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The 5 worst stories of 2009

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Dec 29, 2009

As we near the end of 2009, I’ve looked back over the year’s news coverage, and selected five important stories in each of three different categories: the five most discouraging developments of the year, the five most encouraging, and the five stories to watch for further developments in 2010. Today, in countdown format, I’ll list the year’s least pleasant stories. Look for the year’s most encouraging stories on tomorrow’s countdown, followed on Thursday by my choices of the key trends to watch next year.

Without further ado, the worst news of 2009:

5. The disgrace of Bishop Raymond Lahey.

Over the course of a few wrenching weeks in the fall, the people of Canada’s Antigonish diocese learned of a $13 million settlement with sex-abuse victims, followed soon thereafter by the surprise resignation of Bishop Raymond Lahey. Then they learned that the bishop’s resignation was forced; he would soon be facing criminal charges for child pornography.

Inevitably the questions arose: Why did law-enforcement officials know about the bishop’s ugly habit, if his fellow bishops did not know? And if they did know, why didn’t they take action to prevent him from bringing disgrace upon the himself and the Church?

4. The disgrace of Father Marcial Maciel

Since the first days of the Legion of Christ, members had looked upon the group’s founder, Father Maciel, as a living saint to be emulated. Even after the Vatican asked the aged Maciel to live out his last days in seclusion, after probing complaints of sexual misconduct, the Legionaries defended their founder. So in February, when the group’s leaders finally acknowledged Maciel’s misconduct, the impact on members was devastating. The scandal only widened during 2009, with new complaints that Maciel had misappropriated funds, fathered children, and plagiarized a book.

Can a religious movement founded by such a deeply flawed man survive? Can members today trust the leaders who protected Father Maciel from scrutiny? Pope Benedict ordered an apostolic visitation to address those questions; five prelates began that investigation this summer.

3. The destructive extremism of Bishop Richard Williamson.

One of the most positive developments of 2009, the Pope’s dramatic outreach to the traditionalist Society of St. Pius X (SSPX), was overshadowed in the popular press by the Vatican’s maladroit handling of one SSPX leader, Bishop Richard Williamson. During the week of the Pope’s dramatic announcement, a Swedish television station broadcast an interview in which Bishop Williamson explained his skepticism about extent of the Holocaust. His views on that subject—well known to his followers, but somehow not to Vatican officials coordinating the talks with the SSPX—understandably shocked the media and outraged the world’s Jewish leaders. The ensuing controversy gravely complicated the Pope’s plans to reconcile the SSPX. And the problem is not going away. As the year came to an end, Bishop Williamson was appealing a German court decision to fine him for his Holocaust revisionism; he wants another opportunity to explain his views.

2. The rebellion of the Austrian clergy

When Pope Benedict named a conservative priest, Msgr. Gerhard Wagner, to become auxiliary bishop of Linz, the priests of that Austrian diocese rose up in a veritable rebellion, denouncing the Pope’s choice. Still more troubling, the Austrian bishops, rather than supporting the Pope’s selection, criticized the Vatican for failing to consult with Austrian Church leaders before announcing the appointment. Facing implacable opposition, Msgr. Wagner asked the Pope to rescind his appointment, and after an awkward pause his wish was granted. Later in the year the Pope called the Austrian bishops to Rome for a special meeting, amid reports that the Holy Father was appalled by bishops’ toleration of open dissent and liturgical abuse.

The key question in Austria was whether the Vatican could and would enforce Church discipline. And that question arose elsewhere, too:

  • In Brazil, Archbishop José Cardoso Sobrinho objected vociferously when his strong pro-life stand drew criticism from a leading Vatican official in the pages of L’Osservatore Romano. The Brazilian prelate complained that the criticism was grossly inaccurate, yet he was denied an opportunity to respond in the Vatican newspaper. Eventually the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith came to his defense—but only after his resignation had been announced.
  • In the US, Bishop Joseph Martino resigned suddenly, after prompting criticisms for his own strong pro-life stands. The reason for his resignation was never adequately explained. Perhaps there was a plausible reason that was never made public. But the net effect of his resignation was to confirm beliefs that the Church would not tolerate an aggressive effort to discipline supporters of abortion.

1. The “long lent” of the Irish Church.

The late Father Richard Neuhaus (whose death was another sad story of 2009) referred to the sex-abuse scandal of 2002 as a “long lent” for the Catholic Church in the US, with the constant battering of depressing news testing even the strongest spirits. This year the Irish Catholic Church has been through a similar experience. It began with a report finding “endemic” abuse of children housed in Catholic institutions during the 20th century; it reached a crescendo with another report that exposed a “perversion of power and trust” in the handling of sex-abuse cases by the hierarchy in Dublin.

First one, then another, then two more bishops resigned in the wake of the latest revelations. The pressure is mounting on a 5th another bishop to resign, and inevitably the pressure will mount for investigation of how other dioceses handled the same problem. Already the investigations have yielded results that have shaken the faith of many Irish Catholics. Unfortunately, there is no reason to expect that the ugly revelations are finished.

But the news from Ireland is not all bad. More about that tomorrow, when I list the year’s 5 most encouraging stories.

Next in this series: The 5 most positive developments of 2009

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

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  • Posted by: alencon - Jan. 04, 2010 9:55 AM ET USA

    I've promised not to say much of anything this year. So I will begin and end my comments by noting that the worst stories didn't include anything of the two worst evils in our times - abortion and divorce. So at number one should have been the Cutie debacle - which has far greater implications than most seem to comprehend. Finis

  • Posted by: Chestertonian - Dec. 31, 2009 11:36 PM ET USA

    I would have to add one more to the list of worst stories: that the world has passed the 1 billion mark in numbers of legal abortions, and no abolition on the horizon. We should not be surprised that child abuse is rampant, when it begins in the womb. Pro-aborts used the catchy slogan that "every child should be a wanted child", and claimed abortion would reduce child abuse. We know that for a lie. Abuse begets abuse. Repeal of sodomy laws spread it further, while bishops put on blinders.