A US-based Catholic think tank is seeking more than a million dollars to compile dossiers on individual cardinals in a bid to prevent a repeat of the 2013 conclave which elected Pope Francis.
The group “Better Church Governance” has hired ex-FBI investigators and academics to give each cardinal-elector a “classification” on how they have handled “abuse and corruption” in what they argue is an attempt by ordinary faithful to hold the hierarchy to account.
But the organisers of “The Red Hat Report” initiative are also planning to delve into cardinals' sexual orientation and edit Wikipedia entries to link them to scandals, in the hope of tarnishing their reputations in advance of a future conclave.
“Cardinals need to be held accountable publicly so there has to be some sort of culture of shame,” Jacob Imam, the Better Church Governance’s Operations Director, explained at a launch event on Sunday at the Catholic University of America, Washington DC in an audio recording of the event that has been shared with The Tablet.
“They know if they vote for this person, that inevitably their own congregation the people that they shepherd, the pastors will know about it.”
Mr Imam, Marshall Scholar at the University of Oxford who converted to Catholicism three years ago, stressed he did not want to speak against Pope Francis. During the talk, however, he accused Francis of defending bishops in Argentina embroiled in alleged moral scandals and of mishandling abuse while in Buenos Aires, citing what he called the “Bergoglio Dossier”.
As he spoke, one of the slides in his presentation flashed up with the title: “Had we had the Red Hat Report, we may not have had Pope Francis.”
Mr Imam explained: “We have to ask the question, couldn't we have had someone else in 2013 who would have been more active in protecting the innocent and the young? And I think that there's a very good [answer] to say yes.”
The group is keen to present themselves as lay Catholics concerned about preventing abuse in the Church by improving governance.
“Our goal is to promote transparency, honesty, and accountability within Church structures, on behalf of both clergy and laity,” Philip Nielsen, executive director of the governance group and managing editor of the Red Hat Report, told The Tablet.
But Dr Kurt Martens, a Canon Law professor at the Catholic University of America, asked on twitter whether the group are running afoul of the strict Church laws around papal elections. Pope John Paul II’s apostolic constitution on the election of a Pope bans “any external interference” in a conclave including “in writing or by word of mouth, either directly and personally or indirectly and through others.”
Cardinal electors, the constitution explains, are under the threat of excommunication should they allow themselves to be influenced by outside groups, with the election taking place in the sealed off surroundings of the Sistine Chapel to allow for the "interior movements of the Holy Spirit” during the voting.
Yet Mr Imam told the gathering on Sunday night that there is an “extremely precarious situation…when the doors of the Sistine Chapel close,” because of a supposed lack of knowledge the cardinals have of each other - hence the need to inform both cardinal electors and the public about potential abuses and corruption.
He admitted, “there is a dark side” to the work they are doing, and when asked by an attendee at the launch event about cardinals who are gay, Mr Imam replied: “if there is a rumour of him being homosexual, it will be noted very carefully…but we need to be sure.”
According to their own projections “The Red Hat Report” estimate their first-year expenditures at $1,126,500 and are seeking donations to fund the work. So far they are working with ten ex-FBI investigators, and plan to produce the report by 2020.
A leaked email from Mr Nielsen reveals plans to compile the ecclesiastical equivalent of “opposition research” on cardinals.
This includes the Holy See's Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, a key figure in the Francis pontificate and considered a candidate for the papacy in any future conclave.
“For example, Cardinal Parolin, the very corrupt Vatican Secretary of State’s Wikipedia page is currently very benign, with no links to scandal included, despite the fact that he has repeatedly been linked with banking scandals and was named in the Viganò letter,” Mr Nielsen writes in the email.
“By the next conclave, he needs to be known, worldwide, as a disgrace to the Church. Our plan would be to make sure that his Wikipedia page states that church watchdog, 'The Better Governance Group' names Parolin as "Extremely Guilty of Abuse" with a link to the report. At the same time, we would add all the pull-quotes from other sources that connect him to all the financial corruption, etc.”
There is no evidence that Cardinal Parolin, a respected papal diplomat, has been involved in banking scandals or corruption, and speaking to the National Catholic Reporter Mr Nielsen backtracked on his critique of Parolin as well as any suggestion that the group intended to influence the outcome of a conclave.
The “Viganò letter” refers to the testimony of Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò that he told the Pope about Archbishop Theodore McCarrick’s sexual misconduct with seminarians and that Benedict XVI had placed him under sanction.
Mr Nielsen’s email said there were plans to launch at this week's Napa Institute meeting Washington DC, an organisation co-founded by Tim Busch, a Catholic philanthropist. But Mr Nielsen later told the Crux news site that there are no official plans for a public announcement there.
The Napa Institute offers wealthy Catholics a mix of retreats and networking opportunities. It is also a well-known exponent of seeking to reconcile libertarian free-market economics with Catholic Social Teaching. In 2016, Mr Busch made a $15 million donation to the Catholic University of America’s business school, the largest in the university’s history.
Mr Busch is also a friend of Archbishop Vigano whom he describes as “an honest man,” but has denied that the archbishop consulted him before publishing his explosive 26 August testimony.
Mr Nielsen has also stressed that their initiative was not linked to the Catholic University of America and that they simply hired a room on the campus to launch the event.
They hope that their plan will see a full “audit” of 124 current papal electors conducted by a team of around 100 researchers, academics, investigators and starting with the strongest candidates for the papacy.
The Cardinals will receive a designation based on a rating system as follows: “Strong Evidence of Abuse/Corruption, Some Evidence, Positive Evidence Against Abuse/Corruption.” Mr Imma adds here is no ideological agenda at play, but they will seek to show whether cardinals are in “agreement” with the Vatican’s doctrine department.
According to Mr Nielsen’s email, Mr Imam is deferring his theology doctorate at Oxford to work at the Washington DC institution while Mr Nielsen is about to leave his job to manage the Red Hat Report.
The initiative launch comes after a torrid summer of abuse revelations in the United States including news that Archbishop McCarrick, a former cardinal, was credibly accused of abusing a minor. After this came to light, the Pope authorised the 88-year-old McCarrick’s removal from public ministry and his position as a cardinal.