The Word from Rome July 22, 2005
By JOHN L. ALLEN JR.
The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued the decree May 27 in the case of 73-year-old Italian Fr. Gino Burresi, founder of a religious order called the Congregation of the Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary. The contents of the decree, which drew little public notice, were announced by the Italian bishops' conference on July 19. It specifies that:
- Burresi's faculties to hear confessions are revoked;
- He is definitively prohibited from providing spiritual direction;
- He is barred from preaching, as well as from celebrating the sacraments and sacramentals in public;
- He is barred from giving interviews, publishing and taking part in broadcasts that have anything to do with faith, morals, or supernatural phenomena.
The decree, in effect, amounts to removal from public ministry. The only thing left is private celebration of the Mass.
The original Vatican decree, which was not released publicly, but a copy of which was obtained by NCR, was signed by Archbishop William Levada, the new prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, as well as Archbishop Angelo Amato, the secretary. It stipulates that in an audience given by Benedict XVI to Amato on May 27, the pope confirmed the decree in forma specifica, meaning that he made its conclusions his own, and that no appeal is possible.
Though the decree cites abuses of confession and spiritual direction, Vatican sources told NCR in mid-July that another motive for the action against Burresi were accusations of sexual abuse with seminarians, dating back to the 1970s and 1980s.
The case has significance for at least three reasons: it's the first such decree under Levada and the new pope; Burresi is a widely known mystic and Fatima devotee sometimes compared by his followers, including groups in the United States and Canada, to the Capuchin mystic and saint Padre Pio; and finally, because it involves action against a widely known founder of a religious community on the basis of decades-old accusations.
This last point, observers say, could potentially have implications for how the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith eventually handles similar cases, such as charges of sexual abuse against Fr. Marcial Maciel Degollado, the founder of the Legionaries of Christ. Maciel has been accused by a number of former seminarians of sexual abuse. His case is reportedly under investigation by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
Until 1992, Burresi was a member of the Oblates of the Virgin Mary, an order founded in 1816 by Italian priest Bruno Lanteri. Burresi became a devotee of the Fatima revelations in the 1950s, and was the driving force behind the creation of a Marian sanctuary in San Vittorino, outside Rome. At the time he was a brother; he was not ordained as a priest until 1983. In the 1960s and 1970s, Burresi acquired a worldwide reputation as a mystic. He was alleged to be able to read souls, to carry the stigmata (the wounds of Christ), to have the "odor of sanctity," and to be able to produce paintings and other artwork miraculously.
Critics later charged that Burresi faked these phenomena, using, for example, rose-scented perfume to produce the odor.
Burresi attracted a number of vocations to the Oblates, as well as a larger circle of adherents. One person who came to know Burresi in the 1970s was Fr. Nicholas Gruner, who has gone on to become an ardent champion for the Fatima message, often clashing with church authorities. In September 2001 the Vatican issued a press release stating that Gruner, whose canonical status has long been ambiguous, is suspended a divinis (i.e., barred from performing priestly functions but not removed from the cleric state), and that his activities do not have the support of the Holy See.
Burresi left the Oblates of the Virgin Mary in 1992 amid a bitter internal dispute and founded a new order, the Congregation of the Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary. Currently the Servants number some 150 members.
The May 27 decree against Burresi is the culmination of a long ecclesiastical battle. Accusations of sexual misconduct with seminarians first emerged in June 1988, at which time Burresi was removed from San Vittorino and sent first to an Oblate residence in Austria, and then to Tuscany. The Oblates conducted a lengthy investigation. In the end, 11 accusations surfaced, though no canonical process against Burresi was launched. These accusations generally involved sexual contact between Burresi and young adult seminarians, not minors.
Sexual misconduct, however, is not the primary charge. On May 10, 2002, a tribunal within the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith concluded a penal process against Burresi that had been launched in 1997, five years after his split with the Oblates. The process resulted in a decree signed by then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger and his secretary Tarcisio Bertone, today the cardinal of Genoa. That decree, similar to the one issued on May 27, was never applied because the criminal process on which it was based had been annulled by a 10-year statute of limitations in canon law.
A 20-page report from the tribunal, a separate document from the decree, was obtained by NCR. It cites seven offenses by Burresi:
- Direct violation of the seal of the confessional;
- Indirect violation of the seal of the confessional;
- Soliciting the violation of the seal of the confessional;
- Illegitimate use of knowledge acquired in the confessional to the detriment of the penitent;
- Illegitimate injury to one's good name and violation of the right of personal privacy;
- Soliciting aversion and disobedience against superiors;
- Pseudo-mysticism, as well as asserted apparitions, visions and messages attributed to supernatural origins.
Sources told NCR that the charges of violating the confessional stemmed from Burresi's practice of encouraging penitents to repeat their confessions for purposes of transcription, and if they declined, sometimes making his own notes, with names included.
The report also mentions that in 1989 a commission of cardinals was created to examine accusations against Burresi, including "homosexuality."
In its conclusion, the report urged the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to take administrative action against Burresi despite the statute of limitations. One concern, the report suggested, was that if no action resulted, Burresi's followers would interpret the investigation as evidence of unfair hostility against him.
"It should not be forgotten that during this process some persons said that the accused 'would come out of it triumphant, more esteemed than ever, and thus without any shadow, indeed more glorious than before,' " the judges wrote.
"[They said] 'that the Secretariat of State defends Fr. Gino, thus victory is assured.' If no new limitation is applied to his ministerial liberty simply due to the fact that the proven offenses have been prescribed [by the statute of limitations], probably the sentence of this court will be used as an instrument of propaganda in favor of the accused. He will be able to continue to do harm to those psychologically weak persons who place themselves under his spiritual direction."
The findings were signed by a four-judge panel. The president of the panel was Velasio De Paolis, now a bishop and secretary of the Apostolic Signatura, the Supreme Court of the Catholic church.
Though the document does not clarify the reference to the Secretariat of State, a member of the Congregation of the Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, the order founded by Burresi, is Fr. Angelo Tognoni, a mid-level official in the Secretariat of State. Tognoni sometimes appears with the pope at the Wednesday General Audience, reading greetings in Italian.
Burresi currently resides in Tuscany. Efforts to reach him for comment were unsuccessful.