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Finally Punishing Bishops Who Covered For Pedophiles

Pope Francis, pictured here on June 6, 2015, has created a new tribunal section inside the Vatican to hear cases of bishops accused of covering up for priests who raped and molested children, the biggest step the Holy See has taken to hold bishops accountable for abuse. (Andrew Medichini/AP)MoreCloseclosemore
Pope Francis, pictured here on June 6, 2015, has created a new tribunal section inside the Vatican to hear cases of bishops accused of covering up for priests who raped and molested children, the biggest step the Holy See has taken to hold bishops accountable for abuse. (Andrew Medichini/AP)

Might some Friends of Francis appear before the pope’s just-created tribunal to investigate bishops charged with shielding pedophile priests? Lovers of soap opera can only hope. As for us Catholics, the fact that the queue of defendants could look as crowded as the Republican presidential debate stage is painful, but the tribunal is overdue.

The pope who famously asked “who am I to judge” about gays is poised to judge accused concealers of crime. Good for him. Meanwhile, the aggregated response of abuse survivors and their advocates to the papal announcement has been a measured two cheers. They welcome the idea but, wisely, are withholding final assessment until they see how the panel works in practice.

the aggregated response of abuse survivors and their advocates to the papal announcement has been a measured two cheers.

Victims should be the go-to sources on this. They suffered the crimes and have been the most relentless voices for reform in the church. The tribunal is a longstanding demand of theirs, as episcopal enablers helped perpetuate the pedophile scandal but largely have escaped punishment. Peter Saunders, an abuse survivor advising Francis, termed the papal creation “a positive step."

At the same time, he told The New York Times, "When allegations against senior clergy are brought to the tribunal, we'll see whether it's working." The president of Boston-based BishopAccountability.org was cheered by the news, but his counterpart at Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests was underwhelmed, seeing the tribunal as Roman-collared foxes guarding the hen house. Better, she argued, for the Vatican to lobby for more robust secular prosecution of guilty bishops. For its part, the Vatican insisted that the tribunal would not take the place of law enforcement but would add ecclesiastical penalties.

One measure of the tribunal's commitment will be whether and how it handles allegations against clerics whom Francis has favored. In Chile, the pope has stood by a bishop he installed despite mass protests over charges that the man covered up for an accused priest molester. That priest escaped prosecution owing to statute of limitations concerns. Meanwhile, Australian Cardinal George Pell, tapped by the pope to clean up the Vatican’s corrupt finances, has testified before an Australian commission probing sex abuse. Pell has threatened to sue Saunders and "60 Minutes" for a broadcast in which the former questioned the cardinal’s handling of a defrocked pedophile.

While Boston Cardinal Sean O’Malley was a driving force behind the tribunal’s creation, his country may contribute defendants. Archbishop John C. Nienstedt just resigned as leader of the Archdiocese of Minneapolis and St. Paul, which is under indictment for ignoring years of warnings about an ex-priest who’s now serving a five-year prison term for child sexual misconduct. The bishop of the Kansas City-St. Joseph Archdiocese, Robert W. Finn, stepped down from his leadership post after being convicted of negligence in his handling of a priest who took child-pornography photos. A papal spokesman said it was unclear whether such resignations will spare bishops from tribunal trials.

One measure of the tribunal's commitment will be whether and how it handles allegations against clerics whom Francis has favored.

If the trust-but-verify attitude toward the new tribunal seems conflicted, well, we Catholics, as one observer has noted, "are used to, and uniquely good at, holding contradictory truths in [our] minds at once.” We treasure the church’s strengths, from its schools and social services to the grand philosophical tradition that informs us spiritually, even while many of us wish it would alter its attitude towards women’s ordination, gay people, and artificial contraception.

Other people live with conflicted loyalties — Democrats against abortion, Republicans who believe in climate change. But they're not led by a man who has vowed no "daddy's boys" — bishops sheltered from accountability for sex abuse. Vatican expert John Allen argues that housing the tribunal in the orthodoxy-policing Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and providing it with ample staff show that Francis means business. If so, he’ll have taken another step toward deserving the global adulation he’s receiving.

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Rich Barlow Cognoscenti contributor
Rich Barlow writes for BU Today, Boston University's news website.

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