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Vatican May No Longer Allow Bishops To Escape Sanction Who Cover Up Clergy Sex Abuse Cases

For decades, the Vatican has been criticized by abuse victims and their advocates for having turned a blind eye to the bishops and religious superiors who failed to punish sexual predators in the priesthood. While the Vatican began cracking down on the abusers themselves under Pope Benedict XVI, the superiors who enabled the crimes and allowed abusers to continue raping children largely got a pass.

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Protest
Founding member of the Ending Clergy Abuse organization, Denise Buchanan, right, and member Leona Huggins, second from right, participate in a protest outside the St. Anselm on the Aventine Benedictine complex in Rome, Feb. 22, 2019. VOA

The legal loopholes that have allowed Catholic bishops to escape sanction when they cover up clergy sex abuse cases may be closing.

Two U.S. cardinals have confirmed that the Vatican is working on a “clarification” to a 2016 law that was supposed to hold bishops and religious superiors accountable when they fail to protect their flocks, but it never really did.

Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston told a press conference Friday during Pope Francis’ sex abuse prevention summit that he had been guaranteed that the new document would “come out very soon.” Chicago Cardinal Blase Cupich said the document would standardize procedures within the various Vatican offices to investigate bishops and order their removal.

The new document would further clarify the law Francis issued in 2016, entitled “As a Loving Mother,” which he passed instead of creating a special tribunal section inside the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to handle abuse of office cases.

Cardinal Blase J. Cupich, Chicago Archbishop, right, and Cardinal Sean Patrick O'Malley, listen to reporters' questions during a four-day sex abuse summit called by Pope Francis, in Rome, Feb. 22, 2019.
Cardinal Blase J. Cupich, Chicago Archbishop, right, and Cardinal Sean Patrick O’Malley, listen to reporters’ questions during a four-day sex abuse summit called by Pope Francis, in Rome, Feb. 22, 2019. VOA

Cupich said the law had been applied in “recent cases,” but the Vatican has provided no information about how it has been implemented or how many bishops have been sanctioned as a result of it.

Bishops, religious superiors got a pass

For decades, the Vatican has been criticized by abuse victims and their advocates for having turned a blind eye to the bishops and religious superiors who failed to punish sexual predators in the priesthood. While the Vatican began cracking down on the abusers themselves under Pope Benedict XVI, the superiors who enabled the crimes and allowed abusers to continue raping children largely got a pass.

Acting on a proposal from his sex abuse advisory commission, Francis and his group of cardinal advisers agreed in 2015 to create a tribunal section within the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to prosecute bishops and superiors when they botched cases. A press statement issued at the time said the pope had pledged to provide the new office with adequate staffing and resources.

But the tribunal posed a host of legal and bureaucratic issues and ran into opposition from bishops and the Vatican bureaucracy. The congregation, which handles sex abuse cases, apparently was never consulted about the feasibility of creating such a tribunal before it was announced to the press to great fanfare.

A year later, Francis issued “As a Loving Mother” that made no mention of a tribunal but merely reminded the four Vatican offices that handle bishop issues that they were also responsible for investigating and punishing negligence cases. It made clear that a negligent act or omission on handling an abuse allegation was grounds for dismissal.

Sex abuse survivor Bernadette Howell, from Canada, left, cries as she listens to Evelyn Korkamaz, another survivor, during a press conference of members of the ECA (Ending Clergy Abuse), in Rome, Feb. 22, 2019.
Sex abuse survivor Bernadette Howell, from Canada, left, cries as she listens to Evelyn Korkamaz, another survivor, during a press conference of members of the ECA (Ending Clergy Abuse), in Rome, Feb. 22, 2019. VOA

Lack of tribunal good, prosecutor says

The Vatican’s longtime sex crimes prosecutor, Archbishop Charles Scicluna, told reporters Friday that under the 2016 law, it was actually easier to remove a negligent bishop than if he were subject to a canonical trial in a tribunal where the bishop’s intent would have to be proved.

The 2016 law “looks at the objective state of the (bishops’) incapacity” to govern, whereas a tribunal would have required proof that an actual law had been broken, Scicluna said. The 2016 legislation benefits those who are claiming negligence by a bishop because “they only have to denounce an objective fact: that nothing was done,” Scicluna said.

O’Malley, who heads a commission that first proposed the tribunal, said the issue of holding bishops accountable was “uppermost in our minds right now.”

“Right now the Holy See is working on, preparing a clarification of the implementation that will come out very soon, I am guaranteed,” he said.

Investigation blueprint

Cupich, for his part, dedicated his speech to Francis’ abuse summit to how such investigations against bishops might be reported to the Vatican and then carried out once the Vatican has authorized an investigation. His proposal called for the metropolitan bishop, who has authority over other bishops in a particular geographic region, to conduct the investigation, using the help of lay experts.

“What I present here is a framework for constructing new legal structures of accountability in the church,” Cupich said, in a speech that implied that such structures are very much in the works at the Holy See.

Accountability, fairness

Speakers at Francis’ summit have proposed other changes to canon law as well to ensure accountability and fairness to victims and accused priests alike.

Linda Ghisoni, an Italian canon lawyer and undersecretary at the Vatican’s laity office, said the Holy See should change its laws concerning the “pontifical secret,” the confidentiality regulations that govern how sex abuse cases are handled internally.

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Victims for years have denounced the high level of secrecy, which often prevents them from learning the outcomes or progress of their cases. Accused priests, too, have complained how they are kept in the dark about the details of their cases.

Ghisoni told the summit that a degree of confidentiality must be retained to guarantee the dignity and reputations of all involved. But she said the secrecy regulations “should allow for the development of a climate of greater transparency and trust.” (VOA)

Next Story

Pope Francis Urges Bishops to Boldly Shake Up Status Quo as they Chart Ways to Better Care for Amazon

On hand for the service were indigenous people from several tribes, some with their faces painted and wearing feathered headdresses

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Pope Francis, Bishops, Amazon
Indigenous peoples, some with their faces painted and wearing feathered headdresses, stand by Pope Francis as he celebrates an opening Mass for the Amazon synod, in St. Peter's Basilica, at the Vatican, Oct. 6, 2019. VOA

Pope Francis urged bishops on Sunday to boldly shake up the status quo as they chart ways to better care for the Amazon and its indigenous people amid threats from forest fires, development and what he called ideological “ashes of fear.”

Francis opened a three-week meeting on preserving the rainforest and ministering to its native people as he fended off attacks from conservatives who are opposed to his ecological agenda.

Francis celebrated an opening Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica on Sunday with global attention newly focused on the forest fires that are devouring the Amazon, which scientists say is a crucial bulwark against global warming.

On hand for the service were indigenous people from several tribes, some with their faces painted and wearing feathered headdresses, as well as more than 180 South American cardinals, bishops and priests, who donned green vestments like the pope.

Pope Francis, Bishops, Amazon
Francis opened a three-week meeting on preserving the rainforest and ministering to its native people as he fended off attacks from conservatives who are opposed to his ecological agenda. Pixabay

They traveled to Rome from the region for three weeks of debate at a special synod, or meeting, that has become one of the most controversial of Francis’ papacy.

Among the most contentious proposals on the agenda is whether married elders could be ordained priests to address the chronic priest shortages in the region. Currently indigenous Catholics in remote parts of the Amazon can go months without seeing a priest or having a proper Mass.

Another proposal calls for the church to identify new “official ministries” for women, though organizers have made clear that priestly ordination is off the table.

Francis’ conservative critics, including a handful of cardinals, have called the proposals “heretical” and an invitation to a “pagan” religion that idolizes nature rather than God. They have mounted an opposition campaign, issuing petitions and holding conferences to raise their voices.

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Yet in his homily, Francis urged the Amazonian bishops to go boldly forward, urging they be “prudent” but not “timid” as they discern new ways to protect the environment and minister to the faithful. He drew a distinction between the “fire” of missionary zeal and fires that aim to carve out the rainforest for agricultural uses.

“The fire set by interests that destroy, like the fire that recently devastated Amazonia, is not the fire of the Gospel,” he said. “The fire of God is warmth that attracts and gathers into unity. It is fed by sharing, not by profits.”

He prayed that God’s “daring prudence” would inspire the bishops to bold action to protect the region.

“If everything continues as it was, if we spend our days content that ‘this is the way things have always been done,’ then the gift vanishes, smothered by the ashes of fear and concern for defending the status quo,” he said.

Pope Francis, Bishops, Amazon
Francis celebrated an opening Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica on Sunday with global attention newly focused on the forest fires that are devouring the Amazon. Pixabay

In many ways, Francis opened the synod last year, when he traveled into the Peruvian Amazon and demanded that corporations stop their relentless extraction of timber, gas and gold.  Meeting with native families in steamy Puerto Maldonado, Francis declared that the Amazon and its indigenous peoples are the “heart of the church” and demanded that governments recognize their rights to determine the region’s future.

The seeds of the Amazon synod, however, long predate that visit and even Francis’ landmark 2015 encyclical “Praise Be,” in which he denounced the profit-at-all-cost business interests destroying the rainforest.

The pope, when he was the former Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina, drafted the final document of the 2007 meeting of South American bishops in Aparecida, Brazil, which identified the Amazon and its indigenous peoples as threatened by global economic interests and deserving of the church’s utmost attention.

Scientists say the vast rainforest’s lush vegetation absorbs heat-trapping carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. The moisture given off by its trees also affects rainfall patterns and climate across South America and beyond.

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While the numbers of fires burning in the Amazon declined sharply last month, parts of the rainforest burned at a pace in July and August unseen since 2010. That fueled global worries about climate change, put the Amazon fires on the agenda of the Group of Seven summit hosted by French President Emmanuel Macron and directed environmental outrage at the pro-development stance of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro.

Bolsonaro has repeatedly said he wants to promote economic development in the Amazon and regularize small-scale illegal mining. He has also strongly criticized foreign countries for meddling with what he sees is a domestic Brazilian matter. (VOA)