Pope calls bishops' negligence a crime: this is important

When it comes to holding bishops and religious superiors responsible for the cover up of clergy sex abuse, Pope Francis' June 4 apostolic letter on ecclesial accountability is not only a distinct improvement over the proposal made a year ago to establish a tribunal to hold bishops accountable, it is possibly the most positive and hopeful signal to come out of the Vatican to date.

Canon lawyer Kurt Martens -- among others -- told NCR, "Everyone seems to be excited about the new [aposotlic letter] but there is really no change." However, there is something breaking with this pronouncement -- the official recognition by the church's highest authority of hierarchical negligence in dealing with sex abuse by clerics. It is not only acknowledged but named as a crime.

The apostolic letter, or motu proprio known by its Italian title, Come una madre amorevole ("As a loving mother"), has some remarkable positive points that deserve mention:

  • Negligence can be punished if it has hurt individuals and/or the community. It is vital that the disastrous impact on the Christian communities because of the bishops' actions or lack thereof be acknowledged for what it is.
  • The norms for removal do not demand that the pope have "moral certitude" of the culpability of the bishop. He can be removed or forced to resign for failure in the diligence required of him. This is a far cry from having to prove "grave moral culpability." These factors can go a long way in eliminating the possibility of lengthy litigation or protracted appeals which many feared would be the undoing of a tribunal process.
  • The U.S. bishops were criticized for not including superiors of religious communities under the Dallas Charter and Essential Norms. The pope plugged that hole in his Apostolic Letter by making it clear that major religious superiors, that is, provincials and superiors general, can also be subjected to this process.
  • Unilateral removal is now a distinct reality and distinguishes between removal and an "invited" resignation. Victims, survivors and others have rightly criticized this pope because, rather than removing several U.S. bishops who were blatantly guilty of dereliction of duty, he allowed them to resign or retire. Everyone knew what was really happening yet it served as an insult to the victims and others so gravely wounded by these prelates' intentional actions.

Canon lawyers will no doubt bicker about the five articles of the process and create numerous relevant and irrelevant questions. They, as well as the persons who will be responsible for taking this letter from potency to act, would be much better served if they sat down and listened to as many of the survivors of sexual abuse as possible. This has been one of the most glaring intentional omissions by the clerical world since the entire sex abuse debacle was revealed more than 30 years ago.

Many bishops have sat down and gone through perfunctory meetings with victims, all too often insisted upon by their attorneys, but very few have actually taken the time to listen to these men and women. After all, the whole 30-plus year period since clergy abuse was publicly revealed is fundamentally about the victims. Looking at the bishops' and popes' histories one would be hard pressed to see this since the deeply engrained clerical narcissism has made it nearly impossible for the ecclesiastical leadership to see the "problem" and the victims from any other perspective than their own.

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Critics of this letter and last year's tribunal plan claim that the pope already has the authority to remove bishops at will. This is true. He can remove a bishop or to force his resignation without any kind of process and without giving a reason. Bishops are freely appointed by the pope and just as freely removed. Canon 1389 of the Code refers to abuse of authority and negligence in office. The actions of scores of bishops and cardinals clearly fall within the parameters of this canon.

What is so special about this latest development is the acknowledgement that the negligent and irresponsible actions of many bishops was not based on their ignorance about the nature of sex abuse or advice given by medical experts -- two of the many silly excuses offered -- but that their actions and inactions were willful and potentially criminal. This is a mind-blowing change from the past where every effort was made to protect and exonerate the bishops above every other consideration.

This stands in stark contrast to Pope John Paul II who extended sympathy to bishops for the pain this crisis was causing them, a sentiment regretfully expressed by Pope Francis to the U.S. bishops when he visited here in 2015. His speech caused an uproar among victims and their supporters and prompted many to abandon any hope that Pope Francis would make a difference.

The change in attitude is radical and had to have been inspired by a source other than the Vatican curia. That source has to have been, without a doubt, the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors. The commission has been insisting that accountability of bishops is a top priority. Calling bishops on the carpet for neglecting to act properly in the face of sexual abuse by clerics has not only been a top demand from victims and non-victims the world over but it has been a demand that has been actively stone-walled since the crisis first became publicly known over 30 years ago.

Francis and his two predecessors, Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI, have known in detail about hundreds of bishops who have fulfilled the criteria for removal as set forth in this apostolic letter. Evidence of abuse of the episcopal office or of negligence has come not only from direct reports or accusations of victims but also from testimony and other evidence presented in the thousands of civil and criminal trials and court processes that have taken place in several countries since the mid-1980s.

The most prolific, detailed and credible sources of information of the bishops' dereliction of duty has come from grand jury investigations in the United States, governmental investigatory commissions in Ireland, and, most recently, the royal commission in Australia. The first sentence of the 2005 Philadelphia grand jury report said that "Cardinal [Anthony] Bevilacqua and Cardinal [John] Krol excused and enabled the abuse." The Ferns Commission, the first in Ireland, named Bishop Brendan Cumisky's negligence as the prime factor in the sexual violation of the many victims of the late Sean Fortune. In Australia, Cardinal George Pell's own recent testimony before the royal commission confirmed his direct role in the cover-up of abusers and mistreatment of victims.

Is there precedent for papal action? John Paul II removed French Bishop Jacques Gaillot in 1995. His "crime" was being too pastoral. He reluctantly accepted the resignation of Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston in 2002 and tried to protect confirmed sexual abuser Cardinal Hans Hermann Groer, Archbishop of Vienna, Austria but he had no problem forcing the resignation Bishop Geoff Robinson of Sydney, Australia and Bishop Tom Gumbleton from Detroit, Michigan both of whom publicly supported the victims of abuse and criticized the Vatican's lack of action.

Benedict sacked Australian Bishop William Morris for supposed "doctrinal" reasons, but his overall track record was different than John Paul's. In 2011 he laicized a Paraguayan bishop Fernando Lugo, former bishop of San Pedro) who had gotten a teenaged girl pregnant. He also laicized Emmanual Milengo, former archbishop of Lusaka, for an illicit marriage but also for affiliating himself with the Unification Church of Sun Myung Moon, known popularly as the Moonies. Benedict was the first pope to laicize a bishop, which had not been done for centuries, no matter what the bishop had done.

Francis quickly laicized Gabina Miranda Melgarejo, an auxiliary bishop from the archdiocese of Ayacucho, Peru, when it became known that he had abused a young teenaged girl. He also laicized Jozef Wesolowski, former papal nuncio to the Dominican Republic, for child abuse. These were bishops who were abusers themselves. But what about the enablers? Francis forced the resignation of Bishop Gonzalo Galvan Castillo of Autlan, Mexico, for failing to report a priest who had sexually abused minors. These actions stand in stark contrast to John Paul's policies which were to protect bishop's at all costs.

Victims advocacy groups, notably SNAP, have reacted to the apostolic letter with justifiable and well-grounded skepticism. We have heard countless promises that things will change. We have heard, ad nauseam, empty apologies for the pain suffered by victims. Processes and diocesan offices have been set up to respond to victims. The Vatican has issued other decrees in 2001 and 2010 whereby the legal processes have been changed to provide a better response to reports of sexual abuse by clerics. The overall impact has been minimal.

A clear example of the deep-seated hypocrisy that remains is the opposition of U.S. bishops in several states to changes in state legislation that would be more favorable to victims of sexual assault. The archbishops of New York (Cardinal Timothy Dolan) and Philadelphia (Charles Chaput) are leading the other bishops in their respective ecclesiastical provinces in vicious battles to prevent any change that would benefit all sex abuse victims. They are expending unknown amounts of money on lobbyists to convince lawmakers to vote against any changes. They are using dishonest methods which include attacks on sympathetic lawmakers, flooding parishes with written documents that present blatantly dishonest and erroneous information about the possible effects of a change in the law. At the same time, these bishops are making public statements about how they support victims of sex abuse. The duplicity and dishonesty of these and other prelates is blatantly obvious to all. Yet there has been no Vatican intervention to tell them to cease and desist.

NCR columnist Michael Sean Winters wrote "The document helps confront the last, critical piece of the puzzle in any effective strategy to confront the scourge of sex abuse: episcopal accountability." He is correct, but only to a limited degree. Thus far all the steps taken by bishops and popes have been administrative — promulgation of more protocols and processes. At first these were aimed exclusively at the clergy abusers but now the pope has set his sights on the bishops. That the papal sights should have been on the bishops since the problem surfaced goes without saying.

However, the last critical piece is not administrative or judicial. It is deeply attitudinal. The most glaring and scandalous deficiency has been the almost complete lack of papal and episcopal leadership in the compassionate and pastoral care of the countless victims world-wide whose lives have been so deeply wounded not only by the sexual abuse itself but by the dishonest, uncaring and destructive manner with which victims have generally been treated by the official church.

It will take more than papal pronouncements to bring about the changes in direction that are essential. It will take a fundamental change in attitude and this will not be evident as long as the hierarchy still believes that the church is a stratified society with the bishops on top and the vast majority of believers on the bottom, whose only duty, according to Pope Pius X, is to obey and docilely follow the bishops.

Taking actions against bishops is crucial. Yet it is equally vital to look deeply into the nature of the church and the meaning of priesthood to uncover the causal factors for the disastrous way the institutional church and the hierarchy have consistently and systematically mishandled this nightmare. To do so would mean taking very great risks because not too deeply beneath the surface the bishops and the church's governmental system would have to deal with the toxic virus of clericalism. Pope Francis has clearly projected a fundamental attitudinal change with his remarks and actions that openly take on clericalism, a disease that has held the church captive for centuries.

[Dominican Fr. Thomas P. Doyle is a canon lawyer and longtime advocate for victims abused by Catholic clerics. He is also co-author of the 2006 book Sex, Priests and Secret Codes: The Catholic Church's 2,000-Year Paper Trail of Sexual Abuse.]

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