VATICAN CITY — The legal loopholes that have allowed Catholic bishops to escape sanction when they cover up clergy sex abuse cases may be closing.
Two U.S. cardinals have confirmed that the Vatican is working on a “clarification” to a 2016 law that was supposed to hold bishops and religious superiors accountable when they fail to protect their flocks but never really did.
Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston told a press conference Friday during Pope Francis’s sex abuse prevention summit that he had been “guaranteed” that the new document would “come out very soon.” Chicago Cardinal Blase Cupich said the document would “standardize” procedures within the various Vatican offices to investigate bishops and order their removal.
The new document would further clarify the law Francis issued in 2016, entitled “As a Loving Mother,” which he passed instead of creating a special tribunal section inside the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to handle abuse of office cases.
Cupich said the law had been applied in “recent cases,” but the Vatican has provided no information about how it has been implemented or how many bishops have been sanctioned as a result of it.
For decades, the Vatican has been criticized by abuse victims and their advocates for having turned a blind eye to the bishops and religious superiors who failed to punish sexual predators in the priesthood. While the Vatican began cracking down on the abusers themselves under Pope Benedict XVI, the superiors who enabled the crimes and allowed abusers to continue raping children largely got a pass.
Acting on a proposal from his sex abuse advisory commission, Francis and his group of cardinal advisers agreed in 2015 to create a tribunal section within the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to prosecute bishops and superiors when they botched cases. A press statement issued at the time said the pope had pledged to provide the new office with adequate staffing and resources.
But the tribunal posed a host of legal and bureaucratic issues and ran into opposition from bishops and the Vatican bureaucracy. The congregation, which already handles sex abuse cases, apparently was never consulted about the feasibility of creating such a tribunal before it was announced to the press to great fanfare.
A year later, Francis issued “As a Loving Mother” that made no mention of a tribunal but merely reminded the four Vatican offices that already handle bishop issues that they were also responsible for investigating and punishing negligence cases. It made clear that a negligent act or omission on handling an abuse allegation was grounds for dismissal.
The Vatican’s longtime sex crimes prosecutor, Archbishop Charles Scicluna, told reporters Friday that under the 2016 law, it was actually easier to remove a negligent bishop than if he were subject to a canonical trial in a tribunal where the bishop’s intent would have to be proven.
The 2016 law “looks at the objective state of the (bishops’) incapacity” to govern, whereas a tribunal would have required proof that an actual law had been broken, Scicluna said. The 2016 legislation benefits those who are claiming negligence by a bishop because “they only have to denounce an objective fact: that nothing was done,” Scicluna said.
O’Malley, who heads a commission that first proposed the tribunal, said the issue of holding bishops accountable was “uppermost in our minds right now.”
“Right now the Holy See is working on, preparing a clarification of the implementation that will come out very soon, I am guaranteed,” he said.
Cupich, for his part, dedicated his speech to Francis’s abuse summit to how such investigations against bishops might be reported to the Vatican and then carried out once the Vatican has authorized an investigation. His proposal called for the metropolitan bishop — who has authority over other bishops in a particular geographic region — to conduct the investigation, using the help of lay experts.
“What I present here is a framework for constructing new legal structures of accountability in the church,” Cupich said, in a speech that implied that such structures are very much in the works at the Holy See.
Speakers at Francis’s summit have proposed other changes to canon law as well to ensure accountability and fairness to victims and accused priests alike.
Linda Ghisoni, an Italian canon lawyer and undersecretary at the Vatican’s laity office, said the Holy See should change its laws concerning the “pontifical secret” — the confidentiality regulations that govern how sex abuse cases are handled internally.
Victims for years have denounced the high level of secrecy, which often prevents them from learning the outcomes or progress of their cases. Accused priests, too, have complained how they are kept in the dark about the details of their cases.
Ghisoni told the summit that a degree of confidentiality must be retained to guarantee the dignity and reputations of all involved. But she said the secrecy regulations “should allow for the development of a climate of greater transparency and trust.”