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Can synod survive Vatican manipulation?

As the Synod for America nears, there is abundant reason to conclude that the organizers in the Vatican are pitifully out of touch with Catholics throughout the Americas.

For starters, it should be clear to Vatican officials by now that most geographers recognize North America and South America as distinct continents, not as one continent. However, that is but one point, and a minor one, among many. Taken together, the Vatican’s actions -- including appointment to the synod of a priest accused of sexual abuse -- border on a giant insult to many Catholics in this hemisphere.

As Gary MacEoin, an experienced Vatican observer and Latin America expert, wrote in the Oct. 31 issue, the General Secretariat of the Synod, a curial body, has fashioned an agenda for the Nov. 16-Dec. 12 Rome gathering that depends on a certain suspension of reality and a revisionist’s view of history.

Serious consideration of the themes of justice and liberation -- so central to religious thought and action in Latin America during the past three decades -- have been effectively removed from the preparatory document.

The critique by Jesuit Fr. Thomas Reese, a Vatican expert (see story page 7), is aimed more at process: Preparations have been rushed, the delegate selection rules are skewed to discriminate against larger episcopal conferences and the rules of the assembly itself seem designed to squelch any open and substantial discussion of issues.

It isn’t, of course, the first time reactionaries in the curia have tried to steal a march at an official church assembly. In recent history, one need only recall the gatherings at Medellín in Colombia and Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic, or the special synod on the anniversary of the 1960s Second Vatican Council, not to mention the early attempts of conservatives to scuttle Vatican II itself. There is no predicting how the Holy Spirit and good people can conspire to undo curial plans.

Chalk up much of the pre-synodal machinations to various degrees of a need to control, of a desire to undo the influence of liberation theology or to simple ineptitude.

The appointment of Fr. Marciel Maciel Degollado, founder and superior general of the Legionaries of Christ, is beyond any reasonable explanation.

It is clear that Pope John Paul II has used his direct appointments (most other delegates are elected by bishops’ conferences) to place some high-profile conservatives amid the assembly. But naming Maciel, accused by nine former seminarians of sexual abuse, is a grossly insensitive and damaging act.

Since the accusations were reported earlier this year in The Hartford Courant newspaper, the Vatican has been mum. The accusers include a priest, a guidance counselor, a professor, an engineer, a lawyer and a former priest who became a university professor.

The accusers have been unable to get the Vatican to respond to their queries and letters. Maciel has denied the accusations.

In treating the accusations with silence and favoring the alleged abuser with a papal appointment, the Vatican is sending a distressing message to priests and bishops in the United States who have made efforts against great odds to deal with the awful and ongoing reality of sex abuse by priests.

Victims can only take the pope’s appointment of Maciel to mean that, despite words to the contrary, the church does not really take sex abuse accusations seriously.

Maciel should be investigated thoroughly, not rewarded with papal favors before his accusers -- serious professionals who have tried alternative channels for redress before going public -- are given a full hearing.

We trust that the to and fro of the synod will inject some reality into the curial choreography of the event. The slap in the face represented by Maciel’s appointment will resound well beyond the synod.

National Catholic Reporter, November 7, 1997