The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has handed down a stiff sentence against Fr. Gino Burresi. The transgressions? The same ones charged against Fr. Marcial Maciel, founder of the powerful Legionaries of Christ
by Sandro Magister
ROMA, July 28, 2005 – On July 19, the Catholic newspaper “Avvenire” published the following note from the general secretariat of the Italian bishops’ conference (CEI):
“Following the decree handed down on May 27, 2005, by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, notice is hereby given that the following canonical provisions will be applied to Fr. Luigi (Gino) Burresi, of the congregation of the Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary:
“1 – revocation of the faculty to hear the confessions of any member of the faithful in any place, as provided in canons 966 and 969 of the code of canon law;
“2 – definitive prohibition against carrying out the ministry of spiritual direction for any of the faithful, whether a layperson, a clergyman, or a consecrated religious;
“3 – revocation of the faculty of preaching, as in canons 764 and 765;
“4 – prohibition against celebrating the sacraments and sacramentals in public;
“5 – prohibition against granting interviews, writing in newspapers, pamphlets, periodicals, or on the internet, or participating in radio or television broadcasts on any matter involving Catholic doctrine, morality, or supernatural or mystical phenomena.
“This is made known for the understanding and profit of the faithful.”
Practically speaking, the CEI has made it known that Fr. Gino Burresi, founder the Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, must leave the ministry and retire to private life.
Among the reasons for the action taken, the decree from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith cites abuses in confession and spiritual direction. But Vatican sources have confirmed that to these reasons must be added the accusations of sexual abuse made against Fr. Burresi by some men who were his followers and seminarians during the 1970’s and ’80’s.
The Vatican decree has not been made public. But the American weekly “National Catholic Reporter” obtained a copy of it, and their correspondent John L. Allen gave a report of it in his newsletter “The Word from Rome” on July 22.
The decree against Fr. Burresi is the first to have been issued by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith during the pontificate of Benedict XVI. And it is the first to bear the signature of its new prefect, former San Francisco archbishop William J. Levada (see photo). It was personally approved by the pope on May 27, when he received in an audience the secretary of the dicastery, archbishop Angelo Amato. The pope’s approval “in forma specifica” does not admit appeal.
As a decree issued against the founder of a religious order on the basis of accusations going back decades for sexual abuse carried out against his followers, the decree against Fr. Burresi recalls an analogous case, but one of much greater significance. It, too, is being examined by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith: the case of Fr. Marcial Maciel Degollado, founder of the Legionaries of Christ.
And it is not out of the question that the severity adopted against Fr. Burresi is the prelude to similarly rigorous actions against Fr. Maciel.
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Fr. Burresi, who is now 73 years old, was until 1992 a member of the Oblates of the Virgin Mary, an order founded in 1816 by Italian priest Bruno Lanteri. A man with a great devotion to the revelations of Fatima, Burresi became a priest at a relatively advanced age, in 1983, but even before this he had gained great fame as a mystic and spiritual director, as well as for the stigmata and visions.
In a small way, his popularity resembled that of Fr. Pio of Pietrelcina. And not really in too small a way: hundreds of persons from Italy and beyond came to him every day seeking comfort, including high-ranking prelates, politicians, and ambassadors. From the faraway Philippines, then-president Corazon Aquino sent one of her messengers to have a rosary blessed by this man in the odor of sanctity.
His headquarters were in the countryside below Tivoli, just outside of Rome, in the area of San Vittorino, where there stands today a Marian shrine in the form of a cone made of glass and cement. It was built with the contributions from devotees. “Brother Gino,” as everyone called him, initially received his visitors in a small structure made of wood and sheetmetal, but the congregation of the Oblates replaced this with an international seminary. Because Fr. Burresi was also a great magnet for vocations to the religious life.
This was until May of 1988, when first two and then five more of his young followers put an end to the enchantment. They told the superiors of the congregation that on a number of occasions the priest had lured them to his room and abused them sexually. When they were set down in writing, their accounts were a mixture of fascination and self-blame. For example:
“Fr. Gino was kissing me, and at the same time he was saying wonderful, holy things: ‘Let yourself be touched by God. Loving is not a sin.’ I was confused and paralyzed. I knew that he was a stigmatist, someone who had direct contact with the Virgin Mary. So I felt that I was wrong, that he could not be like I thought he was, because if he had been that way God would not have chosen him as his minister on earth. I said to myself: Look at how evil and rotten I am, I see malice even in the affectionate embraces of a saint.”
After they assessed the accusations, the superiors of the Oblates took immediate action. On June 6, 1988, they put Fr. Burresi on a flight to Vienna, and transferred him to the monastery of Loretto in Austria. The next day the superior general of the order, Julio Cura of Argentina, sent the dossier of the accusation to the prefect of the Vatican congregation for religious, who at the time was cardinal Jérôme Hamer.
But the secretary of that congregation at the time was Vincenzo Fagiolo, a future cardinal, who sympathized with the accused. “He came to me often for confession,” Fr. Burresi quickly revealed. He, in the meantime, had already left behind the borders of Austria and had come back into Italy, to Montignoso di Gambassi Terme, in the diocese of Volterra in the region of Tuscany. He resides there to this day.
The fact is that the Vatican put under investigation both Fr. Burresi and the superiors of the Oblates, appointing as inspector Marcel Gendrot, a member of the Company of Mary. After an investigation lasting two months, Gendrot concluded in favor of Fr. Burresi’s return to San Vittorino, and wrote a note reprimanding the superiors of the order.
The superiors then appealed to pope John Paul II. Their appeal, dated November 22, 1988, fills three pages. It lists the accusations: consummated homosexual acts with numerous young men, kidnapping for sexual purposes, violation of the seal of the sacrament of confession. It rebukes the inspector, Gendrot, for covering up the investigation. It asks the pope to take the responsibility for the case away from Hamer and Fagiolo, and to give it instead to the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith at that time, Joseph Ratzinger, or to a special commission.
The reply came on the following January 3: appeal denied. And not just that. Fr. Cura and the other superiors of the Oblates were dismissed from their positions of authority. Gendrot was promoted from inspector to commissioner for the order. The case remained in the hands of Hamer and Fagiolo. The only concession made was a supplementary investigation entrusted to three cardinals who have since died: Giuseppe Caprio, Opilio Rossi, and Luigi Dadaglio. They listened to only one of the seven initial accusing witnesses (in the end there were eleven of these). One year later, in February of 1990, they concluded by permitting Fr. Burresi to stay where he was, in Montignoso, and to continue his work there, with the sole stipulation that he could no longer work with young men pursuing vocations.
But Fr. Burresi took initiative on his own. In 1992 he left the Oblates and founded a new congregation, the Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, with branches for both men and women. Today the order counts 150 members.
Five years later, however, in 1997, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith opened another investigation on him. The case was concluded on May 10, 2002, with a decree signed by Ratzinger and by the secretary of the dicastery at the time, Tarcisio Bertone, who today is the cardinal archbishop of Genoa.
The sentence takes into consideration the fact that the accusations were made past the statute of limitations, so it neither condemns nor punishes Fr. Burresi. But the 20-page report accompanying the decree – which is also in the possession of the “National Catholic Reporter” – contains passages worth citing. It was signed by the four prelates charged with carrying out the investigation, headed by Velasio De Paolis, who today is a bishop and the secretary of the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Segnatura.
The report lists the accusations against the priest: violation of the seal of the confession, the illegitimate use against the penitent of confidential information revealed during confession, defamation, violation of the right to privacy, incitement to disobedience against superiors, false mysticism, and claims of apparitions, visions, and supernatural messages.
It admits that the statute of limitations has passed on the matters contained in the accusations. But it nonetheless asks the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to provide for administrative sanctions against Fr. Burresi. For this reason:
“It should not be forgotten that during this process some [of Fr. Burresi’s followers] said that the accused ‘would come out of it triumphant, more esteemed than ever, and thus without any shadow, indeed more glorious than before’. [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.”
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The stated support of the secretariat of state for Fr. Burresi – which is referred to in the report – is another of the elements that link his case to that of Fr. Maciel.
In effect, two of the prelates who work in the secretariat of state belong to these orders. Angelo Tognoni is a member of the Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, founded by Fr. Burresi, and Donal Corry belongs to the Legionaries of Christ, founded by Fr. Maciel.
That’s not all. The Legionaries of Christ have for many years had the support of the secretary of state himself, cardinal Angelo Sodano.
Confirmation of the support of the secretariat of state for the Legionaries’ cause came last May 20, shortly after the release on http://www.chiesa of an article dedicated to the investigation on the Maciel case opened by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
Thanks to a fax sent to them without a signature but bearing the stamp of the secretariat of state, the Legionaries of Christ issued a communication that day which stated:
“At this time there is no canonical process underway regarding our founder, Fr Marcial Maciel, LC, nor will one be initiated”.
In reality, the fax from the secretary of state was less conclusive about the future. In Italian, it literally read:
“Non vi è nessun procedimento canonico in corso né è previsto per il futuro nei confronti di p. Maciel”.
The formula “non è previsto per il futuro” is commonly used in the Vatican to indicate actions that are in the realm of possibility but about which no formal decision has yet been made.
What is certain is that the preliminary investigation in the Maciel case has moved forward since the pseudo-denial of May 20, with the accumulation of more testimonies and documents. And it is on the basis of this investigation that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith – not the secretariat of state – will make its decision on the canonical process against the founder of the Legionaries of Christ.
The Burresi case teaches a lesson. It seemed to have been definitively filed away after the favorable sentence handed down on May 10, 2002. But it was reopened, and a much more severe conclusion was reached – with the presiding judge being Ratzinger, who has since become pope.
The article on http://www.chiesa on the case of the founder of the Legionaries of Christ:
> The Legionaries of Christ: Fr. Maciel’s Trial Draws Nearer (20.5.2005)
The newsletter by John L. Allen, Rome correspondent of the “National Catholic Reporter,” with the news on the Burresi case:
> The Word from Rome, July 22, 2005
English translation by Matthew Sherry: > email@example.com
Go to the English home page of > http://www.chiesa.espressonline.it, to access the latest articles and links to other resources.
Sandro Magister’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org