Beliefs Ethics Institutions Politics

Pope Francis moves to hold bishops accountable in sex abuse crisis

Pope Francis stepped up the pressure on bishops who fail to protect young people. Photo by Dado Ruvic courtesy of Reuters.
Pope Francis speaks with young people in a youth centre dedicated to Pope John Paul II during his visit to Sarajevo, on June 6, 2015. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Dado Ruvic *Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-POPE-ABUSE, originally transmitted on June 10, 2015.

Pope Francis speaks with young people in a youth center dedicated to St. John Paul II during his visit to Sarajevo on June 6, 2015. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Dado Ruvic
*Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-POPE-ABUSE, originally transmitted on June 10, 2015.

(RNS) Pope Francis has approved the first-ever system for judging, and possibly deposing, bishops who fail to protect children from abusive clerics, a major step in responding to Catholics who have been furious that guilty priests have been defrocked while bishops have largely escaped punishment.

The five-point plan on accountability for bishops originated with the special sex abuse commission that Francis set up to deal with the ongoing crisis. After some modifications, his nine–member Council of Cardinals unanimously signed off on it this week and Francis gave his final blessing to it on Wednesday (June 10).

“I’m really pleased the Commission proposal has been approved by the Pope,” Marie Collins of Ireland, one of two victims of sex abuse by clergy who sit on the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, wrote in an email.

“I sincerely believe this is a real step forward. I know some will be skeptical but hopefully time will tell and we will see real progress,” she said, adding: “The Commission still has a lot of work to do but this is an important first step.”

Peter Saunders of England, the other victim on the commission, also called the new system “good news,” telling the Catholic news site Crux that “this is a positive step that clearly indicates that Pope Francis is listening to his commission.”

Saunders’ support is especially notable because he has said that if the pope did not institute a reliable system for holding bishops’ feet to the fire he would leave the panel.

Saunders is also  currently embroiled in an ugly verbal tussle with Cardinal George Pell, the pontiff’s top financial reformer, whom Saunders has accused of being “almost sociopathic” in his handling of clergy sex abuse when Pell served as a bishop in Australia.

The Vatican has defended Pell, a blunt-talking churchman who is expected to return to Australia to testify before a government commission investigating the church’s abuse history.

Victims advocates in the U.S., who for years led efforts to break the clerical wall of silence on abuse, took a much more skeptical stance on the new moves.

“Accountability necessarily involves consequences for wrongdoers. Whether a new, untested, Vatican-ruled process will mean consequences for wrongdoers remains to be seen,” said David Clohessy, director of SNAP, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.

“This move will give hope to some,” Clohessy said. “But hope doesn’t safeguard kids. Punishing men who endanger kids safeguards kids. That should have happened decades ago. … That’s not happening now. And that must happen — strongly and soon — if the church is to be safer.”

A test case for the new system might be in Minnesota, after a county attorney last week filed criminal charges against the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis. The criminal charges were a first against an archdiocese, and allege that church leaders failed to protect children from molestation by a cleric.

While the current head of the archdiocese, Archbishop John Nienstedt, was not charged, officials say he could be as the investigation proceeds. But whatever happens in that case, the record indicates that Nienstedt failed to take action against the priest as recently as 2012 — which could violate church policies.

It is hard to overstate how groundbreaking this move could be.

“The pope’s decision to hold bishops accountable for mishandling sex abuse cases is a long-overdue and indispensable step in fighting abuse,” said the Rev. James Martin, an editor at the Jesuit weekly America and a widely followed commentator on church affairs.

Until now, Catholic bishops have only been answerable directly to the pope, who has the sole power to appoint them and also to fire them.

But popes have been loathe to depose bishops over shielding molesters, and the process for deposing a bishop was so murky that it was often easier for the Vatican to shuttle a bishop to a ceremonial post or wait for him to retire.

In April, Bishop Robert Finn of Missouri, who three years earlier became the first bishop convicted of failing to report a priest suspected of child abuse, was forced to resign, effectively the first bishop in the decades-long  crisis who lost his job for covering up for an abuser.

But Finn’s resignation only came after years of outrage among Catholics and, in the end, lobbying by some fellow bishops, most notably Boston Cardinal Sean O’Malley, a member of the pope’s personal council of nine cardinals and head of the papal sex abuse commission.

The commission was announced in December 2013 and officially created in March 2014. Apart from O’Malley, it currently has 17 members: 10 laypeople (including six women and two survivors of sexual abuse), plus five priests and two nuns.

O’Malley has long backed a system for judging bishops who failed to stop abusive clerics, and this new system has the hallmarks of his approach.

The main feature of the new system will be a tribunal — effectively a church court — set up in the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the powerful Vatican department that oversees orthodoxy and has also become the clearinghouse for judging priests accused of abuse.

The new tribunal will “judge bishops with regard to crimes of the abuse of office when connected to the abuse of minors.” The pope is expected to name a special prosecutor and a staff for the tribunal in the coming months, perhaps before he arrives in late September for his first trip to the U.S., which has been ground zero in the clergy sex abuse crisis.

Several gray areas remain: For example, the new protocols do not say who is responsible for reporting bishops to the Vatican, and how such complaints will be filed and handled.

Still, Vatican observers say Francis has set up the new system quickly, given the glacial pace at which the Roman Curia usually operates. And he seems to want to go around many of the usual bureaucratic and canonical roadblocks to establish a relatively simple and independent tribunal.

LM/MG END GIBSON

About the author

David Gibson

David Gibson is a national reporter for RNS and an award-winning religion journalist, author and filmmaker. He has written several books on Catholic topics. His latest book is on biblical artifacts: "Finding Jesus: Faith. Fact. Forgery," which was also the basis of a popular CNN series.

49 Comments

Click here to post a comment

  • Kudos to the Pope for directly addressing this issue of bishop responsibility. I wonder if this new directive is retroactive, since Bishops in the past acted under different guidelines in handling clerical sex abusers.

  • “The Pope’s decision to hold bishops accountable for mishandling sex abuse cases is a long-overdue and indispensable step in fighting abuse,” said the Rev. James Martin..”

    Way too little, too late.

    Cardinal Bernie Law, kingpin of the Boston Pedophile Priest Network is a fugitive from justice living in a fancy suite of rooms at Pope Francis’ Vatican.

    And at the top of these pedophile networks were the Popes themselves.
    Something tells me Francis won’t connect that dot of responsibility.

    With 24,000 known cases of child rape by Priests (in the USA alone)
    this tax free, absolved, self-annointed gang dares to lecture the world on morality.

    The Vatican fits the definition of a criminal state. And its serial crimes reveal a fundamental flaw in Christian philosophy; Jesus’ injunction to believe one can be forgiven and washed clean for one’s evil deeds is deeply immoral and wicked.

  • Gibson omitted: “The Holy Father established a five-year period for further development of these proposals and for completing a formal evaluation of their effectiveness.” Also: “The Holy Father mandated the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) to judge bishops with regard to crimes of the abuse of office when connected to the abuse of minors.” Francis approved Archbishop Gerhard Ludwig Müller as Prefect of the CDF and promoted him to cardinal the office of the Holy See that has dealt with all sexual abuse cases 2001. As bishop of Regensburg, Germany, Müller promoted Fr. Peter Kramer, previously convicted of child sex abuse and ordered not to work with children, to pastor. Müller concealed Kramer’s conviction from parishioners. When victims learned of Kramer’s new assignment, additional victims came forward and Kramer was convicted of additional child abuse. Finn “resigned” as appeasement for the Baros headlines. This announcement is appeasement for the Pell…

  • isn’t it the hierarchy judging themselves and each other what enables and covers up all their crimes in the first place?.
    the bishops popes and cardinals who enabled, protected priest rapists, and covered up the crimes who should be in a public prison and judged by the people of the world.. to me this is all a bunch of hype that means same old same old old boys and girls club..

  • Thank you for making that point. Here is my point…What a crock…Muller?…CDF?…right, that’s really going to happen. What about Wesolowski? What about the turning abusers over to local police? These liars will NEVER do the right thing.
    I am not a person of faith, but I have been responsible for many children in my 70 years, and the fact is that as long as people keep financially supporting these institutions (not just religious but also secular) there is NO reason for them to stop. Man…I just feel sick!

  • Nothing will satisfy you guys…..too little, too late, not enough, all should go to jail and be defrocked, etc. The outrage is understandable, but also overblown. Not all accused priests are guilty, and not all accusers are truthful. The Church is taking care of the issue…..you should be happy.

  • Because we don’t live in a theocracy. Religious sects are not a law unto themselves nor an integral part of our government like the military.

    They are answerable to the same public and laws as everyone else for their actions.

  • …Which is supporting sex scandals.Therefore, Catholics are supporting sex scandals.

    Its always more honest when you take ideas to their logical conclusion.

  • I do like that Francis is doing something about it. All other institutions continue to hide their pedophiles, such as the Public School System USA, the Christian Churches USA, the Synagogues USA, and on and on. One of these days, all institutions will recognize the evil within their midst, and actually do something about it. The Catholic Church was embarrassed into it, but thank God that happened. It will take decades to correct the problem, and weed it all out, but it WILL happen.

  • Then all gays support sodomy as a norm, fornication as a norm….the same thing the priests are doing. So gays support the sin of the Church and dismiss the goodness it actually preserves. Class act.

  • Greg1,

    FYI, I finally responded to your comments about the trinity doctrine, as well as restoration of the Kingdom to Israel. They can both be found in the article, “Most Americans look so kindly on churches, they might even go sometime.” I finally had the time to do so today, which is my Saturday! ?

  • JR,

    Military courts have sovereignty only for military crimes or civil crimes committed on federal property. If a servicemember commits a civil offense on property that is not federally controlled, they can be tried by a military court under the Uniform Code of Military Justice and will be tried by a civil court under civilian laws.

    The equivalent for the Catholic church would require the church to turn lawbreakers over to state courts for trial, especially since they don’t have the power to prosecute a person to the fullest extent of the law. Has the church done anything like that, yet?

  • It doesn’t matter. They committed civil crimes, they are tried in a civil court. If the Catholic church wants to hold their own proceeding, that’s fine. They lack the power to prosecute civil crimes.

  • @Jr

    No, actually I support the idea that whatever your over active imagination is over actively imagining my sex life to be, it is simply and absolutely not your business, not your church’s business, and doesn’t require the opinion or supervision of either.

    I support the idea that your notions of sin, notions which I don’t share, are purely theological concerns peculiar to your interpretation of your holy book, and should not imposed on my faith, my citizenship, and my participation in society. Especially when it is fairly easy to show that all of your animus is given a cover of respectability by calling it sincere religious belief. We both know that that is the least of your concerns.

    Your church has participated in and covered up the sins of its fathers. That is undeniable. Please don’t slander us by claiming that my alleged sin of homosexuality is exactly the same as condoning a child molesting priest, his conspiratorial bishop, and a man who clearly has no moral…

  • Fran, I guess you work one of those crazy shifts. Anyway, I do not see that the blog is available any more.

  • Greg1,

    Yes, I certainly do work a “unique” schedule!! Not your usual Monday to Friday, 9 to 5!

    You can find that article I referred to by going to the top of any article in Religion News Service, and enter it into the “Google Custom Search” box. I have had to do that in the past with just a few words that I remembered in the title that was no longer listed. Happy Thursday!?

ADVERTISEMENTs