May 22, 2019

Sex abuse by clergy, what if media lead the debate?

By Andrea Gagliarducci
Vatican City - May 6, 2015. The flag of Vatican City with St. Peter's Basilica in the background - Credit: Bohumil Petrik / CNA
Vatican City - May 6, 2015. The flag of Vatican City with St. Peter's Basilica in the background - Credit: Bohumil Petrik / CNA

No doubt that the scandal of sex abuse by clergy has shocked the Church. No doubt that the Church is called to put measures in action to eradicate the scandal because even one abuse is too much. There is no doubt, indeed, that the contrary is possible. That is, that media report on alleged abuse taking only the side of those who say have been abused. 

There have been many stories of “character assassination” of this kind. The latest one is that of Fr. Herman Geissler. Fr. Geissler resigned by the position of head of office of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith on Jan. 28, following allegations of harassment advanced against him by Mrs. Doris Wagner-Reisinger. 

Mrs. Reisinger has been a nun, and from 2003 to 2011, she was a member of the Spiritual Family The Work. Also Fr. Geissler is a member of the same Congregation. 

Fr. Geissler had decided to resign “to limit the damage already done to the Congregation and his community,” but he always highlighted that “the accusations made against him are untrue.” 

Fr. Geissler also asked to carry on the legal process against him. In general, this kind of processes is entrusted to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. 

Pope Francis made instead the decision to assign the case to the Apostolic Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura.

Pope Francis’ decision was aimed at avoiding any possible conflict of interest.

The Signatura was called to clarify whether this case constitutes a delict of solicitation to sin against the sixth commandment in the contest of confession. 

A college of five judged decided that the case did not constitute a delict. Fr. Geissler was then acquitted. 

The news of Fr. Geissler acquittance did not get as much coverage as the allegations of Doris Wagner -Reisinger. 

Doris Wagner -Reisinger allegations of harassment have been up in the media for a long time.

Speaking at a public conference in Rome in November, she never mentioned Fr. Geissler but gave precise information that led the media to name him and publish his picture, although the allegations were still not proven, and a canon procedure was ongoing and yet to produce any outcome. 

The presumption of innocence was not applied, in his case. Fr. Geissler, on the other hand, applied the principle that institutions must be protected and, to do so, he stepped down.

Though the news of Fr. Geissler acquittal was widespread, it did not have the same resonance of the allegations of Doris Reisinger, though none of the accusations was proved. 

Wagner-Resinger allegations were taken for granted. It was hard to find a complete profile of her. 

Doris Wagner-Reisinger is a former nun of the Spiritual Family The Work. After she left the Spiritual Family, she made of the fight against the Church and religious congregations the center of her life. 
 
She also claimed that “the Catholic Church moral sexuality is absurd,” and that the issue “is originated by the structure of the Church, which should be abolished.” 

Doris Wagner-Reisinger lives now in Wiesbaden, in Germany, with a former member of the Spiritual Family The Work, Philip Reisinger. Resinger is a priest suspended a divinis. They contracted a civil marriage, and they have a son together.

In 2008, when still a nun, Dori Wagner-Reisinger has a sexual affair with another member of the community, Father B. 

In 2011, she and the Spiritual Family The Work friendly part ways. 

In 2012, she began reconsidering her experience as a nun through the lenses of the abuse, of violence, of manipulation. 

In 2012 and 2013, Doris Wagner sues Fr. B, in Germany and Austria. In both cases, tribunals states it was not violence, but a consensual relationship. 

She begins to lecture on abuse against nuns. 

Last fall, she took part in the movie “Female Pleasures,” a documentary by the Swiss director Barbara Miller released in 2018 that explores female sexuality in the 21st century around the globe. 

In the movie, she noted that “normal Catholics are changing,” and “for students is normal to have sexual experiences before the marriage,” while “having children before marrying, homosexual relations and contraception are not considered a sin.”

There, she clearly states that “the Church has become a den of bandits… all religions are used to legitimate who is in power… with no public push, the Church would never do something.

She joins the group “Voices of Faith;” a group that aims to advocate more significant participation of women in the Church. 

Following her testimony at an event organized by “Voices of Faith,” media start writing about the alleged harassment by Fr. Geissler. 

These pieces of the story, coming from open sources, would have helped to frame the Fr better. Geissler’s situation. 

If there is a report, obviously an investigation must follow. Way too often, however, in cases of alleged abuse by clergy, media take the party of the plaintiff.

Fr. Geissler case is just the last one. In many cases, priests were utterly cleared of the charges; however, the media only remember the allegation, never the acquittal. It is indeed infamous smearing of the innocents.

In the final speech of the Feb. 21 – 24 Vatican anti-abuse summit, Pope Francis stressed:  “The time has come, then, to work together to eradicate this evil from the body of our humanity by adopting every necessary measure already in force on the international level and ecclesial levels. The time has come to find a correct equilibrium of all values in play and to provide uniform directives for the Church, avoiding the two extremes of a ‘justicialism’ provoked by guilt for past errors and media pressure, and a defensiveness that fails to confront the causes and effects of these grave crimes”.

It is a clear recognition of the media pressures. There is a deep commitment in countering sex abuse scandal, as the most recent motu proprio Vos Estis Lux Mundi shows. A fair trial must be guaranteed, though. Otherwise, the narrative will be always one-sided. 

* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.