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Vatican abuse prosecutor addresses questions on Bishop Finn, former apostolic nuncio

November 27, 2013

In his first extended interview since becoming the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s promoter of justice in 2012, Father Robert Oliver addressed questions involving accountability for bishops who fail to report clerical abuse, as well as abuse allegations against a former apostolic nuncio.

As promoter of justice, Father Oliver is responsible for addressing cases of child sexual abuse by clergy. He said earlier this year that the Congregation is examining 600 cases, most of which involve abuse that allegedly took place between 1965 and 1985.

“All the data we have suggests that the number of priests harming minors today is very, very low, and that's based on reports not just from the United States but from other nations as well, where we see a dramatic drop in incidents of abuse,” Father Oliver told John Allen of the National Catholic Reporter. “Certainly, we have much more to do, which is why our congregation asked episcopal conferences around the world to review their abuse guidelines.”

Asked about the number of cases reported to the Congregation, Father Oliver said, “I suppose in an average month, we're talking in the dozens from around the world, including cases which date back many years. We don't have many present-day allegations of abuse, though it's important to remember that there's often a delay in people coming forward to make reports. Let's be clear: One case is one too many. Yet as we look around at this problem today, we can see many positive effects from the efforts the Church has made.”

Asked about Archbishop Józef Wesolowski, who resigned in August from his position of apostolic nuncio to the Dominican Republic after he was accused of abuse, Father Oliver replied:

I can't comment on open cases, as you know. If you wish, here's a general observation: Every incident of abuse is a crime, and when they happen, they're a reminder that this danger never goes away and we have to remain vigilant. Also with every allegation of abuse, the Church cooperates with civil authorities in order that they do their work on the criminal side. We then implement our own canonical process in a just way to decide if the accused can continue to function as a priest, doing it all with transparency and accountability. Present-day cases are, therefore, also reminders that the changes the Church has made are working.

Allen said, “Some will never accept that the Church's ‘zero tolerance’ policy means anything until they see a bishop punished for failing to apply it. For instance, critics point to Bishop Robert Finn of Kansas City, who was convicted of failing to report abuse more than a year ago and still remains in office.”

Father Oliver replied:

First of all, it's important to say that whatever happened in the past, there are clear rules today for what bishops are supposed to do. We have norms that say when a bishop becomes aware of an abuse report, he has to look into it, and if it's credible, he's required to report it to us. He's also supposed to report it to the civil authorities and to allow the criminal justice system to take its course.

Of course, what you're really asking is what happens if somebody feels that a bishop hasn't followed those rules, and I have to say it's an underdeveloped area. For instance, there's a question of what canon lawyers call "competence." The code states that the metropolitan bishop is to investigate any abuses in church discipline in the suffragan dioceses and report to the Holy Father. It is not always clear, however, to somebody who wants to bring a complaint in a Church court against a bishop for what you might call "negligent supervision," what court do they bring it to? Who has the right to hear the case, and what process do you use? We often don't really have clear answers for these people, and work in these areas needs to be done.

One point to make is that no matter what happens, there's always going to be some local discretion. For instance, suppose a bishop gets a report of abuse and he takes it to his own review board, as well as relaying it to the civil authorities, and both come back to say there's no evidence of a crime, so the bishop doesn't move forward. He's followed the process as it's laid out, and in the end, it comes down to a local decision.


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Show 4 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: bruno - Dec. 02, 2013 4:26 PM ET USA

    I think Fr. Oliver's point, either poorly expressed or vaguely reported, was that the church law of the day did not provide the mechanism to punish the bishop, but that it does today. We recognize, in the law of the United States, that one cannot be convicted under a law that was not in force when the crime was committed (ex post facto).

  • Posted by: geoffreysmith1 - Nov. 29, 2013 7:44 AM ET USA

    "I believe Fr.Oliver and his ilk will look in to,study and investigate until the bishops who looked the other way are dead and gone. Too late to put them behind bars." You can rely on the 'lavender mafia' to see to it that Fr Oliver's investigation runs up against a stone wall.

  • Posted by: hartwood01 - Nov. 27, 2013 7:17 PM ET USA

    I believe Fr.Oliver and his ilk will look in to,study and investigate until the bishops who looked the other way are dead and gone. Too late to put them behind bars. "Gee,what a pity,we tried..."

  • Posted by: normnuke - Nov. 27, 2013 6:04 PM ET USA

    Long ago the Holy Inquisition was instituted to investigate allegations of heretical belief. The episcopate of the time was so corrupt and ignorant of the Faith they were incompetent. Out of this mess the body of civil law protecting the rights of accused individuals, the secular law we have today, emerged. If you're innocent but accused of serious wrongdoing, thank the Holy Inquisition.