Five years ago, Houston attorney/theologian Daniel Shea watched the results of the papal conclave at home. Intellectually, he knew what the dirty-gray smoke puffing out of the Sistine Chapel's chimney signaled: that Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger would soon be announced as the new Supreme Pontiff of the Roman Catholic Church.
Now, as the white-haired Pope battles a seemingly endless series of priestly sex scandals, Shea says he is still trying to get his head around his belief that he and his co-counsel Tahira Khan Merritt set the coronation in motion when they filed a Houston-based sex abuse lawsuit against Ratzinger.
According to Shea, the cardinals elected Ratzinger Pope to give him the immunity that would enable him to avoid answering any questions concerning his knowledge about and handling of sex abuse cases in Houston's St. Francis De Sales church in the mid-1990s.
In fact, Shea believes that what he started with the lawsuit may eventually result in the destruction of the entire Roman Catholic Church.
Dan Shea, a former Catholic deacon, has come a long way from the seminary. Whether that's a long way up or a long way down depends on where today's Catholic Church stands in your eyes. In the last five years, Shea has cracked wise about the Pope being gay and a drag queen in front of the Italian Parliament. He got a bishop to declare in open court that it was the church's position that minor children were accomplices in their own molestation. He looked another bishop dead in the eye and told him to kiss his ass.
So it's safe to say, he evokes strong emotions while expressing his beliefs.
In Doe et al v. Roman Catholic Diocese of Galveston-Houston et al, Shea and Khan Merritt allege that a letter then-Cardinal Ratzinger sent to every Catholic bishop on May 18, 2001, constituted an international conspiracy to obstruct justice. This official Vatican document Ratzinger penned in his role as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith dealt with official church procedure in dealing with clerical sex abuse cases.
Not only did this letter contain the cardinal's current thinking on the subject, it also cited in a footnote a top-secret 1962 Vatican document Shea would eventually flush out.
This 48-year-old document, informally known as Crimen Sollicitationis, considered a smoking gun in some quarters, contains written orders from the Vatican laying bare a system for protecting child molesters. To Shea, Crimen is more than a smoking gun, it is "a nuclear bomb."
Many churchmen disagree as to the true meaning of Crimen. Still, it's easy to interpret that, taken together, Crimen and Ratzinger's letter of May 18 make it plain that Ratzinger wanted these cases handled by the Vatican and only the Vatican. According to Ratzinger's letter, the roles "of judge, promoter of justice, notary and legal representative can validly be performed for these cases only by priests." Furthermore, the letter was co-signed by Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, who later went on the record as follows: "In my opinion, the demand that a bishop be obligated to contact the police in order to denounce a priest who has admitted the offense of pedophilia is unfounded."
The letter ordered everyone involved in these cases to keep the evidence confidential for ten years after the victims reached adulthood.
The entire proceedings were to be held under "pontifical secret," meaning those who broke the silence to outside authorities could be excommunicated.
"Every Cardinal in that conclave had been a recipient of the May 18 cover-up letter," Shea says. And because they were all recipients, he says, they were all complicit.
In response to Ratzinger's sending that letter, Shea and the Texas Secretary of State had already served his Vatican office with papers. The cardinal was scheduled to appear in federal Judge Lee Rosenthal's Houston courtroom.
What's more, the Pope would be giving his deposition to Shea, who is not just a tough plaintiff's lawyer, but also a former Catholic deacon with three postgraduate theological degrees — one of them pontifical — from the University of Louvain, one of the oldest Catholic universities in Europe.
"I don't think they were too pleased by that prospect," Shea says.
But now that he had been made Pope, it would be a cold day in hell before Joseph Ratzinger would darken the Rusk Street doorway of Rosenthal's court. As a newly minted head of state, Pope Benedict XVI was now diplomatically immune to American lawsuits.
Again, Shea believes that was the whole point behind Ratzinger's election.
Along with its Sharpstown surroundings, St. Francis De Sales was rapidly becoming Hispanicized in the 1990s. That was when Colombian native Juan Carlos Patiño-Arango was brought in to minister to the growing Spanish-speaking portion of the flock, and he conducted most of the Spanish masses at the church. His accusers later swore that he was presented to them as a priest, not a mere seminarian.