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PHOTOS: Thousands visiting Sister Wilhelmina's body over holiday weekend

Thousands of pilgrims have lined up at the Abbey of Our Lady of Ephesus in Gower, Missouri, to view the remains of Sr. Wilhelmina Lancaster. / null

Washington, D.C. Newsroom, May 28, 2023 / 14:05 pm (CNA).

Thousands of pilgrims are descending on a Benedictine abbey outside rural Gower, Missouri, this Memorial Day weekend to view the surprisingly well-preserved body of its African American foundress, Sister Wilhelmina Lancaster, who died in 2019.

On Sunday, the feast of Pentecost, an average of 200 vehicles per hour were coming onto the abbey's property, an uptick in traffic from the day before, Clinton County Sheriff Larry Fish said in a Facebook video update. He said he expected 15,000 people to visit the site by the end of the day.

"We're going to see this probably for months, but right now this weekend is probably going to be the biggest influx of people that you’re going to see in this area," Fish predicted in an earlier video posted May 25.

A Benedictine sister looks on as visitors offer prayers at the side of Sister Wilhelmina's remains. Craig J. Campbell/EWTN News
A Benedictine sister looks on as visitors offer prayers at the side of Sister Wilhelmina's remains. Craig J. Campbell/EWTN News

Part of the urgency for those visiting the abbey over the holiday weekend is the limited opportunity to touch the nun’s body, which has been on public display in a room in the basement of the abbey's church for more than a week.

On Saturday, a photojournalist working for EWTN News witnessed pilgrims touching parts of Sister Wilhelmina's body with their hands or rosary beads and even kissing her hands. Such direct physical contact won’t be possible after Monday afternoon when the nun’s remains will be placed in a glass enclosure, though her body will still be available for public viewing.

A glass-enclosed case is being prepared to house the remains of Sister Wilhelmina. Craig J. Campbell/EWTN News
A glass-enclosed case is being prepared to house the remains of Sister Wilhelmina. Craig J. Campbell/EWTN News

No investigation so far

Sister Wilhelmina, a St. Louis native, founded the Benedictines of Mary, Queen of Apostles in 1995 when she was 70 years old. She died on May 29, 2019, and her unembalmed body was buried in a simple wooden coffin in the abbey’s outdoor cemetery.

Expecting to find only bones when they exhumed her remains on May 18 to be reinterred in their newly constructed St. Joseph’s Shrine, the sisters were astonished to find her body and traditional nun’s habit still remarkably intact. In addition, pilgrims who have visited the body have told CNA they did not smell any odor of decay. The sisters say they have applied wax to Sister Wilhelmina's hands and face.

The condition of her body has puzzled even experienced morticians. "If you’re telling me that this woman went into the ground unembalmed in a wooden box with no outer container in the ground and it was not sub-zero up in Alaska, I’m telling you, I’m going to start a devotion to this sister, because something special is going on there,” Barry Lease, president and CEO of the Pittsburgh Institute of Mortuary Science, told CNA last week.

Many of the pilgrims brought rosaries to visit the remains of Sister Wilhelmina, who is remembered for her devotion to Our Lady. Craig J. Campbell/EWTN News
Many of the pilgrims brought rosaries to visit the remains of Sister Wilhelmina, who is remembered for her devotion to Our Lady. Craig J. Campbell/EWTN News

There has been no official determination that Sister Wilhelmina’s remains are “incorrupt,” a possible sign of sanctity, nor is there any cause underway for the nun’s canonization, a rigorous process in the Catholic Church that can take many years.

The local ordinary, Bishop Vann Johnston of the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, who has visited the monastery to see Sister Wilhelmina’s remains, has said that a “thorough investigation” is needed to answer “important questions” raised by the state of her body, but there has been no word if and when such an analysis might take place. On Sunday a spokeswoman for the diocese said she was mistaken when she told CNA last week that Johnston had “been in touch with someone in Rome” about what has happened at the abbey.

Discovery meant to be kept quiet

Over the weekend, the Benedictine sisters posted a new statement on their website, announcing plans to hold a public rosary procession Monday at 4:30 p.m. local time, after which they will place Sister Wilhelmina’s body in the glass enclosure inside the St. Joseph's Shrine.

In the statement, the sisters also revealed that they had hoped to keep the startling condition of their foundress' body quiet.

“We had no intent to make the discovery so public, but unfortunately, a private email was posted publicly, and the news began to spread like wildfire." they wrote. "However, God works in mysterious ways, and we embrace His new plan for us."

An aerial view of the Abbey of Our Lady of Ephesus, as pilgrims arrive to visit the remains of Sister Wilhelmina Lancaster. Craig J. Campbell/EWTN News
An aerial view of the Abbey of Our Lady of Ephesus, as pilgrims arrive to visit the remains of Sister Wilhelmina Lancaster. Craig J. Campbell/EWTN News

The sisters said that they continued their normal daily routines despite the crowds and worldwide media attention.

“Many have voiced concern about the disruption to our life, but we have, thankfully, remained unaffected and able to continue on in our life of ora et labora, prayer and work, as Sister Wilhelmina would have it,” the statement says.

“Unless we looked out the front windows, or out at the crowds attending our Mass and Divine Offices, we would not even know people are here. An army of volunteers and our local law enforcement have stepped forward to manage the crowds, and we are deeply grateful to each of them, as they allow us to continue our life in peace, while granting the visitors a pleasant and prayerful experience at the Abbey.”

Everything you need to know about Pentecost

Depiction of the Holy Spirit in St. Peter’s Basilica. / Paolo Gallo / Shutterstock.

Denver, Colo., May 28, 2023 / 02:00 am (CNA).

This weekend, the Church celebrates Pentecost, one of the most important feast days of the year that concludes the Easter season and celebrates the beginning of the Church.  

Here’s what you need to know about the feast day.

The timing and origins of Pentecost

Pentecost always occurs 50 days after the resurrection of Jesus and 10 days after his ascension into heaven. Because Easter is a moveable feast without a fixed date, and Pentecost depends on the timing of Easter, Pentecost can fall anywhere between May 10 and June 13.

The timing of these feasts is also where Catholics get the concept of the novena — nine days of prayer — because in Acts 1, Mary and the Apostles prayed together “continuously” for nine days after the Ascension leading up to Pentecost. Traditionally, the Church prays the novena to the Holy Spirit in the days before Pentecost.

The name of the day itself is derived from the Greek word “pentecoste,” meaning 50th.

There is a parallel Jewish holiday, Shavu’ot, which falls 50 days after Passover. Shavu’ot is sometimes called the festival of weeks, referring to the seven weeks since Passover.

Originally a harvest feast, Shavu’ot now commemorates the sealing of the Old Covenant on Mount Sinai, when the Lord revealed the Torah to Moses on Mount Sinai. Every year, the Jewish people renew their acceptance of the gift of the Torah on this feast.

What happens at Pentecost?

In the Christian tradition, Pentecost is the celebration of the person of the Holy Spirit coming upon the Apostles, Mary, and the first followers of Jesus, who were gathered together in the Upper Room.

A “strong, driving” wind filled the room where they were gathered, and tongues of fire came to rest on their heads, allowing them to speak in different languages so that they could understand each other. It was such a strange phenomenon that some people thought the Christians were just drunk — but Peter pointed out that it was only the morning, and said the phenomenon was caused by the Holy Spirit.

The Holy Spirit also gave the apostles the other gifts and fruits necessary to fulfill the great commission — to go out and preach the Gospel to all nations. It fulfills the New Testament promise from Christ (Luke 24:46-49) that the Apostles would be “clothed with power” before they would be sent out to spread the Gospel.

Where’s that in the bible?

The main event of Pentecost (the strong driving wind and tongues of fire) takes place in Acts 2:13, though the events immediately following (Peter’s homily, the baptism of thousands) continue through verse 41.

Happy Birthday, Church!

It was right after Pentecost that Peter, inspired by the Holy Spirit, preached his first homily to Jews and other non-believers, in which he opened the scriptures of the Old Testament, showing how the prophet Joel prophesied events and the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.

He also told the people that the Jesus they crucified is the Lord and was raised from the dead, which “cut them to the heart.” When they asked what they should do, Peter exhorted them to repent of their sins and to be baptized. According to the account in Acts, about 3,000 people were baptized following Peter’s sermon.

For this reason, Pentecost is considered the birthday of the Church — Peter, the first Pope, preaches for the first time and converts thousands of new believers. The apostles and believers, for the first time, were united by a common language, and a common zeal and purpose to go and preach the Gospel.

Pentecost vestments and customs around the world

Typically, priests will wear red vestments on Pentecost, symbolic of the burning fire of God’s love and the tongues of fire that descended on the apostles.

However, in some parts of the world, Pentecost is also referred to as “WhitSunday”, or White Sunday, referring to the white vestments that are typically worn in Britain and Ireland. The white is symbolic of the dove of the Holy Spirit, and typical of the vestments that catechumens desiring baptism wear on that day.

An Italian Pentecost tradition is to scatter rose leaves from the ceiling of the churches to recall the miracle of the fiery tongues, and so in some places in Italy, Pentecost is sometimes called Pascha Rosatum (Easter roses).

In France, it is tradition to blow trumpets during Mass to recall the sound of the driving wind of the Holy Spirit.

In Asia, it is typical to have an extra service, called genuflexion, during which long poems and prayers are recited. In Russia, Mass-goers often carry flowers or green branches during Pentecost services.

This article was originally published on CNA June 2, 2017, and was updated May 26, 2023.

Here’s when Easter officially ends

Alexander Andreyevich Ivanov's Appearance of Christ to Mary Magdalene (1835) / null

Washington, D.C. Newsroom, May 27, 2023 / 06:00 am (CNA).

Catholics recognize Easter — when Jesus Christ rose from the dead after sacrificing his life for all of humanity — as the first Sunday after the first full moon on or after the spring equinox. But, as it turns out, they can continue saying “Happy Easter” into May or, in some years, into June.

Easter lasts for a total of 50 days, from Easter Sunday until the feast of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit came upon the apostles, Mary, and the first followers of Christ. 

This year, 2023, Easter was on April 9 and runs until this Sunday, May 28. 

Easter explained

Catholics observe Easter in different stages. Easter Sunday is the greatest Sunday of the year, and it marks the start of the “Easter octave,” or the eight days that stretch from the first to the second Sunday of Easter (also known as Divine Mercy Sunday). The Church celebrates each of these eight days as solemnities of the Lord — a direct extension of Easter Sunday.

The entire Easter season lasts 50 days and includes the solemnity of the Ascension of Christ, which falls on the 40th day of Easter, which this year was May 18 (or May 21 in some dioceses). It ends with Pentecost, which is derived from the Greek word “pentecoste,” meaning “50th.” 

“The 50 days from the Sunday of the Resurrection to Pentecost Sunday are celebrated in joy and exultation as one feast day, indeed as one ‘great Sunday,’” according to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. “These are the days above all others in which the ‘Alleluia’ is sung.”

The USCCB calls Easter “the most important of all liturgical times.”

“It celebrates Jesus’ victory of sin and death and salvation for mankind,” the U.S. bishops say. “It is God’s greatest act of love to redeem mankind.”

In the traditional Roman rite

In the traditional form of the Roman rite, Easter is known properly as Paschaltide, which includes three parts: the season of Easter, Ascensiontide, and the octave of Pentecost. It thus lasts one week longer than the Easter season in the calendar of the Missal of St. Paul VI.

The season of Easter begins with the Easter Vigil on Holy Saturday and runs through the afternoon of the vigil of the Ascension. 

Ascensiontide begins the evening before the Ascension, with First Vespers of the feast, and ends the afternoon of the vigil of Pentecost — marking the first novena.

The octave of Pentecost is an extension of the feast of Pentecost, beginning with the vigil Mass of Pentecost and ending the afternoon of the following Saturday, which this year falls June 3.

This article was originally published April 21, 2022, and was updated May 26, 2023.

Columbus Diocese to close 15 churches; bishop calls for stronger Catholic engagement

The Vatican on April 2, 2022, announced that Pope Francis had appointed Father Earl K. Fernandes to be the next bishop of the Diocese of Columbus, Ohio. / Courtesy of the Archdiocese of Cincinnati.

Denver Newsroom, May 26, 2023 / 15:40 pm (CNA).

Ohio’s Catholic Diocese of Columbus will close 15 churches as part of a parish reorganization and merger plan, but Bishop Earl K. Fernandes emphasized new possibilities for growth, especially if lay Catholics take on more responsibility for the Church’s future.

“When I arrived, I said I’m not interested in presiding over 25 years of decline in the diocese,” the bishop said in a May 25 video series at the diocese’s YouTube channel. “I want to grow the church, not for my glory, but for God’s glory,” he said.

Fernandes said the reorganization plan was an effort to “try to come up with the best possible solution for the whole Diocese of Columbus.”

The bishop stressed the need for “an engaged lay faithful” who take shared responsibility for the Church’s mission of evangelization and for the future of their parishes in “authentic collaboration” with clergy.

The diocese serves more than 278,000 Catholics at 108 churches in 23 counties of central Ohio.

The changes are needed due to declining church attendance and fewer young priests, as well as population decline in rural areas and population shifts in the Columbus area, according to WOSU 89.7 NPR News. Two Catholic schools will also close.

At the same time, there are signs of growth in the diocese. The bishop noted a “huge number” of Spanish-speaking people, compared with 10 years ago, as well as an influx of Africans, some of whom speak French. The diocese has 15 new prospective seminarians this year, but those who continue to ordination will still take years of study and preparation.

“Columbus is unique in that it’s growing in the Midwest as a city with lots of jobs coming here,” Fernandes said. “But also Columbus, like many other dioceses, has an aging clergy, so something needed to be done, not just for the retraction of the diocese, but for the mission of evangelization.”

The bishop said the population influx could even mean the construction of new Catholic schools in parts of the diocese.

He said he hoped the planned changes are the foundation for a better future for the diocese. He said he envisions, in 10 or 15 years, parishes that are not simply maintaining what they have but are “actually evangelizing” and “making new disciples.” Parishes should have a “culture of vocations” and “beautiful churches and liturgy.”

The bishop described the diocese as “top-heavy” in aging clergy, with 12 priests over age 70 still working as parish pastors.

“Priests should be able to enjoy their retirement,” he said. “We knew we were going to have to make decisions and have pastors who have the energy and the leadership abilities to help parishes come together, to evangelize and to pastor multiple parishes.”

Religious orders have a growing presence in the diocese and are serving at various parishes, especially if they are prepared to serve ethnic communities and Spanish speakers. Capuchin Franciscan priests will arrive this summer to staff two churches in a newly merged parish, the diocese’s newspaper The Catholic Times reported.

The diocese’s reorganization process, titled “Real Presence, Real Future,” began in 2019 under Fernandes’ predecessor, Bishop Robert Brennan. The first draft of the reorganization model was released in fall 2021 and final recommendations were presented to the bishop in fall 2022. Final recommendations to Fernandes slated 19 churches for closure, but the bishop said he made adjustments based on input from parishioners and priests.

CNA contacted the Diocese of Columbus for comment but did not receive a response by publication.

The Columbus Diocese borders the Diocese of Steubenville. A proposal to merge the two dioceses was put on hold in November 2022.

Canadian police ask for public’s help in identifying man who set fire at cathedral 

Photos of the man who allegedly set a fire at St. Mary's Cathedral and charged at two staff members on May 19, 2023. / Calgary Police Department

Boston, Mass., May 26, 2023 / 14:15 pm (CNA).

Local police in Canada are asking for the public’s assistance in identifying a man who allegedly set a fire and assaulted two men at St. Mary’s Cathedral in Calgary, located in the western province of Alberta.

Police responded early in the morning to reports of a “deliberately set fire” at the cathedral on May 19, the Calgary Police Department said in a May 25 statement.

Two staff members at the cathedral heard a “commotion” outside and opened the back door to see what it was, the statement said. When they opened the door, a man “aggressively charged at them,” according to police. 

The two staff members, both men, closed the doors before the man could reach them, police said. The man continued to attempt to enter the church, the statement said. 

Law enforcement was called and the Calgary Fire Department put out the fire when it arrived.

According to police, a description of the man says he is between 35 and 45 years old and bald. The man is about 6 feet tall and 180 pounds, police said. The police department’s Hate Crime Prevention Team is investigating for “hate motivation,” police said.

The cathedral referred CNA to the Diocese of Calgary for comment.

Cristina Marcil, a spokeswoman for the Diocese of Calgary told CNA Friday that the diocese is aware of the incident and is cooperating with law enforcement to support the investigation.

Tips can be submitted to police by calling 403-266-1234. Anonymous tips can be submitted by calling 1-800-222-8477 and going online at www.calgarycrimestoppers.org

Morticians mystified by Sister Wilhelmina’s body: ‘Something special going on there’

A young man touches a religious statue to the body of Sister Wilhelmina Lancaster, OSB, on May 18, 2023, at the Benedictines of Mary, Queen of Apostles monastery in Gower, Missouri. / Used with permission.

CNA Newsroom, May 26, 2023 / 13:45 pm (CNA).

Expert morticians are scratching their heads at the recently exhumed body of Sister Wilhelmina Lancaster, a Benedictine nun who died in 2019 and now appears to be in an unexpected state of preservation.

The reactions come a week after the abbess and sisters of the community that she founded, the Benedictine Sisters of Mary, Queen of the Apostles, unearthed the 95-year-old African American religious sister’s simple wooden coffin on May 18 from the cemetery on the monastery grounds in rural Gower, Missouri, to relocate her remains to a final resting place inside their chapel.

The local ordinary, Bishop Vann Johnston of the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, visited the monastery Monday to see Sister Wilhelmina’s remains. Johnston issued a statement the same day, saying that a “thorough investigation” was needed to answer “important questions” raised by the state of her body.

Jack Klein, owner of Hixson-Klein Funeral Home in Gower, Missouri, who said he was present at Sister Wilhelmina’s burial and issued her death certificate, confirmed for CNA that the religious sister’s body was not embalmed and that the wood coffin was not placed into any outer burial container. 

Klein said he “can’t understand” how Sister Wilhelmina’s un-embalmed body is in the state it’s currently in, four years after her burial.

David Hess, program coordinator and associate professor in the mortuary science department at Salt Lake Community College in Salt Lake City, expressed similar surprise.

“If the body was not embalmed, and it was still intact after four years, that one kind of throws me,” he told CNA. “I would have expected the body to be decomposed, maybe not all the way down to bone, but at least severely decomposed.” 

Sister Wilhelmina’s body, which has been on display in the open air for pilgrims to visit, is reported to have no foul odor in recent days, as would be the case, morticians say, with a body that has undergone decomposition for four years.

One pilgrim, Peggy Tynan of Denver, even told CNA that while praying over Sister Wilhelmina’s body on May 24, she smelt a “sweet and flowery aroma,” which was so powerful she could taste it. A journalist from EWTN’s ACI Group who visited the body last weekend also noticed no odor of decomposition.

“It’s kind of strange, if the body was not embalmed, that there would be no odor,” Hess said.

A pilgrim venerates the apparently incorrupt body of Sister Wilhelmina Lancaster, OSB, on May 20, 2023. Lancaster was recently exhumed in Gower, Missouri. Credit: Kelsey Wicks/CNA
A pilgrim venerates the apparently incorrupt body of Sister Wilhelmina Lancaster, OSB, on May 20, 2023. Lancaster was recently exhumed in Gower, Missouri. Credit: Kelsey Wicks/CNA

There has been no official determination that Sister Wilhelmina’s remains are incorrupt, nor is there any cause underway for her canonization, a formal process in the Catholic Church that can take many years. Her fellow sisters plan to hold a procession on Monday on the monastery grounds and then place Sister Wilhelmina’s body under a glass case to accommodate the many pilgrims coming to the property.

An open question is if and how the foundress’ remains will be scientifically analyzed. A diocesan spokeswoman, Ashlie Hand, told CNA on Wednesday that the diocese isn’t aware of any specific Church guidelines for how to conduct such an investigation.

Bishop Johnston is "definitely working on it and trying to find a careful process, a careful approach, that’s well thought through,” she said.

Hand said as many as 1,000 pilgrims reportedly visited the monastery on Wednesday. The diocese has been advising the sisters about how best to handle the influx of visitors, she said.

“The condition of the remains of Sister Wilhelmina Lancaster has understandably generated widespread interest and raised important questions. At the same time, it is important to protect the integrity of the mortal remains of Sister Wilhelmina to allow for a thorough investigation,” Johnston said in his statement.

“I invite all the faithful to continue praying during this time of investigation for God’s will in the lives of the Benedictines of Mary, Queen of Apostles; for all women religious; and all the baptized in our common vocation to holiness, with hope and trust in the Lord.”

No explanation yet

According to the sisters, at some point after the burial Sister Wilhelmina’s coffin sustained a crack down the middle that let in moisture and dirt. Her body was discovered to be covered in what the sisters described as a layer of mold after being exhumed.

CNA asked Hess and another expert about the possibility that the body might have been preserved through a chemical process called “grave wax.”

“Grave wax” is an uncommonly seen but natural phenomenon that encases a corpse or parts of a body in a shell of soap-like fatty tissue, called adipocere, which slows or stops the normal decomposition process, which can preserve the human remains for many years — even centuries.

Two so-called “soap mummies” — dubbed “Soap Lady” and “Soap Man” — were exhumed in 1875 during digging for the foundation of a train depot in downtown Philadelphia decades after they died.

“This unusual preservation occurred because water seeped into the casket and brought alkaline soil with it, turning the fats in his body to soap through a type of hydrolysis known as saponification,” according to the Smithsonian Institution, which has kept the man’s remains in climate-controlled storage in the Smithsonian’s Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. The woman’s remains are on exhibit in Philadelphia’s Mütter Museum.

Hess said that grave wax typically only materializes in different parts of the body, but he said it could cover the entire body. He added that grave wax will break down over time.

Hess said that he “highly” doubts that grave wax could have preserved Sister Wilhelmina’s body to appear the way it currently does and without any foul odor, “unless she was in a highly alkaline environment.”

Mortician Barry Lease, president and CEO of the Pittsburgh Institute of Mortuary Science, told CNA that a soil analysis testing the pH, or point hydrogen, of the environment, would reveal whether Sister Wilhelmina’s former burial grounds are highly alkaline. According to the Mütter Museum, “Adipocere formation is not common, but it may form in alkaline, warm, airless environments, such as the one in which the Soap Lady was buried.”

Lease said that it’s difficult to project where the body would be in the decomposition process if it was covered in adipocere but added that the body’s decomposition “should be further than that,” referring to a photo of the body taken by CNA on May 20.

“You shouldn’t be recognizing her with just a little bit of mold on her face,” Lease said.

“An unembalmed body in the ground for four years should have some odor coming off of it that would be noticeable,” he added.

“If you’re telling me that this woman went into the ground unembalmed in a wooden box with no outer container in the ground and it was not sub-zero up in Alaska, I’m telling you, I’m going to start a devotion to this sister, because something special is going on there,” Lease, a practicing Catholic, told CNA.

Editor's note: This story was updated on May 28 after diocesan spokesman said she was mistaken when she told CNA that Bishop Vann Johnston had "been in touch with someone in Rome" about the condition of Sister Wilhelmina's body.

Cordileone on Serra statue case: Prosecutor signaled attacks against Catholics go unpunished

A statue of St. Junipero Serra, which was defaced and torn down by protesters Oct. 12, 2020, at Mission San Rafael Arcangel in San Rafael, California. Courtesy photo.

Denver, Colo., May 26, 2023 / 13:15 pm (CNA).

Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco said Thursday that prosecutors’ decision to reduce the charge against activists who destroyed a parish’s statue of a saint from felony to misdemeanor sends the signal that attacks against the Catholic Church can continue with impunity.

“It is clear to me that this course of action would not have been taken with anyone else. In fact, if the same kind of offense had been committed against another religious congregation or group, it would almost certainly have been prosecuted as a hate crime,” Cordileone said.

Cordileone’s statement follows a decision by the the Marin County District Attorney’s Office to reduce charges against five protesters who, on Oct. 12, 2020, defaced and tore down the statue of St. Junipero Serra on the grounds of Mission San Rafael Arcángel, the present-day home of St. Rafael Church in San Rafael, California.

“There have been more than 100 attacks on Catholic Church property across the nation, including in the Archdiocese of San Francisco, one of which was someone firing a bullet into our cathedral. Anti-Catholicism has a long and ugly history in this country.”

“Now, with this decision, the Marin County district attorney has given the signal that attacks on Catholic houses of worship and sacred objects may continue without serious legal consequence,” the archbishop said.

Before the activists attacked the statue, members of the Coast Miwok tribe held a planned hourlong protest to mark Indigenous People’s Day. Numerous statues of the saint were vandalized or destroyed in 2020, most of them in California, amid civil unrest in the wake of the Minneapolis murder of George Floyd, a Black man, by a white police officer.

Dean Hoaglin, chair of the Coast Miwok Tribal Council of Marin, who was not charged in the vandalism, characterized the statue as “a continued reminder of the impact of colonization and genocide of our people,” Fox2 News reported at the time the statue was destroyed. 

A reduction in charges

In November 2020 the Marin County District Attorney’s Office filed felony vandalism charges against the five defendants, who now range in age from 25 to 40. 

On May 25, the district attorney’s office announced the case has been “resolved through an innovative restorative justice solution.” The felony charges were reduced to misdemeanors. 

The defendants must pay monetary restitution to the church to repair or replace the statues, complete 50 hours of volunteer work, apologize in writing, and participate in a community forum with “a credible historian who will give stakeholders a chance to have a meaningful dialogue about the issue.” They must also stay off church property.

“It is the district attorney’s office’s goal to achieve a fair result on all cases, and I strongly believe justice was served on this one,” District Attorney Lori E. Frugoli said Thursday. 

“While this issue has raised emotions because of the sensitivities around religion, community boundaries, and historic inequities, the fact is that a resolution through accountability has been reached through restorative justice and that is a victory for this community.”

A defense of St. Junipero Serra

Cordileone, in a May 24 letter to Frugoli’s office, said he has tried to “show goodwill and a desire to pursue a peaceful but honest resolution of this ugly affair.”

“I readily acknowledge, and have done so numerous times, that horrible atrocities have been perpetrated against the indigenous people of California,” he said. “While an honest reading of the historical record would clear Junipero Serra of perpetrating such atrocities — indeed, he gave his life to defending the native people of our land — the actual historical record is beside the point.”

Critics of Junipero Serra claim that he and his missions were responsible for a host of atrocities against native peoples. The claim has drawn strong objections from Catholics who say this is inaccurate and misrepresents Serra.

“Junípero Serra spent his life caring for and defending the indigenous people of California to the point of heroic virtue. Indian and Spaniard alike mourned when he died,” Cordileone said in September 2021 after the California governor approved the removal of a Serra statue from state capitol grounds. “We would do well to imitate his virtues. We ignore history to our peril.”

Pope Francis canonized Junipero Serra during his 2015 visit to the U.S. He said the saint “sought to defend the dignity of the native community, to protect it from those who had mistreated and abused it.”

Amid the civil unrest of 2020 in which vandals tore down many statues, there was a massive four-alarm fire at the church at Mission San Gabriel near Los Angeles, which was founded by St. Junipero Serra in 1771. The alleged arsonist, whose trial is still pending, was known at the mission and had a history of conflicts with mission staff.

Do you understand the significance of this, and how it makes us feel?’ 

Cordileone strongly criticized the district attorney’s justification for the reduced misdemeanor charges on the grounds that the perpetrators had shown “active participation” in a “restorative justice process.”

“This point is, a felony crime was committed: The law does not allow people to trespass onto private property and destroy it, all the more so when the private property is a house of worship and the property being destroyed has sacred value to the members of the congregation,” the archbishop said.

Cordileone said he wanted a just punishment for the crime but did not want the defendants to go to prison. 

“I have asked that the vandals publicly repudiate their crime and acknowledge the harm they have inflicted on us. Acknowledging wrongdoing is the first step in restorative justice. A simple ‘I’m sorry’ falls pitifully short of reparation for the harm that was done,” he said.

He lamented that San Rafael Police Department officers stood by and watched the vandals commit the crime when the parish had an agreement with the department that the police would intervene if the protesters trespassed onto parish property. Cordileone wondered whether the officers stood by based on orders from their superiors.

“Do you understand the significance of this, and how it makes us feel?” Cordileone asked the district attorney. “Who gave the order to the police officers not to do their sworn duty, for which they put their lives on the line every day? Why has there been no investigation? Why has the person responsible for this injustice not been held accountable?”

Though the district attorney’s office indicated that the resolution to the case followed a “thorough case review” by prosecutors and “a long discussion” among church and community members, Cordileone’s letter indicated the archdiocese was not part of this discussion.

“The archdiocese was shut out of the conversation, and the mediator was treating the perpetrators as if they were the victims,” the archbishop said. He called this “a direct insult to the victims of this crime and only rubs the salt more deeply into our wounds.”

The archbishop cited Americans’ “growing mistrust” in government institutions.

“They perceive, and for good reason, that government officials do not have their best interests at heart but instead make decisions based on what is politically advantageous to them. I regret that when the Marin County District Attorney’s Office had the opportunity to rebuild trust, you instead further undermined it.”

“We will make our voices heard,” said Cordileone, who held an exorcism and offered prayers after the parish’s Junipero Serra statue was torn down.

History of the Mission San Rafael

The San Rafael parish website includes both English and Spanish sections. Its Spanish-speaking community includes people from Mexican, Guatemalan, and Salvadoran backgrounds. Hispanics make up about half of its parishioners. 

Though Serra himself did not found Mission San Rafael, it owes its existence to Serra’s legacy, as he founded the first nine missions in what would become California. The mission was founded in December 1817. 

According to the parish, the mission was named for the angel of healing and was founded as a hospital for neophyte Native American Christians. It also became an active farm and ranch worked by the Miwok Indians and helped convert 1,873 Native Americans. It served as a mission for only 17 years when the newly independent Mexican government decided to end the mission system and sell the lands to pro-independence Mexican citizens.

The mission fell into ruins. A new parish church was built near the old chapel ruins in 1861 and a replica of the mission chapel was built in 1949.

Do your tax dollars pay for abortion? It depends on where you live

Planned Parenthood hosts a rally for funding abortion for Medicaid recipients on the state capitol's steps in January. / YouTube/Uprise RI

Washington D.C., May 26, 2023 / 09:10 am (CNA).

Last Thursday Rhode Island Gov. Daniel McKee signed a bill extending abortion coverage to Medicaid and health insurance plans used by state workers.

Rhode Island joins 16 other states funding abortion through Medicaid, despite a federal policy known as the Hyde Amendment prohibiting the use of tax dollars to pay for abortion.

Because Medicaid is jointly funded by the state and federal government, tax dollar funding for abortion through Medicaid is severely restricted in most states.

So, how can Rhode Island and these 16 other states get away with having their taxpayers subsidize abortion?

Here’s what you need to know.

What is the Hyde Amendment? 

First passed in 1976, the Hyde Amendment — named for Illinois Rep. Henry Hyde, who introduced it — is a budget policy that restricts federal tax dollars from being used for abortions.

For years the amendment enjoyed bipartisan support, with Democratic senators such as Joe Biden advocating its usage in the Senate.

Because the amendment has never been made permanent law, Congress chooses whether to include Hyde each year when passing the annual budget package.

This makes Hyde particularly vulnerable to Democratic efforts in Congress and the White House to simply drop it out of the budget. Despite this Hyde has successfully passed and been attached to every annual federal budget package since 1976.

As at least half of Medicaid funding comes from the federal government, according to a Medicaid overview recently published by the Congressional Research Service; most states do not cover abortion in their Medicaid plans.

So, how can states use tax dollars to pay for abortion? 

Robert Destro, former assistant secretary of state for the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, told CNA that “the short answer is that Hyde does not govern what states do with their own money.” 

According to Destro, it’s essentially a question of state vs. federal tax dollars. 

Since 1976 Hyde restrictions have kept federal tax dollars from being used to pay for abortions.

Hyde does not, however, restrict states’ ability to use state tax dollars to pay for abortion. So, while federal funding cannot be used for abortion, state funding can.

Rhode Island’s new bill amended state law to include abortion in its Medicaid provisions. The state claims it will only use state funds to pay for abortion, thus not violating the Hyde Amendment.

“California and New York have been doing this for a long time,” Destro explained, adding that “what Rhode Island is doing is nothing new.” 

Though it may appear that states are using a legal loophole to work around Hyde, Michael New, senior associate scholar at the Charlotte Lozier Institute, told CNA that “there is no loophole.”

Normally, the federal government reimburses states for a percentage of their Medicaid expenditures at a rate called the Federal Medical Assistance Percentage.

States that want to pay for abortions through their Medicaid program could do so out of their own coffers and simply just not be reimbursed by the federal government.

While clarifying that “the federal government does not provide reimbursements or matching funds for elective abortions paid for by state Medicaid programs,” New explained that “states have always been free to use their own tax dollars to cover abortions through their own respective Medicaid programs.” 

According to a list compiled by the abortion research organization the Guttmacher Institute in March, other states covering abortion in their Medicaid plans are California, Oregon, Washington, Montana, Minnesota, Illinois, New York, Vermont, Maine, Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Jersey, Maryland, New Mexico, Alaska, and Hawaii.

This means that if you live in any of these states your tax dollars are being used to pay for abortion.

Though New said that there has been some litigation in some states to challenge the constitutionality or legality of covering abortion in a state Medicaid program, he is not aware of any current efforts challenging the practice.

“In 2017 Gov. Bruce Rauner of Illinois signed legislation requiring the state Medicaid program to cover elective abortion. The Thomas More Society, a pro-life nonprofit, subsequently sued, arguing that legislation failed to go through the proper budget process. The lawsuit was unsuccessful,” New said. 

Impact of including abortion in Medicaid

Proponents of Medicaid funding for abortion have argued that it is a necessary step to ensure abortion access for impoverished communities.

Rhode Island’s new law claims that “restrictions on abortion coverage have a disproportionate impact on low-income residents, immigrants, people of color, and young people who are already disadvantaged in their access to the resources, information, and services necessary to prevent an unintended pregnancy or to carry a healthy pregnancy to term.”

The bill concludes that “the purpose of this legislation is to promote equity in access to reproductive health care.”

Yet, pro-lifers like Dr. Ingrid Skop, an OB-GYN and vice president of the Charlotte Lozier Institute, argue that Medicaid funding for abortion amounts to “eugenic action.”

“Rather than provide the emotional, relationship, material, and financial support that women in crisis need to allow them to give birth to their children,” Skop said, “apparently, many states would prefer to rid themselves of the children of impoverished women before birth.” 

Illinois clergy sex abuse report: How bishops protected accused priests

Father Frederick Lenczycki (left) admitted to abusing more than 30 children in three states; Bishop Joseph Imesch of the Diocese of Joliet had recommended him for a transfer without disclosing allegations against the priest. / Credit: Illinois Department of Corrections; Diocese of Joliet

Washington D.C., May 26, 2023 / 07:50 am (CNA).

The Illinois attorney general’s “Report on Catholic Clergy Child Sex Abuse in Illinois,” released Tuesday, found nearly 2,000 substantiated claims of child sex abuse from 541 Catholic clerics over 70 years and alleged numerous examples of intentional cover-ups and inadequate responses from bishops. 

“Decades of Catholic leadership decisions and policies have allowed known child sex abusers to hide, often in plain sight,” Attorney General Kwame Raoul said in a statement. 

The report showed examples of bishops and archbishops transferring accused child abusers to other parishes or other dioceses while failing to make the public aware of allegations against them. 

It also shows examples of accused priests being disciplined and put back into ministry only to be accused of repeating their actions elsewhere. 

What follows are just a few examples of the many such cases revealed in the report.

A bishop who transferred abusers

Bishop Joseph Imesch of the Diocese of Joliet is named in the report for having “engaged in a pattern of keeping cleric abusers in circulation in the diocese without restriction.” 

Imesch, who served as bishop of Joliet from 1979 to 2006, testified in 2005 that he kept priests in ministry even though he knew they had credible allegations made against them. He died in 2015 at the age of 84.

Father Frederick Lenczycki is one of the priests Imesch is accused of covering for. Ordained in 1972, Lenczycki was accused of molesting at least nine altar boys in the 1980s.

The priest then sent letters to Imesch, in which he admitted to “sexually act[ing] out” and “abuse [of] people.” 

The bishop sent him to a Church-run treatment facility in California and then recommended him for an assignment in San Francisco without disclosing the sex abuse. He then moved to a parish in Missouri.

Lenczycki eventually admitted to abusing 30 children in all three states. He was not removed from ministry until 2002. In 2004 he pleaded guilty to sexually abusing three children in Illinois, and in 2019 he pleaded guilty to two counts of sodomy on children in Missouri. 

An abusive priest protected by three bishops

In the Diocese of Belleville, Father Raymond Kownacki was transferred between dioceses after he was accused of sexually abusing minors and forcing a girl to have an abortion. 

The girl, named Gina, met the priest when she was 16 years old and alleges that he raped her and then convinced her parents to let her live with him as a housekeeper. During this time, the report states she became pregnant and he forced her to have an abortion against her wishes. The report also says he admitted to her that he abused other minors.

The report notes that Gina informed Bishop Albert Zuroweste of the abuse in 1973 but that the bishop transferred Kownacki to another parish in April of the same year. The bishop praised the priest’s “knowledge, piety, prudence, experience, and general character” while recommending him for the transfer. 

After Kownacki faced credible accusations at his new parish, the newly ordained Bishop John Wurm transferred him to yet another parish, where he was accused of abusing more children. 

In August 1984, Kownacki was placed on sick leave after facing allegations of sexually abusing minors. Less than a year later, the newly ordained Bishop James Keleher transferred him to a new parish where he was again accused of sexually abusing minors. This was the third bishop to transfer him after sexual abuse allegations. He was eventually removed from ministry in 1995 under Bishop Wilton Gregory’s leadership but was never convicted of any crimes.

Eight parish assignments in 15 years

Another example in the Diocese of Springfield shows that one priest, Father Walter Weerts, had eight parish assignments in fewer than 15 years under the leadership of Bishop William O’Connor. 

In 1962, during his second assignment, the parents of a young boy alleged the priest had wrestled with their son nude. Eight other families made similar allegations about the priest’s interactions with their children by the end of the following week. The bishop did not take any action and the priest allegedly abused at least 22 boys. 

Chicago’s ‘treat and return to ministry’ policy

The report also scrutinized the Archdiocese of Chicago’s official policy on handling these cases from 1960 until 1992. The policy, known as the therapeutic model, required priests to undergo psychiatric evaluation and treatment if necessary. Then, it would return them to ministry if the diocese believed they had been properly treated. 

According to the report, at least 32 priests were accused of sexually abusing children during this period. Despite the treatment efforts, at least 19 of them were accused of sexually abusing more children afterward. This is a recidivism rate of nearly 60%. 

These are only a few of the many accounts provided in the report. 

‘All too common’ 

Melanie Sakoda, survivor support coordinator at Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) told CNA that the abuse and cover-ups described in the report are “all too familiar” and “all too common.” 

“They’re going all around to different parts of the country,” Sakoda said. “That’s what’s disturbing.”

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops unanimously approved the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People in 2002, which adopted a zero-tolerance policy for sexual abuse and ordered systematic changes. 

Dioceses named in the attorney general’s report released statements to express sadness, apologize for past actions, and highlight reforms that have taken place in recent years.

“The changes our diocese enacted have proven to be effective as we are not aware of a single incident of sexual abuse of a minor by clergy alleged to have occurred in this diocese in nearly 20 years,” Bishop Thomas J. Paprocki of Springfield said in a statement. 

Similarly, Bishop Ronal Hicks of Joliet said: “Currently, no cleric with a substantiated allegation against him is in active ministry in our diocese.”

Sakoda told CNA that there needs to be “personal consequences” for bishops who cover up sex abuse and some “should be criminally prosecuted.” At this stage, she said she believes the problem is “still persisting.” 

“People who are in the pews need to be aware of this,” Sakoda added. 

Sakoda encouraged people who are victims of abuse or know of abuse to “go straight to law enforcement.” She said reports should go to the attorney general’s office, the district attorney, or the police. 

Some victims are afraid to report sexual abuse, but “there are people who will believe you and support you,” she said.

“If you’re a survivor and haven’t come forward, don’t suffer alone and in silence,” Sakoda said. 

Lawsuit alleges Boston’s Cardinal O’Malley failed to prevent abuse at Catholic high school

Cardinal Sean O'Malley of Boston Credit: Daniel Ibanez/CNA / null

Denver, Colo., May 25, 2023 / 14:55 pm (CNA).

Three former students at a Massachusetts Catholic high school have filed a lawsuit against Boston’s Cardinal Sean O’Malley and other Church leaders because of alleged abuse committed by the school’s vice principal.

Attorney Mitchell Garabedian on Monday announced that he had filed a May 5 lawsuit in Suffolk County Superior Court on behalf of three former students at Arlington Catholic High School in the northwest Boston suburb of Arlington.

The plaintiffs, who are not named in court papers, allege that former vice principal Stephen Biagioni abused them from about 2011 to 2016, the Boston Globe reported. The former students were between the ages of 15 and 17 at this time, they told reporters on Monday, according to WBUR News.

Biagioni, who became principal of Arlington Catholic High School, was placed on administrative leave in April 2016 pending the outcome of an investigation into alleged events at Sunday detention. At the time, vice principal Linda Butt said they had no reason to believe it involved allegations of sexual abuse, WCVB News reported.

The Archdiocese of Boston said that the allegations were reported to law enforcement when the high school became aware of them.

“We generally do not comment on active litigation,” Archdiocese of Boston spokesperson Terrence Donilon told CNA in a May 25 statement. “That said, we understand that certain of the allegations in this lawsuit were brought to the attention of Arlington Catholic High School in 2016 and were reported to the appropriate law enforcement and child welfare authorities at that time as part of Arlington Catholic’s ongoing commitment to provide a safe environment for young people at the school.”

“The administrator in question was subsequently removed from his position, and personnel from Arlington Catholic and the Archdiocese of Boston cooperated fully with the investigating authorities,” Donilon said.

The three have similar accounts. They said that during detention, Biagioni would wrestle students and during these incidents would force their heads up against his crotch area, including part of his genitalia. This was “explicit sexual behavior and lewd and lascivious conduct,” the lawsuit charges. The alleged victims suffer consequences including anger, flashbacks, and sleep problems.

“There is no doubt that the antennas of the Archdiocese of Boston should have been raised very high because of their history, allowing sexual abuse to occur for decades upon decades,” Garabedian said, according to the Boston Globe. “[O]ne would think by now they would have the proper safeguards in place to protect children.”

He said Church leaders should have done more to prevent abuse given their awareness of the history of abuse in Boston and because O’Malley since 2014 has held a significant role in the Catholic Church as head of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors.

Besides O’Malley, the lawsuit was filed against Bishop Robert Deeley and Bishop Peter Uglietto as defendants as well as three other Church leaders. Biagioni, the former principal, is not named in the suit as a defendant.

Deeley, who now serves as the bishop of Portland, Maine, served as vicar general and moderator of the curia for the Boston Archdiocese from 2011 to 2014, according to his biography on the Portland Diocese’s website. Uglietto has served as the archdiocese’s vicar general and moderator for the clergy since February 2014.

The lawsuit said Church leaders have a duty to “properly supervise employees” to ensure that employees do not use their positions in the archdiocese “as a tool for grooming and assaulting vulnerable children.” It alleges that Church leaders “knew, or were negligent in not knowing” that Biagioni was a danger to the students.

The Boston Globe reported that two other plaintiffs who allege they were sexually abused by Biagioni also filed lawsuits against Church officials last year. Garabedian told the outlet that Biagioni wasn’t named a defendant in all three cases for “strategic reasons” and declined to comment further.

Garabedian has filed lawsuits on behalf of clergy abuse victims for decades. CNA sought a copy of the complaint from Garabedian’s office but did not receive a response by publication.