Restoring, and strengthening, episcopal credibility

George Weigel

Pope Francis’s recent motu proprio on sexual abuse, Vos estis lux mundi [You Are the Light of the World], was a welcome addition to Church law, as world Catholicism seeks to heal the wounds of abuse victims, promote chaste living, foster mutual accountability within the Body of Christ, and restore the credibility of the Church’s leadership. The response to the motu proprio by Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, ably summed up that document’s achievement:

Vos estis lux mundi calls for the establishment of easily accessible reporting systems, clear standards for the pastoral support of victims and their families, timeliness and thoroughness of investigations, whistleblower protection for those making allegations, and active involvement of the laity. It also leaves latitude for national bishops’ conferences, such as the USCCB, to specify still more to account for local circumstances…Vos estis lux mundi…[is] is a blessing that will empower the Church everywhere to bring predators to justice, no matter what rank they hold in the Church. It also permits the Church the time and opportunity to bring spiritual healing.”

The motu proprio is also a vindication of the Church in the United States and its bishops. Many of its provisions for handling abuse cases have been common practice in the U.S. since 2002 (and in some American dioceses, earlier than that). Amidst the frustration that has boiled over here this past year, too many American Catholics, misled by irresponsible reporting or grandstanding by state officials, may not realize that the Church in the United States has been a world leader in addressing the sin and crime of clerical sexual abuse. This leadership has not always been welcomed, in Rome and elsewhere. But much of what was pioneered in the United States is now universal Church law. By making abuse-reporting obligatory and providing canonical protection for clerics reporting abuse, Pope Francis has improved on the American achievement of the past decade and a half.

As Cardinal DiNardo noted, Vos estis lux mundi not only universalizes strong legal and procedural norms for dealing with clerical sexual abuse; it also allows, and might even be seen to call for, creativity on the part of national bishops’ conferences to build on the foundation Pope Francis has laid. That “latitude for national bishops’ conferences…to specify still more” should now be utilized by the U.S. bishops at their June meeting: to honor the Pope’s invitation to devise particular solutions for particular situations, according to the Holy Father’s principle of “synodality”; to meet the expectations of the most dedicated, committed Catholics in the United States; and to offer the world Church further models to consider. Vos estis lux mundi, like the particular Church law in place in the United States since the abuse crisis of 2002, deals primarily with sexual abuse by priests. The next steps in this process of Catholic reform involve devising mechanisms for guaranteeing episcopal accountability, in terms of both a bishop’s personal conduct and his handling of abuse allegations in the diocese entrusted to his care.

There seems to be a consensus, in Rome and the U.S., that these mechanisms should operate at the level of Church “provinces,” with the metropolitan archbishop of each ecclesiastical province as the responsible party (or the senior suffragan bishop in a province, if the metropolitan archbishop is being charged with an offense). To make that mechanism credible, and to provide the metropolitan archbishops the assistance they need in handling allegations against other bishops, three more provisions seem necessary:

1. Lay Catholics — presumably the archdiocesan review board of the province in question — must be informed of an allegation against a bishop, from the point at which that allegation is made to the metropolitan archbishop. Such a requirement embodies the principle of mutual accountability within the Church while protecting the metropolitan archbishop from any future suggestion that he is burying an allegation to protect a brother bishop.

2. Competent and discreet lay professionals should be involved in the investigation of any allegation against a bishop.

3. It must be guaranteed that, when the entire process has been completed in the U.S. and Rome, and a decision reached, there will be a public explanation of the decision and the rationale for it, perhaps released through the relevant archdiocesan review board.

Adopting these provisions in June will accelerate the healing of a wounded Church and enhance the bishops’ credibility, while heeding the Pope’s call for local creativity.

Featured image by Vatican Media

COMING UP: Machebeuf basketball star traded success playing hoops for a solitary life of prayer

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Shelly Pennefather led the Bishop Machebeuf High School girls’ basketball team to victory in every game she played in. It was not surprising to her friends and classmates that she would go on to play college ball for Villanova and then play professionally in Japan. It was not even surprising that she would have a religious vocation.

What was surprising was the order she chose. In 1991, Shelly Pennefather drove to Alexandria, Va., where she entered the Monastery of the Poor Clares. She would become a cloistered nun, living a radical life that included going barefoot out of penance and poverty and praying all of the hours of the Divine Office, even at 12:30 a.m.

This also meant she would not see her family except for twice a year from behind a transparent screen. She would not hug them until 25 years after her profession.

“I was shocked that she chose a cloistered order,” said Annie Mcbournie, graduate of Machebeuf in 1984 and a friend of Pennefather’s. “I was not at all shocked that she chose a vocation.”

Her story was recently featured on ESPN, who recounted how Pennefather gave up being the highest-paid women’s basketball player in the world in 1991 to live a life in service to the Lord as a Poor Clare.

Pennefather took the name Sister Rose Marie of the Queen of Angels. This past June, Sister Rose Marie celebrated her 25th anniversary of her solemn profession: the long-awaited moment to greet her family from outside the screen, not to happen again for another 25 years.

Villanova teammates, friends, Machebeuf classmates, and family were all in attendance. She hugged her 78-year-old mom for what will probably be the last time.

Mcbournie was not able to make it but will visit Sister Rose Marie this fall. Since she’s kept up with her via letters, she is permitted to visit the monastery.

Pennefather attended Bishop Machebeuf High School in Denver from 1980 to 1983 before transferring for her senior year due to her dad’s military job. She left Machebeuf with a 70-0 record.

“Her entire high school career, she never lost a basketball game,” Mcbournie said.

Mcbournie was a cheerleader and friend of Sister Rose Marie in high school, but a deeper friendship began 10 years after graduation. Sister Rose Marie’s brother Dick called Mcbournie before World Youth Day in Denver in 1993 since Mcbournie was still in the area.

Sister Rose Marie had just joined the Poor Clares and Dick and McBournie met up and spoke about the mourning process the family was going through, McBournie said. Dick mentioned to her that they could write Sister Rose Marie as many letters as they wanted, and one day a year, on the Feast of the Epiphany, she could write back.

Shelly Pennefather, pictured here in this photo from the Archdiocese of Denver archives, always exuded a deep spiritual life, her former Bishop Machebeuf classmates said. (Photo by James Baca)

“From that year on, I have been writing her every year,” McBournie said. She gives Sister Rose Marie updates on life, pictures from their high school reunions, and prayer requests.

“I have witnessed her journey through these letters,” McBournie said.

When Sister Rose Marie’s dad passed away shortly after entering, she was not able to leave the monastery to go to the funeral. McBournie saw how difficult these sacrifices were for her, especially in the early years of her vocation. But the letters show Sister Rose Marie’s joy.

“The last 5 to 10 years, I could just see her say, ‘I’m so blessed to be able to do this’,” McBournie said. “She’s so joyful.”

A fellow Machebeuf classmate asked McBournie for Sister Rose Marie’s address in order to have a little fun. He sent her a $20 bill with a note saying he thought she could use a smoke and a bottle of wine.

Sister Rose Marie did not miss a beat and in her yearly letter, she responded, “I bought incense, and I drank from the chalice,” McBournie recounted.

Shelly Pennefather (#15) had a 70-0 record playing basketball for Bishop Machebeuf in the 1980s, and went on to play for Villanova and then professionally in Japan. (Photo courtesy of Villanova Athletics)

But this letter sparked a friendship. This classmate has continued to write letters and even attended the 25-anniversary jubilee.

“Her letters are still hilarious, still very sarcastic,” McBournie said.

She remembers Sister Rose Marie being reserved and quiet in high school, focused more on school and basketball than anything else. Her father was in the military and the family was very disciplined, but they had a good sense of humor and quick wit, McBournie said.
“Her spirituality permeated her existence from the time she was young,” McBournie said.

David Dominguez was a few years ahead of Sister Rose Marie at Machebeuf but remembers her discipline and her talent. He called himself her cheerleader.’

“If it was really tight, we would start yelling, ‘Shelly, Shelly!’” Dominguez said. “It was one of my favorite cheers.”

Dominguez exercised at the Air Force base gym where Sister Rose Marie would train and play basketball with her dad and brother.

“I knew she had incredible skills,” Dominguez said. “It was kind of magical to watch.”

Sister Rose Marie recently celebrated the 25th anniversary of her profession of vows with the Poor Clares. She was able to hug her friends and family for the first time in 25 years. ESPN was there to cover the occasion. (Photo courtesy of Mary Beth Bonacci)

Dominguez also knew she was different.

“She was living for a different purpose than everyone else,” he said.

Sister Rose Marie’s devotion and personality remain the same, though she has traded in her jersey for a habit.
Although Sister Rose Marie can only write one letter a year, and can seldom have visitors, her friendship and influence reach far beyond the monastery walls.

Mcbournie said that their yearly letters have brought them even closer than they were in high school.

“I look forward to her letter every year,” Mcbournie said.