My life changed forever on a sunny afternoon in late May 2011. I was about to head out on a walk when I happened to run into my religious superior, who asked me if he could talk to me for a minute. No problem there. But what he proceeded to tell me left me flabbergasted.
He said that a discussion had been ongoing for some time about my role as editor of Reality magazine, the monthly publication of the Irish Redemptorists. He said that people in the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the chief enforcer of orthodoxy in the Vatican, were not happy with some of the content of the magazine, and that the Redemptorist superior general in Rome had been instructed to inform the superior in Ireland that I was to be removed from my position as editor with a month’s notice.
I tried to take all this in but was dumbfounded. It couldn’t be true. It sounded like a joke.
My superior went on to say that both he and the Redemptorist head in Rome had lobbied hard on my behalf and that they had been able to hammer out a compromise. I could remain as editor subject to five conditions: I could not publish anything that was
1) supportive of the ordination of women,
2) critical of mandatory celibacy,
3) in favour of general absolution,
4) opposed to the church’s stance on homosexuality, and
5) could be seen as disrespectful of the person of the Holy Father. Furthermore, the content of every issue would have to be approved by a censor prior to publication.
I was told that all of this had been hammered out in talks at the highest level over the previous several weeks, and that I was being informed of it now because the Redemptorist head in Rome was coming to see me in two days’ time. A cover story would be invented to explain the sudden appearance in Dublin of the superior general of the Redemptorists.
I was also told that I had to keep this information to myself, that it was highly confidential, and that I shouldn’t talk about it even to my family and friends.
And that was it. I went on my walk with my head spinning.
The superior general did visit for a couple of days and he told me the story from scratch, how one day a file appeared on his desk from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) with a list of allegations/findings against me and a demand that I be removed from office. The superior general could not have been nicer to me during that visit, and expressed amazement time and again at the shoddy case that the CDF had put together against me. He had met several times with Cardinal Levada, head of the CDF, and the best compromise they could reach was to leave me in office but under the restrictions outlined above.
Again the importance of secrecy was emphasized. I was not to talk to anyone about it. It was not a matter for public consumption.
And that was it.
During those first few days, I felt numb. I was bombarded with so much information that was shocking to me, but it was almost as if they were talking about someone else, not me. I couldn’t understand why people in the Vatican would be getting their knickers in a twist about a small magazine published on the periphery of Europe. I couldn’t believe that people would spend time trawling through back issues looking for evidence to build or substantiate a case against me. I couldn’t believe that the head of the CDF would himself become personally involved. And, most of all, I couldn’t believe that my case had been discussed for weeks or months without anyone talking to me about it. I was allowed to go about my daily business totally oblivious to what was happening.
It took a while for the enormity and injustice of what happened to me to sink in. I grant that there was a small bit of me that was chuffed that the Vatican had noticed our magazine and got themselves in a lather over it. But then I began to feel angry and betrayed. I was angry not so much that self-appointed defenders of the faith had reported me to the Vatican but that faceless bureaucracts had taken these delators so seriously. I was angry that they would begin a process against me without ever letting me know I was being investigated.
How can you defend yourself if you don’t know you are on trial? How can you defend yourself if you don’t know who your accusers are? How can you defend yourself when your fate has been decided even before you discover you have been on trial? It is an utterly unjust and unchristian system.
I couldn’t believe that I had been walking around for weeks, doing my work in the office and in the parish, while all the while my loyalty and my future was being discussed behind my back. I met my superior and the others on his leadership team many times during those weeks, at meals, on the corridors, out and about, and none said a word to me about what was going on. I know that they were in a difficult situation too and they were were not allowed to talk about it but it just goes to show how flawed and unjust the CDF process is. One is tried, found guilty and sentenced, before you even know you were on trial. And yet next Sunday’s gospel will tell us that people will “know we are Christians by our love.”
I felt angry and hurt that this is how the church would treat me after I had devoted my whole life to it. The powers that be in Rome would accept the word of (anonymous) delators against my solid record of a quarter century of loving service of the church. It took a few weeks before I started to cry whenever I thought about it. Tears of anger, shock, self-pity and betrayal. I had given my life to the church, and this is how I had been repaid. Any criticism I had made of the church was out of love, and they didn’t even have the decency either to ignore the delations or give me a chance to reply to them before they handed down sentence. They didn’t give me the chance to defend myself, privately or publicly.
All communication was through my superiors. The CDF people never communicate directly with the person under investigation. They knew my address, they knew my email, they could find my phone number, but they always go through higher channels. They never dignify the culprit with a direct and personal response. I don’t think it’s how Jesus would have done it. Something is rotten in the state of the CDF, and while the current people and processes remain in place, nothing will change. Priests, sisters and brothers will continue to be treated as less than human, and will have their lives hurt or broken.
It’s been almost two years since I woke up with chronic lower back pain that has never gone away. I wonder how much of it is due to the way I was treated by the CDF? I think the stress that experience caused me is one of the main reasons why today I am broken in body as well as in spirit. Stress takes a toll, injustice has a price, and I am paying it every day.
Today a group of 15 people who have fallen foul of the CDF have published a letter we sent to Rome asking for reform of the system. The letter was sent about seven weeks ago. As one would expect, there has been no formal acknowledgement or reply. I won’t hold my breath.