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: 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.