Never before has the language describing the mishandling of these cases by bishops been so strong.
It has been slow in coming and the steps taken are incremental, but there is little doubt that the Catholic church has entered a new phase in the decadeslong crisis and scandal of clergy sexually abusing children. For the first time, there is clear evidence that the people's cry for justice and action has reached the pope and his closest advisers. For the first time, there is clear evidence that bishops who perpetuated and extended this scandal by covering up, dismissing or ignoring abuse are going to be held accountable.
The clearest evidence is the Vatican's announcement June 10 that Pope Francis, on the recommendation of his nine-member Council of Cardinals, has approved a plan for holding responsible bishops who mishandle cases concerning the sexual abuse of children.
The outline of the policy, prepared by the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, calls the mishandling of these cases an "abuse of office." Members of the church have "the duty to report" these offenses and accused bishops must stand in judgment. Never before has the language describing the mishandling of these cases by bishops — and by extension their diocesan officers — been so strong.
A tribunal will be appointed to judge bishops for these abuses of episcopal office, and a new section with permanent personnel within the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to handle these cases will be established. The person in charge will be a secretary of the congregation reporting directly to the prefect of the congregation. Most important, Francis has "authorized that sufficient resources will be provided for this purpose."
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Victims and their advocates are skeptical, and rightly so. "This move will give hope to some. But hope doesn't safeguard kids," said David Clohessy, director of SNAP, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.
"We will wait and see," said Kristine Ward, chair of the National Survivor Advocates Coalition. "If this truly is a back to the drawing board moment, we will watch to see what the new picture looks like."
Terence McKiernan, president of Bishop Accountability.org, said the new system is a "promising step," but to succeed will require "a courage and an aggressive commitment that have so far been sadly lacking, despite the innovations of Pope Francis."
The advocates are correct. There really is no system yet. Establishing it and appointing the proper personnel will be no easy task. Once established, it will be fighting against an entrenched bureaucracy ruled by ancient customs of privilege and status. And it could be abandoned in five years.
Bringing cases to the tribunal and seeing them through the process will require firm leadership and a steely personality similar to that displayed by then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger when, in the early 2000s as prefect of the doctrinal congregation, he wrested control of the legal proceedings needed to deal decisively with cases of clergy abuse brought to the Vatican.
The skeptics have a strong case for pessimism, but two new realities are encouraging:
• We've never had before a Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors. Francis clearly has heard the complaints of the commission members, and Boston Cardinal Sean O'Malley has faithfully and steadfastly delivered the commission's concerns to the pope and the Council of Cardinals. For the first time, we know unequivocally that this issue is getting a hearing at a level that changes can and are being made.
• We now have a public record that this tribunal on episcopal malfeasance is the desire of Francis and the Council of Cardinals. If the project is derailed or shelved, we will have today's statements from the pope and the council to remind those in power by then of the original intent and purpose of the tribunal. For watchdogs, today's announcement is an insurance policy of future action.
What will we be watching for? The case in St. Paul-Minneapolis is an obvious choice (Page 1). How two archbishops, two auxiliary bishops and three vicars general mishandled the case of abusing priest Curtis Wehmeyer — ignoring the victims and their mother, misleading lay personnel and parishioners, neglecting the priest's early cries for help — is a case study in incompetence and "abuse of office." But we will be watching for others.
The mere announcement of the tribunal should rouse bishops around the world from any hesitancy they may feel about addressing this issue. They are being warned: If they do not enforce the church's rules on sexual abuse, including zero tolerance, they will be held accountable. There will be consequences. This should convince even bishops who disagree with the policy that they need to comply.
Soon after the Vatican announced the plans for this tribunal, the U.S. bishops gathered in St. Louis for their annual spring meeting and heard Francesco Cesareo, chairman of the National Review Board, which advises the U.S. bishops on clergy sex abuse. Cesareo delivered his annual report on the U.S. bishops' compliance with the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, commonly called the Dallas Charter.
For at least the third consecutive year, the board chairman warned the bishops of "charter drift," a waning of commitment to the Dallas Charter, a complacency in keeping policies, procedures and codes of conduct updated and at the forefront of priorities for diocesan leaders. "This drift has been edging in over the years and is becoming the enemy of the Charter," Cesareo's report to the bishops said.
Will this new tribunal bolster bishops against "charter drift"? We will wait and see.
Cesareo told the bishops that it was important they address what the phrase "fraternal correction" means in practical terms and how it is exercised in a case of a failure to implement the charter. Cesareo announced that the Lincoln, Neb., diocese and five Eastern rite eparchies again refused to cooperate with the auditing process. Lincoln and the eparchies of St. Peter the Apostle for Chaldeans, Our Lady of Deliverance of Newark for Syrians, Our Lady of Nareg for Armenians, Stamford for Ukrainians, and St. Maron of Brooklyn for the Maronites have never complied with the charter's auditing procedures.
We would see that as abuse of office. Does Pope Francis? Will this new tribunal? We'll wait and see.