Tracing the Bishops’ Culpability in the Child Abuse Scandal


Pope Francis’ commission on the clergy’s sexual violation of children had a timely private screening in Rome last week of “Spotlight,” the Oscar-nominated film about the pedophilia scandal in Boston. The film offers the Vatican, if it will listen, an emphatic lesson in accountability. It dramatizes the decision by The Boston Globe to do more than enumerate the scope of the scandal by reporting on cases involving scores of abusive priests. The scandal was tracked up the church hierarchy to Cardinal Bernard Law, who eventually had to resign his leadership when the news media, not the church, documented his role as a protector of abusive priests.

Hierarchical accountability remains a pressing issue that the Vatican has not fully confronted in the numerous dioceses of the world where the scandal was suppressed. The pope’s 17-member commission presented fresh evidence of this failing when one of its two abuse-victim members, who had gone to the news media to criticize the slow pace of its work, was suddenly suspended on Saturday in a commission vote of no confidence.

Peter Saunders
Peter Saunders

To its credit, the commission, stressing it was only a policy body, had previously urged the pope to create a separate tribunal to judge bishops accused of shielding abusive priests. But Peter Saunders, the suspended commission member, and other abuse victims complained that there has been no progress since the tribunal’s creation last June. They were incensed as well over the pope’s appointment last year of a new diocesan leader in Chile, Bishop Juan Barros, a close associate of a Santiago priestthe Vatican found guilty of child abuse in 2011. The pope nevertheless defended the bishop and was seen on a video complaining that protesterswere “lefties” and “dumb.”

Mr. Saunders may have become an impatient and annoying dissident on a commission charged with developing advisory solutions for the problem, but he has a valid point that Pope Francis cannot afford to ignore. Regaining credibility among the church laity requires clear and timely investigation and punishment of prelates who covered up the rape of children with hush money and rotated abusers to new parishes to commit fresh crimes. “There must be consequences” for offensive church leaders, the laity panelappointed by the United States hierarchy warned over a decade ago.

Unfortunately, no effective method of accountability was devised by the wary American hierarchy, leaving the issue up to Rome. Considering his reputation as a determined reformer, Pope Francis should prod the bishops’ tribunal into action and not let the gaping need for honest and full accountability disappear into the arcane workings of the Vatican.

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