Vatican Failures in Cardinal Ouellet’s Case

Pope Francis issued a letter on August 20, 2018 in the aftermath of the Pennsylvania Grand Jury report on sexual abuse by Catholic clergy and cover-ups by bishops. He wrote: “’If one member suffers, all suffer together with it’ (1 Cor 12:26). These words of Saint Paul forcefully echo in my heart as I acknowledge once more the suffering endured by many minors due to sexual abuse, the abuse of power and the abuse of conscience perpetrated by a significant number of clerics and consecrated persons.”

He didn’t stop there: “Looking ahead to the future, no effort must be spared to create a culture able to prevent such situations from happening, but also to prevent the possibility of their being covered up and perpetuated. The pain of the victims and their families is also our pain, and so it is urgent that we once more reaffirm our commitment to ensure the protection of minors and of vulnerable adults.”

He also referred to canonical reforms then being formulated to deal with this crisis: “I am conscious of the effort and work being carried out in various parts of the world to come up with the necessary means to ensure the safety and protection of the integrity of children and of vulnerable adults, as well as implementing zero tolerance and ways of making all those who perpetrate or cover up these crimes accountable. We have delayed in applying these actions and sanctions that are so necessary, yet I am confident that they will help to guarantee a greater culture of care in the present and future.”

Pope Francis issued new legislation, Vos Estis Lux Mundi, in May 2019 to deal with sexual abuse by clerics, including bishops: “The crimes of sexual abuse offend Our Lord, cause physical, psychological and spiritual damage to the victims and harm the community of the faithful. In order that­ these phenomena, in all their forms, never happen again, a continuous and profound conversion of hearts is needed, attested by concrete and effective actions that involve everyone in the Church, so that personal sanctity and moral commitment can contribute to promoting the full credibility of the Gospel message and the effectiveness of the Church’s mission.”

All of this came to mind when I read the news that Cardinal Marc Ouellet, the 78-year-old Prefect of the Dicastery for Bishops and former Archbishop of Quebec, was accused in a lawsuit of having sexually molested a young female intern working for the Archdiocese of Quebec. She is party to a class action lawsuit filed against the Archdiocese of Quebec.

Her court filing claims that on three occasions, between 2008-2010, Ouellet hugged and kissed her, held her tightly and massaged her shoulders and back, without her consent. In January 2021, she wrote to Pope Francis complaining about what had happened. In February 2021, she was informed that Pope Francis had appointed Jesuit Father Jacques Servais to investigate. The former intern states that Fr. Servais last contacted her on March 23, 2021.

Thanks to reporting by JD Flynn at The Pillar, we’ve learned that Fr. Servais is not a suitable investigator. He has little background in dealing with sexual abuse and has a clear conflict of interest: “Servais is director of Casa Balthasar, a house of formation run by the Lubac-Balthasar-Speyr Association, for which Ouellet sits on the board.” All this should have disqualified him from being given, let alone accepting, the task of investigating charges against one of the most powerful cardinals in the Roman Curia.

[Photo: Toronto Star]

The former intern has not heard from Fr. Servais for a year and a half. This silence indicated a complete lack of seriousness on the part of the Holy See in responding to the “heart-wrenching pain” of this vulnerable adult, which is being “ignored, kept quiet or silenced” while a Cardinal has been protected from answering in public to grave allegations. Sadly, it is only by virtue of a civil legal filing that we learn of these allegations, and of the Holy See’s extreme lassitude, bordering on indifference, in fulfilling its own canonical obligations in the proper administration of justice.

Vos Estis, article 14, stipulates that an investigation of charges of sexual abuse of a minor or vulnerable adult ordinarily “is to be completed within the term of ninety days.”  How long does it take to investigate the charges brought by a cooperative witness against a Cardinal resident in Rome? Three months should be plenty of time to conduct interviews and gather pertinent evidence.

It is impossible to see in the Holy See’s failure to act as anything other than a decision to protect Cardinal Ouellet, while leaving the alleged victim hanging in the wind. We once again are faced with a case in which the right of someone claiming to be the victim of serious criminal harm to have her case heard in a timely manner – in a public forum, in which both the accuser and the accused are on an equal legal footing – is addressed not in a canonical proceeding, but a civil courtroom.

This amounts to a miscarriage of justice in the Church. The Holy See’s pledge to take accusations of sexual abuse seriously is belied by the Holy See’s actions. It has fallen to lawyers and journalists to reveal that the Holy See is still operating in the manner of a secretive protection racket in which the rights of the faithful to justice are loudly proclaimed but in practice ignored.

In the wake of the press reports on this case, the Director of the Holy See’s Press Office Matteo Bruni issued a declaration on August 18th stating, “Following further relevant consultations, Pope Francis declared that there were not sufficient elements to open a canonical investigation for sexual assault by Cardinal Ouellet.”

Bruni does not say why this decision was not communicated to the accuser, nor does he offer any details about how Fr. Servais came to his conclusion. The former intern was left in the dark about Pope Francis’ rejection of her claims until her story was reported in the press. Did Fr. Servais discuss his decision with her before he informed the pope? Did he offer her a chance to respond to his conclusions? Did he interview any other employees of the Archdiocese of Quebec who could offer pertinent evidence? Did he interview the accuser’s friends who may have contemporary knowledge of her claims? These questions remain to be answered.

All of this will now come out in a Canadian civil court and in the press. This outcome is not what we were led to expect following the issuance of Vos Estis.


You may also enjoy:

Robert Royal’s The Once and Future Papacy

Fr. Murray’s Still Waiting for Full Accountability on Abuse

The Rev. Gerald E. Murray, J.C.D. is a canon lawyer and the pastor of Holy Family Church in New York City. His new book (with Diane Montagna), Calming the Storm: Navigating the Crises Facing the Catholic Church and Society, is now available.