors, theories, or complex, alternate explanations of this matter,” a diocesan spokesman told CNA Aug. 11.

The diocese did not say why the canonical case against Leatherby has taken years to adjudicate.

In August 2018, Sacramento’s vicar general sent a memo to diocesan priests, to address ”speculation” and “the length of time it has taken to resolve this case.”

According to the memo, Bishop Soto formally initiated a formal canonical process — presumably a canonical trial or an administrative penal process — against Leatherby, shortly after he was removed from parish ministry.

That canonical process stalled, the memo said, because “it took longer than we would have liked to assemble a panel of canonical experts independent of the diocese to address this case.”

But the process began moving forward in January 2018, according to the memo. The case “is still continuing, and is in the hands of other ecclesiastical authorities,” Soto said this week.

The diocese has declined requests from CNA for details regarding the status of the case, or the exact canonical crimes of which the priest is accused.

While the diocese has not commented on the allegations against Leatherby, parishioners say the charges have divided the Sacramento parish community, Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary, that Leatherby led as pastor until he was removed in 2016.

Leatherby had garnered a large following at the parish, especially attracting devoutly Catholic families as he worked to renew the parish school. But some parishioners say the priest’s leadership was marked with problems from the beginning.

Becky Jennings was a volunteer and parent at Presentation’s school during Leatherby’s tenure there. She said her family, like a lot of families, was attracted to the school because of the priest’s orthodoxy, dynamism, and pastoral attention to parish and school.

The Jennings trusted Fr. Leatherby, at first. They thought he was a faithful priest, and they were impressed by his courage and his kindness.

“In retrospect, there were a lot of things that should have been red flags. There were cult-like elements with Fr. Leatherby and his family,” Jennings told CNA.

She said that because Leatherby was pastorally available and engaged in parish and family lives, a “huge cult of personality formed around him.”

“We would have followed him off the end of the earth and trusted him.”

The priest “used to promote himself as an expert in women’s spirituality and women’s spiritual direction,” Jennings said, and the women he directed were fiercely loyal to him.

In her judgment, Leatherby “formed a ‘harem’ of spiritual directees around him, and used the idea that someone has to be loyal to their spiritual director to abuse and manipulate them,” Jennings said.

The diocese has not identified the woman who alleged misconduct in 2016. But parishioners, talking to one another on social media, have said she was a part of the parish community, a daily communicant, and a former employee of the parish.

When allegations regarding Leatherby emerged in 2016, Jennings said, many people had a hard time believing them, including her family.

It was “devastating,” she said. “We felt like he was the heart and soul of the community.”

But eventually Jennings started hearing stories from parishioners about inappropriate behavior from Leatherby, and those gave her pause. She said she began to believe that “Fr. Leatherby had us all taken in.”

Jennings added that even in his parish leadership, the priest had tried to sow suspicion of outsiders. In early 2016, she said, “there seemed to be growing paranoia that the diocese was out to get our school.” Leatherby, she said, was especially paranoid about losing control of decisions at the school.

Division in the parish is now stark, Jennings said, with some describing Leatherby as “narcissistic” and controlling, while others maintain the priest was persecuted by the Sacramento diocese. 

She said she doesn’t believe that Leatherby was removed as an act of retribution. “I think that was invented out of whole cloth,” Jennings told CNA, “or exaggerated.”

She emphasized that in her view, Leatherby’s family members, many of whom have been connected to the parish, are a “pr machine,” trying to promote the idea that the priest is the victim of persecution, “like a mafia,” Jennings added. Leatherby's defenders, Jennings said, have smeared the reputation of the priest's alleged victim within the parish community.

Jennings and her family eventually moved away from the parish, she told CNA.

Soto’s letter this week said the excommunication of Leatherby was not related to the 2016 canonical case. That case is not the only instance of suspected misconduct.

Earlier this year, a video circulated online in which Leatherby, who appeared to be driving a car at night, recorded a video message for an unidentified woman, who, according to Leatherby, is not the subject of the 2016 allegation.

“Hey, Baby Doll,” Leatherby says, as he begins the video.

“I love that without mascara that you are still strikingly beautiful. I love that. I love it, like, a lot. A lot a lot. I loved it earlier when I saw you, and you didn’t have it on, and I loved it all night long. ‘Til the present time, and you still don’t have it on, and you’re still gorgeous.”

After discussing an event he had attended that evening, Leatherby says in the video, “I love you, I love you, I love you, you’re my girl. I imagine I’ll still say a ‘good night’ before I really, really, really go to bed, but I love you, even now, before then. Ok, goodnight, I love you.”

Leatherby said this week that he accidentally sent that message to an unintended recipient, and acknowledged the video “appears to some as a confirmation that I must be guilty of every sensational detail that has been alleged about me,” the priest said.

The priest said his behavior in the video was inappropriate, but denied it is evidence of a sexual relationship with the woman.

According to Leatherby’s open letter, the video was intended for “a woman who is a friend and who has assisted me significantly to, literally, survive and persevere these last few years and to fight for my priesthood,” and was recorded “after too much to drink.”

“I spoke in inappropriate ways, unbecoming of my priestly state, even if on leave. Thus, it can be taken totally out of context. I do not have a sexual relationship with that woman,” he said, claiming that those circulating the video “are spreading one side of a story that you don’t know the truth about.”

His letter said that a “handful of detractors who are out to destroy me,” and are using the video irresponsibly. He also claimed that if he were inclined towards sexual immorality, “those pathologies would have been detected at the Saint John Vianney Treatment Center in Downingtown, PA, which I was required to attend for five months after being placed on leave. They dissected every aspect of my life and person.”

In 2018, Leatherby wrote to his former parishioners, whom he reportedly had been instructed by the diocese not to contact.

“At this time I feel called to exercise my spiritual fatherhood to a number of individuals like yourselves, for whom I have been a Pastor, spiritual father, or priest friend/acquaintance at one time or another. I believe that the times that our Lord, through our Blessed Mother, has been preparing the Church and the world for over the course of many years are hastening upon us.  She has said that it would be a time of great confusion and darkness, which we have all experienced in ways,” the priest wrote.

“My sense is that the times are going to get progressively darker.  There will be a cacophany (sic) of voices pulling us in one way or another.  We will be seeking to hear the voice of Christ in the midst of the clamor.  Stay close to sources that will offer authentic Catholic teaching,” he added.

This week, Leatherby said he plans to petition for laicization, because he is no longer “in union with the church over which Bergoglio reigns.” The priest said that he will “live out my priestly promises independently.”

If the priest is laicized, the canonical cases against him would likely conclude without formal resolution. The Sacramento diocese told CNA it will support Leatherby’s petition for laicization.

Through his canon lawyer, Leatherby declined CNA’s interview requests.


Back to Mass: South Dakota diocese lifts Sunday dispensation

CNA Staff, Aug 11, 2020 / 12:00 pm (CNA).- Some Catholics in South Dakota will once again be obligated to go to Sunday Mass, after the Diocese of Sioux Falls it will lift the dispensation on Sunday Mass attendance this week. 

From this weekend, Catholics in the diocese who are not in high-risk categories for contracting coronavirus will once more be bound by the Sunday obligation, making Sioux Falls the first diocese to lift the general dispensation brought in across U.S. dioceses in the wake of the pandemic.

“After receiving clarity through prayer, consultation with clergy and others, and in light of this data, effective on August 17, 2020, I am changing the dispensation to apply only to those at increased risk for severe illness and those responsible for their care,” said a statement from Bishop Donald DeGrood of Sioux Falls published on August 10. 

“It is important for all in the diocese to know that this modification is made out of pastoral concern for the souls entrusted to my spiritual care,” he added. 

DeGrood defined “those at increased risk for severe illness” as people who are over the age of 65, or anyone with cancer, chronic kidney disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, a compromised immune system due to an organ transplant, obesity, “serious heart conditions,” sickle cell disease, or type two diabetes mellitus. 

The decision by the Sioux Falls bishop, whose territory includes the the eastern half of the state, is believed to be the first of its kind. Even in dioceses where public Masses have resumed, there is still no obligation in place for everyone to attend Mass if they do not think it is safe to do so.

DeGrood said in the statement that he made the decision to reinstate the obligation in light of the relatively low impact the novel coronavirus has had on the state of South Dakota, especially as the predictions of overrun hospitals and deaths in the thousands failed to materialize. 

“As I have been praying these last months, I have been monitoring COVID-19 infection rates and am grateful the projected severe harm to a large number of people in East River South Dakota has not occurred,” said DeGrood. 

“The local data presently available is helpful. For example, as of August 10, of the 44 counties in our diocese, seven have no active cases, 22 have one to 10 active cases, and 15 have 11 or more active cases. Thanks be to God, the hospitals within our state have not suffered an overwhelming surge as was initially feared,” he added. 

As of August 10, there were 63 people hospitalized statewide with COVID-19, a number that DeGrood said represented “3% of the total hospital bed capacity, 3% of intensive care unit bed capacity, and 5% of ventilator capacity for the state.”

In the statement, DeGrood said that a Catholic who is hesitant to return to Mass, despite not being at an increased risk of COVID-19 or caring for someone who is severely ill--must discern whether or not their fear is “morally justifiable” or “inordinate.” 

“It is essential that these serious questions are discerned in prayer and that the decisions are made in good faith, based upon objective data,” said DeGrood. He listed the examples of “morally justified” fear that would merit skipping Mass to be “regular contact with a person with increased risk,” “recent, prolonged contact with a symptomatic person,” or someone who has “a significant emotional response from fear of contracting COVID-19.”  

DeGrood also reminded his flock in the statement about the importance of social distancing and “good hygienic practices” to further stop the spread of COVID-19. 

Public Masses resumed in the Diocese of Sioux Falls on May 15, approximately two months after they were suspended due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. 

A total of 146 South Dakotans have died from COVID-19. There are approximately 1,100 active cases of coronavirus statewide.

HK diocese promotes 'national identity', security law in Catholic schools

CNA Staff, Aug 11, 2020 / 11:00 am (CNA).- Catholic schools in Hong Kong have been told to explain the provisions of the new National Security Law and encourage patriotic values to students, according to the text of a letter sent by the Diocese of Hong Kong to nearly 200 schools.

The letter, signed by Peter Lau Chiu Yin, a layman who serves as the Episcopal Delegate for Education in the diocese, was addressed to principles and leaders of all Catholic primary and secondary schools and was first reported by the Hong Kong news service RTHK last week.

The schools are advised to offer instruction to students on the provisions of the National Security Law which came into force on July 1 of this year.

The new law criminalizes new categories of “secession,” “subversion,” “terrorism” and “collusion with foreign forces.” Anyone convicted under the law will receive a minimum of 10 years in prison, with the possibility of a life sentence. It was imposed on Hong Kong by the mainland legislature, bypassing Hong Kong’s own legislative process.

As part of helping students understand the new law’s provisions, teachers are to “foster the correct values on [students’] national identity” and to respect Chinese national symbols including the flag and national anthem, the letter said.

The letter also called for schools to put in place structures for evaluating “materials, assignments, examination papers and books” used by teachers to prevent “unilateral promotion of political messages, positions or views.”

A spokesman for the Diocese of Hong Kong told AsiaNews on Aug. 7 that the letter was intended as a “suggestion” and not an order, but that "students must be taught a correct understanding of national identity in accordance with the social teaching of the Church".

The new law has been widely perceived as an effective end to the civil liberties which Hong Kongers have enjoyed relative to the mainland under the “one country, two systems” policy adopted since the handover.

July 1, the first day the law was in force, is traditionally marked by pro-independence demonstrations in Hong Kong to mark the anniversary of the handover from Britain to China in 1997. This year, several demonstrators were arrested under the National Security Law’s provisions against secession and subversion, including for possession of signs that said “Free Hong Kong.”

On Aug. 10, police arrested several prominent democracy activists.

Agnes Chow, a 23-year-old Catholic with a history of student activism which she has credited to her education in Catholic Social Teaching, was arrested and charged under the National Security Law. Chow stood for elected office in Hong Kong but was barred from appearing on the ballot because of her advocacy for self-determination for Hong Kong. She was released on bail Tuesday.

Also arrested on the same day was Jimmy Lai, publisher of Apple Daily, a Chinese-language newspaper in Hong Kong known for its overt criticism of Hong Kong and mainland government action. Lai has reportedly been charged with “foreign collusion” under the new law.

Cardinal Joseph Zen, emeritus Bishop of Hong Kong and a strident critic of China’s infringement on civil and human rights, has said that he has “no confidence” that the new National Security Law will respect the religious freedom of Catholics.

Zen also told CNA in June that while many would find official diocesan support for the implementation of the law “disappointing,” “on the other hand, it will be a lot of trouble if we don’t support the government. We never know what they will do to our Church.”

The full text of the law was only made public the day before it came into force. Prior to that, Cardinal John Tong Hon, apostolic administrator of the Diocese of Hong Kong said that he believed that law would have “no effect on religious freedom.”

Cardinal Hon also rejected concerns that the diocese’s relationship with the Vatican could be termed “collusion with foreign forces” under the new law’s provisions.

The diocese, he said, “has always had a direct relationship with the Vatican; the relationship between the Hong Kong diocese and the Vatican should be regarded as an internal matter.” 

In the last few months, multiple reports have emerged that Chinese state-affiliated hackers have targeted the Hong Kong diocese and even the Vatican.

In July, technology publication ZDNet reported that hackers associated with the Chinese government have repeatedly attacked officials with the Diocese of Hong Kong with legitimate-looking documents that actually install malware on the user’s computer.

A second report, released July 28, said that hackers may have used a counterfeit condolence message from Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican Secretary of State, to gain access to Vatican communications ahead of talks to renew a “provisional agreement” between the Holy See and China, which was sealed in 2018 and expires in September.

Franciscans of Assisi report 18 coronavirus cases

Rome Newsroom, Aug 11, 2020 / 08:00 am (CNA).- While Assisi was largely sheltered from a major coronavirus outbreak during Italy’s lockdown, ten Franciscan friars and eight novices at the  landmark pilgrimage destination tested positive this week for COVID-19.

On Aug. 10, Fr. Enzo Fortunato, spokesman for the community at the Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi, said that all 18 men are in isolation and in good health. 

The first to test positive were Franciscan novices who arrived in Italy last week from France and other European countries to begin the novitiate year of their vocation. Fr. Fortunato stated that these newly arrived novices have had no contact with visiting pilgrims to Assisi.

“While wishing them a speedy recovery, the friars of the community continue their commitment by praying and welcoming pilgrims and tourists,” Fr. Fortunato wrote on the Assisi basilica’s website Monday.

The Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi, which contains the tomb of St. Francis, reopened May 18 with additional safety measures, including a mask requirement. 

The small town of Assisi has suffered economically from the loss of tourism. The city council reported that the number of tour busses arriving in the hilltown between March 7 and June 7 decreased by 2,751 compared to the previous year. 

Several events are planned to take place in Assisi this fall, including the beatification of Carlo Acutis on October 10 and “The Economy of Francesco” international summit, which has been postponed to November 21.

Umbria, the region in which Assisi is located, had one of the lowest number of coronavirus cases in Italy with a  total of 1,510 cases in 2020 compared with more than 10,000 in Tuscany and over 96,000 in Lombardy.

Throughout Italy this summer there have been concerns that European tourists could spread the coronavirus. Italy’s Health Minister Roberto Speranza also expressed concern over European contagion this week, after Italians tested positive for COVID-19 after returning from vacations in Croatia and Greece. 

France reported 1,695 new daily cases on Aug. 5 leading many of its cities to implement a mask requirement for streets surrounding tourist destinations. Spain also saw a spike in new coronavirus cases and now has the highest number of total cases in Western Europe. 

Italy reported 552 new daily coronavirus cases on Aug. 7 and 463 new cases on Aug. 9, according to its health ministry.

Deceased Massachusetts bishop accused of sexual abuse had roots in New York archdiocese

CNA Staff, Aug 11, 2020 / 04:00 am (CNA).- Archbishop-designate Mitchell Rozanski, who will take over the Archdiocese of St. Louis this month, oversaw an investigation into the late Bishop Christopher J. Weldon of Springfield, Mass, a bishop credibly accused of sexually abusing an altar boy in the 1960s. Rozanski has faced criticism for some aspects of his handling of the case, which the bishop said had been mishandled for years.

In 2018 an alleged victim, known under the pseudonym John Doe, told the Springfield diocesan review board that Bishop Christopher J. Weldon, who retired in 1977 and died in 1982, had abused him when he was an altar boy in the 1960s. Two priests also abused him, he said.

However, Bishop Weldon was not listed on the Springfield diocese’s list of clergy credibly accused of abuse. Although at least three witnesses and a letter to Doe from the review board supported Doe’s claim that he told the review board about Weldon, the review board only acknowledged Doe’s claim that the two priests had abused him. When the matter became controversial in 2019, then-Bishop Mitchell Rozanski commissioned an independent investigation.

On June 24, the diocese released a 373-page report finding that Doe’s claim he was molested by Bishop Weldon was “unequivocally credible.” It found an investigator employed by the diocese had produced two reports on Doe’s accusations, only one of which was clear in naming Weldon. The investigator is no longer employed by the diocese.

Rozanski apologized for the “chronic mishandling of the case, time and time again, since 2014.”

The Springfield diocese now lists Weldon on its list of credibly accused diocesan priests and deacons. While the list says the clergy “had one or more credible allegations of sexual abuse of a child made against them while they were living,” Weldon was not accused while he was alive.

The New York archdiocese does not include Weldon on its list of credibly accused priests, though he left the archdiocese in 1950. CNA has been unable to confirm whether the Archdiocese of New York or St. Patrick’s Cathedral, where he previously served as a priest, have been formally notified about the case.

CNA sought comment from the Diocese of Springfield, the Archdiocese of New York, and New York City’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral, but did not receive a response by deadline.

There are no consistent church norms regarding notification of a credible allegation of abuse when a priest or bishop is from another diocese.

Article 7 of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People says that dioceses are to be “open and transparent in communicating with the public about sexual abuse of minors by clergy within the confines of respect for the privacy and the reputation of the individuals involved.”

“This is especially so with regard to informing parish and other church communities directly affected by sexual abuse of a minor,” said the charter.

Weldon was ordained Bishop of Springfield in 1950, after coming to prominence in the Archdiocese of New York. He was ordained a priest for the archdiocese in 1929 and was a U.S. Navy chaplain during World War II. He then served as master of ceremonies under the deeply influential Cardinal Francis Spellman, who appointed him executive director of Catholic Charities of New York in 1947, his New York Times obituary reports.

He served as a trustee of the University of Massachusetts and was president of Elms College, a Catholic women’s liberal arts college in Chicopee, from 1958 to 1977.

Weldon’s alleged collaborators in abusing Doe were the priests Edward Authier, who died in 1970, and Clarence Forand, who died in May 2005 at the age of 87. Both served at St. Anne’s Parish in Chicopee.

In 1993 a diocesan review board ruled credible a 1992 allegation that Forand sexually abused a minor for nearly 10 years. Forand denied the accusation, which did not become public until 2004.

Authier’s name was not made public until the controversy over Doe’s accusation. The Springfield diocese’s website of priests credibly accused of abuse now lists the names of Weldon and Forand, but not Authier.

Weldon is not the first Springfield bishop to be accused of sexually abusing a minor.

In February 2004, Bishop Thomas Dupre resigned and left the state to check into a medical facility soon after being confronted by allegations he had sexually abused two teen boys in the 1970s.

In September 2004, he became the first Catholic bishop in the U.S. to be indicted on criminal charges for sexual abuse. While prosecutors argued the then-statutes of limitations did not apply to the case because Dupre allegedly took steps to conceal the abuse as recently as 2003, then-District Attorney William Bennett said the case would not go to trial due to the statute of limitations on some charges and because the grand jury decided not to indict on other charges, The Republican newspaper reported.

Dupre also came under criticism for his response to convicted sex abuser and laicized priest Richard L. Lavigne, a suspect in the unsolved 1972 murder of a Springfield altar boy named Daniel Croteau. The Vatican laicized the priest in 2004.

Dupre served the Springfield diocese as vicar general, chancellor and auxiliary bishop. When he was named an auxiliary bishop in 1990 and when he was named Bishop of Springfield in 1995, he allegedly called his victims to ensure they would not report abuse.

Some commentators believe both Weldon and Dupre controlled what information was kept in the diocesan archives, the Springfield newspaper The Republican reports.

Sexual abuse of minors in the Catholic Church peaked in the period from 1970 to 1974, according to the U.S. bishops’ reports on child protection. Thousands of victims have come forward and Catholic dioceses and religious orders have paid billions of dollars in lawsuits and other settlements.

Doe claimed that Weldon abused boys in collaboration with priests. A similar allegation has arisen in a recent lawsuit against ex-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, which characterized him as a leader of a “sex ring” with abusive priests while he was Bishop of Metuchen, N.J.

While McCarrick was removed from the College of Cardinals and laicized after a credible allegation against him was made public in 2018, the allegation concerning a “sex ring” has not yet been substantiated. It comes from controversial lawyer Jeff Anderson, whom critics consider to be a self-promoter who has sensationalized and embellished claims in order to attract media attention to litigation.

Like Weldon, McCarrick was among the hundreds of priests serving in the Archdiocese of New York. McCarrick was ordained an auxiliary bishop for the archdiocese in 1977.

Archbishop Gänswein: Benedict XVI’s 'illness is subsiding'

Rome Newsroom, Aug 11, 2020 / 03:30 am (CNA).- Benedict XVI’s personal secretary Archbishop Georg Gänswein has said that the pope emeritus’ illness is “subsiding.”

In an interview with the German newspaper Südkurier, Archbishop Gänswein is reported to have said that Benedict XVI’s “illness is subsiding” and that his medication has been reduced.

Benedict XVI has been suffering from facial shingles, a bacterial infection of the skin which causes a painful, red rash. "The pain started after the death of his brother,” Gänswein told Südkurier.

"Whilst very unpleasant and painful, the illness was not life-threatening,” the archbishop said in the article published Aug. 9.

“This is pain that I do not wish for my worst enemy,” Gänswein said.

The pope’s personal secretary gave the interview with German media while visiting his hometown of Riedern am Wald in the Black Forest.

After papal biographer Peter Seewald reported last week that the former pope has been “very frail” since his return from visiting his dying brother in Bavaria in June, the Vatican clarified on Aug. 3 that Benedict XVI’s health problems were “not serious.”

The Holy See press office said  "the health conditions of the pope emeritus are not of particular concern, except for those of a 93 year old who is going through the most acute phase of a painful, but not serious, disease."

Benedict XVI resigned from the papacy in 2013, citing advanced age and declining strength that made it difficult to carry out his ministry. He was the first pope to resign in nearly 600 years.

Seewald made the comments about Benedict XVI’s health after seeing him at his Vatican home in the Mater Ecclesia monastery on Aug. 1 where he presented a copy of his latest biography of the retired pope.  

The journalist said despite his illness, Benedict was optimistic and stated he might take up writing again if his strength returns. Seewald also said the former pope’s voice is now “barely audible.”

German media also reported Aug. 3 that Benedict has chosen to be buried in the former tomb of St. John Paul II in the crypt of St. Peter’s Basilica. The body of the Polish pope was moved into the upper part of the basilica when he was canonized in 2014.

Like John Paul II, Benedict XVI has written a spiritual testament which can be published after his death.

Federal court rules Arkansas abortion restrictions can take effect

CNA Staff, Aug 10, 2020 / 06:01 pm (CNA).- A federal court of appeals has removed an injunction blocking four Arkansas abortion regulations from going into effect.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit ruled Friday to reinstate the 2017 Arkansas laws. They can take effect August 28, although they may still face legal challenge.

The laws include a ban on abortions based solely on the sex of the baby, and two regulations on the preservation and disposal of tissue from aborted babies, as well as legislation prohibiting a second-trimester abortion method known as “dilation and evacuation,” by which an unborn baby is dismembered.

A district judge had blocked the rules following a legal challenge from the ACLU and the Center for Reproductive Rights on behalf of a local abortion doctor.

The appeals court said the district judge should re-examine the case in light of the Supreme Court’s ruling earlier this summer in June Medical Services v. Russo.

While that decision struck down a law regulating abortion clinics in Louisiana, the appeals court said Chief Justice John Robert’s concurrence in the case may be relevant to the Arkansas legislation in question. Roberts said states have “wide discretion to pass legislation in areas where there is medical and scientific uncertainty.”

Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge applauded the ruling.

“Arkansas has taken a strong stance to protect the unborn from inhumane treatment,” she said in an August 7 statement.

“As Arkansas’s chief legal officer, I have always advocated for the lives of unborn children and will continue to defend our State’s legal right to protect the unborn. No defenseless baby should ever face the unimaginable and horrifying fate of death by dismemberment.”

Argentine bishop says Vatican ordered seminary closed

Denver Newsroom, Aug 10, 2020 / 04:34 pm (CNA).- An Argentine bishop said Friday the seminary in his diocese was ordered closed last month by a decision of the Vatican’s Congregation for Clergy, after a controversy surrounding the reception of the Eucharist during the coronavirus pandemic.

Bishop Eduardo Maria Taussig of San Rafael said Aug. 7 that the Santa Maria Madre de Dios Seminary in Mendoza, Argentina was ordered to close in December, at the conclusion of the academic year, by the Congregation for Clergy, and not the Diocese of San Rafael.

"The decision took me by surprise, but it is a directive that comes directly from the Holy See,” Taussig said.

The bishop said the decision to close the seminary was deeply upsetting, and he has since been discussing with the Vatican where the former students of the school will be sent to in order to continue their studies.

Each seminary transfer will be made on an individualized basis, Taussig said to local media on Friday.

“We are going to discern for each [seminarian] and decide the most appropriate school and timeline for their transfer. Some will go to Mendoza, to San Juan. We will see these changes in the coming weeks.”

As many offices in Rome are closed during the month of August, those talks will continue in early September, said Taussig.

Taussig said that the Vatican’s decision to close the seminary was made in early July, in a move that took him by surprise.

The bishop said that the Congregation for the Clergy informed him that due to the trouble the seminary had maintaining a rector--having had seven in the past 15 years--it did not seem worth it to keep the seminary open.

Taussig said that he spoke for an hour with Cardinal Stella, and on July 8 he received a letter from the Congregation for the Clergy which stated “the need to close the diocesan Seminary at the end of the academic semester.”

“As a bishop, I know that when Rome has spoken, the discussion is over.”

“We bishops make a promise of fidelity and obedience to the Holy Father,” said Taussig, adding that the Vatican has many perspectives to consider when making decisions, and that these decisions were made in light of similar situations around the world.

The diocese announced the closure July 25, and the bishop noted at that time “difficulties that the diocese is going through were taken into consideration, in the context of the measures related to COVID-19 prevention,  and the reluctance or lack of obedience to the provisions that had been established.”

A large number of the priests in San Rafael have not complied with COVID-19 directives regarding the distribution of communion in the hand, among them many former students of the Santa Maria Madre de Dios seminary, which has been seen by some to be behind the priest’s “reluctance” to require communion in the hand, the bishop said.

This refusal to comply had caused “serious scandal inside and outside the seminary and diocese,” said Taussig. 

Taussig said that reception of the Eucharist in the hand or on the tongue are both equally accepted by the Church.


A version of this story was first published by ACI Prensa, CNA's Spanish-language news partner. It has been translated and adapted by CNA.



Catholic priest in Australia says grace helped him save surfer in shark attack

CNA Staff, Aug 10, 2020 / 02:48 pm (CNA).- Fr. Liam Ryan, a long-time surfer, was on vacation visiting his best friend in Western Australia when, on the afternoon of July 31, he noticed a fellow surfer in distress.

“I saw him off his board, looking really lost and there was half a board floating there,” Ryan, 33, told The Catholic Leader, the publication of the Archdiocese of Brisbane.

Ryan was surfing at Bunker Bay, about 60 miles southwest of Bunbury.

Ryan said it was ominously quiet before the great white shark, which had bitten Phil Mummert’s board in half, resurfaced to continue its attack.

“And then we saw this huge breach. The shark rolled onto him… and then went back under,” Ryan told The Catholic Leader.

According to Mummert and witnesses, Mummert used half of his broken board to try and beat the shark away, and pummeled the shark’s head with his bare hands, local news station 7News Perth reported.

Ryan later told 7News Perth that the shark, which was approximately 13-16 feet long, was “big enough to make grown men cry.”

“I started screaming ‘help him, help him,’” Ryan told The Catholic Leader.

Fortunately the priest’s calls for help were heard by another nearby surfer, Alex Oliver, who swam towards Mummert and hoisted him on his longboard, which he and Ryan then paddled to shore.

According to The Catholic Leader, Mummert was “bleeding profusely” by the time they reached shore, having sustained deep shark bites in his upper leg.

“As soon as we got into the shallows, someone clamped the wound with his hand to slow the bleeding,” Fr. Ryan said.

Ryan said once Mummert had been airlifted to the hospital, he took a “quiet moment of solitude in the sand dunes.”

“I had a little bit of a cry, and just blessed the Lord,” he told The Catholic Leader. Mummert’s partner Misha Wright told The Catholic Leader that she credits Ryan for saving Mummert’s life.

“Not only did he risk his own life to help save Phil’s, he then sprinted all the way to the end of the beach to tell me what happened and got everyone else out of the water,” she said.

“I honestly don’t know how a person can see a total stranger getting attacked by a four metre great white shark and swim towards to save him so we are beyond grateful to everyone that helped save Phil’s life.”

Mummert was back home and on crutches by Aug. 3, when he was reunited with Ryan, Oliver, and several others who helped save his life.

“Just the definition of heroes, isn’t it? I mean they risked their own lives to come help me out,” Mummert told 7News Perth.

Ryan told The Catholic Leader that he didn’t hesitate to help.

“There’s something deep inside you that wants to help,” he said. “Christianity is built on that principle of someone giving their life for you.”

“You come face to face with what would be one of the greatest fears for a lot of people, a lot of surfers… but what gives you strength in that moment is the grace of God,” he said.

Ryan added that he didn’t want the experience to stop him from surfing and enjoying the water, which has always been one of his favorite ways to relax and enjoy God’s creation. He said he went back to the same beach the next day to offer Morning Prayer and Mass.

“I didn’t want that one event, traumatic as it was, to take away all that surfing has meant to me – all the good surfs and the people I’ve met,” he said.

Ryan was ordained in August 2019 after having attended the Redemptoris Mater Seminary in Perth. Fatal shark attacks in Australian waters are rare, with the country averaging 1.1 deaths from shark attacks per year. This year has already seen an above-average shark attack fatality rate, with 5 deaths so far in 2020.

HK Catholic activists arrested, US lawmakers sanctioned in China crackdown

CNA Staff, Aug 10, 2020 / 11:30 am (CNA).- Chinese authorities arrested pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong and imposed new sanctions on American lawmakers August 10, as part of an apparent crackdown on civil liberties in Hong Kong.

Prominent democracy activists were arrested and charged for violating Hong Kong’s new national security law Monday, including Agnes Chow, a 23-year-old Catholic democracy activist. Chow has been outspoken in her support for civil rights in the former British colony.

Chow is a former candidate for elected office in Hong Kong but was barred from appearing on the ballot because of her advocacy for self-determination for Hong Kong. She is also the founder and a former leader of Demosisto, a pro-democracy political party which was disbanded shortly before the new law came into effect.

On July 1, the National Security Law went into effect in Hong Kong, having been imposed on the territory by the mainland government, bypassing the Hong Kong legislature. 

Under the new law, a person who is convicted of secession, subversion, terrorism or collusion with foreign forces will receive a minimum of 10 years in prison, with the possibility of a life sentence. The law’s broad definition of terrorism includes arson and vandalizing public transportation “with an intent to intimidate the Hong Kong government or Chinese government for political purposes,” while secession charges can be brought for displaying or announcing slogans such as “Free Hong Kong.”

The law has been harshly criticized by the leaders of several Western countries, as well as some Catholic leaders, as the end of the “one country, two systems” policy agreed at the time of Hong Kong’s handover from Great Britain. 

Chow’s arrest was first reported Monday by Nathan Law, a former leader of Demosisto with Chow. Hong Kong Standard later reported she had been detained for “inciting secession.” Chow was already facing charges related to her participation in anti-government protests last year.

Also arrested on the same day was Jimmy Lai, publisher of Apple Daily, a Chinese-language newspaper in Hong Kong known for its overt criticism of Hong Kong and mainland government action. Lai has reportedly been charged with “foreign collusion” under the new law.

The arrests came on the same day as China announced new sanctions against U.S. lawmakers, after the Trump administration issued sanctions against Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam last week.

Senators Marco Rubio (R-FL), Ted Cruz (R-TX), Tom Cotton (R-AR), Josh Hawley (R-MO), and Pat Toomey (R-PA), as well as Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ) were all subject to new sanctions and travel bans issued by Beijing following their outspoken support for democracy in Hong Kong and against China’s mass internment of Uyghurs in a network of concentration camps in Xinjiang province. 

On August 7, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin announced sanctions against Lam for her role in bringing the new national security law into effect in Hong Kong and “undermining [Hong Kongers’] autonomy.”

“In response to that wrong U.S. behavior, China has decided to impose sanctions on individuals who have behaved egregiously on Hong Kong-related issues,” said Zhao Lijian, China’s foreign ministry spokesman during a briefing on Monday announcing the sanctions.

While the Chinese government acted against several legislators, no action was announced against officials of the Trump administration, despite the Treasury Secretary’s Aug. 7 announcement.

Additional Chinese sanctions were announced against several NGOs, including the leaders of the National Endowment for Democracy; the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs; the International Republican Institute; Freedom House; and Human Rights Watch.

Details of the sanctions’ provision were not announced.

Rubio, Cruz, and Smith were also the subject of earlier sanctions and bans on traveling to China issued in July. Those sanctions were related to their statements against China’s persecution of the Uyghur population.