The mysterious case of the missing Vatican tribunal

The mysterious case of the missing Vatican tribunal

The mysterious case of the missing Vatican tribunal

In this Feb. 13, 2015 file photo, Pope Francis, right, talks with the head of a sex abuse advisory commission, Cardinal Sean Patrick O'Malley, of Boston. (Credit: AP Photo/Andrew Medichini.)

When abuse survivor Marie Collins resigned last week from the pope's anti-abuse advisory board she cited the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith's failure to implement a tribunal for trying bishops who cover up abuse. But was that idea actually scrapped, or simply modified to achieve the same result?

The widely admired Irish clerical abuse survivor Marie Collins who resigned last week from the pope’s safeguarding commission in protest at Vatican obstruction was especially dismayed by two roadblocks in particular. Both were the result, in her view, of the resistance to Pope Francis by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF).

One was that the CDF had not agreed to respond directly to complaints from victims. Collins believes that the pope asked for this, and was rebuffed. “Last year at our request, the pope instructed all departments in the Vatican to ensure all correspondence from victims/survivors receives a response,” she wrote in a statement for the National Catholic Reporter, adding: “I learned in a letter from this particular dicastery last month that they are refusing to do so.”

In response, the CDF prefect, Cardinal Gerhard Müller, said he knew only that the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors had requested that his department write to victims to express their closeness to them in their suffering.

But the CDF’s task in respect of abuse, he insisted, was to manage the canonical trials; the task of responding to correspondence from victims should fall to the local diocese or religious order, which is responsible for their pastoral care.

“When a letter arrives, we always ask the bishop that he might take pastoral care of the victim, clarifying to him or her that the Congregation will do all that is possible to give justice,” he told Corriere della Sera, adding that if the CDF did more “it would not respect the legitimate principle of diocesan autonomy and subsidiarity.”

Collins clearly believed that the pope had agreed to her proposal, and that if it didn’t happen Francis was being defied. Her resignation interviews and statements refer more than once to anti-Francis curial officials using this issue as a weapon of resistance — playing ecclesiastical politics, as it were, with children’s safety.

Yet between the pope signaling his agreement and the implementation of a new administrative policy lies what bureaucrats, and not just in Rome, call “process”. Sometimes, at the end of that process, it either doesn’t happen, or happens in a different way, because the implications have been studied and the proposal revised in their light.

This is clearly what happened in the other, far more important, issue that caused Collins to resign — what she sees as the CDF’s refusal to implement a tribunal for convicting bishops who cover up abuse.

The initiative was announced with some fanfare in June 2015, following a proposal which Collins’s Commission made to Francis via its head, Cardinal Seán O’Malley, at a meeting of the C9 cardinals.

Their idea was to create a special section within the CDF’s tribunal for trying and sentencing bishops who had failed to act against an abusive priest by neglecting to report him to the police, say, or assigning him to another parish.

The lack of accountability of bishops had long been a major complaint of victim groups, and was arguably the major safeguarding reform issue that faced Francis after his election.

At a 2012 conference at the Gregorian University in Rome that led to the creation of the commission, Collins — whose abuse at the hands of a hospital chaplain aged 13 was followed by years of denial by the Irish hierarchy — said there had to be “acknowledgement and accountability for the harm and destruction that has been done to the life of victims and their families by the often deliberate cover up and mishandling of cases by their superiors.”

“You must not cover up, and even those who covered up these things are guilty,” Francis told journalists on the plane back from the United States in September 2015. Yet more than 30 years after the first national exposé of the sex abuse crisis in the United States, the Church still appeared to lack a transparent and workable system for standing down bishops who ignored or covered up such crimes.

So when O’Malley announced that the pope had given the CDF the authority to “judge bishops with regard to crimes of the abuse of office when connected to the abuse of minors,” according to a Vatican statement at the time, there was considerable excitement.

It was wrongly reported as the commission suggesting the creation of a tribunal, when, in fact, the CDF tribunal already existed; the commission’s proposal was that it be used to hold bishops accountable for abuse cover-up.

In approving the proposal, Francis and his nine cardinal advisers pledged to provide the tribunal section with staff and resources, and in early 2016, Cardinal O’Malley told the Associated Press that the pope planned to appoint a secretary to take charge of it.

But it was clear the CDF had not been consulted properly before the proposal had been approved, and it hadn’t been properly thought through.

If this were a crime of negligence, by what national or cultural standard of action in response to allegations would it take as its norm? Could an African bishop in a country where sex abuse of minors barely exists as a concept end up being held to what is now considered normal in the United States? The same difficulties were posed by the passage of time. If a bishop could be judged to have acted negligently in the 1990s according to the standards of 2010, was that reasonable and just — and who, then, would be innocent?

Jurists asked other questions, such as, if it was an “abuse of office” to act negligently over an abusive priest, why not, say, financial malfeasance, which was also a delict in canon law?

After nine months, it was clear the “tribunal” was bogged down. So rather than create a whole new section of the CDF tribunal, it was decided that the objective of holding bishops accountable would be more easily achieved by asking Vatican departments to carry out the investigations, and reserving to the pope (who is supreme judge) the task of standing down a bishop.

As Müller put it, “it was decided that we already have the jurisdiction of the bishops’ dicastery, the tools and the legal means to address any criminal negligence by bishops.”

Hence, a year after first announcing the “tribunal”, Francis in June 2016 issued a motu propio, or edict, that tasks the four Vatican departments that have oversight of bishops with looking into cases of possible negligence. Two expert assessors examine the evidence and make a recommendation to the pope, who declares the bishop guilty.

The crime is no longer “abuse of office” but (according to the edict) “negligence of bishops in the exercise of their office, particularly relative to cases of sexual abuse against minors and vulnerable adults,” which makes it much easier to adjudicate.

Where the case is straightforward — that of Kansas City Bishop Robert Finn, for example, who was convicted criminally of failing to report a priest involved with child pornography — this “administrative process”, as it is known in canon law, now allows for swift action: from the preliminary investigation to the sentence, it could be a matter of weeks.

But some cases will be more complex, and involve disputed accounts (the bishop may claim he is innocent, for example) in which case a “judicial process” — a trial that examines the evidence — will be necessary.

Speaking on background, sources close to the CDF say that if the pope sends such a case to the congregation they will hear it, which is presumably what Cardinal Müller meant when he told Corriere that “the Holy Father can always entrust a special case to the congregation.”

In other words, the normal means of dealing with these cases will be administrative, and involve the Vatican departments best placed to garner the evidence, and in those cases where a trial is necessary the CDF can handle it within its existing structures.

What happened, then, to the tribunal announced in June 2015? Did it happen or not?

No, because the concept of a special section in the CDF was rejected in favor of a more expeditious means of achieving the same; but yes, in the sense that bishops can now be held accountable for cover-up and be fired. And the CDF can still try a bishop if the pope needs it to.

Does this mean, as was widely reported — and as Collins read it —  the tribunal was scrapped? Or is it a case of an ill-thought-through but well-intentioned proposal going through the Vatican sausage-machine and coming out looking rather different — yet equally, if not more, effective?

The answer depends in part on how well the system is now working, but it’s too early to say. The pope last year accepted the resignations of two bishops, one in Brazil, the other in Mexico, who were accused of turning a blind eye to abusive priests, but they predate the edict.

What matters now is not that bishops offer their resignations and the pope accepts them, but that those who cover up are actively stood down by the pope as a clear punishment, either after an administrative or a judicial process.

Once that happens — and is seen to happen — we can finally put away our magnifying glasses and declare that this mysterious case of the missing Vatican tribunal is finally solved.

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