Holy See tribunal for bishops accused of abuse cover-ups

Move will see debated principle of ‘Bishop accountability’ written into canon law

Pope Francis exchanges his skull cap with a little girl during his weekly general audience at St Peter’s Square in Rome on Wednesday. The pope has received a report recommending that bishops be made accountable for failures to protect victims of clerical child sex abuse. Photograph: Filippo Monteforte/AFP/Getty Images

Pope Francis exchanges his skull cap with a little girl during his weekly general audience at St Peter’s Square in Rome on Wednesday. The pope has received a report recommending that bishops be made accountable for failures to protect victims of clerical child sex abuse. Photograph: Filippo Monteforte/AFP/Getty Images

 

A major step forward may have been taken by the Holy See this week in addressing clerical child abuse with its decision to set up an unprecedented tribunal to judge bishops accused of “cover-ups”.

In effect, it would seem that the much debated principle of “bishop accountability” is about to be written into canon law.

For years, activists on behalf of clerical sex abuse victims have argued that the Catholic Church cannot limit its reaction to the abuse problem to sanctioning only the offender priest.

Rather, they have long called for some form of “bishop accountability” to be applied to those bishops who have covered up for offender priests or failed to prevent sexual abuse by priests under their authority.

At a news conference in the Vatican on Wednesday, senior papal spokesman Fr Federico Lombardi said the Holy See’s protection of minors commission, on which Irish abuse survivor Marie Collins serves, had earlier this week presented a set of proposals to Pope Francis “regarding allegations of the abuse of office by a bishop connected to the abuse of minors”.

Boston cardinal Sean O’Malley, the head of the commission, delivered his proposal to the pope’s Council of Cardinals, a sort of privy council or inner cabinet established by Pope Francis to help him with the government and administration of the church.

The proposals include: “That the Holy Father mandate the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) to judge bishops with regard to crimes of the abuse of office when connected to the abuse of minors . . . and that the Holy Father authorise the establishment of a new Judicial Section in the CDF.”

The proposals also recommend that after a five-year period, the “further development” and “effectiveness” of these measures be evaluated. Furthermore, it is proposed that “complaints of the episcopal abuse of office” be first directed to the appropriate congregation (department), such as the Congregations for Bishops, Evangelisation of Peoples, or Oriental Churches, before they are then passed on to the CDF.

Limitless power

Sheila HollinsPeter Saunders

Whilst some commission members feel this week’s proposals represent a major breakthrough, not everyone is in agreement. The US survivors’ lobby, Snap, yesterday said it would “withhold judgement” until it saw how the panel acted, adding: “The pope has virtually limitless power. By now, he could have sacked dozens of complicit bishops. He has, however, sacked no one . . . Catholic officials won’t admit there are deliberate cover ups. If you can’t properly name a crisis, you’re likely unable to fix it.”