Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Pope Francis Launches New Clergy Abuse Panel

Vatican Radio reports that Pope Francis has launched a new tribunal section that will hear cases of bishops who failed to protect children and vulnerable adults from clergy sexual abuse. The Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors recently presented a plan to Pope Francis and his advisers that included the creation of the new judicial section. According to Vatican Radio, the new section will exist within the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and will examine cases of bishops who failed to report crimes perpetrated by priests under their authority. (Hat tip to Religion News Service.)

The creation of the new panel comes at a time when clergy abuse scandals are making headlines across the globe.
  • Australia's Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse has held public hearings about clergy sexual abuse of children at five Catholic institutions in Ballarat. Observers and victims have accused Australian Cardinal George Pell of covering up abuse at the Ballarat institutions, according to the Guardian. 
  • In Ireland, a national watchdog group was alerted to 184 new allegations of physical, emotional, and sexual abuse by Catholic clergy in the past year, according to the Irish Examiner
  • Here in the U.S., the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis has been criminally charged after reportedly failing to protect children from clergy abuse, reports Minnesota Public Radio.
  • This spring, Pope Francis accepted the resignation of Bishop Robert Finn, the head of the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, Missori. According to Newsweek, in 2012, Finn pleaded guilty to a charge of failure to report suspected abuse by one of his priests.

Faced with unending clergy abuse scandals, the Catholic Church has been forced to respond. The Vatican's Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, Ireland's Hussey Commission, and and the USCCB's Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People are examples of church efforts to address the clergy abuse crisis. The new Vatican panel is the latest addition to these efforts, but how diligently or firmly it will respond to abuse cover-ups remains to be seen.

Is the new panel a good faith effort to hold corrupt bishops accountable, or merely a PR stunt? Advocates for clergy abuse victims have voiced a wide range of opinions on the new measure.

Terence McKiernan, president of Bishop Accountability, called the new panel "an obvious next step", according to the Washington Post. He hoped that victims "“will be treated more respectfully and their cases acted upon if there are people dedicated to this topic...". However, he also told the Washington Post that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith usually lacks transparency with regard to its investigations, calling it a "black box".

Voices from the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) were more wary. In a June 10th statement, SNAP director David Clohessy accused Pope Francis of inaction while urging supporters to withhold judgment on the new panel.
"...The pope has virtually limitless power. By now, he could have sacked dozens of complicit bishops. He has, however, sacked no one. Nor has he demoted, disciplined or denounced even one complicit church official – from Cardinal to custodian. None of his predecessors did either. No prelate on the planet has even found the courage to say “Archbishop John Nienstedt shielded child molesting clerics.”

So in the face of this widespread denial, timidity and inaction, let’s be prudent, stay vigilant and withhold judgment until we see if and how this panel might act."
Clohessy also reminded readers that church committees and bureaucracy are not substitutes for moral bravery within the church.
"Kids need a courageous church culture, not another church committee.

Kids need brave behavior by church officials, not more bureaucracy.

Kids need church members and staff to bring evidence to prosecutors, not to Vatican officials."
Becky Ianni, Virginia/Washington D.C. area SNAP leader, also stated that it's "just too early to tell" how well the panel will respond to clergy abuse cover-ups. In a June 10th statement, Ianni argued that moral courage on behalf of church leaders, not new investigative processes, is needed.
"The problem has never been a lack of Vatican officials with the specific “process” to investigate their complicit colleagues. The problem has been, and is, a lack of Vatican officials with the courage to investigate their complicit colleagues. Sadly, no words on paper can give timid, career-focused, self-serving monarchs the courage to do what’s right – expose the corrupt colleagues.

Let’s be clear: we never asked for a new “process” to discipline bishops who endanger kids, protect predators, stonewall prosecutors, shrewd evidence, and mislead parishioners. We just asked that it be done. And it hasn’t been done.


A “process” can be used or abused. We fear this one will be used to mollify distraught parishioners and generate nice headlines. We hope to be proven wrong. If this “process” leads to complicit bishops being ousted and cover ups being deterred, we’ll be thrilled. But we’re not counting on it.

A new process can lead to prevention or to complacency. It’s just too early to tell. And it’s best to stay vigilant, especially given the troubling track record of church abuse bodies."
SNAP president Barbara Blaine has little faith in the new measure. In a June 10th statement, Blaine expected little from the new panel, pointing to ineffective church measures of the past.
"At best, most church abuse panels have been ineffective distractions. At worst, they’ve been manipulative public relations moves We suspect this new one won’t make a difference either.  

Throughout this decades-long crisis, church panels, procedures, protocols and promises have been plentiful. They’ve also been irrelevant. As long as clerics are in charge of dealing with other clerics who commit and conceal child sex crimes, little will change.

Church officials should join us in reforming secular abuse laws so that clerics who hurt kids and hide predators will be criminally charged. If that happens, we'll be encouraged."
I have to side with SNAP on this matter. The Catholic Church's responses to clergy sexual abuse  have been disappointing, and while I want to believe that the new panel will make a difference, I'm not hopeful. If the new tribunal section demonstrates its trustworthiness, I'll be pleased. However, until the Catholic Church proves that it is serious about reforming church culture, making amends to victims, punishing clergy perpetrators, and cooperating with secular authorities, I will remain wary of measures such as this.


  1. Kids need church members and staff to bring evidence to prosecutors, not to Vatican officials.

    That's the whole issue right there. The Catholic Church needs to stop futzing around with internal procedures and establish an explicit and enforced policy of calling the cops on molesting priests and their enablers every time. Reporting a felony to the police is not optional. Until they do that, they're still engaged in a cover-up. They're basically the Duggars on a bigger scale.

    1. Infidel -- If Catholic churches had immediately called the police from day one, so much misery could have been avoided. Time will tell if the Catholic Church is serious about stopping clergy abuse.

  2. I hate to be cynical, but I'm afraid that any reforms that do come will be the result of politics rather than a desire to do the right thing.

    Very nice video below, btw. I enjoyed it.

    1. Agi Tater -- I agree. Pressure, not moral conviction, will drive future reforms in the Catholic Church.

      Do you mean the Nightwish video? I'm glad you liked it.


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