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Cardinal Fernández: Vatican seeks to prevent using spirituality as means of abuse

Cardinal Víctor Manuel Fernández, prefect of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, leaves the Vatican's Paul VI Audience Hall after a working session of the assembly of the Synod of Bishops with Pope Francis at the Vatican Oct. 6, 2023. (CNS photo/Lola Gomez)

(OSV News) — The Vatican’s doctrinal head told OSV News his office is working to “raise awareness and prevent” the use of Catholic spirituality as a means of abuse.

“Today we are more attentive than before to the possibility of mystical or spiritual elements being used to take advantage of people and even abuse them,” Cardinal Víctor Manuel Fernández, prefect of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, told OSV News in a Feb. 6 email.

The cardinal described such tactics as “false mysticism,” and said his dicastery is “studying how to warn of the risks in time and how to stop them.”

A number of high-profile cases have illustrated how the Catholic faith and its mystical tradition has been distorted by abusers to manipulate and coerce their victims into sexual acts.

One of the many alleged victims of Father Marko Rupnik, a former Jesuit, told Italian media outlet Domani in December the renowned liturgical artist had assured her that “only with me could he experience, even physically, belonging to God without possession, in freedom, in the image of Trinitarian love.”

Third Order Franciscan Father David Morrier, a former chaplain at Franciscan University of Steubenville in Ohio, pleaded guilty in 2022 to sexual battery of a student he had counseled at the university several years earlier, avoiding charges of rape and receiving five years’ probation as part of a deal with prosecutors. The victim told the court that Father Morrier, who was banned from campus in 2014, had subjected her to “deliverance sessions” and “exorcisms” — rites in which she was “forced to endure (Father Morrier’s) hands violating me because ‘this is what God revealed to (him) in prayer.'”

“He told me that there was healing power and grace in the sacraments, but he brought his own perverted desires into what should have been sacred encounters with God,” she said to the judge.

L’Arche communities founder and Catholic social activist Jean Vanier was found after his death to have abused several women under the guise of a “sexual mysticism” he had embraced under his mentor, the late Dominican Father Thomas Philippe. Both Vanier and Father Philippe — along with Father Thomas’ biological brother, also a Dominican friar, Father Marie-Dominique Philippe — were the subject of an independent investigation commissioned by L’Arche International, which revealed in a January 2023 report totaling almost 900 pages how they invoked Jesus, Mary and union with the divine as a means of justifying their sexual abuse.

Recently, clerical abuse survivors Faith Hakesley and Teresa Pitt Green expressed concern to OSV News that a recently resurfaced 1998 book by Cardinal Fernández, “La pasión mística: espiritualidad y sensualidad” (“Mystical Passion: Spirituality and Sensuality”), could potentially be used by predators to facilitate abuse.

Hakesley and Pitt Green emphatically stressed that they were not accusing the cardinal himself of abuse. Cardinal Fernández noted in at least two interviews, including one with OSV News, that he had halted publication of the book shortly after its release because he feared it would be misunderstood. He stressed that he would not write such a book now, and told OSV News that he had purchased and destroyed initial copies of the work.

Cardinal Fernández said in his Feb. 6 email to OSV News that the dicastery is “now reviewing its norms on the discernment of supernatural phenomena and it will certainly be necessary to include some considerations related to the special gravity of these risks.”

As well as safeguarding the teaching of faith and morals, the dicastery oversees the norms for discerning presumed apparitions or revelations.

Regarding the review of the norms, Cardinal Fernández said he is “particularly interested in this point, because it is a task that will also help us raise awareness and prevent (abuse).”

Gina Christian is a multimedia reporter for OSV News. Follow her on X, formerly Twitter, at @GinaJesseReina.

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