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Pope Francis reins in Catholic movements after flood of abuse cases

Francis said the Vatican is conducting a study, given the growing number of abuse cases in Catholic lay and religious movements.

In this Sept. 1, 2021, file photo, Pope Francis arrives for his weekly general audience in the Paul VI Hall at the Vatican. (AP Photo/Andrew Medichini, file)

VATICAN CITY (RNS) — Pope Francis condemned recent instances of abuse of power within Catholic movements and organizations, reminding leaders that “to govern is to serve,” during a gathering at the Vatican on Friday (Sept. 16).

Speaking to delegates of Catholic lay and religious movements at the Vatican, Francis said the root of the abuse that has plagued these institutions is always misuse of power. “In these years, the Holy See has had to frequently intervene by starting difficult processes of renewal,” he said.

The delegates were invited to the Vatican for a meeting on “The responsibility of Government in lay organizations: an ecclesial service,” organized by the Vatican department charged with overseeing laity, family and life.

Catholic movements are groups within the church that help lay and religious people seek a closer relationship with God and the sacraments through popular devotion, Bible studies and the liturgy. Charismatic groups place a greater emphasis on the Holy Spirit. 

Catholic lay movements and organizations have been a recurring thorn in the side of the Vatican since the 1960s, when they experienced a rapid growth and resurgence in many parts of the globe, especially in Europe and Latin America. Lay-led groups and organizations can easily slip away from Vatican supervision, forcing the institution to weigh the option of either suppressing them or attempting to reform them.

Francis lamented the “many” Catholic movements that ended up “in hard situations,” undergoing inspection by Vatican representatives and in some cases even being disbanded. He said the Vatican is conducting a study, given the growing number of abuse cases in these groups.

The pope referred to lay organizations in his own country of Argentina that have been disbanded because “they ended up in the filthiest things.”

In July 2020, Pope Francis defrocked Roberto Juan Yannuzzi, the founder of a religious movement in Argentina, for sexual misconduct and abuse of power after a four-year investigation. Two years prior, the Vatican had to intervene in Chile, where the charismatic leader of a lay movement, Fernando Karadima, was accused of sexual abuse.

Pope Francis removed Karadima from the priesthood in 2018 and asked one of his victims, Juan Carlos Cruz, to become a member of the Pontifical Council for the Protection of Minors in March 2021.

While the Vatican has the authority to strongly intervene when it comes to instances of abuse by clergy, lay groups represent a troublesome loophole in oversight, since the pope can only act through excommunication.

The case of a Catholic lay movement in Peru, Sodalitium Christianae Vitae, whose lay founder Luis Fernando Figari was accused in 2017 of abusing 19 minors and 10 adults with the help of other high-ranking members, serves as an example of the challenges the Vatican faces in overseeing lay groups.

In the pope’s own backyard, in the Italian region of Sicily, the charismatic leader of the Catholic Culture and Environment Association is currently undergoing civil trial on allegations he abused nine underage girls.

The founder of the movement, Piero Alfio Capuana, told his nearly 5,000 followers he spoke on behalf of the Archangel Michael and asked the young girls in the group to tend to his needs by showering him and cooking for him.

“I don’t trust the church anymore or priests for that matter,” said the mother of one of Capuana’s accusers in an interview Thursday with Religion News Service. The mother, who wishes to remain anonymous to protect her daughter’s identity, was a member of the Sicilian lay movement and filed a lawsuit with other women against the lay leader five years ago.

She said the church “should exercise more oversight and listen” to victims and their families but added, “There isn’t enough money and diamonds in the world that can repay the pain my daughter and those other girls suffered.”

Capuana is still undergoing trial, but his association remains active and present on the ground and on social media. For the mother of Capuana’s accuser the only way to repay what happened “is with a sanction and the closure of this community,” which was already under scrutiny at the Vatican in the 1970s.

A decree issued by the Vatican Department for Laity, Family and Life was published in July in an attempt to regulate the Catholic movements and organizations by promoting a turnover of leadership and the further inclusion of their members.

Greeting the representatives at the Vatican, Pope Francis acknowledged the frustration caused by the decree but insisted its purpose is to prevent the abuse of power within their organizations. He praised those lay and religious movements that remained present in their community despite the pandemic, emphasizing the need for them to remain immersed in the reality that surrounds them and not live in a “parallel world.”

In encouraging lay leaders to embrace the changes enacted by the decree, Pope Francis took the tone of a football coach, stating: “The evangelical journey is not a sightseeing tour. It’s a challenge: Every step is a call by God.”

To do this work, he continued, leaders of Catholic movements must adopt “humility” and “docility” by accepting their limits and “changing ways of doing and thinking about things that are dated.” Far from putting lay and religious movements “in prison,” the pope said, the decree offers an opportunity “to accept some change and prepare the future starting from the present.”

There are two obstacles Pope Francis identified in lay movements to fulfilling the calling to serve their communities: disloyalty and the desire for power.

Abuse of power, the pope said, happens when leaders believe they must make decisions about every aspect of their community. He mentions the example of religious sisters campaigning for votes in exchange for favors or charismatic leaders who profess that the “spirit of the founder has descended on me.”

He also mentioned one religious sister who exercised her power with such authoritarian rule that members of the community referred to her as “Hitler with a habit.”

When it comes to disloyalty, Francis explained it occurs when leaders proclaiming to serve God actually serve other things, “and behind these things there is money.” The pope encouraged lay groups to welcome changes in leadership and not fall into the trap of believing charismatic or founding leaders are the only ones who can speak for the Holy Spirit.