Pope’s Abuse Tribunal Should Also Lift the Lid on Historic Cases

By Danny Sullivan
The Tablet
June 15, 2015

On 10 June Pope Francis’ “C9” advisory group of cardinals had one of their regular meetings with him, and if we needed persuading that Pope Francis was serious about reform, the three matters reported on related to: the Vatican finances and how they were overseen, the reorganisation of Vatican communications and radical proposals from the Vatican Commission for the Protection of Minors.

The proposals around safeguarding suggested putting an end to system whereby three different congregations deal with complaints about bishops, and instead set up a tribunal that would be located within the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. This alone would judge bishops in relation to abuse of office when connected to the abuse of minors.

The proposals for these changes, presented by Boston’s Cardinal Sean O'Malley, were agreed by the advisory group of cardinals and immediately approved by Pope Francis. For a Church that is supposed to think in centuries, that is genuinely impressive.

As the commission recommended, Francis agreed that the tribunal should be properly set up, resourced and be given five years to settle to its work and then be evaluated.

You can see Pope Francis potentially thinking beyond his own papacy.

But will these proposals once implemented be effective? Time will tell, but Pope Francis is certainly developing a narrative in relation to senior church leaders being called to account in ways never seen before.

The former papal nuncio to the Dominican Republic, Archbishop Josef Weslowski, has been laicised following allegations of abuse; Bishop Finn of Kansas City-St Joseph has resigned following a conviction for failing to report child sexual abuse, and Scottish Cardinal Keith O'Brien has been stripped of his privileges as a cardinal because of inappropriate behaviour and an abuse of power.

The only case perhaps out of kilter with this narrative is the appointment of Bishop Juan Barros in Chile amid allegations that he knew a priest was abusing and even allegations that he observed abuse. One would think, given the new proposals, that all such allegations would be investigated thoroughly and decided upon before any formal appointment.

So while this new tribunal is very welcome and a tribute to the work of Cardinal Sean O'Malley and the members of the Vatican Commission for the Protection of Minors, I mention some caveats. Will the tribunal be genuinely and properly resourced in personnel and financially? Who will decide that? Will the work of the tribunal be open and transparent and speedy?

A recurring criticism of the CDF in relation to clergy and abuse is its lack of staffing in this area and the inordinate amount of time cases can take, although laicisation of convicted clergy appears to have speeded up. There also seems an inability to communicate with those involved in a case –especially survivors and victims, who often have no idea what is happening.

The most critical question for this new tribunal is whether it will deal with current complaints only, or whether it will include historic cases of bishops' failings. In England and Wales, Ireland and Scotland, all bishops’ conferences have conducted reviews of historic abuse cases to look for anything missed and lessons learnt. This has helped towards proper accountability and healing. The tribunal could make the same contribution to accountability, and healing and by so doing, recognise that whilst cases may be historic, the suffering and damage to survivors is in the here and now, day after day.

Danny Sullivan is the chairman of the National Catholic Safeguarding Commission








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