Holding bishops accountable

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Print by Stephen Alcorn

Greenberg Center

Print by Stephen Alcorn

Print by Stephen Alcorn

Print by Stephen Alcorn

It is hard to overstate the importance of Pope Francis’ decision to establish a standing tribunal at the Vatican to deal with bishops who fail to deal properly with charges of child sexual abuse against priests and other diocesan personnel. Ever since the issue of the sexual abuse of minors in the Catholic Church began to be raised publicly three decades ago, the principal cause of scandal has not been the abuse itself, but its coverup by diocesan officials — bishops above all.

After years of pretending that all that was needed were procedures for handling accusations of abuse, Rome has finally recognized the necessity of a formal mechanism for holding accountable bishops who “abuse their office” by flouting them. All credit is due to the papal commission on sex abuse for proposing the tribunal, to the pope’s Council of Cardinals for approving it, and to the pope himself for giving it his blessing.

The tribunal will be attached to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), and appropriately so. The CDF was given responsibility for handling clergy abuse cases by Pope John Paul II in 2001. That’s where the Vatican’s evidence and expertise in this area resides — evidence and expertise that will be required to assess an accused bishop’s conduct in a particular case. Headed by a secretary, and equipped with additional staff and resources, the tribunal will be constituted into a new judicial branch of the CDF to address abuse cases in just such a comprehensive way.

To be sure, there is much that is unclear about how the tribunal will operate. Cases of clerical abuse are currently referred to the CDF by their bishops. What will be the procedure for referring “abuse of office” cases against bishops? With what degree of openness will such cases be handled? Will there be a set of rules for how bishops should handle abuse cases and a set of sanctions for failure to observe them? If anyone in the Vatican imagines that a closed and obscure process will solve the problem, he should think again.

Of course, even the best designed judicial structure will fail if the wrong people are running it. In this regard, all eyes must now be on Cardinal Gerhard Müller, whom Pope Francis appointed to head the CDF in 2012. Prior to that, as Bishop of Regensburg, Müller was faced with the case of Peter Kramer, a diocesan priest who had been convicted of child abuse in 2000 and given a probated sentence. In 2004, Müller assigned Kramer to a parish without informing the parishioners of the priest’s past. There, he abused more children and was again criminally convicted.

In 2007, Müller explained his decision to reassign Kramer based on the priest’s assurance that he had not reoffended and on the importance of forgiveness. Far from assuming blame, the bishop told Der Spiegel, “The culprit bears the responsibility for the offense. I am not responsible for everything that our clerics and co-workers do.”

Müller’s handling of the Kramer case is a textbook example — a distressingly recent one — of how bishops have abused their office by failing to handle abuse cases properly. It would allay a lot of fears if he made a public statement apologizing for what he did wrong. And pledging his full-fledged support of the tribunal that the pope has set up in his shop.

  • Judy Jones

    We thank the papal commission for pushing the Pope to hold bishops accountable for covering up sex crimes against children and vulnerable adults.
    But until bishops are fired, demoted and removed from their powerful positions ( not just accepting their resignations ) we are very skeptical about this new tribunal.

    We are still waiting for concrete action from the Pope to punish bishops who have and who continue to cover up child sex crimes. Only then will there be hope that children will be safe today. That would one step toward prevention.

    Yet this can not be the only step toward protecting kids. Those who cover up sex crimes also must to be held accountable by local law enforcement.
    The church officials should support , not oppose, the reforms of secular laws so that predators and those who cover up their crimes can be prosecuted.

    Judy Jones, SNAP (Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests)

  • I believe forcing the resignation of Robert Finn as bishop of Kansas City constituted concrete action. SNAP does itself, and its cause, no good by maintaining a “very skeptical” view of all positive developments. As with the boy who cried wolf, people stop listening. Indeed, they roll their eyes and turn away.

  • Greg1

    Judy, The Catholic Church has bent over backwards to address this problem. The rest will take decades. Don’t you think it is now time to focus on the Public School System in the USA. That institution is ripe for reform. After that, you can push for reform of the Day Care System, etc., etc., etc. The Catholic Church isn’t the only institution with these issues. Molestation of young men & women is going on everywhere. So SNAP to it.

  • Mike Kennedy

    Mark, doesn’t Judy have reason to skeptical? If the scandals in Kansas City, Philadelphia and now Minneapolis show us one thing to be true, it’s that the urge to cover up and protect the offenders, rather than the victims, remains very strong amongst the hierarchy of the Church. That is just in the U.S., I believe it is probably a lot worse in many other countries. I fear that coverups will continue until civil authorities finally put a Bishop in jail. Then maybe something will really change.

  • Bluntly, Mike, a lot of people who are anything but apologists for the hierarchy think SNAP has gone off the rails — almost as though the organization would prefer the Church to do the wrong thing in order to demonstrate that it cannot reform itself. Because SNAP is an organization of victims — real victims — this sort of thing is not often said out loud: One should not criticize victims of such horrendous acts. But it makes SNAP less effective than it should be, than it needs to be.

  • Betty Clermont

    “This is the biggest non-story in the history of the clergy child sex abuse scandal…This headline grabbing story is not only sinister. It is also sad, for it is providing victims around the world with hope that the men who are really responsible for this child sex abuse crisis and scandal will be punished, and in all probability that’s not going to happen as in all probability the tribunal ‘investigations’ of bishops, archbishops and cardinals will last years until the wrongdoers are retired and then the tribunal will give them a pass.” Ray Mouton (Mouton is the author of the celebrated novel In God’s House. He is also a co-author of the celebrated report offered to the bishops in 1985 and subsequently ignored by them. Ray Mouton was in the middle of the volcano when it exploded.) http://www.snapaustralia.org/RayMouton_On_the_Papal_Tribunal.html

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