The Catholic Church’s crisis in clergy child sexual abuse is rooted in a de facto immunity enjoyed by bishops and cardinals, regardless of their negligence.
The soft-glove approach to accountability by John Paul II and Benedict XVI stemmed from a theological concept, apostolic succession, which sees every bishop as a spiritual descendant of Jesus’s apostles. Somewhere along the way, apostolic succession erased the memory of Judas, the betrayer.
Apostolic succession is the cadaver in the parlor of the Vatican justice, and it has emerged as the central challenge before the commission of eight cardinals advising Pope Francis on church reform.
In Rome on Thursday, Boston Cardinal Sean O’Malley, speaking for the advising commission, announced that the group had taken up the abuse crisis for long-term focus. Replying to questions about bishop accountability, the cardinal said: “Quite frankly, that’s something the church needs to address.”
O'Malley was uncertain on whether the issue would be taken up by the eight cardinals, or the Vatican’s Congregation for Bishops, or Congregation for the Doctrine for the Faith, which weighs evidence against accused priests in deciding whether to laicize or defrock them.
Criticism of the papal reform commission came fast and hard.
In a statement released by the Boston-based online archive, BishopAccountability, co-director Anne Barrett Doyle faulted O’Malley’s handling of the crisis since 2003 when he succeeded Cardinal Bernard Law, who resigned in the mounting scandal.
“His response has been heavy on PR and light on real change,” Doyle’s statement said.
While crediting the cardinal with “moving apologies to victims,” she accused O’Malley of “false transparency” for “withholding the names of 91 accused archdiocesan priests, and he refused to name any of the dozens of accused religious order clerics who worked in Boston.”
As clergy abuse cases continue to be adjudicated in countries with democratic court systems, the church has paid settlements, bankruptcy fees, and jury verdicts in civil cases that exceed $3 billion in the US and Ireland alone. In scattered cases, bishops have resigned.
But Vatican tribunals do not stand in judgment over bishops who have abused youngsters, or concealed sex offenders in systemic cycles.
In recent years, at least one cardinal and fifteen bishops who abused young people “stepped down” from their positions, not losing their titles nor suffering expulsion from the church. The pope as supreme arbiter of canon law is a one-man high court. He has the power to reverse, halt or modify any canonical decision. But popes shrink from the idea of punishing cardinals, who elect popes.
In contrast, the Vatican has defrocked roughly 1,000 priests.
The double-standard of easing the worst bishops out of their formal posts, while subjecting the worst clergy offenders to removal from the priesthood, has become a major issue in media coverage after years of clamoring by reform groups.
BishopAccountability said that the pope in his 15 years as archbishop of Buenos Aires failed to meet with victims and released no names of accused priests.
And Barbara Blaine, founder of SNAP (Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests) issued a stinging rebuttal of O’Malley and the Vatican:
"O’Malley is also misleading when he claims that the Vatican emphasis 'has been on legal procedures' like church trials for priests accused of raping and molesting children (according to the Associated Press). The Vatican’s emphasis has been, and remains, on secrecy and on protecting the reputations and power of high-ranking church officials. A new Vatican committee won’t change this.”
Pope Francis's reform mechanism has yet to be fully tested. The eight cardinals who constitute a papal super-cabinet have met three times in Rome since Francis become pope in March.
According to a Vatican insider, the committee research has covered a range of concerns within the global church, particularly countries where bishops have not had the bruising legal battles as in Western countries with democratic systems. O'Malley's announcement is a first step, this source told GlobalPost.
An American canon lawyer, Nicholas Cafardi, the former dean of Duquesne University Law School in Pittsburgh told GlobalPost that O’Malley’s statement “was overdue. When this problem broke in the mid-80s for the first fifteen years the Holy See treated this like an American problem. But it’s a human problem.”
How should the church hold bishops accountable?
“One way is to use existing canon law,” said Cafardi. “We suffered in the early 90s because we ignored canon law on the use of penal trials for priests accused of abuse” which Congregation for Doctrine of the Faith has been doing in Rome, albeit at a slow pace.
Cafardi, who chaired the National Review Board appointed by the bishops conference in 2002 to research the crisis and recommend procedures, was a forceful advocate for the youth protection charter the US bishops adopted in Dallas two years later.
But canon law, he said, has a universal reach only if applied.
He cited Canon 1389 as providing a mechanism to remove “an office holder in the church if by commission of your office you cause harm to others. I think the bishops who allow priests they knew sexually abused [youth] to remain in ministry, when they went on to injure other children, makes the bishops liable for abuse of office.”
“We seem [as a church] to have no trouble moving against bishops who say we should discuss married clergy or female clergy. The law ought to apply to bishops on these other issues.”
Cafardi cited Bishop Robert Finn of Kansas City, Missouri, who was convicted of a misdemeanor for failure to report a priest who had child pornography to authorities. The priest, after living several months in a community of unknowing nuns, was eventually prosecuted and sent to prison. Finn was not given a jail sentence after his conviction.
“The lay people of Kansas City should request that the Congregation for Bishops judge whether Finn’s conduct amounted to a violation of 1389,” said Cafardi.
Jason Berry, a religion blogger for GlobalPost, is author of Render unto Rome: The Secret Life of Money in the Catholic Church.