Institutions Mark Silk: Spiritual Politics Opinion

Francis lays down the law to bishops who cover up

Coat of Arms of Vatican City
Coat of Arms of Vatican City

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Coat of Arms of Vatican City

A year ago, Pope Francis announced that a special tribunal would be set up within the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) to judge bishops accused of covering up the abuse of minors. Three months ago, the AP’s Nicole Winfield reported that the tribunal was going nowhere: no special secretary for discipline had been appointed, no staff assigned, no resources allocated, nada.

On Saturday, Francis told the CDF to forget about it. In an apostolic letter written on his own authority (motu proprio), he announced that beginning in September, such accusations — involving not only bishops but also heads of religious orders — will be handled by the Vatican “congregations” charged with overseeing them. The final decision will be up to the pope, acting with the assistance of a new “college” of jurists.

Unsurprisingly, SNAP’s David Clohessy was unimpressed. “Instead of just sacking bad bishops, or turning over abuse records to law enforcement, the Vatican is setting up yet another untested, internal church “process” to purportedly deal with bishops who ignore or conceal child sex crimes,” he said in a statement.

With due respect, Clohessy is wrong. The pope has done something far more consequential than setting up another internal process.

The apostolic letter, titled “Like a Loving Mother,” declares that not dealing properly with abuse accusations is an administrative failure sufficiently serious to warrant removal from office, even if there is no serious moral culpability on the bishop’s part (anche senza grave colpa morale da parte sua). In other words, there’s no need to prove that the bishop personally engaged in a cover-up. If it happened on his watch, he can be removed.

As anyone who has followed the abuse scandal should know, turning abuse records over to law enforcement is hardly a guarantee that cover-ups will result in successful criminal prosecutions of ecclesiastical higher-ups. Proving their criminal complicity is no easy task, even for the most diligent of civil prosecutors. When it comes to the sexual abuse of minors, the Vatican needs to be able to remove bishops simply for not exercising due diligence.

It this regard, Francis was smart not to promulgate new canon law, but rather to issue what amounts to a clarification of existing administrative practice. Going forward, there will be no basis for claiming on grounds of retroactivity that a bishop cannot be held responsible for coverups that took place before September.

Naturally, the new arrangement won’t work if the responsible Roman congregations don’t do the work they’ve been assigned to do. It will be of particular importance that clear and open processes be established for bringing complaints forward, and for announcing the results. But Francis has served notice that bishops fail to deal properly with sexual abuse at their peril. And that the buck stops with him.

About the author

Mark Silk

Mark Silk is Professor of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College and director of the college's Leonard E. Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life. He is a Contributing Editor of the Religion News Service


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  • Re: “Proving [bishops’] criminal complicity is no easy task, even for the most diligent of civil prosecutors.”

    I wasn’t aware that the difficulty of trying a particular sort of case constitutes a valid reason for never pursuing one at all. There’s been too much of this sort of thinking to date, and the bishops have taken full advantage of it, knowing they were safe, no matter what they did.

    Re: “Naturally, the new arrangement won’t work if the responsible Roman congregations don’t do the work they’ve been assigned to do.”

    This is true, and as it turns out, is the crux of the problem here. This is definitely still a case of quis custodiet ipsos custodes. SNAP’s critique remains apt, even if the author would like to dismiss it.

  • Institutions have to be able to police themselves. Indeed, it is precisely because of the limitations of the criminal justice system in dealing with sexual assault on campuses that the U.S. Department of Education has mandated Title IX enforcement on colleges and universities. Certainly there needs to be reporting of credible sexual abuse allegations to the civil authorities. Bishop Finn was a “mandatory reporter” who failed to report, and he deserved the criminal sanction he got. But Juvenal’s tagline notwithstanding, serious internal disciplinary procedures are essential.

  • At any time, any pope can and does remove any cleric or prelate he chooses e.g. this pope excommunicated an Australian priest for advocating women’s ordination. ( Also see: “Vatican Diary / The “who’s who” of the deposed bishops: That is, forced by a pope to leave their posts for immoral acts, administrative faults, or other serious violations. They number in the dozens.” (

  • I am a retired Catholic priest and I would not begin to try and defend the actions of the bishops and cardinals when it comes to child abuse. What bishop has been jailed – when one is I will take the letters and talk more seriously. If a bishop, priest, cardinal or pope participates in a cover up it is morally WRONG! They care more for the organization than the people.