Pope Francis Makes Right Move in Holding Bishops Accountable

Tampa Tribune
June 20, 2015

Pope Francis has taken an admirable if overdue step in creating a tribunal to deal with bishops accused of covering up for priests suspected of sexual abuse against children.

A new Vatican tribunal will conduct inquiries and hand out punishment to bishops who protect abusive priests or look the other way when legitimate complaints are made. The need was reinforced just days after Francis’ recent announcement when a Roman Catholic archbishop and a deputy bishop in Minnesota resigned over accusations the archdiocese of protected an abusive priest.

As The New York Times reports, bishops have largely avoided punishment as the public became aware of the child sex abuse cases against Catholic priests. The bishops were considered above the criminality.

But the refusal in some instances to take the appropriate action against abusive priests — in some cases transferring the priests and allowing them to abuse again — is in itself deserving of punishment.

A Vatican spokesman says the tribunal will investigate whether bishops overseeing diocese with abusive priests were guilty of allowing the behavior to continue, perhaps by their lack of a proper response. “What one should have done and didn’t do,” the spokesman said. “This is another kind of responsibility and shortcoming, and has to be judged in an appropriate way with appropriate rules.”

In some cases, particularly years ago, bishops genuinely thought abusive priests could be treated and cured. And in other cases, the accusations may be disputed. But as Pope Francis recognizes, there can be no justification for repeatedly reassigning offenders to jobs where they can victimize children.

Take the case in Minnesota. Prosecutors say the archdiocese in St. Paul and Minneapolis mishandled repeated complaints of sexual misconduct against a priest accused of giving three male victims alcohol and drugs and sexually assaulting them between 2008 and 2010. A criminal complaint says supervisors were concerned about the priest’s conduct when he was in the seminary in the 1990s, but that he was made a priest anyway. Francis accepted the resignations of the archbishop and deputy bishop. The case illustrates the continuing need to press for reform related to the scandals. A church review board reported 37 allegations were made to the church last year of sexual abuse involving minors. Of those, six have been substantiated, and others remain open. There also remain hundreds of unresolved cases involving victims who were minors at the time but are now adults.

The public nature of the review board and its report shows the church is moving in the right direction. And locally, at the Diocese of St. Petersburg, there is a process in place to deal with complaints, one that uses lay people to hold even the bishop accountable, a spokesman says.

But for years, critics of the church’s response to sexual abuse cases have called on the Vatican to create a process for holding the bishops responsible. Though the tribunal’s inner-workings, and the punishment it could mete out, have yet to be defined, its creation sends a message that the people at the top are no longer immune. “This is the missing link in the church’s response to the abuse crisis,” the Rev. James Martin, a Jesuit priest, told The New York Times. “It is long overdue and a delayed response to this problem, but it’s an absolutely indispensable step.”

Francis has sought to minimize the church hierarchy and urged priests to be “shepherds living with the smell of sheep.”

But he knows trust is critical to the church better serving the faithful and should be commended for making it clear that every clergyman, regardless of how lofty his position, will be held accountable.








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