Pope Francis approves a new process for governing bishop accountability in abuse cases

By Abby Ohlheiser And Michelle Boorstein
June 10, 2015

Pope Francis leaves St.Peter’s Square at the Vatican after his weekly general audience , Wednesday, May 13, 2015.
Photo by Alessandra Tarantino

The Vatican Wednesday announced the creation of a new tribunal for holding accountable bishops who fail to deal properly with clergy sexual abuse.

While the announcement didn’t appear to include new penalties for bishops, some sex abuse experts said it was significant that Pope Francis was firming up the oversight process of bishops, who are traditionally granted wide-ranging powers and autonomy over the affairs in their region.

The new structure will be inside the Vatican’s doctrine-enforcing arm – considered perhaps the most powerful body within the church.

“It’s a major thing because it’s putting bishops on notice. It’s saying: ‘If you don’t deal with this you have to face the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith,’ and no one wants to face the CDF,” said Monsignor Stephen Rossetti, a psychologist and professor at the Catholic University of America who used to head St. Luke’s Institute- a key treatment center for priest-offenders.

Rossetti called the issue of accountability for bishops who oversee or cover up abusers “the cutting edge” for the church. Long ago, he noted, popes established that abusers had committed the “gravest of crimes … but I think it’s true that this issue of accountability [for their bishop-bosses] was not as nailed down. This nails it down very clearly.”

The proposal was submitted to the pope by a high-level body he created to suggest improvements in dealing with abusers and their superiors. While the topic exploded in the United States more than a decade ago, it is just erupting around the world, particularly in developing countries. While the U.S. system built in the past decade to prevent abuse is highly praised, bishops who moved around abusers are still rarely held accountable at all.

Two months ago, Kansas City Bishop Robert Finn stepped down – three years after he was convicted criminally in an abuse cover-up.

[Vatican accepts resignation of U.S. bishop convicted of sex abuse coverup]

The new system gives the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith the authority to “judge bishops with regard to crimes of the abuse of office when connected to the abuse of minors,” Vatican spokesman the Rev. Thomas Rosica said in an emailed statement to the Post.

Marie Collins, a member of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, tweeted her initial response to the approval on Wednesday.


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