Editorial: New law for bishops raises many questions

by NCR Editorial Staff

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In recent decades, the Vatican apparatus has found the means to reach deep into the ranks of the faithful to banish, condemn, excommunicate and otherwise impose disciplines on those who advanced a discordant idea or advocated for the wrong cause or dared to question the exclusion of women from any meaningful level of decision-making within the church.

Yet, more than 30 years after the first national exposé of the sex abuse crisis ran in the pages of NCR, we are still waiting for a clear, transparent and workable system for getting rid of bishops who ignore, abet or cover up crimes against the community's children or fail to abide by rudimentary cautions and procedures for accountability.

We hope the latest iteration of Vatican determination to hold members of the hierarchy accountable, Pope Francis' newly promulgated universal law, will finally address that long-standing deficiency.

Unfortunately, the motu proprio with which we were presented June 4 raises many questions.

For years, theologians and other thinkers have been banished from Catholic academic grounds, their reputations ruined in a wide swath of the community, for ideas considered out of bounds. We watched as Pope John Paul II engaged in the equivalent of a hostile takeover of the Society of Jesus and replaced its leadership. We watched then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger engineer the removal of an editor of America magazine because he didn't like some of the topics covered. In the last eight years, at least half a dozen priests have been removed from active ministry for publicly supporting the ordination of women to the priesthood.

But bishops who covered up abuse, kept secret files and shuffled predatory priests from parish to parish and sometimes to other dioceses and even other countries to avoid detection? Nothing.

Voice an idea not in conformity to the narrowest orthodoxy, and you risk banishment from the community. Engage in behavior endangering children -- the sin in Scripture for which Jesus speaks the most uncompromising and severe condemnation -- and count the ways the all-male, celibate culture can equivocate and relativize.

It took two years to get rid of Bishop Robert Finn of Kansas City-St. Joseph, Mo., after he had been convicted of child endangerment for mishandling the case of a priest involved with child pornography. And then it was done in an anodyne "resignation" announcement.

This should not be a difficult matter. We have known since the very first days of the scandal that the primary problem in addressing it was a lack of accountability of the clerical culture, particularly at the episcopal level.

Advocates and the outraged have waited through the last two papacies and the beginning of a third to see the church move toward a universal standard for holding bishops accountable. It has been an unnecessarily exhausting climb toward a simple standard, the need for which was glaringly self-evident 30 years ago to most Catholics outside the clerical culture.

The new law circumvents an earlier suggestion that Francis establish a tribunal at the Vatican to judge bishops who mishandle sex abuse cases. The tribunal, as NCR's Joshua J. McElwee points out, "would have likely required much time and effort to create," while the new law "deputizes current Vatican offices to undertake that work."

Has the tribunal, announced and received with much enthusiasm last year, been scrapped? This must be clearly answered.

The idea of an international norm is to be applauded, particularly since this new law "effectively lowers the standard necessary for a bishop to be removed from office when there is negligence with regard to cases of sexual abuse," according to Vatican Radio. Vatican spokesman Jesuit Fr. Federico Lombardi said that "the 'lack of diligence' necessary for removal from office can exist even 'without grave moral fault' on the part of the bishop," Vatican Radio reported.

Two cautions come to mind in assessing this new approach.

First, it has been well established that the clergy culture is largely to blame for the crisis because of the desire of bishops and cardinals to protect their own. And so serious reservations arise in learning that those same cardinals and bishops will be responsible for conducting reviews of fellow bishops.

In 2001, it took a person with the steely determination and unquestioned reputation of Ratzinger to establish a Vatican process to begin to deal effectively with hundreds, perhaps thousands, of cases of priest-offenders. Furthermore, it took a bulldog of a prosecutor like then-Msgr. Charles Scicluna, now archbishop of Malta, to keep the process moving.

Do any of the newly deputized dicasteries have similar champions who can make this new process work?

The precise structure and procedure to be used is yet unknown, although the motu proprio says that a "dedicated college of jurists" will assist the pope before he makes a final decision.

The duties and roles of this panel must be made clear. It sounds very much like the diocesan review boards mandated by the U.S. church's charter for the protection of children. We know that bishops in this country ignore and circumvent the review panels they themselves appoint. The local bishops decide which cases go for review and which do not.

Will the four dicasteries have similar relationships with this panel? What independence will the panel have? Can it initiate investigations or hear appeals? Again, more questions that need answers.

We hope that any panel of judges assembled would include actual jurists of international repute, men and women who understand how to read the results of investigations and who know basic rules of evidence. They should have equal authority and stature with any level of cleric also on the panel, including the power to demand documents and correspondence from any diocese in the world in investigating the conduct of bishops.

Proceedings must be absolutely transparent, with transcripts of inquiries and detailed reports of findings and conclusions to protect against fraud on the part of those conducting the investigations and those being investigated.

When the panel begins its work in September, we have a few test cases of bishops and eparchs who have repeatedly refused to cooperate with audits set up by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and at least one high-ranking retired archbishop who was a model of "a lack of diligence" and cost his archdiocese several fortunes in legal maneuvers, stalling and settlements. He's still out and about doing public ministry in the name of the church.

Thirty-one years ago to the month, this publication ran its first major report of the scandal as well as its first editorial page call for episcopal accountability. The scandal rages on. Accountability is long overdue.

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