How Pope Francis could get back into the game on sex abuse reform

How Pope Francis could get back into the game on sex abuse reform

How Pope Francis could get back into the game on sex abuse reform

Pope Francis arrives for a consistory in St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican, June 28, 2018. (Credit: Alessandra Tarantino/AP.)

It is hard for the pope to distance himself from the string of sexual abuse scandals affecting high-ranking clerics. He needs to take drastic action if he is to salvage the Church's reputation on sex abuse.

For many victims of clerical sexual abuse and their advocates, last week offered a stark reminder of how far the Church has to go in cleaning house. Not only did Cardinal Theodore McCarrick face further accusations of abuse, including minors, but the right-hand man of one of Pope Francis’s chief advisers also resigned after accusations he had targeted seminarians for sexual favors in Honduras.

Honduran Bishop Juan José Pineda Fasquelle served under Cardinal Oscar Andrés Rodríguez Maradiaga of Tegucigalpas, the coordinator of Francis’s influential “C9” Council of Cardinals, which advises him on Vatican reform and governing the Church.

Another member of the C9, Cardinal Francisco Javier Errazuriz, stands accused of covering up the sexual abuse of minors in Chile.

Further afield, Bishop Franco Mulakkal in India has been accused by a nun of raping her – and she claims Cardinal George Alencherry, the head of the eastern rite Syro-Malabar Catholic Church, knew about it and did nothing.

To top things off, Australian Cardinal George Pell made another court appearance in his trial for child abuse alleged to have taken place decades ago.

(It must be pointed out that all these accused cardinals and bishops have denied, at least to some extent, the charges against them.)

Even the Vatican’s own reform efforts have come under a cloud.

A Washington Post report on Monday indicated that Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston, who presides over the commission, had received a letter from one of McCarrick’s alleged victims. In response, an O’Malley aide replied that “commission members don’t review individual cases that fall under local authorities,” and closed by expressing “our appreciation for your care and concern for the good of the Church and the people of God.”

(In a statement on Tuesday, however, O’Malley maintained that he did not personally receive the letter.)

Such language may not strike many victims as quite the spirit of compassion and cooperation they’ve been promised.

On the larger front, a pattern keeps repeating itself: A country will have a prominent abuse scandal (e.g. Boston in the United States and the Ferns Report in Ireland in the 2000s; the Father Fernando Karadima case in Chile and the Royal Commission into child abuse in Australia in the 2010s), which will be followed by a flood of hidden cases of abuse.

A meeting will be called at the Vatican, reforms will be put in place, and declarations of “never again” will be made – until, that is, the next crisis erupts in the next country.

Increasingly, it’s hard for Pope Francis to distance himself from the fallout. A full 30 percent of his C9 body of cardinals is now tainted by these scandals. Pell, Maradiaga, and Errazuriz are all over 75, so their resignations are on Francis’s desk, unaccepted. Pineda Fasquelle also made a point to mention he offered the pope his resignation “months ago,” yet continued in office until Friday.

McCarrick, despite being retired, was considered a confidant of the pope who had his ear, especially when it came to the Church in the United States.

RELATED: Revelations of US cardinal sex abuse force pope’s hand

Even when a bishop is punished, he – like Pineda Fasquelle – is almost always allowed to simply resign, with no reason given. In fact, when Guam Archbishop Anthony Apuron, accused of multiple accounts of molesting children, was found guilty by the Vatican in March, a statement only said he was guilty of “certain offenses” with no mention of what they were.

Since the McCarrick case exploded, there has been a lot of talk of the underlying causes: A clerical culture based on privilege and secrecy, a failure to acknowledge the role homosexuality plays in the modern priesthood, a fear of the scandal of exposure that causes bishops and other superiors to turn a blind eye to the sexual proclivities of a large segment of the presbyterate, and networks put in place to protect and even promote ‘friends.’

The problem is so complex, large and widespread it could be said to be endemic. And when a disease is endemic, any individual step taken to tackle it will always seem inadequate and, therefore, ultimately futile, which is perhaps the pope’s problem.

That’s not to say, however, there aren’t plausible first steps that could be taken. If one were to survey the Church’s leading experts on child protection right now, you’d probably hear a set of recommendations fairly close to the following.

1. Rules and standards need to be public and accessible

Francis could publish an Apostolic Constitution on clerical sexual abuse, bringing together all of the existing legislation and covering everyone, including cardinals and bishops to avoid impressions of double standards. It could also encompass the sprawling galaxy of lay movements and organizations, which some observers consider among the new frontiers of the abuse scandals.

The drafting process could be transparent and involve lay experts. It could also cover related offenses, including child pornography, professionally unethical sexual behavior (such as propositioning seminarians, parish staff, etc.), and covering up abuse. The pope could present the document as a statement that everyone in the Church – victims, the accused, and all the faithful – deserves a clear and understandable process.

Granted, truly “one-size-fits-all” solutions won’t work, because of the complexity of situations in different places and cultures. Still, the Church manages to impose something resembling a standard approach on matters of perceived importance, such as doctrinal formula and liturgical practice, and it would be hard for many people to understand why the protection of children wouldn’t merit the same level of seriousness.

2. Justice belongs in a courtroom, not an administrative office.

Currently, clerical abuse cases are handled by the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, mostly because it was decided under St. Pope John Paul II that Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the future Pope Benedict XVI, should handle the issue. Now, Francis could establish a tribunal at the Vatican that exclusively deals with sexual abuse and is staffed with experts in its investigation and prosecution.

The judicial process should be transparent, and the sentences should be public.

The Vatican already has some experience here: The Vatican City court has held several trials recently, with journalists allowed to attend – in fact, one trial had journalists as defendants as part of a “Vatileaks” scandal, and another featured a papal diplomat convicted of possession and distribution of child pornography.

Keep in mind that the Vatican City court is the court of a country, not a Church, and its trials – under the Roman law system common in Europe, as opposed to the common law system in the U.S. – take place in a courtroom. Church trials are more paperwork affairs, with testimony being sent in from afar and folders being passed around. As a result, its version of transparency might not be as dramatic as an episode of “Law & Order.”

3. Do more to keep “bad apples” out.

The pope could also install new procedures to properly vet candidates to higher office in the Church, even if that means a public “nomination process” which allows time for those with objections to bring them forward. The crisis means this vetting should be much more aggressive than it is now (generally, forms are sent out, which usually come back with glowing reviews).

Future nominees for government posts have a thorough review of their past relationships, financial records, and other aspects of their life for anything that might make the administration look bad, and many analysts likely would say it’s time for the Vatican to follow suit.

Again, the outcome will gain credibility if lay experts with knowledge of the field are part of it.

4. If there is a fire, make sure you smother the embers.

What PR gurus would likely tell the Catholic Church right now is not to assume that removing a high-ranking official is necessarily the end of the story. A bishop with an eye for the seminarians may have advanced the career of his accomplices; there’s a good bet a child molester who likes to vacation in Thailand didn’t travel alone.

Corruption investigations of this sort are also ones that require investigators to have special expertise and significant professional experience. The Church could announce its intention to work together with INTERPOL and other competent agencies (The FBI and Scotland Yard often assist other countries in complex criminal investigations, for example).

5. Update the code on bishop resignations.

Canon 401 of the Code of Canon gives two reasons a bishop can resign: He’s reached the age of 75 or is stricken by “ill health or other grave cause.” A new paragraph could be added for malfeasance, recognizing people’s right to know if their shepherds have committed offenses so drastic it requires their removal. Similarly, bishops resigning due to ill health or other just cause have the right not to be suspected of wrong-doing.

No one would contend that these reforms, by themselves, will end sexual abuse in the Church, nor heal the physical, psychological, or spiritual damage caused by abusive priests. Arguably, however, they would at least acknowledge a series of long-standing roadblocks to true reform.

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