Editorial: Vatican's actions show progress on sex abuse

by NCR Editorial Staff

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In February, the U.N. Committee on the Rights of the Child chastised the Vatican for substandard policies that fall short in protecting children, specifically from sexual abuse. At the time, NCR acknowledged that the report had weaknesses -- it lacked focus and didn't appreciate that some of what it called "policies" are actually "teachings," and important distinction. In an editorial, however, we said we "should not lose sight of the truth the report contains: When it comes to sex abuse, church officials continue to cloak themselves in secrecy, deceive the faithful and act with impunity." It is a refrain, sadly, often repeated in this newspaper over the last 30 years.

Month earlier, we had criticized Pope Francis for seeming indifference to the crisis. "Priests can be removed from ministry with just the suspicion of wrongdoing. Bishops and their staff face no consequences. They stay in office and are even promoted. Until that changes, the abuses and cover-ups will continue," we said.

It looks as if real change might be underway. In the last few months, Francis has appointed a special commission on clerical sex abuse to advise him directly and staffed it with professionals and competent advisers, including an abuse survivor. He has met with the commission twice since May, and he had substantive meetings with abuse victims in June. We hope those are not his last such meetings.

Moreover, it appears that Francis is finally making headway in holding bishops accountable for the protection of children. The summer, it laicized Jozef Wesolowski, a former Vatican diplomat whom the Congregation of the Faith found guilty of sexually abusing minors. The congregation has now placed him under house arrest in Vatican City, pending a criminal trial. He wasn't allowed to retire to a monastery or convent for a life of "prayer and penance." This is progress.

The Vatican dispatched visitation teams to Ciudad del Este, Paraguay, and Kansas City, Mo., to investigate two bishops embroiled in controversy. Paraguayan Bishop Rogelio Livieres Plano was removed from office; Missouri Bishop Robert Finn, criminally convicted of a misdemeanor charge of child endangerment, now awaits the Vatican's judgment. Officially, Livieres was removed "serious pastoral reasons" and "the greater good of the unity of the church," but there is little doubt that his refusal to act against Msgr. Carlos Urrutigoity, who sought refuge in Paraguay to avoid allegations of sexual misconduct in the United States, figured into his sanction. Officially, too, it is Finn's quality of leadership that is being reviewed, but it was his mishandling of the Shawn Ratigan case that finally drove the laypeople of his diocese to petition the Vatican for this investigation.

The Vatican under Francis is acting. This is progress and portends of more action. A hole has appeared in the armor of episcopal impunity. This is something to applaud.

A version of this story appeared in the Oct 10-23, 2014 print issue under the headline: Vatican actions show progress on sex abuse.

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