The media operation LifeSiteNews recently published an article with the headline "SSPX Priest Planning Defamation Lawsuit Against Church Militant, Lawyer Says." The priest in question is Fr. Pierre Duverger, SSPX. The article is described as "the third in a series of reports to be released by LifeSiteNews on the Society of St. Pius X." The author of the article is LifeSiteNews reporter and content manager Stephen Kokx.
The headline suggests there is an extraordinary story being reported on. A priest is suing Church Militant for defamation! Some grave slander must have been perpetrated by Church Militant for a priest to feel he has to abandon his Christian task of forgiveness and turning the other cheek and vindicate his name in the courts. A priest would only act in this way for the good of souls and the honor of the priesthood. That surely guarantees that Church Militant must have published a terrible falsehood.
This is what the headline suggests, but not what it actually says. It does not say that Fr. Duverger is suing Church Militant for defamation, only that he is planning to do so. It does not cite Fr. Duverger himself as the source for the story but Rosa Armesto, a Florida attorney. Ms. Armesto is not an outstandingly credible source; her previous involvements in litigation include an unsuccessful attempt to get the Florida Court of Appeal to overturn the Florida State University College of Law's finding that she cheated on her final exam in Constitutional Law.
There is indeed an extraordinary story here, but it is not the possibility of a defamation suit against Church Militant. It is the story of a media operation conducted by LifeSiteNews to protect sex offenders and the organization that shelters them. The story offers a valuable opportunity to understand how these operations are carried out.
Father Pierre Duverger was ordained in 1995 and has two brothers and three nephews who are SSPX clergy. Both of his brothers have been district superiors for the SSPX. Father Duverger began his priestly activity in France. He moved to the United States after facing criticism for practicing a novel approach to marriage instruction. This involved alleged sexual intercourse with the young lady he was instructing, and was pursued with such dedication apparently he neglected his more conventional priestly duties such as saying Mass. The young woman's family considered reporting him to the police for the crime of abuse, but were dissuaded from doing so by the SSPX.
Father Duverger's sexual proclivities were brought to public notice by a Church Militant exposé. Jassy Jacas, a young woman who grew up in the SSPX milieu in Kansas, described in an interview with Church Militant her experiences with him in the confessional and afterwards. During the course of hearing her confession, Fr. Duverger learned she had been sexually abused in the past. Before giving her absolution, he made her promise she would contact him outside the confessional and arrange to meet him.
She did this, and at their meeting he interrogated her about her sexual past and instructed her to communicate to him every detail of her sexual abuse, along with details of any sexual thoughts, temptations and actions, and every sexual activity she enjoyed doing. He asked her to promise him she would text or call him for anything at any hour, especially in times of temptation. He insisted that he loved her as a father loves his daughter, that he knew how to help her with her problems and that she needed to follow his instructions in order to be healed.
Somewhat naïvely, Jacas did not suspect Fr. Duverger of evil intentions, and she did as he requested. She did not hear back from him. Despite her initial trust, these incidents provoked severe anxiety, and she mentioned them in general terms when later speaking to a therapist. He asked for the name of the priest, and when she refused to volunteer, the therapist offered, "Was it Fr. Pierre Duverger?"
It was possible to identify Fr. Duverger from a general description of his behavior, because other women treated by the therapist had had similar experiences with the priest. Miss Jacas then contacted Hannah, one of the women in question, who told her Fr. Duverger had sexually assaulted her. Believing him to be a threat, Jacas then went to the leadership of the SSPX, notified them of the problem and asked them to address it.
She told Fr. Jürgen Wegner, then-U.S. district superior of the SSPX, that it looked like Fr. Duverger was preying on female abuse victims, because he knew them to be confused and vulnerable. She was assured that Fr. Duverger was under "strict" restrictions in his dealings with women. When she found out this was untrue, she posted a description of her experiences on Facebook. Christine Niles of Church Militant then contacted her, and Jassy Jacas described her experiences with Fr. Duverger and SSPX leadership in an online interview.
The substantial accuracy of Jacas' assertions about Fr. Duverger is indicated by an internal SSPX email accidentally made public addressing the Church Militant story from James Vogel, lay communication director for the U.S. district:
We cannot issue a blanket denunciation of the accusers and say he [Duverger] is innocent of everything. Church Militant has already dug into some of our ugly cases in France; what if they find out the history here? ... We can admit that he has been placed under restrictions, but I still think MOST people will find it bizarre he is allowed to teach/run a school under the circumstances.
Many of Fr. Duverger's defenders have indeed accepted that Jacas' account is correct by accusing her of the sin of "detraction." Father Wegner, for example, responded to her statements by saying, "We cannot do detraction."
Detraction in modern moral theology consists in taking away someone's good name by making publicly known without good reason some fault or sin they have actually committed — in contrast to calumny, which is falsely accusing someone. This accusation thus concedes that Fr. Duverger did in fact do what she said he did. Of course, the claim that her going public with her story is a sin of "detraction" does not hold up, since she did this for a good reason: a well-grounded concern for the protection of vulnerable women.
Father Duverger's actions with Jacas appear to be a clear case of the crime of solicitation in the confessional (see analysis below). As one canonist remarks:
Some cases of abusive behavior show that some priests have used the Sacrament of Penance to identify their victims and to make their first contact with them. This behavior could easily be included under sollicitatio inchoata, in which the confessor begins an apparent innocent conversation leading to a meeting with the penitent outside of confession where sexual or indecent behavior occurs.
The fact of using the confessional to contact a penitent for grooming purposes made Fr. Duverger guilty of this crime. What is more, asking Jacas to send him a complete description of her sexual thoughts, desires and actions suffices in itself to make him guilty of the crime of sollicitatio ad turpia. The characterization of this crime in the Vatican document cited below as including "impudently daring to have improper and indecent conversations or interactions" could have been framed to describe Fr. Duverger's actions.
Since these interactions were with a penitent, the SSPX was required by canon law to conduct a preliminary investigation of his case and then forward it to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith — which it did not do. It is apparent that the loyalty of the SSPX to Catholic tradition and law ends where the immoral behavior of its priests begins.
SSPX spokesman Vogel made a significant admission in this connection in his remarks to LifeSiteNews:
[Father Duverger] also told me he requested a canonical trial [regarding the 2007/2008 abuse allegation], but was denied one; I reported this to my superiors who told me there was no need of a canonical trial under the circumstances since canon law provides superiors with various ways of the proceeding; a lighter, shorter procedure was chosen [by Fr. Wegner] to inflict punishment and restrictions on Fr. Duverger.
Father Duverger was either guilty of the crime Miss Jacas accused him of — the crime of solicitation in the confessional — or he was not. If he was not, no punishment could be inflicted on him; so Vogel's admission that Fr. Wegner inflicted punishment on him is an admission of his guilt.
The statement about canon law given by Vogel is false. A canonical trial is required for the crime of solicitation. The only "shorter procedure" available for this crime is in cases where the guilt of the accused is grave and clear, and he is as a result immediately dismissed from the clerical state by the Pope or the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (cf. Sacramentorum sanctitatis tutela, art. 17).
LifeSiteNews describes its story about Fr. Duverger's supposed defamation suit as "the third in a series of reports to be released by LifeSiteNews on the Society of St. Pius X." Readers would naturally expect a series of three reports to give comprehensive coverage of allegations about sexual abuse and cover-up of sexual abuse in the SSPX, in particular those allegations that have been covered by Church Militant. This is not in fact the case.
The other two reports are devoted to Kevin Sloniker, a convicted pedophile who was asked to leave the SSPX seminary, and Victoria McQuade, a woman who was abused by former SSPX priest Benedict van der Putten. There is no mention in this series of the multiple sexual abusers protected by the SSPX that are documented in the other Church Militant reports.
These abusers include:
These omissions leave the reader with the false impression that the important sexual abuse cases in which the SSPX is involved are limited to the Sloniker, van den Putten and Duverger stories.
LifeSiteNews' third and last story on the SSPX repays analysis. It falsely presents Miss Jacas as the main source of Church Militant's stories on the SSPX: "Church Militant's Christine Niles has said that '[SSPX] leadership has a deep history of covering for predators.' ... Church Militant has primarily relied on the testimony of Jassy Jacas for its claims." This is of course false and known to be false by LifeSiteNews, since the Church Militant stories to which LifeSiteNews provides links cite court judgments, European media stories and the testimony of numerous other witnesses in its reporting on the many crimes mentioned above. But LifeSiteNews provides the starting point for a narrative exonerating the SSPX.
Father Duverger's lawyer, Rosa Armesto, the former slippery law student, is cited by LifeSiteNews as saying: "Hannah's allegations are nothing more than lies and fabrications made by an unstable person. Yet Jassy relied on them as her sole reason to confront SSPX leadership." LifeSiteNews then gives an extensive interview with Kathyrn Janot, a former roommate of Hannah's, introducing her as vouching for "Fr. Duverger's character and the effectiveness of his spiritual techniques."
Janot states that she was given spiritual direction by Fr. Duverger and was not molested by him, and that Hannah never mentioned her experiences with Fr. Duverger to her. On this basis she concludes that Hannah was not mistreated by Fr. Duverger. Janot states that she had "issues" with Hannah that led her to doubt Hannah's veracity:
To name only a few issues I experienced with Hannah: ... she would storm away from a conversation we were having if I happened to mention I had been in communication with [Fr. Duverger], or she would make insulting comments of how I should stop communicating with him too. ... When I happened to bump into Hannah at a gas station about a year later, she was super nice and acted like nothing had happened between us, which I found very odd.
So the narrative is that Niles is basing her stories about abuse in the SSPX on Jacas, who in turn used Hannah's story as her "sole reason" to confront SSPX leadership, and Hannah herself is "untrustworthy" and "mentally unstable."
The long, tedious character of this article and its many inconsistencies and irrelevancies violate journalistic canons LifeSiteNews usually respects. It is a mixture of suppressio veri (suppression of truth), suggestio falsi (suggestion of falsehood) and outright falsehood, all dealing with accusations of sexual abuse and protection of sexual abusers that are either very likely or proven to be true.
The falsehoods in the article include the vilest attacks on people who have suffered severe sexual abuse. It is not journalism but a propaganda effort aimed at protecting monstrous criminals, and that will make it easier for them to commit their crimes. Since there are police investigations into this abuse, the story is an attempt to intimidate victims and witnesses of crime, and is a serious attempt to frustrate justice.
The article is not an isolated one; as well as the two other articles in the series, LifeSiteNews has published statements from Bp. Athanasius Schneider defending the SSPX on sexual abuse, and from Maike Hickson praising the SSPX to the skies and asking for donations to help build an SSPX chapel. Needless to say, it has not published any articles asking for donations to victims of sexual abuse by SSPX priests.
What explains this corrupt initiative?
Stephen Kokx, the author of the article, is part of the explanation. Kokx is an unprepossessing individual with no great achievements to his credit; his journalistic career got started with boilerplate conservative articles attacking Barack Obama, George Soros' organizations, etc. He attends SSPX Masses. His approach to journalistic investigation is revealed by his questions to Jacas:
Also, just because you didn't understand why he [Fr. Duverger] was asking about your sexual past doesn't mean he didn't have a reason for it. Maybe he has done that strategy before to other young women and it helped them. What do you say to that? Aren't we to generally trust and obey our priests on those matters that our spiritual life hinge upon? ...
You are not accusing Fr. Duverger of anything illegal. Why do you think he should still have his ministry restricted? ... Is it possible you misunderstood Fr. Duverger's behaviour towards you and that as a French priest who has a language barrier he was simply trying his best to understand what was happening so he could pinpoint your exact spiritual needs? ...
Hannah has been criticized by her own family. From what one of her sisters has said, she has a schizophrenic personality. You seem to be using Hannah's claims, which you admit are doubtful and very well may not be true, to try and tell Fr. Wegner how to run his priestly group. ... Aren't your demands a bit much for a lay person to presume to know how best to handle priests and their ministry? The entire SSPX chain of command responded to you and you still weren't satisfied. What do you ultimately want?
These questions are not intended to elicit information about the case. They are designed to attack Jacas' confidence in herself and get answers that can be used to discredit her story. The script of Jacas basing her claims on Hannah, and Hannah being unstable, is already present in the questions (to clarify, the assertion that Jacas admitted these claims to be doubtful is false).
However, LifeSiteNews would have known Kokx's allegiance to the SSPX when it assigned him to the story, and it has uncompromisingly defended him when the untruths in his stories were publicly pointed out. Kokx is just an underling carrying out (not very competently) the task assigned to him. The policy of covering for the SSPX on sexual abuse appears to be a policy of the leadership of LifeSiteNews.
Personal relationships may account for part of this policy. There is also the consideration that the SSPX exploits its leverage with Catholics who feel that its existence is indispensable as a tool to protect the Traditional Latin Mass in the rest of the Church, or who want them to be available as a shelter of last resort. It would not be surprising if financial considerations play a role as well. The control over its followers that enables the SSPX to get them to keep silent about sexual abuse, and to attack the victims when they make their abuse public, also enables it to extract large sums of money from these followers without giving an account of where all the money goes. This enables it to exert influence over conservative and traditional Catholic organizations, whose financial basis is often precarious.
It is a win-win for the SSPX; the abusive, cult-like indoctrination it gives to its followers enables it to protect itself from the consequences of sexual crimes, as well as to commit the crimes in the first place. This depressing reality makes LifeSiteNews' collusion with the SSPX all the more reprehensible.
Both Kokx and Armesto claim Fr. Duverger did not commit any crime. His behavior with Jacas would be a civil or criminal offense in many jurisdictions. A more important fact is that it is a serious crime in the law of the Catholic Church. The law of the Church is just as real a law as the law of civil states, if not more so, since the Church has been given by God the authority to rule and legislate over Her members.
In order to fully understand the story about Fr. Duverger, the duties of a confessor and the laws governing his hearing of confessions need to be considered in some detail.
The sacrament of penance is a tribunal in which the confessor acts as judge of the penitent. The sacrament is not therapy. The Church has imposed strict rules to guard the sacrament. These rules are especially strict and careful for the confession of sexual sins. Priests are commanded — not just recommended — to be extremely reserved in questioning a penitent about sexual sin. They are required to not inquire about the details of such sins and to forestall penitents from offering these details. If there is a risk that the penitent may make a materially incomplete confession as a result, they are to accept this risk.
The 1917 Latin Code of Canon Law, which the SSPX considers with good reason to be superior to the 1983 Latin Code of Canon Law, ruled: "Canon 888 § 2. Let [confessors] in all respects avoid inquiring about the names of accomplices as well as useless or curious questions, particularly about the Sixth commandment of the Decalogue." The 1983 Code of Canon Law does not mention the Sixth Commandment in its Canon 979: "In posing questions, the priest is to proceed with prudence and discretion, attentive to the condition and age of the penitent, and is to refrain from asking the name of an accomplice."
However, the prudence and discretion required in the 1983 canon can easily be seen to apply to questions about the Sixth Commandment. This was confirmed by Pope John Paul II in his Message to the Major Penitentiary of March 20, 1998:
One would not be justified, however, in wanting to transform the sacrament of Penance into psychoanalysis or psychotherapy. The confessional is not and cannot be an alternative to the psychoanalyst's or psychotherapist's office. Nor can one expect the sacrament of Penance to heal truly pathological conditions. The confessor is not a healer or a physician in the technical sense of the term; in fact, if the condition of the penitent seems to require medical care, the confessor should not deal with the matter himself, but should send the penitent to competent and honest professionals. Similarly, although the enlightening of consciences requires the clarification of ideas about the proper meaning of God's commandments, the sacrament of Penance is not and should not be the place for explaining the mysteries of life. On these matters, see the Normae quaedam de agendi ratione confessariorum circa sextum Decalogi praeceptum issued on 16 May 1943 by the then-Supreme Congregation of the Holy Office, now the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which were published long ago but remain very timely.
The document of the Holy Office referred to here imposes strict rules on the questions asked by the confessor about sexual sins:
Confessors are mistaken who imagine that they should inquire about and clearly apprehend with the greatest certainty every detail of a sin and the measure of a penitent's advertence and consent. ... [Q]uestions should never be curious, useless, calculated to scandalize, or meticulous. ... [In] the matter of questioning, it is better to err by defect in many things than to exceed even by one question in that which is indelicate. (Henry Davis S.J., Moral and Pastoral Theology, 7th ed. (London: Sheed & Ward, 1958), vol. III, pp. 274–275.)
The spectacle of Pope John Paul II upholding Catholic law and tradition in the above address, while the SSPX flouts it, scarcely needs commentary.
To protect the sacrament of penance, the Church has for centuries laid down very severe laws concerning sexual misbehavior by confessors. The principal documents on this subject are Pope Gregory XV's Universi Gregis (Aug. 30, 1622) and the Constitution of Pope Benedict XIV, Sacramentum pœnitentiæ (June 1, 1721). The crime of using the confessional for the purpose of directly or indirectly drawing others into sins of lust is known as sollicitatio ad turpia, or solicitation.
The crime of solicitation occurs whenever a priest — whether in the act itself of sacramental confession, or before or immediately after confession, on the occasion or under the pretext of confession, or even apart from confession [but] in a confessional or another place assigned or chosen for the hearing of confessions and with the semblance of hearing confessions there — has attempted to solicit or provoke a penitent, whosoever he or she may be, to immoral or indecent acts, whether by words, signs, nods, touch or a written message, to be read either at that time or afterwards, or he has impudently dared to have improper and indecent conversations or interactions with that person (Constitution Sacramentum Poenitentiae, §1; Instruction Crimen sollicitationis)
As this definition of solicitation indicates, in order to properly combat this evil, the legislation of the Church has been framed to be extensive rather than restrictive. The crime includes every form of provoking any sexual sin that is in any way connected to the confessional.
It is not necessary that the sin be one committed with the confessor; it can be a solitary sin or a sin committed with a third party. The sex of the penitent or of the third party, if there is one, makes no difference. This grave sin is not necessarily a sin of action; it can also be a sin of speech (corrupt conversations, corrupt reading, etc.), maybe even an interior sin of thought or of desire. ... It is necessary that the solicitation to evil have some connection with the administration of the sacrament of penance, that is, that it take place, or at least be begun, by, for example, giving the penitent a provocative note, "either in the very act of sacramental confession, or immediately before or after confession, or on the occasion of the confession, or on the pretext of the confession, or even in the confessional itself when no actual confession is heard, or in some other location that is used for hearing confessions, or in any other location if the confessor feigns to hear the penitent's confession." (Benedict XIV, constitution Sacramentum poenitantiae; F. Cimetier, Sollicitatio ad turpia, Dictionnaire de théologie catholique 14/2, col. 2339)
The intention of the priest to commit this sin is presumed if his exterior behavior has a serious tendency to provoke a sexual sin. The person who is provoked to do this action does not have to be guilty in doing it; they may be guiltless as a result of deception or intimidation by the priest. It suffices that the action in question be one that involves a violation of sexual morality.
The 1917 Code of Canon Law required a penitent to report a priest for solicitation. Its Canon 904 stated, "In accord with the norm of the apostolic constitutions and specifically the constitution of Benedict XIV Sacramentum Poenitentiae of 1 Jun. 1741, a penitent must within one month denounce to the local Ordinary or to the Sacred Congregation of the Holy Office a priest [accused] of the delict of solicitation in confession."
This obligation to report a priest was removed from the 1983 Code, but the moral obligation to report that motivated the earlier canon remains. Canon 2368 of the 1917 Code and Canon 1387 of the 1983 Code both imposed severe penalties on priests found guilty of this sin. Canon 1397 states: "A priest who in the act, on the occasion, or under the pretext of confession solicits a penitent to sin against the Sixth Commandment of the Decalogue is to be punished, according to the gravity of the delict, by suspension, prohibitions and privations; in graver cases he is to be dismissed from the clerical state."
Thus, SSPX leadership was required under canon law investigate and report Fr. Duverger's actions to the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. The fact that it failed to do so is further proof of its cover-up of an accused predator.