In one fell swoop Wednesday, Pope Francis moved to address arguably the greatest bone of contention about the Vatican’s response to the Catholic child sexual abuse scandals and also gave himself a badly needed bit of good news, at a time when his handling of the scandals has been drawing fire around the world.
The Vatican announced Wednesday that Francis has approved the creation of a tribunal — a Church court — to judge bishops charged with failing to apply the Church’s official “zero tolerance” policy for abuse of minors properly. The idea is to ensure that if a bishop drops the ball, he’s held accountable.
The tribunal will be housed within the Vatican’s powerful Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which lends it immediate political heft. In another sign of how seriously Francis takes it, he also approved an exception to a Vatican hiring freeze imposed in 2013 to allow the tribunal to attract qualified personnel.
The idea to create the court came from the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, an advisory panel for the pontiff created in 2014 and headed by Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley of Boston. It’s thus also further confirmation that O’Malley is the prime mover in shaping policy under Francis on matters related to sexual abuse.
Vatican officials stressed that the tribunal is not intended to take the place of civil law enforcement. If a bishop’s failure to act on an abuse charge constitutes a crime where he lives, those officials said, he’ll still have to face civil consequences.
Instead, the tribunal is intended to ensure that in addition to whatever criminal liability a bishop may face, he’s also held accountable inside the Church.
In effect, the tribunal is an answer to the most critical question many abuse victims and other observers have asked for years about the Church’s official embrace of zero tolerance: What happens when a bishop ignores it?
Critics cited Bishop Robert Finn of Kansas City-St. Joseph, for instance, who was convicted on a misdemeanor criminal charge of delaying to report an accusation of child abuse against one of his priests in 2012, but remained on the job until Francis accepted his resignation in April.
Speaking on background, Vatican officials said the new tribunal is designed to handle precisely that sort of situation. In theory, a bishop could appeal a verdict to the pope, but a Vatican spokesman said Wednesday “there’s no reason to expect he’d overrule the tribunal’s decision.”
The announcement comes at a time when the pope’s commitment to abuse reform has come into question in various parts of the world.
In Chile, the pontiff’s January appointment of Juan de la Cruz Barros Madrid as the new bishop of the Diocese of Osorno generated strong national protest because of Barros’ ties to the Rev. Fernando Karadima, found guilty by the Vatican in 2011 of sexual abuse of minors and sentenced to a life of “penance and prayer.”
Karadima’s victims have accused Barros and three other bishops of covering up for the priest while he sexually abused followers during the 1980s and 1990s. When Barros was installed in Osorno on March 21, his Mass had to be cut short due to protests. An angry mob crowd threw objects at Barros, pushed him, and tried to stop him from entering the church.
Despite the outcry, Francis confirmed Barros in his new position.
Recent weeks have also brought strong criticism of the prelate the pope appointed to clean up the Vatican’s messy finances. Cardinal George Pell of Australia has come under fire from a Royal Commission in his home country investigating his handling of abuse cases when he was archbishop of Melbourne from 1996 to 2001.
Testimony delivered at commission hearings has featured accusations that Pell tried to bribe an abuse victim into silence and other alleged misdeeds, all of which Pell has strongly denied. A member of the pope’s own anti-abuse commission, a British victim named Peter Saunders, even publicly accused Pell of being “sociopathic” in his treatment of victims.
To date, there’s no sign that Francis’ support for Pell as his financial reformer has wavered.
An American clearinghouse for information related to the Catholic abuse scandals, BishopAccountability.org, released a statement Wednesday calling the new tribunal “a promising step,” but warning that to make it work will require “a courage and an aggressive commitment that have so far been sadly lacking.”
Aside from Barros and Pell, the group also cited an American prelate who might become a target for the tribunal: Archbishop John Nienstedt of St. Paul and Minneapolis, who has been accused of allowing at least two priests to continue serving despite facing either allegations or convictions for the abuse of minors.
The situation in St. Paul-Minneapolis is so bad that the archdiocese is in bankruptcy from paying victims’ claims, and prosecutors filed criminal charges last week against the archdiocese as a corporation for failing to protect children.
Francis promised in 2014 that there would be no “daddy’s boys” on his watch, meaning that bishops won’t be allowed to consider themselves above the law. He’s now created a system designed to deliver on that promise.
As of this week, there’s no longer any confusion about how accountability is supposed to be imposed. The only question is how long it will take to start imposing it – and, perhaps, who will be first in line to get it.