For the First Time, Vatican Will Judge Bishops for Sex Abuse

June 12, 2015

[with video]


JUDY WOODRUFF: Pope Francis has made his most significant move yet to deal with the sexual abuse scandals that have plagued the Catholic Church for more than three decades.

Yesterday, the Vatican announced an unprecedented step that victims have long sought: a tribunal to judge and discipline bishops accused of covering up or failing to act on reports of child sexual abuse.

Hari Sreenivasan has the story.

HARI SREENIVASAN: More than 800 priests have been defrocked over the years, and 2,500 have been penalized. But, until now, no pope has publicly confronted or punished a bishop himself for such offenses.

Several bishops here and aboard are under investigation after being accused of covering up such crimes. A number of victimsí groups supported the move, but some also said it didnít go far enough.

John Allen closely covers the Vatican. He is an associate editor of The Boston Globe and the Crux, The Globeís Web site covering the Catholic Church.

So, John, I remember how momentous it was when Pope John Paul II apologized for sexual abuse. How big of a deal is this tribunal that will go after bishops?

JOHN ALLEN, Associate Editor, The Boston Globe: Well, Hari, I think itís an enormously big deal, if it works as itís been described.

The central bone of contention among survivors of abuse and their advocacy groups over the years has been that the Catholic Church has adopted very stern policies for abuse. They have officially embraced zero tolerance. Today, if a priest is accused of abusing a minor, heís going to be yanked out of ministry and probably ultimately kicked out of the priesthood relatively quickly.

Their complaint has been that there hasnít been a similar system of accountability for bishops who covered up these crimes. And thatís, obviously, the hole that Pope Francis is trying to fill.

We should say, Hari, that Vatican officials have been at pains to insist that this new system is not intended to replace criminal liability in terms of secular law enforcement. That is, if a bishopís failure to act on a complaint of child abuse constitutes a crime in the place where he lives, the Vatican is saying he still has to face the music for that.

This is intended to ensure that, in addition to that criminal exposure, there is also internal ecclesiastical liability, which typically in practice means that the bishop would lose his job.

HARI SREENIVASAN: OK. So those bishops that could lose their job includes some bishops in the United States that have been caught up in this and accused of covering things up, right?

JOHN ALLEN: Yes, thatís right.

I mean, up until very recently, many people would have argued that the first logical case for this tribunal to take up would have been the case of Bishop Robert Finn of Kansas City-St. Joseph in Missouri, who became the first American bishop to be criminally convicted on a misdemeanor charge of delaying to report a charge of child abuse, and yet for another 2.5 years continued to sit, with no apparent church consequences, as the leader of that dioceses.

Now, in February, Pope Francis accepted his resignation, so Finn has now already lost his position. But another situation that a lot of people would have their eyes would be in the Archdiocese of Saint Paul-Minneapolis in Minnesota, where the archbishop there, Archbishop John Nienstedt, has been accused of knowingly allowing at least two priests, one of whom has been accused of child abuse, the other actually convicted of it, to continue to serve as recently as 2013-2014, which, if true, would be a clear violation of the churchís zero-tolerance policy.

Many people believe that that might be one of the first cases this new tribunal takes up.

HARI SREENIVASAN: OK. So, since this announcement came out, you have had a chance to talk to survivors groups. What do they say?

JOHN ALLEN: I think the reaction is mixed, Hari.

On the one hand, I think there are many survivors who would say that to them this comes off as church officials judging other church officials, and they, frankly have, relatively little confidence in the integrity of those procedures.

Others think there is something new about the commitment of Pope Francis to get this right. Pope Francis has vowed that, on his watch ó and this is his language ó he has said there will be no be daddyís boys, that is, church officials who get special treatment because theyíre higher up the food chain. And they want to believe that thatís going to be translated into action.

I spoke recently with a survivor by the name of Peter Saunders in Great Britain, who actually sits on a papal commission advising the pontiff on sex abuse matters, who described this as a very positive step that indicates the pope is listening to survivors.








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