Bishop Accountability

Some Thoughts on the Vatican's Decision on the U.S. Norms

By Thomas Doyle, J.C.D.

The Vatican's decision to return the U.S. Norms and Charter for further refinement at the hands of a joint commission was no surprise to anyone with experience in church administration and certainly no surprise to canonists. The decision evoked disappointment, anger and frustration among the victims, the survivors and their supporters. The angry reaction is understandable.

The victims/survivors are the most important group of people in this entire quagmire. They above all have a right to recognition, compassion and justice. They, more than anyone else, need to be heard and listened to and not just politely tolerated. When the bishops met in Dallas and even before that, when the cardinals met in Rome, they talked about the victims but never really “heard” them. They responded with the questionable Charter and Norms, stating that they did so primarily in response to the victims. But was this really the case? Did they perhaps respond so hastily so as to relieve the mounting pressure from not only victims but the press, looming lawsuits and angry lay people? The hope was that the norms would receive a quick approval, the deal would be done and they could go back to business as usual, in hopes of rapidly rebuilding their power base, prestige and trust. None of that happened nor will it happen.

The Vatican action will keep the heat on so that with increased steady pressure from without, maybe someone among the bishops will suggest asking the really important question — the question the victims/survivors and plenty of others insist is the real issue. That question is “why did the bishops really allow clerical rapists to prey on children, adolescents and adults for years.” They can forget the standardized answers they have been cranking out since the scandal was uncovered: “we never really understood how serious it is,” “we relied on the best advice available,” etc., etc., etc. No thinking person buys any of that given the revelations of the past few months.

Canon law defines sexual abuse of a minor, rape, and other forms of sexual misconduct as crimes. It mandates that whenever a bishop gets a report of such a crime, even from an anonymous source or a rumor, he is obligated to investigate and if there is probable cause, to take action against the offender. This investigation is to be documented . There have been thousands of proven instances of the commission of these crimes. In almost none of these cases did the bishops follow canon law. The crimes were proven not by internal church processes but by the civil authorities who became involved for two reasons: first, sexual abuse of a minor is a civil crime and second, the church's internal system failed dismally at dealing with these problems.

The bishops effectively dispensed themselves from following the rules because they were afraid of the consequences. By simply transferring the offending clerics to other parishes, they gave them the opportunity to offend again and indeed this is exactly what happened. This, according to canon law, can be construed as complicity in the commission of the additional crimes. In other words, the religious leaders become accomplices to the crimes.

What does all this have to do the Vatican's action? First, the norms amounted to an attempt by the bishops to once again dispense themselves from procedural law and make up the rules to suit their immediate needs. It was an effective way of dodging the bullet aimed at them and their part in this whole mess. The Norms as stated would have allowed a continuation of the secrecy. They would have allowed due process to once again be left by the wayside in favor of totally subjective expediency. They would have allowed the accusers to once again be frozen out of the shadowy process. The Vatican objected to the two main areas that got the bishops in trouble in the first place: a) the vague definition of “sexual abuse” and b) the process, or lack thereof, whereby accusations are investigated. Maybe the imposed refinement of the norms will force the bishops and anyone else still in denial about all of this to realize just exactly what we are dealing with. They have been trying to interpret “sexual abuse” by the vague and totally misleading phrase, “inappropriate actions” or “inappropriate touching.” Let's not kid ourselves. With a few exceptions what we are talking about is gross sexual violation and rape.

Had the norms been signed into law by the Vatican the already steadily mounting number of appeals from suspended priests would have turned into a flood. In spite of the U.S. norms, the Vatican courts would have started reversing the bishops' decisions as they are doing right now with some of the cases submitted. This prospect would have caused an immense impasse. As it is, the Vatican is saying that the bishops have to play by the rules and do it right. Had they done it this way all along we probably would not be in the midst of the disaster we're in today.

The measures proposed at Dallas were weak. They were ambiguous. They might have sounded effective but they were not. They held the potential for more isolation of the victims, more secrecy and more injustice for victims and for clerics as well.

The church cannot effectively police itself. That's obvious not only from the past few decades or even centuries but especially from the potential chaos that came packaged with the proposed norms. Sex abuse is a civil crime and the civil law enforcement authorities should do the investigating, not ecclesiastical amateurs.

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