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Holding bishops accountable: Vatican tribunal addresses the 2nd scandal

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Jun 11, 2015

By creating a new Vatican tribunal that will judge bishops accused of negligence in abuse cases, Pope Francis has addressed the second of three companion scandals that have rocked the Catholic Church worldwide in the early 21st century.

As I explained a decade ago in The Faithful Departed, it’s inaccurate to speak about the “sex-abuse scandal” as a single problem. The scandal actually involved three different problems, which came to light in quick sequence.

First we learned that many Catholic priests—a small minority of priests, but still a large number—had molested children and adolescents. That was horrifying news, and the public rightly demanded action. At their historic meeting in Dallas in June 2002, the US bishops instituted a “zero tolerance” policy that called for effective disciplinary action against any cleric credibly accused of abuse.

But there was one crucial flaw in the Dallas Charter. To work effectively, it required conscientious leadership from the bishops. And unfortunately, the second scandal—which had been exhaustively documented by the time of the Dallas meeting—was the massive failure of leadership in the part of the American hierarchy.

If we couldn’t rely on the bishops before June 2002, there was no compelling reason to feel confident in episcopal leadership after 2002. Sad to say, in subsequent years the American public has been reminded again and again that if bishops are not motivated to enforce the Dallas policy, the policy fails to protect young people. In Chicago, Philadelphia, Newark, and Kansas City we have seen new outcroppings of the first scandal—the abuse of children—aggravated by the second—episcopal neglect, occurring after the Dallas guidelines took effect.

(To be scrupulously accurate, in The Faithful Departed I cite episcopal negligence as the third of the three related scandals. For simplicity’s sake I’m numbering the problems differently in this column. In my next column in this space I’ll offer some thoughts on the last scandal—second or third, depending on how you count them—and explain why it is crucial to an understanding of the most recent uproar, in Minnesota.)

For nearly 20 years I have been arguing that the Church cannot fully escape from the clutches of the sex-abuse scandal(s) until bishops are held accountable for their handling of the problem. So I have been delighted in the past few years, to hear a swelling chorus of calls for episcopal accountability. Now Pope Francis, acting very promptly on a recommendation from the papal commission on sexual abuse, has authorized a mechanism that should meet that need.

Notice, however, that I say the new Vatican tribunal should eliminate the second scandal, not necessarily that it will. As with the Dallas Charter, this system will be no better than the people who administer it. The effectiveness of the tribunal will depend, naturally, on the quality of the people appointed to serve on it. But the Pope’s quick approval of the tribunal, and his willingness to rely on the sex-abuse commission—not to mention his public statements on the topic—attest to his determination to see the process work.

Moreover, the creation of this tribunal sets an important precedent in Vatican policy. As John Thavis observes in his perceptive commentary:

It made clear that bishops answer not only to the pope, but also to their people. That reflects a new willingness at the Vatican to implement the church law provision that says bishops can lose their office for “culpable negligence” that harms the faithful.

The new tribunal will not turn the Church into a democracy, making bishops dependent on public opinion. (In fact, by allowing for a full and fair trial, the process may provide welcome relief for prelates who are besieged by the media.) Ultimately the Vatican—that is, the Pope—will be responsible for determining when a bishop should step down. But the policy shows a recognition that if the faithful have legitimate grievances against their bishop, those grievances should be heard.

The policy also reflects the understanding that a bishop who has failed to safeguard his flock has failed as a shepherd. A failure to address abuse—which, more often than not, entails a failure to discipline wayward priests—is not an incidental problem, a mere demerit on the bishop’s record. It makes little sense to say that a bishop (or a priest, for that matter) did a fine job except for his failings in this area. One display of gross negligence is enough to demonstrate that the bishop is unfit.

If Pope Francis moves as quickly to staff the tribunal as he did to create it, we should soon see the practical results of this important new policy. As the months pass, and the tribunal acts on complaints, I will be watching carefully for the answers to three questions:

  1. Will bishops be held accountable not only for protecting young people from abuse, but also for protecting their priests against false accusations?
  2. Will the tribunal be able to provide for some independent review of facts, so that when someone lodges a complaint against a bishop, it is not simply kicked back to that same bishop for his comment? With necessarily limited resources, the tribunal will have to rely on others to investigate complaints. How will the panel choose its investigators?
  3. If bishops can be ousted for negligence regarding sexual abuse, how long will it be before the Vatican also holds prelates accountable for negligence in other matters?

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: feedback - Jun. 11, 2015 10:42 PM ET USA

    Bishops' accountability is important. However creating this special tribunal solidifies the impression that child abuse problems continue to be specifically Catholic thing and that the Church is unable to handle them properly on a local level. Also, having the Vatican directly involved with responsibility opens it to the risk of international litigation.