The Vatican announced it will establish a new tribunal to sanction bishops who fail to protect children from sexual abuse by members of the clergy.
Forgive me if I’m unimpressed.
Maybe that’s a reporter’s jadedness. I’ve spent too many years with the grim details, listening to testimony of victims, reading their depositions in civil cases and seeing how bishops did a stellar job of shielding not the child victims but the accused priests.
And it’s from living in a diocese whose bishop was convicted of failing to report suspected child abuse and was allowed by the Vatican to quietly resign this spring — more than two years after his conviction.
Yes, this move by the Holy See is a positive one. It will exist solely to hear cases involving bishops who have covered up abuse. The bishops, the leaders of the church’s dioceses, have largely escaped punishment in sex abuse scandals.
This is the Vatican playing catch-up. For many victims, altar boys and former parochial school children who are now grown men and women, it’s too late.
Rome cannot sanction the bishops who deserve the most scrutiny. Many of them — the ones who so callously ruled their dioceses in the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s — are deceased. Likewise, many pedophile priests from those eras took the secret of their sins to the grave.
Even today, some priests who have cost their dioceses millions in civil settlements are living out their senior years on tidy pensions from the church — rent, health care and daily expenses all paid. The hesitancy of bishops to defrock aging priests who were never convicted in criminal courts due to the statute of limitations is just one of the persisting issues that call into question the accountability of the hierarchy.
Under the newly announced effort, the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith will judge bishops. The June 10 decree from Rome also noted that developing this system of protocols will take five years.
The announcement comes a month after the Vatican published statutes for the Commission for the Protection of Minors, an advisory board organized in 2014 and headed by Boston’s Cardinal Sean O'Malley. O'Malley is also credited with proposing this new tribunal to sanction bishops.
To fully grasp the plodding nature of the church’s attempts at reform, one need only look a few years back. In 2002, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops promulgated the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, establishing a litany of reporting procedures and expectations for dioceses in the U.S. Yet in 2011, the bishops’ conference was still dodging blame. It commissioned a study that tried to blame the abuse of minors on the permissive sexual nature of society in general in the 1960s and ‘70s.
Despite the new procedures in place, Catholic dioceses continue to fail to follow them. In early June, the St. Paul-Minneapolis archdiocese was named in criminal charges for failing to protect children.
Thankfully, society has stepped in where the church has lagged. Parishioners are less blindly loyal, bolstered by an openness to discuss the dangers of pedophiles. More and more children by their grade school years have been counseled about “bad touching” and what to do if an adult makes them uncomfortable. The fact that a molester could be a priest, a teacher, a coach or a relative is, thankfully, widely disseminated.
It’s taken us much longer than it should have to get to this point. As long ago as the mid-1970s, federal law put in place mandatory reporting requirements for suspected child abuse. Priests and bishops have always been included under those laws.
Why did so many of them feel free to shirk this responsibility? The answer lies in the web of attitudes and the chains of command that must unravel before this new Vatican tribunal has a remote chance of judging errant bishops appropriately.
Roman Catholics the world over are tired of lives needlessly devastated and dioceses bankrupted by clerical sexual abuse. Institutional culture is a devil of a thing, and we can count on many in the church’s hierarchy to circumvent and undermine the new protocols. But given time and determination on the part of the pope, the efforts may well solidify.
That’s a good reason to wish Pope Francis a long papacy.
Mary Sanchez is an opinion-page columnist for The Kansas City Star.
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