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  • John Thavis

Pope’s sex abuse commission zeroes in on bishop’s accountability

Updated: Feb 19, 2020

For months, I’ve heard mixed reviews of Pope Francis’ efforts to confront the sex abuse scandal in the church.

The pope generally gets high marks for two initiatives – his meeting with abuse victims last summer and his establishment of a Vatican child protection commission to strengthen and coordinate anti-abuse policies worldwide.

Critics, however, have pointed out that the commission, established late in 2013, is still getting organized and setting priorities. That makes its current three-day meeting in Rome especially important. People are waiting to see what concrete changes will emerge.

On Saturday we got a glimpse of the commission’s agenda from Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston, who heads the Vatican agency. Probably the most important disclosure was that the commission is drawing up recommendations for sanctioning bishops who have covered up abuse cases.

To date, bishops’ accountability has been the missing element in the Vatican’s approach to the scandals. While Pope Francis has investigated and, in a couple of cases, removed bishops, there is no systematic procedure for discipline or dismissal when reporting guidelines are not followed.

The assumption has always been that only the pope can “fire” a bishop – and that it’s almost impossible for the pope to follow details in every diocese. But the commission appears to be looking at a new way to bridge that gap.

Cardinal O’Malley said a specific working group that includes canon lawyers is drawing up “policies that would allow the church to respond in an expeditious way when the bishop has not fulfilled his obligations.” He said work on the recommendations is nearly complete, and that they would be presented to the pope and “hopefully implemented.”

“We think we have come up with some very practical recommendations that would help to remedy the situation that is such a source of anxiety to everybody on the commission,” O’Malley said.

“Obviously, there have to be consequences” for such bishops, O’Malley said. He declined to say specifically what sanctions the commission had in mind.

Marie Collins, an Irish survivor of clerical sexual abuse who is also on the commission, said she considers the accountability issue crucial. If the commission’s recommendations are followed, she said, she felt confident that they would resolve the problem.

“You have to have sanctions (for bishops), or it’s a waste of time,” she said.

Asked about the fact that dismissal of a bishop is seen as only the pope’s prerogative, Collins said, “Currently, yes.” She said she could not elaborate at the present time.

Cardinal O’Malley outlined several other initiatives by the commission and its various working groups:

— Each bishops’ conference around the world will be asked to name a contact person who will keep open a line of communication with the commission.

— The commission will work with the Vatican’s doctrinal congregation to suggest “best practices,” especially to bishops’ conferences, and will also present methods for measuring compliance. O’Malley said that only a small minority of bishops’ conferences, about 4 percent, have failed to draw up sex abuse guidelines, as requested by the Vatican in 2011. But he added that some of the guidelines that have been devised were too weak.

— The commission is developing educational seminars on sexual abuse for Roman Curia officials and new bishops who come to Rome for orientation.

— A church-wide Day of Prayer for all those harmed by sexual abuse is being prepared, to aid spiritual healing.

— The commission is asking Catholic funding organizations to include child protection in the guidelines for eligibility for funding, and to award grants to countries that lack resources to deal with sexual abuse.

— One of the commission’s working groups is reaching out systematically to survivors and survivor groups, so they can participate in the overall work of the commission. One commission member said it was proposed to request cooperation from U.S.-based Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, known as SNAP, a group that has been sharply critical of the pope, the Vatican and local dioceses on the sex abuse issue.

Beyond the details of commission projects, what was striking about the Vatican press conference was the change in attitude, compared to years past. When the sex abuse scandal exploded in 2002, Vatican officials were often defensive and dismissive, suggesting that the problem was being blown out of proportion by lawyers and the media.

At Saturday’s meeting with the press, the Vatican went out of its way to make commission members available to reporters, including the two victim survivors serving on the panel, who spoke bluntly about church failures.

Peter Saunders, a British survivor who was abused by two priests and others for five years, was outspoken in his call for bishops’ accountability, saying there had been “an abysmal record of so many ill-judged responses by priests and dioceses around the world.”

Saunders said the commission was also looking at how experts can study the deeper causes of sexual abuse. He said one factor that should be studied is priestly celibacy, although he made clear that he did not think celibacy led to abuse.

“In my version of the Bible, Jesus never said, ‘If you want to follow me, you have to be celibate,’” Saunders said.

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