Why is the Vatican’s process for holding bishops accountable still so opaque?

Pope Francis, background third from left, attends a penitential liturgy at the Vatican, Saturday, Feb. 23, 2019. (Vincenzo Pinto/Pool Photo Via AP)

Since the summer of 2018, the church has seen three cardinals face specific consequences in connection with sexual abuse. Understanding these already complex cases has been made more difficult by unclear canonical procedures, by decisions reserved to Pope Francis himself and—most vexing—by limited communication from the Vatican about what process is being followed on what timeline.

Taken together, these cases illustrate why accountability for bishops has become a focus of the sexual abuse crisis in the church. Both process and communication need to be improved in order to rebuild trust among the people of God that the church is committed to healing and reform.

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A quick review of the cases of the three cardinals suggests the challenges the church faces. With allegations of sexual abuse of a minor found to be credible and substantiated by the Archdiocese of New York, former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick was restricted from ministry and dismissed from the College of Cardinals (both decisions made under Pope Francis’ personal authority) very quickly. Even though the criminal statute of limitations had passed, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith conducted a canonical process and he was finally dismissed from the priesthood in early 2019, just before the international summit on preventing sexual abuse in the church began.

In order to rebuild trust, the church needs to be able to hold bishops and cardinals accountable for failures in responding to sexual abuse. But just as importantly, it needs to be seen to be able to hold them accountable.

Cardinal George Pell was found guilty in an Australian court of sexually abusing two minors in Melbourne during the 1990s. (Cardinal Pell was sentenced to six years in prison; an appeal of the verdict has been filed.) Hours before his sentencing, the Vatican confirmed that Cardinal Pell’s tenure as prefect of the Secretariat of the Economy—a position from which he had been on leave while standing trial—had concluded. It also confirmed that the C.D.F. would begin its own investigation, which could lead to canonical penalties, while his appeal proceeds in Australia.

Finally, Cardinal Philippe Barbarin was found guilty in a French court not of sexual abuse, but of failing to report sexual abuse by another priest from decades earlier. (Cardinal Barbarin received a suspended sentence of six months; he has insisted that he never tried to cover up the abuse and is appealing the verdict.) In a confusing development, Cardinal Barbarin submitted his resignation to Pope Francis, but the pope refused to accept it and asked the cardinal to take whatever course of action he thought best for his archdiocese. Cardinal Barbarin chose to ask his vicar general to govern the Archdiocese of Lyon in his stead. No canonical investigation has been announced.

When bishops or cardinals are charged either with abuse or with failure to prevent or report abuse, the church faces the question not only of whether they are responsible but also of how it will go about making that determination. No single process has been defined for these cases. This results in a complicated interaction of deference to secular legal proceedings, choices made by other bishops and curial officials about which administrative procedures to follow, and decisions (such as whether to ask for or accept resignations) that lie within the pope’s sole discretion.

Earlier moves to clarify the canonical process that applies to bishops in these cases seem to have stalled. In 2015, responding to recommendations from the Commission for the Protection of Minors, Pope Francis approved a new “judicial section” within the C.D.F. for judging bishops regarding “abuse of office” in failing to respond to the abuse of minors. In an interview with America after her resignation from the commission, the abuse survivor Marie Collins said after its recommendation had been accepted by the pope, “the C.D.F. found some legal difficulties with it,” and while these were never clearly explained, eventually the recommendation was scrapped.

Then, in 2016, Pope Francis officially declared that negligence in relation to sexual abuse was among the “grave reasons” for which a bishop could be removed from office under canon law. But in the three years since, while resignations have been accepted (for example, of some Chilean bishops) in connection with such negligence, this law has not yet been publicly applied to remove bishops from office. Most recently, the Vatican prevented the bishops of the United States from voting on their own proposals for holding bishops accountable, instructing them not to take action prior to the international summit in February. Alternate proposals were discussed at the summit, and the Vatican said that norms for holding bishops accountable are under development.

Protracted and opaque processes only reinforce the fear that the church is still more invested in protecting itself than in protecting those who suffer from abuse.

It is important to note that while canonical processes are unclear, the church is making some progress in holding bishops accountable. Former Cardinal McCarrick’s swift removal from both ministry and the College of Cardinals demonstrated Francis’ recognition of the seriousness of the charges. The mass resignation of all 34 Chilean bishops, of which seven have so far been accepted,* has been the most striking example so far of significant consequences for failures in episcopal governance. However, deciding which resignations to accept is also an exercise of Pope Francis’ discretion according to factors not publicly explained. This limits its usefulness as a model for the resolution of future cases or for the rebuilding of trust in the church.

The case of Cardinal Barbarin illustrates the challenges of resolving these cases without fuller explanation. After being convicted, he offered his resignation; Pope Francis refused to accept it, “invoking the presumption of innocence.” But what does this mean, since he had just been found guilty? Is the reference to maintaining the presumption of innocence until a final decision is reached in his appeal? Or is his innocence presumed relative to a canonical process—and if so has a canonical process been opened? The best possible interpretation is that Pope Francis is making a prudent decision to wait for the appeal to conclude before deciding whether to permanently remove a bishop from his diocese—but there is no reason that such a decision cannot be explained in just those terms.

In order to rebuild trust, the church needs to be able to hold bishops and cardinals accountable for failures in responding to sexual abuse. But just as importantly, it needs to be seen to be able to hold them accountable. Even if the unique relationship of bishops to the pope means that any canonical process will be subject to exceptions, such exceptions should be minimized and must be clearly explained. Even those who follow these issues full-time often struggle to understand what is happening within the halls of the Vatican. How then can the larger body of the church or secular society trust that the use of discretion is responsible rather than evasive and self-protective, as it has so sadly been in the past?

At a minimum, the Vatican should provide ongoing guidance about which cases involving bishops are open and which person or congregation is responsible for the next step in the process. When decisions are made, they should be clearly communicated, with an explanation of their rationale and a clear description of the next steps in any process. Protracted and opaque processes only reinforce the fear that the church is still more invested in protecting itself than in protecting those who suffer from abuse.

* Update, Mar. 23, 2019: Hours after a Chilean court ruled that Cardinal Ricardo Ezzati, the archbishop of Santiago, would have to stand trial on charges of covering up abuse, the Vatican announced that Pope Francis had accepted his resignation, bringing the number accepted to eight out of 34 Chilean bishops total.

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Crystal Watson
5 months ago

The pope is a hypocrite - what was his international sex abuse summit about if not making bishops and cardinals accountable? Two of these three guys has been found guilty in a court of law. If these cardinals had been employees in a public school district and their boss refused to fire them, that would be unacceptable, but in our church, the pope can get away with anything.

Phillip Stone
5 months ago

We know all too well how much you are angry and contemptuous of men.

I invite you to walk in the shoes of man already weakened by age who overnight gets the top job.
The buck stops with him, I admit controversially.

Now, he inherits an administration and a bureaucracy full of Vatican I aged or elderly men, set in their ways, full of spiritual pride and seeing themselves as aristocrats and superior.

Herding cats would be child's play compared to the challenge of that task.
Now I imagine you thinking that a good screaming fit in the manner of an old fishwife would whip them into line and if one woman was not quite enough, a bunch would do the trick.
No. They are not husbands, they are not employees, they are not children but they are a college of equals with staff.

Now, let us know how you would persuade them or inspire them or motivate them to act in responsible concord united in the will to do the wishes of their real King, Jesus Christ.

Crystal Watson
5 months ago

Oh please. Pretty much every other Christian denomination manages to deal with the administration of their churches without making the protection of pedophiles, and those who enable them, their SOP.

sheila gray
5 months ago

Amen, Crystal!!!

Mike Macrie
5 months ago

Amen and well summed up Phillip !

J. Calpezzo
5 months ago

Roger Mahony

Mike Macrie
5 months ago

There never ever been procedures to hold Bishops accountable in the Catholic Church. The only procedure was to cover up and avoid scandal at all costs. It’s unfair to expect Pope Francis to snap his fingers and overnight and implement procedures in the Catholic World Wide Church. You can’t have individual Countries going off on tangents and writing their own procedures without Papal Review. Regardless of its flaws, no other Religion has a single leader of authority to speak and hold accountable for its Church. Let us never forget Jesus Words “ You are Peter and upon this Rock I will build my Church”

Crystal Watson
5 months ago

Let us never forget Jesus' Words "Get thee behind me, Satan" (to Peter). Anyone can cherry pick verses.
The Pope *can* make big changes if he has the will to do so - he is the sole person in the church who can make autocratic decisions. He just doesn't want to make these changes.

sheila gray
5 months ago

I wholeheartedly agree with you. If he makes the necessary changes this is what will have to happen. No more silence if someone admits abusing minors in the Confessional... mandatory reporting of ALL ALLEGATIONS. No more Secrets is the only answer.

J. Calpezzo
5 months ago

Opaque is not quite the word to describe the Vatican's policy. Let me search for a few words....let's see. Okay. Try these: Corrupt. Immoral. Bankrupt. Wrong. Criminal. Inept. Cowardly. Scandalous.

Michael Cardinale
5 months ago

In the US, people are found guilty or not guilty; no one is found innocent. I assume it is similar in France and Australia. Pope Francis may not think either Cardinal Pell or Barbarin is innocent , but within their own judicial systems, they have a right to appeal. I think it is reasonable for the Pope to hold off any punitive action till the judicial processes are complete. Meanwhile, the American Church must press forward increasing lucidity. Pray for the Church.

William McGovern
5 months ago

An excellent article about the need for better communications. There are some fundamental structural issues in how the Church is managed. While the Holy Father is selected through a conclave that votes, after that process, there is little accountability. The Pope is more than a spiritual leader but also the head of a huge organization. Does he and his clerical staff have too much discretion as the “CEO” of the organization? Should there be a “Board of Directors” comprised of a mix of ordained, religious, and lay persons?
The concentration of power in organizations such as the Vatican is inherently an unhealthy atmosphere for effective management and decision-making.

arthur mccaffrey
5 months ago

articles like this keep trying to make the criminals act responsibly and rationally, as if constantly snapping at the heels of all these bishops and cardinals is going to change anything. It is a noble effort, but do you really think these handicapped people are going to change their ways so easily?
All the exhortation in the world won't make a bit of difference if ears and eyes are closed. These guys are opaque by default, and lecturing them like this won't change a thing. We need ACTION, and intervention by civil authorities to arrest criminals. We are long past the time for expecting these criminals to put their own house in order. Continued attempts at exhortation like this article are simply naieve.

MICHAEL GRIFFIN
5 months ago

Someone should put this article on the Pope's reading list.

Phillip Stone
5 months ago

When Jesus began to teach the hard things of the faith, many turned away sorrowing. He did not call them back.
Let those who are so tenuously identified with Christian discipleship who do not accept the adult responsibility of doing the work of God assigned to them go. Leave.

Operating from a herd mentality, being one of the crowd and the crowd being big is carnal and selfish.
Catholicism is not a club.

People of little faith or none dilute the effectiveness of the true believers and the brave faithful; Jesus revealed once that He could do no miracle amongst one group of people because they had such little faith and nothing has changed in that regard.

Those who are dead weight, the self-centred and proudly entitled, will not be abandoned by the Hound of Heaven. He will dog their tracks until they wake up to the awareness of their desertion and betrayal and find Him waiting with open arms to welcome them back.

Maybe then prayer will be much more powerful, healings will abound, souls will be set free of demonic bondage and preaching will make converts in scores rather than one by one occasionally.

Christopher Lochner
4 months 4 weeks ago

It appears that you have written a beautiful comment against the hierarchy of the church (the dead weight and the entitled). It's good that you note the difference between the hierarchical church and their delusions of godhood and the True Church who are the people of God. Keep up the good work!

Sue Harvey
5 months ago

The civil authorities, police agencies and attorney general's of states are going to deal with this. Treating them as men first, clergy second with criminal investigations performed by professionals. Full media coverage. Already in my state, the attorney General and an investigative reporter have gotten several diocese to start cooperating, perhaps under threat of subpoenas. The conference as seen on media news appeared as usual. There was something about all the assembled in the formal purple and red garments that let me down. You are men gathering to consider deep sinful, damaging behavior that is destroying our church. Next time I'd like to see plain black suits with clerical collar..No trappings of office. If you or some are known to you who can't keep their lustful sins under control its way past time to clean our house.

Bill Mazzella
5 months ago

We approach the problem in a misguided way when we suggest canonical procedures instead of solid reform. What the sexual abuse crisis helped us do is question the behavior of Cardinals, bishops and priests. Before that era it was considered a sin to criticize the clergy. Such was the masterful job of brainwashing by the hierarchy. It is clear that the leadership is still the church of monarchs and king like behavior among its officials. Cardinals still live in sumptuous, cavernous apartments while never mixing in with the "captives" that Jesus is concerned about. Bishops still live sumptuously and hang out with the one per cent while making token visits to parishes and making their largest communications in the annual Cardinal's appeal. Francis set the example by living in an austere apartment. But the monarchs ignore him while falsely accusing him of being against orthodoxy. The hierarchy mark their lives with comfort, like Dives and not even if one came back from the dead would they change their sumptuous lives.

Michael Barberi
5 months ago

Great article. There is much reform to be done. When you are in a hole the best advice is to stop digging. To say the least, the entire McCarrick scandal rises to the level of the pope and a thorough explanation why and how JP II promoted him to cardinal when Cardinals and Bishops and the Apostolic Nuncio to the U.S. knew about it.

John Barbieri
5 months ago

“You can fool all of the people some of the time. If you are clever, you can fool some of the people all of the time. But, you can’t fool all of the people all of the time,” - Abraham Lincoln
Meetings, platitudes, promoises, but no action. The Pope and the hierarchy just want the whole scandal to go away on its own. More people are going to walk away seeing that reform just isn’t going to happen. While it will not happen in our lifetimes, a future iteration of Catholic christianity will be without the clergy. Only the clergy need the clergy. Their days are numbered.

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