Vatican City — Pope Francis has approved the outline of a new system of accountability for Catholic bishops who do not appropriately handle accusations of clergy sexual abuse, in what could be a breakthrough moment on an issue that has plagued the church globally.
Proposed by Boston's Cardinal Sean O'Malley at the behest of the pope's commission on clergy sexual abuse, the system gives power to the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to judge bishops "with regard to crimes of the abuse of office when connected to the abuse of minors."
It would also see the establishment of a new office at the congregation to undertake work as a tribunal to judge such bishops.
Such a system will be a first at the Vatican, where bishops have long held near impunity with regard to their actions or inactions on clergy sexual abuse. In the Catholic church, only the pope can fire prelates -- a process that, if it ever occurs, normally takes years or even decades.
Vatican spokesman Jesuit Fr. Federico Lombardi said that while that firing power ultimately remains with Francis, the pope accepts the decisions of those he puts in such tribunal offices.
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“If the pope says that [this is] the judgment and the competence of the tribunal, then normally the pope accepts the judgment of the tribunal,” said Lombardi, responding to a question from NCR at a press conference Wednesday announcing the new system.
Lombardi said the pontiff had approved the system following unanimous consent on the matter during discussions Monday among the nine-member Council of Cardinals, the group of prelates advising Francis on reforming the Vatican bureaucracy.
O’Malley is the only American member of that group and is also the head of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors.
The new accountability system, which the Vatican said was developed by the pontifical commission, contains a set of five points agreed upon by the pope. The pope, the Vatican said, mandated that the points are to be established for a five-year period and “authorized that sufficient resources will be provided for this purpose.”
The points are clearly not in the usual form for Vatican mandates -- which normally are promulgated in a sometimes lengthy and legalistic note known as a motu proprio -- suggesting that Francis wanted to move forward quickly on the accountability process without waiting for different departments to draft language.
The first of the five points states that there is a “duty” to report “allegations of the abuse of office by a bishop connected to the abuse of minors” to the Vatican, specifically the three congregations which oversee bishops: the Congregation for Bishops, the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, and the Congregation for the Oriental Churches.
The second point of the agreement then gives power to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to judge bishops, and the third calls for the creation of a new judicial section in that congregation along with the appointment of “stable personnel to undertake service in the Tribunal.”
The fourth point obliges the pope to appoint a new secretary, or second-in-command, for the doctrinal congregation to head the tribunal and to work with the congregation’s prefect, German Cardinal Gerhard Muller.
The fifth point of the outline establishes the five-year period “for further development of these proposals and for completing a formal evaluation of their effectiveness.”
The points do not specifically clarify who has the duty to report abuses of office by bishops and how those reports might be transferred by the Vatican congregations that oversee bishops to the doctrinal congregation for judgment.
The points also do not indicate how a bishop who comes under judgment will be able to defend himself, although presumably final recourse would rest with the pope.
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.
In one example of the Vatican’s slow action on the issue, U.S. Bishop Robert Finn was allowed to remain in office for two and a half years after becoming the first prelate criminally convicted of mishandling an abusive priest.
Francis accepted Finn’s resignation in April with a terse Vatican note that gave no reason for the move.
The leader of a website that tracks clergy sexual abuse said that while the new system was a "promising step" it would require "a courage and an aggressive commitment that have so far been sadly lacking, despite the innovations of Pope Francis."
"This system will be coping with the complex interactions of enabling and offending that we see in cases involving bishops," said Terence McKiernan, president of BishopAccountability.org.
"Priests abuse children and so do bishops -- bishops who offend are inevitably enablers, and the Commission’s plan must confront that sad fact," he said.
The Vatican’s doctrinal congregation is already tasked with investigating cases of priests accused of sexual abuse. Last November, Francis also created a new review board inside the congregation to speed up review of appeals by priests found guilty of abuse.
The Council of Cardinals, which was meeting at the Vatican for its tenth in-person encounter Monday-Wednesday, has been known to be discussing the issue of bishops’ accountability for months. Lombardi said in April that the group had put the issue “on the table” at O’Malley’s insistence.
Other members of the cardinals’ group include Australian Cardinal George Pell, who has come under scrutiny for his own actions handling sexually abusive priests during the proceedings of Australia's Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.