Catholic Culture Resources
Catholic Culture Resources

How we'll know if the Vatican and the US hierarchy are serious about deposing negligent bishops

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Apr 24, 2015

Twelve years ago, in an email exchange with an old friend, I predicted that the American hierarchy would finally take responsibility for the sex-abuse scandal when a bishop went to jail for negligence in responding to abuse. Bishop Robert Finn has not actually spent time behind bars, but his conviction on criminal charges, followed by the Vatican’s request for his resignation, should have a half-dozen other bishops looking over their shoulders, wondering whether they will be next.

But will the Finn resignation have that effect? We don’t know yet. We don’t know whether this will prove to be an isolated case. Has the Vatican decided to set new standards, and oust those bishops who have been guilty of negligence? Or was this a unique case, since Bishop Finn was the only American prelate convicted by a civil court? Will the Vatican seek the resignations of popular bishops, or only of those who, like Bishop Finn, have been the targets of media attacks?

If Bishop Finn is just the first of many bishops to be deposed—if mitered heads begin to roll, in this and in other countries—then we’ll have our answer. If not, we may be left wondering for several more years.

How would we know that the hierarchy had made a firm decision to clean up the corruption exposed by this scandal? Here are several potential indicators:

  • Bishops would begin making “admissions against interest”—disclosing damaging information before they were forced to do so by the media, police, or whistle-blowers.
  • They would demand aggressive criminal prosecution of priests who were guilty of abuse—while at the same time energetically defending priests who were unjustly accused.
  • They would instruct diocesan attorneys to stop filing dilatory motions to avoid disclosure of internal Church documents. They would stop settling lawsuits out of court just before the files were opened, or just before the bishop was forced to testify.
  • They would acknowledge that the cumbersome machinery of the “Dallas Charter” is not reliable if the bishops themselves are not reliable—that audits are not a substitute for personal responsibility and leadership.
  • They would avoid conspicuous displays of deference toward bishops who have retired in disgrace.

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 See full bio.

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  • Posted by: teezoo5862 - Nov. 04, 2016 6:00 PM ET USA

    Dear Phil. The Boston archdiocese has a history of very weak support for the real things that matter in our Commonwealth, Abortion, Gay Marriage etc, and the basic principles of our Catholic faith. Cardinal Law was the leader of the pact back in the early 2000-2002. His failure to oppose the appointment of Margaret Marshall to the Mass. Supreme Court and Like Sean O'Malley who is also a weakling in defending the faith.These so called church leaders stand afar from truly defending our faith.

  • Posted by: Jason C. - Nov. 04, 2016 4:58 PM ET USA

    "token opposition" More like tokin' opposition, amirite?

  • Posted by: loumiamo - Nov. 03, 2016 1:51 PM ET USA

    As a Catholic I Unequivocally oppose the USE of marijuana, but because I love children & want them to have every protection, I Unequivocally support the LEGALIZATION of mj so that it is treated exactly like alcohol. But I've an open mind, & I WILL oppose legalization just as soon as I see a newstory of the arrest of someone selling shots of hooch on the street corner, or another story of an employer who says his workers can show up stoned for work, or a minister who preaches on the joy of dope.

  • Posted by: ElizabethD - Nov. 03, 2016 8:46 AM ET USA

    Pope Francis has said that the Church should oppose marijuana legalization. Maybe it is a case of believing that this lines up with Pope Francis' priorities more than other more objectively significant issues? I agree the Church should oppose marijuana legalization strongly; it has dismayed me that there has not been more said by the Church about this. I also wonder if the Archdiocese of Boston thinks that money spent on this cause is more likely to be effective than money put into other causes.

  • Posted by: opraem - Apr. 28, 2015 8:31 PM ET USA

    card mahony is still under 80 and retains influence in the vatican. he should be retired like his brother card in scotland. his record as disclosed by the court documents is reprehensible where child abuse and is cover-up are concerned.