When Boston Cardinal Sean O’Malley told “60 Minutes” that Pope Francis was well aware of the need to hold Missouri Bishop Robert Finn accountable for shielding a suspected child abuser, it sounded like another bell tolling on Finn’s tenure, perhaps the loudest gong yet since Finn was convicted in 2012.
“It’s a question that the Holy See needs to address urgently,” O’Malley said Sunday (Nov. 16) when asked about Finn, who was found guilty of a misdemeanor for failing to tell police about the Rev. Shawn Ratigan. Ratigan was later convicted of federal child pornography charges.
“There’s a recognition of that,” O’Malley said. Asked if that recognition came directly from Pope Francis, the cardinal said yes: “From Pope Francis.”
O’Malley is known as Francis’ closest confidant among the U.S. bishops and he is part of the pope’s blue-ribbon commission on combating sex abuse by clergy.
But even more important may have been O’Malley’s remarks about the Vatican creating a system for disciplining bishops — establishing a process of accountability that could be used for churchmen beyond low-hanging clerical fruit like Finn.
“One of the first things that came up is the importance of accountability,” O’Malley said, referring to his role as leader of the sex abuse commission that Francis set up a year ago. “We’re looking at how the church could have protocols of how to respond when a bishop has not been responsible for the protection of the children in his diocese.”
That’s the kind of solution that will have long-term repercussions for the hierarchy because it won’t depend on one-off firings of bishops. Such a system also would not rely on the kind of secrecy that church lawyers say violates both due process and the kind of transparency that the faithful need on high-profile cases.
To be sure, Francis has taken actions against bishops who have committed abuse. In September, the Vatican announced that it had defrocked an archbishop and papal diplomat, Jozef Wesolowski, for allegedly abusing boys in the Dominican Republic. Wesolowski is under house arrest awaiting trial on criminal charges in the Vatican and could face extradition as well.
In addition, Francis has regularly blasted “careerist” churchmen who preen like “peacocks,” and he has taken steps to clip their wings.
In March of this year, Francis removed a German bishop, Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst of Limburg, who had scandalized Catholics — and earned to moniker of the “Bishop of Bling” — for a $43 million renovation to his home and offices.
Then in September, the pope fired a bishop in Paraguay, Rogelio Ricardo Livieres Plano, who had promoted a priest who has been accused of sexual impropriety with young men under his charge.
That’s a potential sea change, because until recently, bishops have tended to enjoy a generous degree of immunity from being fired.
That’s because bishops are largely autonomous, answerable to no one except the pope, who also has the sole authority to appoint a bishop. They cannot be fired by the national hierarchy, like the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. And bishops are loath to even suggest that a colleague step down because they don’t want to undermine their own independence. They also worry that they could be next.
Yes, the church’s code of canon law does have various provisions for dumping a bishop. But they are not always clear and there is no obvious procedure for firing a bishop. Moreover, the provisions are not uniformly applied. The Vatican generally prefers to pressure bishops to resign in order to avoid a public relations mess.
But polls indicate that no program of church reform will be credible, and no pope’s popularity will endure, among the laity unless bishops are regularly held as accountable as lay people or priests, and Francis has taken some steps that have encouraged reformers.
In July, Francis’ top canon lawyer said he was working on revisions that would punish a bishop who fails to stop a molesting cleric. If a bishop does not act forcefully against an abuser, “in some way that would be, or would seem to be, consenting to the evil committed,” said Cardinal Francesco Coccopalmerio, president of the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts.
In September, Francis also sent a Canadian archbishop to investigate Finn, which is seen as a prelude to Finn’s possible dismissal, and senior Vatican officials have said such a dismissal would be justified.
Earlier this month, the Vatican issued a statement clarifying when and why bishops must resign or retire, but also stressing that the pope “may consider it necessary to ask a bishop to present the resignation of his pastoral office, after letting him know the motives for such a request and after listening attentively to his justifications, in fraternal dialogue.”
Essentially, Francis is putting underperforming bishops on notice.
But some church leaders still want further clarity, and a better system. In September, New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan said Francis needed to find “some way of putting teeth” into a process for punishing bishops that go beyond “fraternal exhortations” delivered by back channels.
“I would find it immensely helpful and see it as part of Pope Francis’ long-range plan to flesh out how bishops can hold one another more accountable,” Dolan told the Catholic news site Crux.
Some canon lawyers and supporters of bishops fired by Francis have also criticized the apparent surge in the dismissal of bishops, saying the cases need greater transparency and a better legal underpinning if they are to be credible.
“Such actions ... taken by several recent popes but without advertence to any process recognizable under canon law ... raise serious canonical and indeed ecclesiological questions,” Edward Peters, a canon lawyer at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit, wrote on his blog.
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