Abuse survivor Peter Saunders has used his position on the Vatican Commission for the Protection of Minors to generate media condemnation of Cardinal George Pell.
Nearly all prisoners, especially those rendered powerless in the face of injustice, describe vivid and haunting dreams behind the stone walls that imprison them. My mental library contains twenty-one years of such dreams. Some seem so real that they appear like images in one of those old Viewmasters, a toy sold circa 1960. It was a small, plastic binocular device. Pop in a round disc of tiny slides, and scenes appear in living, three dimensional color.
I haven’t seen a Viewmaster in 54 years, and even though I am colorblind since birth, my prison dreams are like that – very vivid and real – and some are scary. I described them once in a TSW post entitled, “What Dreams May Come: Azazel and the Pursuit of Justice.” Many of my dreams are connected somehow with priesthood, with the matter of justice and its necessary companion, mercy, and with the nature of injustice which denies and suppresses mercy. For mercy is the one thing that exposes injustice.
It is the experience of injustice and the denial of mercy that generate the most memorable and awful dreams for a prisoner. I had one during Holy Week this year that tried to rob me of peace and hope for a time, but its power slowly diminished so I can now write about it.
In the dream, I wandered alone in a barren and endless desert landscape. A heavy bell strapped around my neck rang out with every step I took, and I could not remove it. I was lost. There were no landmarks or footprints in the sand – not even my own – and there was no way out.
On a mound in the center of the scene before me stood a black figure, waiting to receive me. It was Azazel himself, the demon of the desert to whom the scapegoat was exiled carrying the sins of Israel to mark the Day of Atonement, one of Israel’s High Holy Days. Its origin is described in the Book of Leviticus (16:8-10, 20-28). The Apocryphal book, 1 Enoch describes Azazel as a fallen angel who dwells in the desert. I’ve met him.
In my awful dream, Azazel’s bearing was not so much black as the absence of any light. Even in the desert sun of my dream, he was more like a hole in space ready to receive me. When he reached for me, it was like the way a “dementor” was described in one of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter novels. When I awoke I couldn’t breathe, and felt as though I may never feel happiness again. There’s nothing Messianic about this dream. Our age requires many scapegoats.
I prayed the Prayer to Saint Michael, and not for the first time in the middle of the night in prison. I felt afraid to go back to sleep. Day came, and then night, and I was still afraid to sleep. I have prayed to be delivered from that dream, and Azazel has not yet come back. I have found that if I write of these dreams, they don’t come back. They don’t go away either. They just sort of morph into some other scene.
Other “merciless” dreams are less scary, but still filled with meaning, and a few are downright hilarious. In one of the latter, I was sitting in this cell doing what I am doing right now – typing a TSW post. I heard my name blasted on the prison P.A. system that, even after 21 years, still makes me jump: “MACRAE! REPORT TO THE OFFICE.”
There I was told that I must report immediately to the prison Visiting Room. I was unshaven, coffee stains on my shirt, buttons missing, and one of my shoes had a hole that made my toes show. I was a mess as I walked across the long, walled prison yard to the Visiting Room, conscious of armed guards in the towers haunting my steps.
When I arrived, the scene was chaotic. A phalanx of prison guards lined both sides of the large room, but no sign of other prisoners. I spotted the Warden, then the Governor. A dozen Secret Service agents eyed me suspiciously as I stood at the entrance. Then, from a door at the opposite end emerged none other than Pope Francis himself, his smiling demeanor a stark contrast to the somber anxiety surrounding him – just like real life.
A Secret Service agent walked toward me. “Why are you here?” he asked in a low voice. “I was summoned,” I said as I nodded toward the Pope. The agent looked puzzled. “He’s not here to see you,” he said. “He’s here to see Pornchai Moontri!”
I awoke laughing, and when I told Pornchai of the dream, we both laughed. Had that dream been real, I would have been happier at the Pope’s acknowledgment of Pornchai than me. Since then, I learned that Pope Francis indeed plans to visit the imprisoned. As I write this, he is in South America with a visit to a Bolivian prison on his itinerary. During his U.S visit in September, according to his published schedule, he will visit the Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility near Philadelphia. I am proud of him. Might our bishops take note?
It was to that very facility that Philadelphia Monsignor William Lynn was returned on May 1, 2015, when the prosecutor won an appeal against the judge who overturned Msgr. Lynn’s conviction and released him. I wrote of this story in “Trophy Justice The Philadelphia Msgr William Lynn Case.” The injustice without mercy in that story is profound, and it has many echoes.
One of them was a story I documented in “A Rolling Stone Gathers No Facts, Just Dirt.” It was about the death of an apparently innocent priest, Father Charles Engelhardt, who died chained to a bunk in a Pennsylvania prison some months ago. Before Rolling Stone’s Sabrina Rubin Erdeley wrote the now famous, but false story of “Jackie” last year, she was conned by “Billy Doe,” and published a 2011 article that helped send Father Engelhardt to prison.
I was sickened to learn that Monsignor William Lynn was returned to prison in this case despite mounting evidence that the priests he supposedly failed to “turn in” were actually innocent – the late Father Engelhardt among them. This was a lesson in modern criminal injustice. You see, prosecutors can also appeal judge’s rulings, and they can do so with almost unlimited resources – your tax dollars – to keep on appealing. Innocent defendants, on the other hand, are bankrupted trying to defend their appeals through the maze of court shenanigans set against them.
Is it possible that Pope Francis might visit Monsignor Lynn in his unjust imprisonment? This would be justice marked by mercy, and my heart would sing if it happened, but already there are forces working against such a gesture.
“A ONE-MAN TANK BATTALION”
One of those forces bared its teeth just weeks ago. In a recent post, “The Descent of Fatherhood and the Decline of Faith,” I described the lay group, Voice of the Faithful (VOTF) and its history of using the Catholic clergy sex abuse story to further an ideological agenda for the Church. Marie Collins, an Irish abuse survivor, spoke at VOTF’s 2015 annual meeting in Hartford, CT. In a subsequent fundraising letter sent to Catholic writer, Ryan MacDonald, VOTF described Marie Collins’ speech as evidence to accuse the Church – without actually citing any evidence – of continuing a sex-abuse coverup and a lack of transparency and accountability.
VOTF has continued a battle of rhetoric using Marie Collins to carry it out. Perhaps more accurately, Ms. Collins allowed herself to be used. Her position as one of two abuse survivors on the Vatican Commission for the Protection of Minors places her in a predicament in which she speaks not only for herself as a private citizen, but also as a member of that Commission.
We’ve seen this before. When the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops met in Dallas under the harsh glare of media lights in 2002, our bishops adopted the draconian Dallas Charter, a policy statement that replaced the rule of law with a reactionary, and likely unConstitutional, denial of the most basic civil rights and civil liberties for accused priests.
The Dallas Charter came about when the USCCB, under the leadership of Bishop Wilton Gregory, invited David Clohessy, Barbara Blaine, and other activists from SNAP, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, to address the conference to much media fanfare. One immediate result of the Bishops’ meeting that drafted the Dallas Charter was the formation of a National Review Board to advise the bishops on policy – much as the new Vatican Commission advises the Pope.
However, members of the National Review Board stepped almost immediately out of their advisory role in 2002, and set in motion a series of media headlines voicing the rhetoric of a witch hunt generating accusations of abuse and cover-up. The first NRB Chairman, former Oklahoma Governor Frank Keating, declared to the news media that “any [accused] priest who would appeal his suspension to the Vatican is shamelessly disregarding the intent of the [Bishops’] Dallas Charter.”
Even the bishops were alarmed at this open disregard of the rights of priests under canon law. I wrote a letter of protest to Bishop John McCormack of the Diocese of Manchester who responded:
“I resonate with your observations about Governor Keating. He sounds like a one-man tank battalion who is ready for war. I hope that he can be restrained.” (Letter of Bishop John McCormack, October 14, 2002)
I, too, felt like “a one-man tank battalion.” No one else was writing about this. It was as though the rights of priests suddenly became universally dispensible in the Church, and everyone -including other priests – feared a media backlash if they said anything in defense of those rights. This was – and remains – a very dangerous situation, one similar to the historic moral panic I once described in “Catholic Scandal and the Third Reich.” The agenda was not to stamp out child abuse. It was, and is, to restructure the American church, to emasculate the priesthood, and to eradicate the hierarchical structure of the Church. It’s a power-play.
AIMING AT CARDINAL PELL
The latest example also comes from a member of the newly formed Vatican Commission for the Protection of Minors. Peter Saunders, a British Catholic and abuse survivor, was appointed to that committee by its Chair, Boston Cardinal Sean O’Malley, following a meeting with Pope Francis. Mr. Saunders later said that other abuse survivors accused him of “selling out” and being “used” by accepting membership on that Commission.
In other words, from day one there were signs that he saw his role as representing the agendas of organized self-described survivors’ groups, and not necessarily the justice, healing, truth, and reconciliation that the Commission was formed to undertake.
In Our Sunday Visitor recently, British Catholic writer, Austen Ivereigh analyzed the most recent media assault to which Mr. Saunders lent his voice (“Abuse Scuffle Illumines Dangers for Francis,” June 21, 2015). Peter Saunders openly accused Australian Cardinal George Pell as having “an almost sociopathic disregard for victims,” and described him as a “serious obstacle” to the Pope’s reforms. Mr. Saunders argued in the media that it’s “critical” that Cardinal Pell be “moved aside… back to Australia.”
To say that this rhetoric is overstepping his bounds is an understatement. Mr. Saunders said he was motivated to speak out against Cardinal Pell, a member of the Council of Nine Cardinals appointed as advisors by Pope Francis, because of the Cardinal’s alleged failure to deal with an allegedly abusive priest decades earlier. This was despite the fact that in 2013 a Royal Commission in Australia found nothing against Cardinal Pell. No canonical or civil case exists against him.
In other words, once again the rule of law is suspended for a priest – this time, Cardinal Pell – and the rule of hysteria reigns. It reigns not only in the news media, but in the heart of Peter Saunders who speaks for the Vatican Commission. This is a dangerous capitulation to the trial-by-media that has governed policy in this matter since the U.S. Bishops invited hysteria over law in 2002. In a March column for Crux, the new Catholic news outlet sponsored by The Boston Globe, journalist John Allen wrote:
“It’s not clear if [Pope] Francis fully grasped it at the time, but when he named survivors to that group, he was handing them significant control… If Collins and Saunders were ever to walk out, saying they’d lost confidence… it would have a vast media echo.”
It must not be this way. A friend – who is herself a survivor of child sexual abuse – has for a decade been quietly engaged in a ministry writing to imprisoned priests. When she told her pastor of her effort, and of her alarm that so many have been simply abandoned and discarded without due process by their Church, he reportedly asked her how she could possibly “reach out to these despicable men.”
Pay special attention to the First Reading from the Prophet Jeremiah for the Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time which our friend, Pornchai Moontri, another abuse survivor, has been practicing in our cell:
“You have scattered my sheep and driven them away. You have not cared for them. But… I will appoint shepherds for them who will shepherd them, so that they need no longer fear and tremble; and none shall be missing, says the Lord.” (Jeremiah 23:1-6)
The language of a media fueled moral panic has no place in the Vatican Commission for the Protection of Minors, nor in the commission of justice and the mission of healing, both of which are the Mission of the Church. Peter Saunders recently told the National Catholic Reporter newspaper – always ready to give him a platform – that he needs an explanation for why his demands are not being met. “Otherwise I cannot see any point of me being on the Commission,” he said.
With all due respect, Mr. Saunders, that makes two of us.