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.