Argentina Bishops Delayed Abuse Plan

By Stacy Meichtry
The Wall Street Journal
April 8, 2013

Pope Francis greets bishops during his an audience in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican on Wednesday.

Under Pope Francis, Then Top Cardinal, Country's Clergy Missed Vatican Deadline to Create Guidelines

As the new leader of the world's 1.2 billion Roman Catholics, Pope Francis pledged Friday to forge ahead with measures aimed at stemming sexual abuse in church ranks. But as the church's most powerful official in Argentina, he didn't comply with a Vatican call to create guidelines for handling sexual-abuse allegations in the country.

The delay, which hasn't been previously reported, opens new questions about the new pope's record of addressing the issue of sexual abuse by priests, even as the Vatican vowed anew to address the issue.

On Friday, Pope Francis met with Cardinal Gerhard Ludwig Müller, who heads the office in charge of leading the Vatican's global crackdown on abusive priests and instructed him to continue the Vatican's strategy for fighting sex abuse. The pope urged him to "act decisively with regard to cases of sexual abuse, pushing above all the measures to protect minors," the Vatican said. Swift detection, Vatican officials have said, is crucial to stopping abusive priests.

The Vatican highlighted the importance of pressing national conferences of bishops to draw up comprehensive policies for detecting abuse and helping victims. "The commitment of bishops conferences in formulating and implementing the necessary guidelines is so important for the witness and credibility of the church," the Vatican said following the meeting Friday.

Among those that haven't met the Vatican's deadline for the guidelines—which passed nearly a year ago—is the Argentina conference that was run by Cardinal Jorge Bergolio, who on March 13 was named Pope Francis.

As of February, only 25% of the world's bishops conferences had failed to submit the guidelines, according to the Vatican. Most of those were in Africa, it said, without providing further details.

"It's absolutely shocking that the Argentina Bishops Conference doesn't have a written policy," said Maeve Lewis, executive director of the Dublin-based One-in-Four abuse victims group.

Many of thethousands of abuse cases that have surfaced across Europe in recent years were reported decades after the fact, Ms. Lewis said, because children were afraid to come forward at the time of the abuse. "Unless you have well-trained personnel in place to receive disclosures, you're not going to get them," she said.

The Argentine conference missed the Vatican's deadline because the guidelines are still being drafted, said Bishop Sergio Buenanueva, who is spearheading the process. The guidelines will be submitted to Argentina's bishops for approval during their April 15 meeting and then forwarded to the Vatican, he said.

The Vatican confirmed late Friday that the Argentina guidelines were "in their final stages" of preparation. The draft "was already being used when necessary," Vatican spokesman Rev. Federico Lombardi said in an email.

The Vatican's call went out in May 2011. In a letter to Cardinal Bergoglio and other top churchmen around the world, Cardinal Müller's predecessor at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, as the Vatican's watchdog is called, requested that each country's bishops submit a written national plan for dealing with sexual abuse by May 2012.

Bishop Buenanueva said the Argentina conference received the Vatican's request in 2011 but decided to delay drafting the norms. Argentine church officials, the bishop said, wanted to first attend a symposium on sex abuse that was held in the Gregorian University in Rome in February 2012. A four-person commission was working on the Argentina guidelines, including two canon lawyers and a psychiatrist, and it had taken the commission all of 2012 to draw up the text, he added.

In its 2011 request, the Vatican also asked bishops to meet with victims of sexual abuse by priests. "The bishop or his delegate," the Vatican wrote, "should be prepared to listen to the victims and their families, and to be committed to their spiritual and psychological assistance."

Before his election as pope, Cardinal Bergoglio had declined to meet with victims of sexual abuse, according to the victims and a spokesman for the Buenos Aires archdiocese.

In his time as the archbishop of Buenos Aires, then-Cardinal Bergoglio played up his role as a shepherd to his flock, emphasizing outreach to the poor and a distaste for bureaucracy.

In a Bergoglio biography published by two Argentine journalists in 2010, the then-cardinal suggested that a rigorous selection process at the seminary in Buenos Aires filtered out candidates for the priesthood who could be tainted with "perversion." He also gave verbal instructions that civil authorities be notified of suspected abuse, said Federico Wals, his spokesman.

Cardinal Bergoglio's office was notably open to Argentines from all walks of life. But in four instances where abuse victims had taken their grievances against priests to court and later prevailed, the victims or their representatives said the cardinal hadn't responded to their requests to meet. Mr. Wals said the meetings were the responsibility of the bishops who oversee the areas where the abuse had allegedly taken place.

It isn't possible to say how big a problem priestly sexual abuse is in Argentina. Mr. Wals said that to his knowledge, there were no accusations of abuse in the Buenos Aires archdiocese, the largest in the country, during the past six years.

The Vatican called on bishops conferences around the world to create the guidelines to prevent local bishops from mishandling allegations of sexual abuse or, some cases, covering them up. Criminal, civil and church investigations in countries ranging from the U.S. and Ireland to Germany and Belgium have documented myriad cases in which bishops failed to swiftly report abuse to police or concealed sexually abusive clergymen by moving them from diocese to diocese—and sometimes across international borders—without informing local flocks.

As pontiff, Pope Francis is expected to lead the Vatican's efforts to review the guidelines and make sure they are implemented. Before voting in the conclave that elected Pope Francis, Cardinal Sean O'Malley of Boston said the pope would face a "monumental task" of making sure each conference develops a policy and implements it.

"The Holy See is going to have to mandate into these polices. They have to make sure that they're well written and then to guarantee that their implementation is carried out," the cardinal said.

So far, the Holy See hasn't required bishops worldwide to report allegations of abuse to civil authorities. Vatican officials say local bishops need leway to comply with the different legal systems of their specific countries. Some countries, including Italy, don't require sexual abuse to be reported. Other bishops work in countries where prelates face persecution, like China.



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