The key question of how the church can hold bishops accountable for misconduct or the mishandling of cases of abuse was at the center of discussion in at the Vatican summit on the protection of minors on Feb. 22.
The Indian cardinal Oswald Gracias and the U.S. cardinal Blase Cupich addressed it in different but complementary ways in their respective morning talks by drawing on the important concepts—Cardinal Gracias addressing “collegiality” and Cardinal Cupich speaking on “synodality.” These two concepts are rooted in the teachings of the Second Vatican Council and are fundamental to the ongoing reform of the church being promoted by Pope Francis. As the two cardinals explained in their talks, they also provide the key to addressing the plague of the sexual abuse of minors in the Catholic Church.
In his talk Cardinal Cupich presented a framework for “clear procedures to hold bishops involved in misconduct and mishandling [of abuse cases] accountable.”
He told summit participants the church needs “to establish robust laws and structures regarding the accountability of bishops” to create a “new soul” for “the institutional reality of the church’s discipline on sexual abuse.”
Cardinal Cupich presented a framework for “clear procedures to hold bishops involved in misconduct and mishandling [of abuse cases] accountable.”
He began by explaining that synodality “represents the participation of all baptized, at every level—in parishes, dioceses, national and regional ecclesial bodies—in a discernment and reform that permeates throughout the church.”
He told participants that “for a church seeking to be a loving mother in the face of clergy sexual abuse, four ‘orientations,’ rooted in synodality, must shape every structural, legal and institutional reform designed to meet the enormous challenge which the reality of sexual abuse by clergy represents at this moment.”
He listed these four orientations as “listening, lay witness, collegiality and accompaniment,” and said, they are “central” to Pope Francis’ call at this summit.
The church has to take a “perpetual stance of radical” and “active listening” to the victims, Cardinal Cupich said, and “cast aside the institutional distance and relational blinders that insulate us from coming face to face with the raw destruction of lives of children and vulnerable people that clergy abuse brings.”
This listening must also involve “the willingness to confront the past grave and callous errors of some bishops and religious superiors in addressing cases of clergy abuse and the discernment to understand how to establish just accountability for these massive failures.”
The cardinal said it is also necessary to affirm that “every member of the church has an essential role in helping the church to eliminate the horrific reality of clergy sexual abuse.” He said, “Mothers and fathers have called us to account, for they simply cannot comprehend how we as bishops and religious superiors have often been blinded to the scope and damage of the sexual abuse of minors.
“This past year has taught us that the systematic failures in holding clerics of all rank responsible are due to flaws in the way we communicate with each other in the college of bishops in union with the successor of Peter.”
“We must unswervingly incorporate broad lay participation into every effort to identify and construct structures of accountability for the prevention of clergy sexual abuse,” he said.
Cardinal Cupich joined Cardinal Gracias in calling for the “sustained collegiality” that is “necessary for any genuine accountability regarding sexual abuse.” He acknowledged that the abuse issue “can leave each of us feeling isolated or defensive in understanding how we should move forward” and said that it is for this reason that “our efforts toward structural and legal reform in the church must be rooted in a profoundly collegial vision.”
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Then, in what appeared as a reference to the fallout from the abuse scandal in the United States, the cardinal said, “This past year has taught us that the systematic failures in holding clerics of all rank responsible are due in large measure to flaws in the way we interact and communicate with each other in the college of bishops in union with the successor of Peter.
“But they also reveal in too many cases,” he said, “an inadequate understanding and implementation of key theological realities such as the relationship between the pope and the bishops, bishops among themselves, bishops and religious superiors, bishops with their people and the role of bishops’ conferences.”
Speaking of the fourth orientation, accompaniment, the cardinal said, “Every structure of accountability must include outreach and accompaniment that is truly compassionate.”
He said, “The structures of reporting, investigation and the evaluation of claims of abuse must always be designed and evaluated with an understanding of what survivors undergo as they approach the church and seek justice.
“Such structures of accountability,” Cardinal Cupich said, “must also be just and sure, producing sanctions to protect the vulnerable when the accused is guilty and declarations of innocence when the accused is blameless.”
“What remains to be enacted are clear procedures in cases which for ‘grave reasons’ could justify the removal from office of a bishop, eparch or religious superior.”
Cardinal Cupich said, “The call of the church to accompany victims demands a mindset that categorically rejects cover-ups or the counsel to distance ourselves from survivors of abuse for legal reasons or out of a fear of scandal which blocks true accompaniment with those who have been victimized.
“It also demands that we erect structures and legal provisions that manifestly enshrine the duty to protect the young and the vulnerable as their first and overarching principle.”
And “perhaps most importantly,” he said, “the call to accompaniment demands that bishops and religious superiors reject a clerical worldview that sees charges of clergy sexual abuse cast against a backdrop of status and immunities for those in the clerical state.
“Authentic Christ-like accompaniment,” the cardinal said, “sees all as equal in the Lord, and structures rooted in accompaniment make all feel and appear equal in the Lord.”
Cardinal Cupich said these four “synodal principles” of listening, lay witness, collegiality and accompaniment are constitutive of the Holy Father’s call “to prepare for and open our hearts to the immensity and the importance of the task we undertake in these days.”
He told the summit participants that the task they face is “to focus these principles upon the design of specific institutional and legal structures for the purpose of creating genuine accountability in cases related to the misconduct of bishops and religious superiors, and their mishandling of cases of child abuse.”
He recalled that Pope Francis has already provided a guide for this in his 2016 Apostolic Letter “Like a Loving Mother,” which “sets forth procedures that address, among other things, bishops who mishandle abuse cases.” But, he said, “what remains to be enacted are clear procedures in cases which for ‘grave reasons’ could justify the removal from office of a bishop, eparch or religious superior,” as defined in that text and in the motu proprio “Sacramentorum sanctitatis tutela.”
Cardinal Cupich offered “a framework that is in keeping with our ecclesiological and canonical traditions” to help the summit consider procedures “to hold bishops involved in misconduct and in mishandling cases of abuse.”
Speaking about “setting standards,” he called for the involvement and consultation of lay experts in accord with canon law. He also spoke about using the role of the Metropolitan archbishop and also reporting the abuse wherever civil law requires it.
Referring to reporting allegations against a bishop, he insisted that “all mechanisms” used “should be transparent and well known to the faithful,” and called for the involvement of lay experts.
Finally, he called for the adoption by bishops’ conferences, in consultation with the Holy See, of “clear procedural steps” that are rooted in the church’s traditions and structures but at the same time “fulfill modern needs to identify and investigate potentially illicit conduct by bishops.”
He then listed 12 principles which he believes should be integrated into any proposed legislation. These refer, among other things, to the victims who report the allegation, that they should be respected and not discriminated against. They also call for the inclusion of competent lay women and men with expertise in the process “from beginning to end, out of respect for the principles of accountability and transparency.”
They speak about the role of the metropolitan archbishop and the Holy See and due respect for “the privacy and good name of all persons involved.” They call for the proper funding of such investigations, and note that unless otherwise established by special law the final decision on responding to a particular bishop’s misconduct rests with the pope.