Leaders & Institutions Mark Silk: Spiritual Politics Opinion

Francis’ clericalism of mercy is perpetuating the sex abuse scandal

Cardinal Sean P. O'Malley of Boston, head of the Pontifical Commission for Child Protection, speaks at a news conference at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome on Feb. 16, 2015. Photo by Paul Haring, courtesy of Catholic News Service

Cardinal Sean O’Malley said last week that Pope Francis is committed to ending “the scourge of sex abuse.” Doth the cardinal protest too much?

I hope not. But things are not going well on the sex abuse front in Rome.

On March 1, abuse survivor Marie Collins resigned her position on the pope’s child protection commission, citing lack of cooperation from Vatican bureaucrats. The final straw, she said, was discovering that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), which has responsibility for handling cases of child abuse by priests, has refused to respond to letters from survivors.

When the head of the CDF, Cardinal Gerhard Mueller, sought to refute her charges, Collins issued a devastating point-by-point rebuttal. The pope himself had approved the commission’s recommendation that the CDF respond to survivors’ letters.

Collins also pointed out that the CDF had declined papal instructions two years ago to establish a tribunal for disciplining bishops who have been negligent in handling abuse cases.

In fact, after it became clear that the CDF was not going to set up the tribunal, the responsibility for such adjudication was turned over to the Vatican offices in charge of bishops. That was almost a year ago and they’ve done nothing either.

The simplest way for the Vatican to end the scourge of sex abuse is to have a tribunal clearly and openly try and remove from office a bishop who has covered up a case of child sexual abuse. Nothing assures proper supervision and enforcement more than having the guy in charge know that he will lose his job for misconduct.

What’s not good enough is an approach that permits scandal-ridden bishops to have their resignations accepted without any public blame from Rome. In this country, that’s happened to four hierarchs: Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston, Bishop Robert Finn of Kansas City, Archbishop John Nienstedt of Minneapolis-St. Paul, and Archbishop John Myers of Newark.

The buck here stops with Pope Francis, and it’s hard to avoid the feeling that when it comes to the abuse crisis, his instinct for mercy is his Achilles heel.

Francis has no problem denouncing clericalism when it manifests itself in a lack of pastoral concern. But his readiness to forgive the sinner subjects him to the clericalism of the “poor father syndrome.”

This has led him to cut accused bishops more slack than they deserve.

At the seminar where Cardinal O’Malley gave his assurance of papal commitment last week, Francis Sullivan, head of the Australian bishops’ Truth, Justice and Healing Council, said that when the pope and others talk about the need for a reform of the heart, people need to realize “that the decisions our leaders made in order to facilitate and cover up actually broke the heart of what it meant to be Catholic.”

“We need to go back and confront that,” Sullivan said.

The way to confront it is to establish judicial procedures for insuring that the leaders are held accountable. Especially when the guy in charge doesn’t fully get it.

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

13 Comments

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  • None of this is new, Mr. Silk.the church of st, Peter and all of the apostles have been covering this sort of thing up for centuries.

    The only thing that will get them to stop covering it up is taking it out of the hands of the church and putting a lot of people in jail.

  • Mark, glad to hear from you once again. You are correct in your assessment:
    “…..Nothing assures proper supervision and enforcement more than having the
    guy in charge know that he will lose his job for misconduct…..”

    On the legal/civil side, the cold steel of handcuffs and the mess of indelible fingerprint ink is sure to get the attention of RCC leaders.

    What a feckless crew of male leaders in this hallowed bureacracy!

    After his dressing down by Marie Collins, rumor has it that Herr Muller is scouring the German dictionaries for the appropriate German word that is similar to “COMEUPPANCE.”

    Michael Skiendzielewski
    Captain (retired)
    Philadelphia Police Dept.

  • i agree with you and lament with you. However, judicial actions with due process take many months, if not years to resolve. Isn’t “forced” resignation a quicker, more effective action.

  • The Vatican dragging their feet on this is the worst scandal in Church history. It’s shameful and all those curia bureaucrats will have to answer to God for their perpetuation of these horrific ongoing crimes against children in particular. Any cleric or religious suspected should be reported to civil authorities immediately and let them investigate.

  • Happy to read one US reporter stating that the pope controls his subordinates. The pope allowed Fr. Don Corradi, recently arrested for sexual assaults against 22 handicapped children in Argentina, to remain a free man after being informed that that this is what Corradi did in Italy. Calling this an “instinct for mercy” is part of the US media’s perpetuating sex abuse by always giving this pope an undeserved sheen of morality.
    Pope Francis excommunicated Fr. Reynolds for advocating for women’s ordination and justice for LGBTQ persons without a tribunal. The pope removed the Bishop of Bling without a tribunal. He has NEVER ordered his men to report criminals to civil authority and, in fact, personally obstructed civil adjudication by refusing to hand over his records as requested to courts in Chile.
    Mr. Silk, if you want this pope to stop showing his contempt for children around the world, then encourage the US media to start holding him accountable!

  • Politely, if I may, I would not tar St. Peter and the Apostles with the Roman Catholic Church. The evidence of scripture is that the church at Rome was founded well before Peter arrived there, and it is unlikely, based on the account in the Book of Acts that it was founded by an Apostle. Nor does the 1st century church, more properly, congregation, at Rome bear much resemblance to the RCC of the past 15 or 16 centuries. Nor does the present church hold any degree of preeminence over other churches despite its claim to primacy. Catholics will argue this I know. Still, your suggestion that somebody needs to go to jail is not without merit, or rather, affirmatively, holds a great deal of merit..

  • When a priest even thinks “woman priests’, he is kicked to the curb in 24 hours, but when a member of the clergy molests a child, he is either defrocked – 40 YEARS LATER, of moved to another city, state, country by his conspirator bishop and no one is accountable. I’m tired of hearing ‘ Oh, the Vatican moves slowly’ because they are quite capable of moving quick like a bunny when it suits them. How do you say BS in Latin?-Anybody?

  • Pope Francis’ laxist policy in the child-abuse scandal is an open invitation to the secularist Anti-Catholic forces of Europe to end the Italian Concordate with the Holy See and to declare the Vatican an international criminal organization. If the Pope wants the Papacy to remain politically independent and a moral force for the good, he has to change course and clean up the mess.

  • To be honest, I didn’t. That is a function of being someone who is so straightforward in expression that I rarely indulge in sarcasm, don’t catch it when it’s used, and am often fooled by people who have different approaches to dialogue. Any number of times, people have related circumstances of their lives to me, and I have taken them at their word, only to discover later that, they were “funnin'” me. But I would rather be ingenuous and credulous than otherwise; except when it comes to financial transactions wherein I exercise a praiseworthy degree of critical caution.

  • And so many in the laity keep funding this group of clueless catholic corporate “beanie boy” shills in the mistaken belief that their “salvation” is in their hands.

  • Sex scandals are common in all world religions because they all believe in their own works to merit salvation. They say do good get good and do bad get bad. None makes it since the religion of Cain. That is why they need Jesus, not the professing or religious Christianity. They need Jesus to be their personal savior, not their photo id.

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