Illustrative of the Church’s fear of revealing the truth is the case of Msgr. Joseph Punderson.
On the eve of the Vatican’s summit aimed at getting the entire Church to face up to the ever-widening clerical sex abuse crisis, some in the media wondered if the meeting risked being overshadowed by other controversies.
One was supposed to be the issue of gay priests — whom traditionalist Catholics have scapegoated as pederasts, and a French author has sensationalized in a just-released book in which he claims the Catholic hierarchy and the Roman Curia are full of gay men who are either leading double lives or are actually homophobic and militantly anti-homosexual.
Another looming controversy that was destined to detract from the abuse summit was the recent revelation that the Vatican has issued secret rules for priests who have fathered children.
And yet another was the issue of religious women (nuns) who have been sexually abused and raped by priests and bishops, something the Vatican has tried to keep quiet for a number of decades.
None of these controversies is directly related to the sexual abuse of minors; with apologies to our traditionalist brothers and sisters who are convinced that gay priests are prone to be child molesters.
However, there is an issue that is related to the abuse summit. And it is one that very few people are talking about. It’s the Vatican’s lack of transparency in dealing with credibly accused predator priests working directly for the Holy See.
Ensuring that all bishops and Church leaders commit themselves unwaveringly to a policy of transparency is one of the main objectives of the summit.
But how can that happen when transparency — and not just concerning sex abuse cases — has rarely been one of the Vatican’s prime virtues?
External pressure leads to removal of Vatican officials accused of abuse
Over the past several months at least three senior officials in the Roman Curia have been removed from their posts after reports revealed they had all been credibly accused of activities related to sexual abuse.
The first was Argentine Bishop Gustavo Zanchetta who resigned from his diocese in August 2017 at age 53, more than 20 years prior to the normal retirement age, and was given a job four months later that Pope Francis specially carved out for him at the Vatican’s “central bank,” the Administration of the Patrimony of the Apostolic See (APSA).
Vatican officials claim they never knew of the abuse allegations against Zanchetta, and they are substantial.
Rather, they say the bishop resigned because of difficulties in managing his diocese. They have offered no other information to shed light on the case.
Zanchetta was suspended from his Vatican duties this past January following media reports last autumn that detailed accusations he sexually harassed seminarians and priests, sending some of them nude photos of himself. He was also accused of possessing pornographic images on his cell phone.
A few weeks later another accused Vatican official stepped down because of abuse allegations. Father Hermann Geissler, a religious order priest from Austria, worked at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith for more than 25 years and had been an office manager (capo ufficio) since 2009.
His resignation on Jan. 28 was again the result of media pressure, not by any willingness of the Vatican to be transparent.
On Nov. 30 we were the first publication outside the German-speaking world to report that a former nun had formally denounced Geissler to Vatican officials in 2014 for making sexual advances towards her six years earlier during confession.
Several weeks after our initial report, the National Catholic Reporter published another article on the accusations and the 53-year-old Geissler resigned from his CDF post.
The Vatican again had been anything but transparent.
The Punderson Case
The third senior Roman Curia official who was discovered in these months to have been credibly accused of sexual abuse — and this time with a minor — was Monsignor Joseph Punderson, a judge at the Vatican’s “supreme court.”
Last week’s “Letter from Rome” reported that the 70-year-old priest had been identified on Feb. 13 by his home Diocese of Trenton (New Jersey) as “credibly accused of abusing a minor” and had been “removed from ministry.”
No other international news media (except La Croix in French) picked up the story until several days later when reporters asked the Holy See Press Office for an explanation about Punderson’s status at the Vatican.
The New Jersey priest had been working at the Apostolic Signatura since 1993, serving as Defender of the Bond since 1995.
During a packed press conference on Jan. 18 to reveal the program of the abuse summit, the press office’s ad interim director, Alessandro Gisotti, tried to quash two questions about Punderson, stating that the briefing was limited to topics related to the summit!
He eventually said that the American priest was “not at the tribunal of the Signatura right now.” He said all questions pertaining to Punderson should be referred to the diocese in New Jersey.
Gisotti was obviously instructed to do so by officials at the Vatican’s Secretariat of State or the prefect of the Apostolic Signatura — Cardinal Dominique Mamberti, a former Vatican “foreign minister.”
Rome covers for Trenton, until it doesn’t
The Punderson case is troubling for a number of reasons.
It seems clear that the Vatican would have never revealed that a priest credibly accused of sexually abusing a minor was working in the Church’s highest court had the media not first reported it.
There is no public record from the Holy See that Msgr. Punderson retired (usual age is 75) or was removed from his Vatican job. The recent updates to the Annuario Pontificio, which are published internally every one-to-three months, do not indicate a change of personnel at the Signatura.
So on Feb. 20 reporters again pressed Mr. Gisotti about Punderson’s status. After initially declining to answer, he said the priest “is no longer in service at the tribunal of the Apostolic Signature and has been in retirement since last fall.”
Later that same day, Catholic News Service (CNS) obtained a statement from Rayanne Bennett, director of communications for the Diocese of Trenton, confirming just that.
Ms. Bennett also disclosed that Punderson “was credibly accused in 2003 of the sexual abuse of a minor 26 years earlier.”
She said it was “the first and only claim” against him and that it “was promptly reported to the appropriate prosecutor, who declined to pursue criminal charges.”
“The allegation was also reported to the Holy See, and Msgr. Punderson submitted his resignation in 2004,” the diocesan spokesperson said.
“The Holy See, however, permitted him to continue in office but under specific restrictions regarding public acts of ministry initially imposed by the Diocese of Trenton in 2003,” she said.
She did not specify what those “specific restrictions” entailed.
Punderson “was instructed to resign his Vatican position by the bishop in late fall 2018 and his resignation was accepted. He has been removed from all public ministry,” Bennett said.
Less than transparent answers, lack of details
The Diocese of Trenton has not published the statement that its communications director sent to CNS. It is nowhere to be found on the diocesan website or anywhere else.
Meanwhile, the list of credibly accused priests that was published on Feb. 13 was updated two days later as Bishop David O’Connell promised it would be “as more information becomes available.”
The new information includes how many allegations have been made against each priest and a list of the places where each had served. But it does not give the dates of those assignments.
The lack of such a timeline is another breach of transparency. Such information would state when a priest first affiliated with the diocese as a seminarian, where he studied, when he was ordained and where, each and every step of the way, he was assigned.
It also would state if any of the listed priests were “on leave,” a possible indication of removal for the purpose of counseling in light of other allegations or suspicion of misconduct.
All this documentation has been proven to be essential for helping other possible victims come forward and break their silence.
In the case of Msgr. Punderson such a timeline would indicate that he completed his basic theological studies in Rome in 1974, but was not ordained until two years after his classmates. The reason for delay would not necessarily be published, but it would certainly raise questions.
The laws are made in Rome, but they are applied elsewhere
During the Feb. 18 press conference to unveil the program and details of the Vatican summit on the abuse of minors, Archbishop Charles Scicluna said the questions raised about Punderson’s status were legitimate. But he refused to go into details.
Instead, the 59-year-old Archbishop of Malta said: “People need to know that what Rome asks of the local Churches it is also ready to apply at home.”
Scicluna is widely recognized as one of the most credible Church officials on dealing with sexual abuse. He is perhaps best known for his time at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith where, from 2002-2012, he was essentially the “chief prosecutor” of abuse cases.
But he first began working in the Vatican in 1995. He was hired by the Apostolic Signatura to be deputy Promoter of Justice, the very post Msgr. Punderson had just vacated after becoming that same tribunal’s Defender of the Bond.
Scicluna told an anecdote from that first year in the Roman Curia.
“When I came to the Holy See in 1995, somebody told me, ‘You know, Charles, looking at St. Peter’s (Basilica) you have two statues — one of St. Peter and one of St. Paul. One of the statues has its hand stretched out and the other has the hand pointed to the ground,” he recalled.
“And the wisdom was that the laws are made here but they are applied there,” he said, drawing laughter from the reporters.
Then the archbishop grew more serious and said: “The statues will remain where they are. But the interpretation needs to be: they (the laws) are made here and they are also applied here.”
Until that happens the Vatican’s credibility will continue to erode. And not only regarding its programs and promises to eradicate sexual abuse among the clergy.
Robert Mickens is the Rome religious affairs correspondent for La Croix International