Interview with mother Maria Grazia Palma

For our English speaking friends, here is the interview by journalist Gianluca Martone to Mother Grazia, originally published on the “La Croce” newspaper.

Pubblichiamo, per i nostri amici di lingua inglese, l’intervista fatta dal giornalista Gianluca Martone a Madre Grazia e pubblicata sul quotidiano “La Croce”.

santoriniThe recent events involving Fr. Stefano Maria Manelli, Founder of the Order of the Franciscan Friars of the Immaculate and reported by several national newspapers, has caused a great reaction together with the immediate response by the Order of the Franciscan Sisters of the Immaculate. With great courage, always in complete respect for the truth of the facts, Mother Maria Grazia Palma of the FSI Order, has exclusively released this important interview to the “Cross”.

Mother, during the last few days several articles have been published in numerous newspapers, in written form and online, in which serious allegations are made regarding Fr. Stefano Maria Manelli, Founder of the Franciscans of the Immaculate. What’s your opinion on this matter?

As well as our Founder, us Sisters have also been libeled. I have been in the Institute a long time, I know Fr. Stefano personally and I am quite certain that these serious allegations which have been published are absolutely unfounded. My co-sisters and various lay people who know us well are with me on this, and have shown their dismay and indignation on hearing the news, together with their solidarity, in this painful situation. In my opinion we are dealing with a vulgar setup to attack and sully the image of the Church by defaming a person and a religious Family who strive to do good for humanity and the Church itself without compromise. These articles are the pinnacle of a smear campaign that has been going on for more than a year now with the support of some of the media. But media coverage of a news story is not absolute proof of its truth. Unfortunately, the media have found collaborators who have an interest in hindering the work of evangelization which many religious Institutes, like ours, are carrying out in five continents.

In the article which appeared in “Il Mattino” on 16th June 2015, which I repeat word for word, still in reference to the accusations, “Fr. Stefano would bombard the sisters with constant harassment, blackmail and degradation. Anything to obtain the absolute fidelity of the religious. A pact of loyalty which would be sealed with blood.” How long have you been a Franciscan Sister of the Immaculate, and in the light of your personal experience what can you say about this?

I have been in the Institute of the Franciscan Sisters of the Immaculate for more than 20 years and I speak on the basis of a profound knowledge of the reality of my Institute. The news published “for effect” (blood pacts, blackmail, harassment…) leaves me horrified, outraged and mortified. I have never seen or heard that anything of the kind has ever taken place. I think that whoever wrote this did so on the basis of lies or manipulation of the truth.

I have had many opportunities of being in contact with Fr. Manelli, I’ve observed him in a variety of circumstances and with different kinds of people, particularly with the sisters. I have been able to study how he acted and what his thoughts are on a wide number of issues, and, on the basis of hard facts, of which I have been a direct witness, I am convinced of the rectitude of his conscience. Fr. Stefano does not “suffer” from wanting to take center stage, as some would have you believe. He has always seemed very balanced (I speak in the plural because I know that this is the opinion of many of my Sisters who I have consulted over the course of the years), in control of himself, even when he was ill, or tired from extensive travelling. I have always seen him being indulgent, attentive to the needs of the friars and sisters. If anyone went to him to admit some fault or other, he showed understanding in the face of small personal weaknesses, particularly with young vocations, so they wouldn’t get discouraged. On countless occasions I have seen and heard him shield himself from praise, by changing the subject and deftly turning the attention away from himself. I know for certain that, in the last Chapter of the friars, held in 2008, he asked them not to re-elect him, but they re-confirmed him in the office of Minister General.

I have been involved with the reception of young aspirants to the religious life for several years and I have never seen Fr. Manelli oblige anyone, either directly or indirectly, with moral or psychological intimidation, to choose the religious life. I have never observed either abuses of authority or coercive methods in the direction of us sisters. I could, if necessary, tell you about and accumulate a countless number of facts, accounts and testimonies which would confirm what I’m saying. He proposed the path of holiness, exhorted us to virtue, but left correspondence to God’s grace down to personal generosity. He taught us sisters, as well as many lay people, that our rules of life aren’t to be observed out of a sense of obligation or for fear of punishment, but for love, and that sacrifices only have sense if we accomplish them being motivated by our personal love for Jesus. I don’t know how anyone could think that a religious Institute would be able to keep going, being driven by blackmail or harassment. I think that anyone who wants to evaluate things impartially can understand. Our religious life, with its return to the poverty of the original Franciscans, involves many sacrifices. I don’t think that nearly 400 sisters would subject themselves to it just because of the coercion of an elderly priest.

Fr. Manelli loves modesty and purity, and he demonstrates it by his behavior and with his discourses. He is very reserved and cautious in the way he carries himself. He has taught us prudence in dealing with friars and priests and has never approved familiarity that indulges attitudes which lack reserve. We sisters have never greeted Fr. Stefano in the way that is usually done with relatives or acquaintances, even if it were to congratulate him for some feast or other; and to women who demonstrated that they wanted to greet him affectionately, he would only allow them to kiss his hand.

Mother, what do you think about those sisters and ex-religious who claim to have left the Institute because of harassment, blackmail and degradation suffered at the hands of Fr. Manelli, and whose testimonies, according to what is reported in the press releases, have been consigned to the Holy See as of 1998 and taken to the Public Prosecutor’s office by the lawyer Giuseppe Sarno?

First of all, I understand that these former religious are very few in number. Furthermore, I would point out to those who believe in their false statements, that history has shown that those who leave a religious Institute almost never speak well of it: if they leave it’s generally because they don’t share ideas or ways of doing things, but that’s not to say that they’re right. Before giving credence to the accusations of a small number of people whose credibility should be verified beforehand, I invite the appropriate Authorities to collect the testimonies of a much larger group of far more reliable texts.

Immediately following the publication of the article by the lawyer Zarrella, Enrico Tuccillo – lawyer to Fr. Manelli and Sr. Michela Cozzolino, Mother General of the feminine Order – announced the lodging of a complaint for “libel, defamation, and any other offense that might arise regarding each individual responsible for disseminating news about the alleged abuses”. What do you say about this?

As I have already said, I think we are dealing with one of the many attacks against religious and consecrated life itself, which, particularly nowadays, people want to discredit, disfiguring the image of the entire Church. For our part, we have the right to defend ourselves, but above all it’s our duty, because the Institute which the Holy Spirit has gathered us into isn’t ours, but God’s, and as Christians and consecrated people we have the responsibility to protect and defend this enterprise which He has elicited for the material and spiritual good of many of our fellow men throughout the world. St. Thomas of Aquinas teaches that although “turning the other cheek” is a Gospel teaching which should always be applied to our interior spiritual disposition, nevertheless, when the good generated by the libeled party becomes seriously compromised, they, or whoever acts on their behalf, have the moral duty to respond.

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