15 December 2012

Cloister Outreach - Caveat Emptor, Once again

Dear Sister Laurel,
I wanted to thank you for your posts regarding Cloister Outreach (CO) on the Phatmass Phorum recently. I don't know if you are aware of it but CO put up an explanation of the situation you described in 2010  after contacting the Diocese of Charlotte to check on the claims made by the "foundress" of CO. It tells a very different story than the one you posted and claims you violated the privacy of the hermit-canonist you contacted in an attempt to undermine the Cloisterite Hermits' Foundation. The explanation reads:

[[Gemma, Cloister Outreach coordinator, had been handling the "legal" part of the Cloisterite Hermits, to include interactions with the canonist. Because of this, we thought that the local ordinary was aware of the project. However, due to Gemma's autism, and the complexities involved with the language of canonical legalities, she (Gemma) did not understand a particular phrase used as meaning that the canonist had separated herself from the project. This was entirely Gemma's fault--not due to stupidity, but due to autistic deficit.

As a result, the Cloisterite Hermits had persevered in the development of their charism (entirely legal under canon law), thinking the canonist had still been retained. Critics went so far as to contact the canonist and posting her information online--thus violating her privacy which we had fought to maintain, as per her request--in an attempt to undermine the Cloisterite Hermits' foundation. Due to the information that we were working with at the time, we were under the impression that the Cloisterite Hermits were a work-in-progress known to the diocese. Now that we know the actual situation, the websites will be amended to reflect such.]]
Is there anything in your March 2010 story that needs to be amended in light of this?

Thanks for the question. The issue of Cloisters Outreach continues to crop up from time to time and I get questions about the projects occasionally --- usually because they mention using canon 603 or "becoming diocesan hermits", and similar things. I have tended not to respond despite accusations of defamation, libel, malicious intent, etc though these are either incoherent or groundless. I think two things need to be clarified in light of these public comments. First, in the conversation an associate had with the canonist (Sister Sheila Richards, ESA) Sister made it clear that her own conversations with Gemma (not the person's real name) involved Gemma's own vocation, not projects of CO, and further, that as soon as those few conversations threatened to go further afield, Sister Sheila broke off communication. It also should be noted that at the very first stages of such a project it is premature to be having complex legal conversations. No one yet knows what, if anything, will come of the person's idea. This means that there were no conversations regarding legal complexities using a language of canonical legalities and especially no single phrase meaning the Sister had "separated herself from the project." She, as she herself made clear, had never been involved in the project in the first place.

Second, the claims being made all over the internet did not say simply that the Cloisterite Hermits were a project KNOWN to the Diocese of Charlotte though that too was certainly wondered about. The claims stated that CO had the SUPPORT of the Bishop,  diocesan supervision, and that Cloisters Outreach, especially the eremitical expression, was being guided by Sister Sheila "every step of the way." As you may recall,when questions were asked, folks were urged by Gemma herself to contact the diocese directly with their questions. We simply did that. Twice --- in case an error had been made the first time.

Thirdly, Sister Sheila is both a canonist and a diocesan hermit who works for the Diocese of Charlotte. In each of these roles she is a public person with commensurate rights, obligations, and responsibilities. Given some of the stuff coming out of CO with regard to eremitical life, formation, spirituality, use of canon 603, etc, questions were being raised about her competence and prudence. Now, it is true CO never mentioned her name but one really has to ask 1) how many diocesan hermits are there in the US? (Fewer than 60 or so) 2) How many are canonists? (we are in very low single digit numbers now), and 3) how many of those work for the Diocese of Charlotte? (The answer is just one and her name is listed on the Diocesan Website as both canonist and hermit.) ANYONE could have identified Sister with about 20 seconds worth of googling on the basis of the information provided by Gemma's own posts so that hardly argues CO was bound to maintain her privacy or that I (et al) was the one who violated that bond! Even so, we spoke with Sister Sheila directly, and, given the questions raised about her role in CO and her competence and prudence, as well as for the issue of transparency (which has been singularly lacking with regard to Cloisters Outreach) thought it was important to name the persons with whom we had spoken.

Fourthly, were we trying to undermine the eremitical project connected with CO? Not really, but the answer also depends on the nature of the project. What we were really trying to do was be sure that people asked sufficient questions and got straightforward answers, if not from Gemma, then from the Diocese she had implicated in her projects. These needed to be answers that comported with the answers given to us by the Diocese of Charlotte. Beyond this CO's spirituality and theology needs to be assured as well as their formation programs, etc. These are important elements which must be vetted (and led) by competent people. Finally, there are options or (in the latter case) a specific avenue for individuals to become either lay or consecrated hermits in today's Church; there is no need for the kinds of things CO offers in this regard and in some ways association with Cloisters Outreach could actually prove a hindrance to those discerning a call to canon 603 profession/consecration. So, to the extent CO's eremitical expression seems built on sand rather than rock, it is true that I was not adverse to pouring a little water on the sand and letting nature take her course. After all, to the degree the foundation was sound, then nothing would have been harmed at all and they might even have been helped by the confirmation. So no, there was no attempt to undermine the foundation. There was, however, a definite effort to establish the truth and demand that CO stand on that truth and no where else.

One final comment. While I am sorry for anyone with a condition which makes his or her ability to participate in discussions of the complex canonical issues involved in founding a religious congregation difficult or impossible, it seems imprudent then that they would be the ones in charge of such a task. At the very least such a person should have had someone who was not similarly impaired along with them for such discussions (and, presuming any really took place, certainly after the first one!). It seems to me that such a person should also let the canonist know that they are handicapped in this specific way and, as far as possible, require things to be stated in ordinary language. My own experience with canonists, limited though it is, (1 Bishop, 2 Vicars for Religious, 1 friend) is that they are VERY good in explaining canonical matters in straightforward language; I even have the sense that they enjoy doing so (after all, they enjoy canon law and this, as it is in theology or any other field, is a sign of their true expertise). I don't personally believe any heavily technical/canonical discussions took place, but even if they did does failing to take prudent steps to be sure these discussions were fully understood argue for such a person's competence to lead such a project?

Nothing, as far as I am aware, in the original article needs to be changed. It was a simple statement of fact. I said at the time that I would be more than happy to publish more if those facts changed, but no one notified me of changes (they did make charges of defamation, libel, and claimed serious misunderstandings had taken place, and so forth, so I know they saw the post). However, the comments in the post you sent do require some response. I hope this has helped.