One year later: still waiting for the Vatican policy on negligent bishops
The short piece that appears below was originally posted on this site one year ago: on June 6, 2016. The references are now dated (when I refer to “last June,” for instance, it’s now the June before last; and the motu proprio now more than year old), but the logic still holds. We’re still waiting for reassurance that the Vatican under Pope Francis is serious about a crackdown on bishops who ignore sexual abuse.
The new motu proprio is entitled Come una Madre Amorevole, but it might just as well have been named “And This Time We Really Mean It.” The papal document does not (despite what you might have read in the headlines) create a policy for removing bishops who neglect evidence of sexual abuse. The Code of Canon Law already provided for the removal of bishops “for grave causes.” The new motu proprio only clarifies the process for ousting a bishop, and states clearly what everyone should already know: that failure to curtail sexual abuse of minors by clerics is a “grave cause.”
Thus it was already possible—a week or a year or a decade ago—for the Vatican to remove a bishop who protected sexual predators. With the release of the motu proprio we know more about how the Vatican would go about ousting a negligent bishop. We still don’t know whether or when the new procedures will be put to use.
“So it can be done,” writes Father Alexander Lucie-Smith in the Catholic Herald. “What is needed is the will to do it.” Exactly. Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston, who heads the special papal commission on sexual abuse, remarked to National Catholic Reporter that the motu proprio conveys ““a sense of urgency and clarity that was not there before.” Really? Has it taken 15 years of catastrophe to rouse a “sense of urgency” sufficient for a clarification of canonical guidelines? If that remark is intended as reassuring, it fails.
Last June the Pope announced plans to create a tribunal to handle complaints of episcopal neglect. Nearly a year (51 weeks, to be precise) passed before the Vatican announced this new step. And again the motu proprio does not really open a new path; it provides signage and fresh pavement for a road that has, unfortunately, not yet seen much traffic.
A year has also passed since I asked three questions which, I submit, can be used to gauge the commitment of the Vatican to eliminate the corruption that bred the sex-abuse scandal. Those questions will remain unanswered until we see a different kind of action from Rome: not the creation of new canonical tools, but the energetic use of tools that already exist.
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