Vatican publishes statutes for commission to protect minors

by Michael Sean Winters

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The Holy See this morning published the statutes for the Commission for the Protection of Minors, giving that body canonical and juridical status within the Roman Curia. It may not seem like they are very earth-shattering or, in the event, Church-shattering, but they are.

First, there is the fact of a commission. One of the ways any bureaucratic body decides to highlight the significance of an issue is to create a section of the bureaucracy tasked specifically with addressing that issue. So, in the 1970s, President Jimmy Carter established the Department of Education, separating it from what had been the Department of Health, Education and Welfare, giving the new department its own staff and budget and focus. The new statutes do something similar for the Commission for the Protection of Minors. The members and staff of the commission do not have to focus on other issues, only this one.

In the 1990s, part of the initial problem with getting the Vatican to address the problem of clergy sex abuse was that no one knew precisely which dicastery had authority to address the problem. Eventually, it was decided to refer all cases to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, then led by the uber-competent Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, rather than to the Congregation for Clergy, then led by the abuser-coddling Cardinal Dario Castrillon Hoyos. The latter congregation never got over the snub and, to this day, has resisted the efforts of the doctrinal congregation to remove pedophiles from the clerical state. But the prefect, members and the staff of the doctrinal congregation have many responsibilities, and while they will continue to handle issues relating to laicizing accused pedophiles or meting out other judicial sentences, such as a life of prayer and penance, they had never been authorized to work with episcopal conferences around the world to establish procedures and policies that help protect minors. Here is the second major change: The new commission specifically has the task of working with local churches and coordinating efforts within the Roman Curia to deal with the scourge of clergy sex abuse.

Third, and perhaps most significantly, the new statutes stipulate: "The Commission is an advisory body at the service of the Holy Father." As noted, there has been a tug-of-war within the Roman Curia about who should deal with these issues and how these issues should be dealt with. The Congregation for Clergy was not alone in thinking the doctrinal congregation had too much authority over this issue. Just as a secretary of state is likely to lock horns with a secretary of defense in a U.S. Cabinet, given the different perspectives and institutional biases, solidified over time such that someone at State usually utters the word "Pentagon" as a pejorative and someone at Defense considers "Foggy Bottom" as a kind of slur, these tugs-of-war can inhibit action and paralyze executive action. Originally, the Commission for the Protection of Minors was to be a part of the doctrinal congregation. The new statutes make clear that the commission answers directly to the pope. This is the most important aspect of the statutes: If the organizational chart is a maze with ample opportunities to paralyze progress, better not to place the commission anywhere on the organizational chart and have the commission answerable directly to the pope. And Pope Francis is certainly not someone who will allow himself to be paralyzed.

Fourth, apart from the chair and the secretary, there is no requirement that the commission members be clerics at all. The secretary, who will lead the day-in and day-out efforts in the Curia, needs to be a cleric so he is not sidelined, to be sure. But the statutes stipulate that all the members of the commission have an equal vote on any recommendations to be made to the pope and outlines processes by which the members decide how to proceed, even permitting a two-thirds majority to require a plenary by video conference, which is, I suspect, a first in the annals of the Roman Curia.

The statutes call for the president and secretary of the commission to work with other parts of the Roman Curia and the authorities in the local churches in Paragraph 4 of the statutes, and then, Paragraph 5 states: "The Commission may require an account of the effectiveness of work carried out by the competent bodies mentioned in § 4." This could be called the "no stonewalling" paragraph. Someone in the Roman Curia who wishes to drag his feet is here given notice that a commission that reports directly to the Holy Father can "require an account" of his actions or inactions. On the page, these do not look like fighting words, but they are.

No statutes will be effective unless the personnel in place want those statutes to be effective. I have said it before and will say it again: The Church is mightily blessed in this moment in time to have Cardinal Sean O'Malley as the point man on this issue. Three times in his career, he has been dispatched to dioceses that were reeling from the clergy sex abuse crisis, in Fall River, Mass., Palm Beach, Fla., and finally, Boston. He has the ear of the pope as a member of the Council of Cardinals that advises the Holy Father on the governance of the universal Church.

+O'Malley is also a man of unquestioned integrity, determination and holiness. Some cardinals might intervene to protect a seminary classmate or to promote a friend up the ranks. Not Cardinal Sean. Indeed, the rap on Cardinal Sean is that he is so unpolitical and does not throw his weight around. On this issue of clergy sex abuse, and especially as the issue of episcopal accountability comes front and center, it is a godsend to have someone who is known to be without guile leading this effort.

Legalese is dull and boring to read, but it is an essential ingredient in changing a culture. You can't start dinner until someone sets the table. The clerical culture that tolerated and excused clergy sex abuse has been changing slowly, too slowly, over the years. The statutes published today represent a significant step forward in the Church's effort to confront the paramount need to protect children and to erect a culture that helps the local churches and the universal Church weed out any resistance to efforts designed to meet that need. Kudos to Cardinal O'Malley and his colleagues for getting these statutes through the labyrinth that is the Curia in record time.

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