‘Subtle pressure on the judges’

Did Cardinal Bergoglio – now the Pope – send a biased report to the judges? If he did not, could he have remained unaware of the fact that the document that he had commissioned had the objective of influencing judges?

By Mathieu Martiniere, Daphné Gastaldi, Mathieu Périsse

This article was published in cooperation with European Press Prize.

Carlos Mahiques, who dealt with the Grassi case, was one of the judges who was sent a copy of the document. He spoke for the first time on camera about this to Cash Investigation. “This is a legal analysis that is biased in certain cases, very biased in others. It’s clearly in favour of Father Grassi,” said this respected judge, who now sits on his country’s Court of Appeal having briefly served as justice minister for Buenos Aires province in 2016. He says that he only read the document “after having given my verdict” to ensure he was not influenced in his judgement. But the intent was there. “What they wanted to do was exercise subtle pressure over the judges,” says the judge.

The question arises as to whether Cardinal Bergoglio – now the Pope – was behind the sending of the report to judges. If he was not, could he have remained unaware of the fact that the document that he had commissioned had the objective of influencing judges? For the moment the answer is unclear. Despite dozens of requests for interviews over nine months, the Vatican has refused to reply to Mediapart. Gabriel says: “I recall the phrase that Father Grassi repeate at the trial: ‘Bergoglio has never dropped me.’ Today Bergoglio has become Pope Francis. He’s never denied Grassi’s comments,” notes the young man.

Curious Meeting

There was also a curious meeting that took place in September 2013. Just before the Grassi case went back before the Supreme Court in Buenos Aires, the newly installed Pope Francis invited that court’s president, Héctor Negri, to visit Rome. At the time the judge – who has also not responded to requests for a comment – swore that the visit was “uniquely for spiritual reasons” and had no link with the case involving the former star priest Father Grassi.

The Grassi affair is symptomatic of the confusion that surrounds Pope Francis on such issues. Since he was elected, the Pontiff has increased the number of commissions and tough declarations when it comes to the fight against paedophilia. In February 2016, while flying from Mexico to Rome, and at the height of the scandal involving the French cleric Cardinal Philippe Barbarin, the Pope declared that a “bishop who changes the parish of a priest who he knows is a paedophile is reckless, and the best thing he can do is to offer his resignation”.

In June 2016 Pope Francis issued amotu proprio or edict and announced the creation of a new tribunal to try bishops; it meant that bishops who were negligent in respect of child abuse in their diocese could be removed. Yet though welcomed, victims’ groups say such measures are insufficient and they have accused the Vatican of indulging in hand waving. Back in 2015 the American association for victims of priests, SNAP, had told the church: “It’s time to stop pretending your weak, vague and unenforceable internal church abuse policies, protocols and procedures make any real difference.”

In February 2016 the initiative by Pope Francis had already hit a first obstacle. Peter Saunders, one of only two victims on the commission on child abuse set up by the Pope, was “dismissed” from that body. “A number of members of the commission expressed their concern that I don’t toe the line when it comes to keeping my mouth shut,” Saunders said shortly afterwards. In an earlier interview he had said: ‘I was told that Rome was not built in a day, but the problem is that it takes seconds to rape a child.”

Even inside the Holy See, officials frequently point to the CDF’s lack of cooperation

Peter Saunders has highlighted the indulgence of Rome towards two senior bishops: the Vatican’s financial chief and cardinal George Pell from Australia, who has faced allegations of covering up abuse more than a decade ago, and the Chilean bishop Juan de la Cruz Barros, who has been accused of accused of covering up the sexual abuse of children in his country. In May 2015, Pope Francis had signalled his support for Barros. In a video recorded in Rome he is heard telling senior Chilean clerical officials: “Think with the head, don’t be led around by the nose by these leftists who are the ones who put this [opposition] together,” the Pope is heard saying.

A year later, in May 2016, the Pontiff said in an interview with the French Catholic newspaper La Croix that for France’s Cardinal Barbarin – facing accusations he had not reported alleged abuse by a priest to the authorities – to resign would be “an error”. This statement angered the Lyon-based victims’ association La Parole Libérée, who are themselves still waiting to be granted an audience with the Pope.

Two years after he was first nominated to be on the Pope’s commission, Peter Saunders is bitter about his experience and agreed to talk to Mediapart. He said that when he was invited to join the commission he thought that the Catholic Church was serious when it came to protecting children and that things were going to change quickly. “I was wrong,” he says.” A commission with people from all over the world who meet up just twice a year, that’s not taking the issue seriously,” he says. Saunders believes that the real “priority” of the Church appears to be protecting senior clerics.

In March this year the Vatican suffered a further setback in its attempts to tackle the issue of child abuse when the last remaining victim on the commission, Marie Collins from Ireland, decided to step down. Collins, the victim of a paedophile priest when she was a teenager, blamed a continuing “lack of cooperation” on the part of the Vatican and in particular from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the body that defends the Church’s doctrine and values and which is responsible for punishing paedophile priests across the world. In the firing line is the CDF’s current prefect, Cardinal Gerhard Müller, who is facing growing criticism in the corridors of the Vatican.

Even inside the Holy See, officials frequently point to the CDF’s lack of cooperation. “I asked how many cases they had, how many they had passed sentence on and in which dioceses … they told me they had the statistics but didn’t want to pass them to me,” says an official involved in child protection for the Vatican. “It’s true they have a certain culture of secrecy in judicial procedures, whatever they are,” says Bishop Antoine Hérouard, director of the French Seminary in Rome and secretary-general of the Conference of Bishops in France from 2007 to 2014. “For the ‘Fight Against Paedophilia’ brochure in 2010 I wanted to put in certain figures and I had a lot of trouble gathering them.”

In an open letter to the head of the CDF, published in the National Catholic Reporter earlier this month, Marie Collins regrets the way that the plan for the CDF to have an internal tribunal to try bishops allegedly negligent over child abuse issues has now been dropped. “It was a project you say, only a project?” she asks Cardinal Müller. Collins recalls how in 2015 the Pope had called for the “establishment of a new Judicial Section in the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith” and for the appointment of a “Secretary to assist the Prefect with the Tribunal”. Four years after his election, the Pope’s promises when it comes to the fight against paedophilia are still running into solid opposition from some of the most resistant forces in the Vatican.

This article is part of an investigation. Also read part 1, part 2 and part 4 of the story.

Photo: Still from The Two Popes, a movie about Bergoglio, Ratzinger and sexual scandals in the Vatican.

Mediapart is an independent French online investigative and opinion journal created in 2008 by Edwy Plenel, former editor-in-chief of Le Monde. Mediapart is published in French, English and Spanish.

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