Vatican reform on sexual abuse has stalled

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Mar 22, 2017

Three weeks have passed since Marie Collins resigned from the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors (PCPM), complaining that the group’s work has been thwarted by resistance from within the Roman Curia. A few days after her public announcement, Cardinal Gerhard Müller, the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF)—which was the main target of Collins’ criticism— defended his office and denied any foot-dragging on the abuse issue. Collins quickly shot back, rebutting the cardinal’s arguments. Since, then, silence.

Where do we stand? Is this special papal commission really acting under restraint? Or do its members have unrealistic expectations? Is there evidence that the Vatican has adopted a tough new attitude on abuse, or is it all talk and no action? Let’s review the available evidence.

Bear in mind that the announcement of Collins’ resignation was not a bolt from the blue. She had frequently shown signs of impatience with the work of the PCPM. Nor was she the first member of the commission to leave. Peter Saunders—who, like Collins, is an abuse victim—had been asked to resign last year, after issuing a series of angry comments; he refused to resign, but was placed involuntarily on an indefinite “leave of absence.” Then another member, Claudio Papale, resigned last September without any public explanation.

In February an Australian member of the papal commission, Kathleen McCormack, testified before an Australian royal investigation that the PCPM was overworked and underfunded. A British member, Baroness Sheila Hollins, agreed. There were complaints that meetings were infrequent, that initiatives were ignored.

Then an Associated Press story provided clear evidence of the papal commission’s impotence:

Francis scrapped the commission’s proposed tribunal for bishops who botch abuse cases following legal objections from the congregation. The commission’s other major initiative — a guideline template to help dioceses develop policies to fight abuse and safeguard children — is gathering dust. The Vatican never sent the template to bishops’ conferences, as the commission had sought, or even linked it to its main abuse-resource website.

Collins cited those two sources of frustration—the scuttling of the tribunal for negligent bishops, and the failure to implement worldwide guidelines—in her resignation announcement. Yet she said that the “last straw” had been the CDF refusal to implement a recommendation from the PCPM that every abuse victim who contacted the Vatican should receive a personal reply from Rome.

In his — response to Collins’ criticism, Cardinal Müller made the very reasonable argument that personal contact with abuse victims should be the responsibility of local diocesan bishops, not officials in Rome. The CDF hears hundreds of abuse cases, originating in dioceses all around the world. It seems unrealistic to expect that the CDF would become personally familiar with all of the individuals involved. An American who appeals a legal case to the Supreme Court expects a fair hearing, but not a personal note from one of the Justices.

In his response to other complaints, however, Cardinal Müller was less compelling. He said that the Vatican tribunal that the PCPM had recommended—a body that could discipline bishops for failure to curb abuse—had been a proposal rather than an established fact. That’s not what the Vatican had indicated in June 2015, when the tribunal was announced. “Pope Francis has created a new Vatican tribunal section to hear cases of bishops who fail to protect children from sexually abusive priests,” Vatican Radio reported. The Vatican press office detailed the PCPM proposals for the tribunal, and concluded: “The Council of Cardinals agreed unanimously on these proposals and resolved that they be submitted to the Holy Father, Pope Francis, who approved the proposals and authorized the provision of sufficient resources for this purpose.”

So the tribunal was established in June 2015. Then, curiously, nothing happened. Weeks passed, months passed, and despite the papal directive that the new body should have “sufficient resources,” there were no appointments to the tribunal, no office space designated, no provisions whatsoever were announced for what had been touted as a top Vatican priority. Then almost a full year later, Pope Francis issued a motu proprio Come una Madre Amorevole (“As a Loving Mother”), stipulating that a bishop could be removed from office for negligence that results in grave harm to the faithful. The new document made no reference at all to the tribunal that had already been announced; in fact, the motu proprio made it clear that no new tribunal was needed, since bishops could be disciplined by existing Vatican dicasteries. Thus the PCPM proposal was abandoned.

Now, months later, Cardinal Müller has explained that odd sequence of events. After the Pope had approved the tribunal, he says, Vatican officials discussed the plan and concluded that the disciplinary task could be handled by the Congregation for Bishops (and the Congregation for the Eastern Churches for bishops of the Eastern rites, or the Congregation for Evangelization for those in mission territories). So the complaint by Marie Collins is at least partially correct; the Roman Curia did block the implementation of the PCPM plan.

Still Cardinal Müller is right that the fundamental goal of the PCPM—the creation of a means to discipline negligent bishops—has been achieved. Evidently Pope Francis was convinced that the approach recommended by the Roman Curia was superior to the approach he had approved a year earlier. What is curious about this episode is the fact that the Curia apparently discussed the approach only after the initial proposal had been approved. The PCPM, the Council of Cardinals, and the Pope had instituted an important new policy without having consulted the officials most closely involved.

In her answer to Cardinal Müller, Marie Collins produced other evidence that the PCPM is not working closely with other Vatican offices. She complained that CDF officials did not attend PCPM meetings or respond to invitations for discussions. The picture that emerges is of a papal commission detached from the regular offices of the Vatican: a commission that cannot persuade other Vatican officials to cooperate—even to post its recommendations on the Vatican web site!

Marie Collins charges that the Roman Curia are not in sympathy with the PCPM, and in his response, Cardinal Müller indirectly lends credence to that complaint by implying that the PCPM does not recognize the realities of the work at the Vatican. So is the PCPM being unreasonable, or is the CDF being intransigent? In an important sense it doesn’t matter. One way or another, two important Vatican bodies are not cooperating effectively. The fact that they have not been made to cooperate, by clear directives from above, suggests that—sadly, rhetoric aside—the quest to end the sex-abuse scandal still is not a top Vatican priority.

Let’s give the last word to yet another concerned member of the papal commission, Father Hans Zollner: “The question remains if those responsible in the Church will actively pursue the topic out of self-motivation, or only when scandals become public.”

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: Travelling - Mar. 24, 2017 9:58 PM ET USA

    The last point is the salient one. As someone who has a close family member who was damaged by priestly sexual abuse i keep a close eye on this one. That relative still suffers psychologically 30 years later to the degree that his daily life cannot be lived. Our experience as a family is that the local church (bishop) brushed it under the carpet. The police were the ones who pursued conviction and justice, and they got it after two decades. The Church did not cooperate.