The most common complaint about the way the Catholic Church handled the 2001 sex abuse crisis was not the way it dealt with victims or with offending priests, but the way it dealt with bishops who were seen as either complicit or culpably negligent. Now the Vatican seems poised to change that.
In December 2013, Pope Francis announced his intention to set up a commission for the Protection of Minors, which was formally established last March. The 17-member commission, headed by Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston, is winding down its first plenary meeting, which took place in Rome from Feb. 6-8.
One of the key points in the commission’s agenda has been the question of bishop accountability, and what sort of sanctions should be imposed on bishops suspected of cover-ups or of failing to prevent abuse.
Last November, O’Malley wrote a column that was posted on the website of the archdiocesan newspaper. “We are all aware that Catholics want their leaders to be held accountable for the safety of children, but the accountability has been sporadic,” he said. “We need clear protocols that will replace the improvisation and inertia that has often been the response in these matters.”
In a press conference on Saturday, O’Malley said that the commission has proposed new norms that “would allow the Church to respond in an expeditious way when a bishop has not fulfilled his obligations.”
“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,” he said.
According to Peter Saunders, a member of the commission who was abused by priests as an adolescent, “Bishop’s accountability is most definitely something that is of concern and central to some of the work that is going to be carried out by commission.”
“It is not disputed that there have been far too many cover-ups, there have been far too many clergy protected, moved from place to place – this has got to be consigned to history very quickly,” he said.
Both Saunders and another member of the group, Marie Collins of Ireland, said they would resign unless something was done to make bishops accountable.
BishopAccountability.org, an American association that monitors sexual abuse in the Church, urged the commission to recommend “tough and unambiguous” measures.
Pope Francis sent a letter Thursday to all presidents of bishop’s conferences and religious superiors, asking for their full cooperation with the Vatican commission.
In the letter, Pope Francis told bishops that families “need to know that the Church is making every effort to protect their children.” He also underscored that “priority must not be given to any other kind of concern, whatever its nature, such as the desire to avoid scandal, since there is absolutely no place in ministry for those who abuse minors.”
Cardinal O’Malley expressed his gratitude for the Pope’s letter, which, he said, was a suggestion the commission had made some time ago.
Follow Thomas D. Williams on Twitter @tdwilliamsrome.