The Accountability of Bishops

by Michael Sean Winters

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The Holy Father’s approval of a new procedure and process for holding bishops accountable if they fail in their responsibilities to protect children, and to assign this task to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, is an enormous step forward in the Church’s long effort to rid itself of the scourge of clergy sex abuse and to create a culture that sees the protection of children as one of its highest duties. The issue, given its gravity, has become a threshold issue for many Catholics, that is to say, if the Church hierarchy can’t deal with us, many people in the pews will not listen to anything else the Church’s leaders have to say.

The key issue here is the accountability of bishops. As Msgr. Stephen Rossetti said this morning in the Washington Post article on the story, “It’s a major thing it’s putting bishops on notice. ‘If you don’t deal with this, you have to face the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith,’ and no one wants to face the CDF.” The Church’s canons have consequences, and now they have consequences for bishops who drag their feet or otherwise compromise the Church’s effort to deal with this insidious problem.

It is hard to overstate the degree to which bishops have not previously felt accountable. Of course, many, indeed I think most, bishops feel a deep sense of accountability – to the Word of God, to the traditions and teachings of the Church and, importantly, to the people entrusted to their care. But, the clerical culture does not always strengthen that last, vital sense of accountability. By way of example, a priest friend of mine recalls studying in Rome. He was at a reception and fell into conversation with a bishop. The bishop asked him where he was from and he named the diocese. The bishop then said something about that city being in a particular state, but not being an American, he understandably got the state wrong. My friend gently corrected him, naming the correct location of the diocese. His superior, who was part of the conversation, then chastised him: “Never contradict a bishop!” If a bishop cannot be corrected on a small matter of no consequence, multiply that incident by a million over the years, and you will have an insight into what is wrong in the curia.

The phrasing of the announcement yesterday is also part of putting bishops on notice. The first item, as reported by my colleague Josh McElwee, states that the new procedures will examine cases relating to “abuse of office.” To my mind, the choice of words should not be overlooked. The abuse of minors is an obvious abuse. Now, the abuse of office is made equally obvious.

It is also very significant that this new process is being turned over the CDF. As a curialist told me some years back, there are many jobs in the curia that you can fake, but you can’t fake it if you work at the CDF. The Prefect meets weekly with the Holy Father. The Congregation is charged with many of the most sensitive issues with which the curia is called upon to deal. For two decades, the CDF has been struggling with the Congregation for Clergy, which has been resistant to efforts to confront priests who abuse children. Now, the CDF may have a similar confrontation with the Congregation for Bishops. Smart money in on the CDF.

Critics of the Church’s handling of the sex abuse crisis were quick to say that the new procedures are insufficient. Let me stipulate: Someone who was abused as a child is permitted to be angry for the rest of their lives. We can never forget that. But, advocates, like all of us, have a moral obligation to be intelligent. Barbara Blaine of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) told the Post, “As long as clerics are in charge of dealing with other clerics who commit and conceal child sex crimes, little will change.” First, we do not know that and we can all hope it is not the case. Cultures do change. Second, the Church is not going to let advocacy groups decide who will, and who will not, be a bishop. I, for one, thank God for that. For reasons I have detailed previously, I dread the importation of democratic models of governance into the life of the Church.

Terence McKiernan, president of, voiced a different concern. He complained that the process still lacked transparency, calling the CDF “a black box.” I do think that the Church needs a healthy dose of due process, but at least now there is a process. My worry is that transparency is called for because of a felt need for some kind of public shaming of those who abuse children or who conceal their crimes. I do not like public shaming, no matter the source or the reason. Nor do I think it is necessary. I remember an episode of “Law & Order” in which the prosecutors were going after a large corporation on the issue of corporate liability. The outcome of the trial was not as fulsome as the McCoy wanted but District Attorney Nora Lewin reassured him that every board room in America had heard the message she wanted to delivered. In announcing this new office at the CDF, every chancery in the world heard the message the pope wanted delivered.

Large ships do not change direction on a dime, and the barque of Peter is a large ship. All those who say Pope Francis is not moving quickly enough on reform tend not to know much about the degree of resistance he faces within the bureaucracy. There is resistance to the financial reforms, resistance to the organizational reforms, resistance to the synodal reforms, resistance to the reforms on clergy sex abuse. Certainly, the value of the C-9. the group of cardinals who meets several times a year to advise the pope, is proving its worth. These advisors, drawn from the four corners of the world, has three members who work in the curia. The majority are residential bishops. If this reform had gone through normal channels, it would have died the death of a thousand cuts. Instead, it was enacted with astonishing speed by Vatican standards.

A last word about Cardinal Sean O’Malley who leads the special Commission on the Protection of Children that advised the pope in this matter. Ten years before the epic meeting of the USCCB in Dallas that resulted in the Charter for the Protection of Children, +O’Malley had been sent to the diocese of Fall River to clean up the mess in the wake of the Porter case, one of the first, public cases of a serial child abuser. Eleven years later, he was sent to clean up the mess in Boston, after a brief stint in the diocese of Palm Beach which had also been afflicted by the issue. No one, repeat no one, has been a stronger advocate for Child Protection than he. I do not know if anyone other than +O'Malley could have gotten such a quick acceptance of these profound changes in how the Church deals with this issue. Cardinal O’Malley, whom I have known for nigh to twenty years, is a man without guile. No one would even think to question his motives. He is allergic to the games of the clerical culture and, just so, when he speaks on this issue, he speaks with the authority born of apostolic integrity and long, difficult, painful efforts to confront this cancer in the Church. Those of us who love the Church should get on our knees every day and thank God for sending this man to this Church on this issue at this time.  



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