ROME -- To all those critics who have clamored for greater accountability for Catholic bishops who drop the ball on sex abuse cases, the Vatican’s top prosecutor this morning had a simple message: You’re absolutely right.
“We need to be vigilant in choosing candidates for the important role of bishop, and we also need to use the tools that canonical law and tradition give us for the accountability of bishops,” said Maltese Monsignor Charles Scicluna.
As a case in point, Scicluna bluntly said it is simply “not acceptable” for bishops to ignore anti-abuse protocols established by the Vatican or by their bishops’ conference. He said the church in Ireland, to take one example, “has paid a very high price for the mistakes of some of its shepherds.”
Sciculuna was apparently referring, at least in part, to a damning 2011 government report on the Irish diocese of Cloyne, which found that both civil laws and church procedures on handling sex abuse complaints were flouted as recently as 2009.
“When set standards are not followed, this is unacceptable,” he said.
Scicluna said there are actually already provisions in church law to sanction bishops for “negligence and malice in exercising one’s duties,” suggesting this provision should be more strenuously applied. (He appeared to be referring to canon 128 of the Code of Canon Law, which reads: “Whoever illegitimately inflicts damage upon someone by a juridic act or by any other act placed with malice or negligence is obliged to repair the damage inflicted.”)
Scicluna also noted that when canon law specifies penalties that can be imposed on “clergy,” that includes bishops as well as priests and deacons – although, he said, the fact it applies to bishops too is sometimes “ignored.”
“Ecclesial accountability has to be further developed,” he said. “I agree with you on that.”
Scicluna made the remarks to reporters as part of a four-day symposium on the sexual abuse crisis titled “Towards Healing and Renewal”, which is being held at Rome’s Jesuit-run Gregorian University. It brings together roughly 100 bishops and religious superiors from around the world, in tandem with child protection experts.
Scicluna serves as the Promoter of Justice in the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, a position he first took up under then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, today Pope Benedict XVI. In effect, that makes Scicluna the Vatican’s “D.A.” on sex abuse cases; among other things, he was responsible for the investigation of the late Fr. Marcial Maciel Degollado, founder of the Legionaries of Christ, which led to a 2006 edict restricting Maciel to a life of “prayer and penance.”
Pressed this morning to expand on the theme of accountability for bishops, Scicluna pulled few punches. Without "redefining the church, which will always be hierarchical," he said, it's equally clear that power must be wedded to accountability.
“Bishops are accountable to the Lord, but also to their people,” Scicluna said during this morning’s session with the media. “They owe their people good stewardship.”
Noting that church law reserves the power to impose sanctions on a bishop to the pope, Sciculna appeared to suggest that the papal nuncio, or ambassador, in various countries could play a greater role in prompting the pope to act.
“The nuncio to a country represents the concerns of the Holy Father to that local church, but he also has the duty to listen to the people in order to convey the concerns of the local church to the Holy Father,” Scicluna said.
Scicluna rejected suggestions that church law as it presently stands does not have adequate accountability mechanisms for bishops.
“It’s not a question of changing laws, but of applying what we have,” he said.
He added that more vigorous enforcement of the law should make it clear that, “There is behavior that is not compatible with being a good shepherd.”
Scicluna likewise insisted that bishops have a “moral, if not legal” responsibility to consult with experts in making decisions such as responding appropriately to sexual abuse complaints.
He noted that his boss at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, American Cardinal William Levada, had already warned of an “exclusively canon law” approach to the problem of abuse, and Scicluna said he would add the danger of an “exclusively hierarchical response.”
“The hierarchy has to listen to the experts,” he said. For instance, Scicluna said, “we need the input of psychologists to help us.”