Vatican: Council of Cardinals has bishop accountability 'on the table'

by Joshua J. McElwee

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The cardinals advising Pope Francis on reforming the church's central bureaucracy have discussed the issue of accountability for Catholic bishops who mishandle cases of clergy sexual abuse, the Vatican spokesman said Wednesday.

Addressing the latest meeting of the Council of Cardinals during a press briefing, Jesuit Fr. Federico Lombardi said the prelates have put the issue "on the table" after being presented with it by Boston's Cardinal Sean O'Malley.

"It is not that they might have made a precise project or a document" on the issue, Lombardi said. "But the theme is explicitly, let's say, on the table of the C9, and the intention is now to find a way to proceed in the deepening of the competence in these cases."

The Council of Cardinals is a group of nine prelates advising the pope on reforming the Vatican bureaucracy, known as the Roman Curia. The council is frequently referred to as the C9.

O'Malley serves as a member of the cardinals' group and is also the president of the new Vatican commission on clergy sexual abuse.

The question of accountability for bishops who mishandle abuse cases has long been seen as the most unresolved issue in the church's response to clergy sexual abuse.

The issue has come up again in recent days as four members of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors came to Rome on Sunday to meet with O'Malley to express concerns about the appointment of a Chilean bishop accused of covering up abuse.

After that meeting, commission members told NCR that O'Malley promised to pass on their concerns about Bishop Juan Barros Madrid to Pope Francis in coming days.

Lombardi said Wednesday that the cardinals' group spoke specifically about "abuse of office, of neglect of responsibility" by leaders in the church in reporting abuse. He said those leaders included "bishops, priests, religious superiors."

"This is a subject that I have heard spoken of," the spokesman said, describing the cardinals' meetings. "The question remains open; namely, how to confront these cases in an efficacious way."

Barros was installed as the bishop of Osorno, Chile, last month amid protests in the cathedral. Chilean survivors say that as a priest, Barros not only worked to cover up abuse by Fr. Fernando Karadima, but witnessed some of the abuse as it happened. In 2011, the Vatican found Karadima, a once-renowned spiritual leader and key Chilean church figure, guilty of sexually abusing minors.

The Council of Cardinals met Monday through Wednesday at the Vatican. It is the ninth meeting of the group, which Francis first assembled in 2013.

The cardinals are discussing reorganization of the various Vatican offices in view of the likely publication of a new constitution for the organization of the Curia. Lombardi said Wednesday that reorganization is still going forward but the new constitution should not be expected in coming months.

The spokesman said the cardinals had also talked about a recent review of the various communications offices of the Vatican and suggested that there might be creation of a new commission to continue that review.

Lombardi said the cardinals are also still discussing the idea for the creation of two new large Vatican congregations dealing with the realms of justice and charity and with laity and family. Pontifical councils, not congregations, currently cover those areas.

The Vatican bureaucracy is split between 12 such councils and nine congregations. The congregations are normally considered more powerful, as they handle matters like church doctrine and appointment of bishops.

Lombardi said the next meeting of the cardinals' council would be held June 8-10 and would be followed by similar meetings in September and December.

[Joshua J. McElwee is NCR Vatican correspondent. His email address is Follow him on Twitter: @joshjmac.]

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