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Pope: Bishops who mishandled abuse will be held accountable

Today Pope Francis met at the Vatican with six survivors of clerical sexual abuse and expressed his grief at what had been done to them. In his homily at Mass, which he celebrated in his residence, he went beyond deploring the actions of the abusers, as he has done in the past, and pledged to also hold accountable those who mishandled accusations of abuse.

Luke Coppen's report in the Catholic Herald includes the text of Francis's homily, in which he said:

I beg your forgiveness, too, for the sins of omission on the part of Church leaders who did not respond adequately to reports of abuse made by family members, as well as by abuse victims themselves. This led to even greater suffering on the part of those who were abused and it endangered other minors who were at risk.

On the other hand, the courage that you and others have shown by speaking up, by telling the truth, was a service of love, since for us it shed light on a terrible darkness in the life of the Church. There is no place in the Church’s ministry for those who commit these abuses, and I commit myself not to tolerate harm done to a minor by any individual, whether a cleric or not. All bishops must carry out their pastoral ministry with the utmost care in order to help foster the protection of minors, and they will be held accountable.

The homily is worth reading in full; it's not that long, but in it Francis touches on a lot of the dimensions of the sex-abuse scandal and its fallout that have so far been underacknowledged. His improved messaging is probably thanks to the influence of his Commission for the Protection of Minors -- which he refers to in the homily.

I am counting on the members of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors.... I ask this support so as to help me ensure that we develop better policies and procedures in the universal Church for the protection of minors and for the training of church personnel in implementing those policies and procedures. We need to do everything in our power to ensure that these sins have no place in the Church.

Gone is the defensiveness and complaining about the church being unfairly targeted. Here he speaks with a sense of how the scandal has damaged the church's credibility. He also touches on the theme of mercy that Cardinal O'Malley said was key to Francis's approach to this matter:

[P]lease pray for me, so that the eyes of my heart will always clearly see the path of merciful love, and that God will grant me the courage to persevere on this path for the good of all children and young people.

Will do.



Commenting Guidelines

According to the article referenced earlier in this thread, Bishop Morris was dismissed pursuant to a process (and let me just repeat that it was a process that, as described, isn't what I would have in mind for due process and transparency).

Ecclesiologically, a bishop who is the ordinary of a diocese is the head of a particular church that is in communion with the Bishop of Rome.  Pretty clearly, the Supreme Pontiff has the necessary powers to intervene and remove the head of a particular church, just as he has the necessary powers to appoint a bishop.

I agree that Bishop Finn was convicted in a secular court in which due process prevailed.  But Pope Francis was not the judge in that instance and it is not for him to pass sentence in that court; the State of MIssouri presumably employs its own judges for that purpose.  Pope Francis' proper sphere is the church and church law.  To the best of my knowledge, Bishop Finn has not been brought up on any charges in a church court.  If he is, then isn't he entitled to the same rights to which we extend rapists and serial killers in our secular courts: a presumption of innocence, the right to confront his accusers, a speedy trial, adequate legal representation, a public trial, a verdict to be determined by his peers, the right of appeal, and all of the other rights and protections that we extend to those accused of crimes in the US?  Frankly, some of the comments here surprise me, particularly in light of the stance taken here by most of the commenters when it is a theologian or a religious sister who is the subject of a church investigation.  I assume that nobody wishes to support a double standard.


I'll try to make this my last comment to this post - I've commented too often and I'm now starting to get upset, which never helps.  But I just wonder how anyone can defend the "rights" of men like Brady, who admits to taking part in forcing sex abuse victims to swear an oath they would tell no one what had happened to them ... ... and  men like Mahony, who told priests he knew to ne pediphiles to go out of state to avoid police invesitgation and prosecution ... ... why do you take the side of men like this instead of the victims?

Jim P.,

Tthis situation is very different from somebody being accused of a crime under either civil criminal law or even church law.  In those cases, absolutly there shluld be due process.  And I would argue it is even different from a theologian accused of being out of step with Church teaching.  Here again, that ought to be subject to a right to face the accusers, defend one's position and so on.  But in the case of a Bishop who covered up for sexual abuse of children, even if it isn't doesn't rise to the level of a crime as in the Bishop Finn situation, removal ought to be an option, and probably one that gets used reasonably often.  It is a different standard and its a different level of penalty, too.  the Bishop isn't being de-frocked or losing his license to teach or any such thing.  But he has demonstrated that he lacks certain necessary judgement to function in the capacity of pastor and shepard.  That isn't a case of defending himself against a criminal accusation, but one of administrative competence, if you will.  Those are very different situations.  The Pope sees a bishop who has demonstrated that he lacks the judgement to perform his duties effectively as leader of a diocese by virtue of his failure to deal with abusive priest, so he removes that bishop for the good of the local Church.  One is a question of law and needs to be open and fair.  the other is a question of judgement on the part of the Holy See. 

  • Hi, Jim D, I'm not sure what I think about your distinction between a formal criminal process and an administrative action.  But let's run with it a moment.  I take your comment to be more or less in the spirit of, "These guys are incompetent or worse.  In the corporate world, they whould and should be fired.  There is a big boss in Rome who has the authority to fire them.  Therefore, just fire them already!"

In the working world, I'm an at-will employee, which means that my employer can fire me for any reason at all, or no reason in particular.  As an employee, I don't possess the rights that I'm calling for for bishops (and for everyone else in the church, for that matter).  This observation leads to the following thoughts:

  • Ecclesiologically, I don't think a bishop is the equivalent of (nor is literally) an at-will employee of a larger organization like I am.  He's the head of his own church, which just happens to be in communion with the church of Rome.  He's sort of like the Greens at Hobby Lobby: the 'sole( proprietor' of the diocese, at the very peak of the org chart, with no bigger boss over him.  For the pope to intervene and remove him wouldn't be like an employer firing an at-will employee; it would be more like the US government intervening in the affairs of a private American company and forcing out a company president.  It would be an extraordinary act.   Naturally, the parallel isn't perfect, but I'm offering it for consideration. (And btw, this isn't to say that extraordinary acts are never called for.   "Extraordinary" doesn't mean "impossible".  In the midst of the financial crisis in the last decade, the US government did consider - and in a few cases took - extraordinary interventions into the affairs of private companies.)
  • Even if the pope does possess "fire the at-will employee" -type authority over bishops, we may ask, "Just because the pope has the authority to yell, 'Off with his head!', is that really how we want the church to work?"  I'd rather see members of the church, not excluding bishops, have some basic rights and protections.
  • If it was you or I who were in the bishops' shoes and being brought up on charges, wouldn't we want the protections of due process, transparency and all the rest, even if it was a mere administrative action?  I know I would.  I may be an at-will employee, but that doesn't mean it's my dream preference.  I'd rather have as many protections as I can get.


Jim, there's a balance, obviously. How about if Bp Finn, Brady etc. are asked to step asie while the committee works things out? Later, once they have figured out their norms, if it is determined that Bp Finn can safely be given responsibilities and decision-making power, he can always be given a diocese again.

I don't think that so far bishops have been treated overly harshly, so severely in the absence of a legal process that we should be nervous about mistreating them further. Ignoring bishops' right to due process has not exactly caused them much damage this past decade or century or history of christianity, has it? It's a hypothetical possibility, and, I think, a mere excuse to avoid accountability.

We have waited, waited, waited. We have heard words, excuses, statements of good intentions. Enough words.

It was not long ago that Irish bishops, on the aftermath of the scandal, reluctantly offered their resignation, and that Rome refused it quietly - that, after pope Benedict had written his letter to the Irish and used the word "accountability"! That's the Roman standards. It would be stupid to trust words about intended accountability without any kind of accountability itself. That is not credible. 

Does pope Francis really want to spend his fragile credit of trust on claiming that bishops will be held accountable and on asking people to believe him, while he is not actually holding any of them accountable? 

From pope Benedict's letter:

I recently invited the Irish bishops to a meeting here in Rome to give an account of their handling of these matters in the past [...] Only decisive action carried out with complete honesty and transparency will restore the respect and good will of the Irish people towards the Church to which we have consecrated our lives. [...]. I therefore exhort you to renew your sense of accountability before God, to grow in solidarity with your people and to deepen your pastoral concern for all the members of your flock.

What fools we would be to trust statements not backed by action. Been there, done that. Done with that.

Rome argues that bishops are apostolic successors in their own sees and support collegiality when it is convenient (e.g. Arguing before the UN that they only have jurisdiction in the Vatican City state).

On the other hand when it comes to mass translations, episcopal policy on zero tolerance, and even ordination of married men, they need their stay.

We have heard the term legal fictions, how about ecclesial fictions. I, for one have rejected Roman propaganda in this regard. I go to mass but at the creed I do not interpret my belief in holy Catholic church, I think of the fellowship of all Christians and obviously this includes inter-communion.  Will financially support my parish community but would not want my money to support a criminal, unaccountable, criminal enterprise housed in the Vatican. Just hope the UN can bring this to light.

Jim P., I'm an at-will employee myself and have faced some of the consequences thereof--being downsized and having to scramble to find myself another full-time position. But I think that in making such a case in support of the bishops, you may be missing the point entirely. When will there really be accountability for the bishops who covered up the sexual assault of children by priests? We have been stuck on this groove for years and nothing has happened. The bishop who was just defrocked was found guilty of sexual assault, not of covering it up. I get it that the bishops are the successors of the apostles---but if that gets them off the hook, it gives the apostles a very bad reputation to me. I can see that many people were groomed by the perpetrators, not simply their child victims. And the bishops are part of a group of men who want to be nice to other people and want to see the best, as it were. Consequently, many of the bishops were manipulated by these sexual offenders and maybe if they had truly recognized what was going on, would have acted differently? It's too late for this kind of logic since so many victims have paid and are currently paying the price of the assault on them. One of the things the Holy Father said in his sermon is that some of the victims had "weakened faith" as a consequence of what happened. I would clarify this and say that many of the victims had their capacity for faith blown up by what happened to them. Who is responsible for this? Certainly the perpetrators. But there are bishops, named above, who reassigned the perps and thus gave them a new batch of children to victimize. Bishops who were aware of what was happening. I cannot be concerned with such matters as the securitity of their position as Ordinary's. If a man is throwing children under his spiritual care to the wolves, should he continue to bear the responsibility of spiritual care for others. No.

Jim, there's a balance, obviously. How about if Bp Finn, Brady etc. are asked to step asie while the committee works things out? Later, once they have figured out their norms, if it is determined that Bp Finn can safely be given responsibilities and decision-making power, he can always be given a diocese again.

Claire - sure - that sounds like a process to me (and somewhat similar to the Dallas norms for priests and deacons in the US).  

I do understand the impatience and the mistrust.  I hope I haven't written anything here (or elsewhere) that would imply that I'm opposed to accountability for bishops*.  All I'm calling for here is that the accountability be via a fair, formal, defined process that extends the same protections to bishops that we'd want extended to anyone and everyone.

* Perhaps the one exception is re-opening closed statutes-of-limitations windows; I do oppose that as I believe it's an unjust practice.  Let's not talk about it now, though :-)


Hi, Molly, all your points are well-made, and I wouldn't want to dispute any of them.  As I noted in my previous comment, I'm all for bishop accountability.  I think all we're talking about here is how that accountability is brought about.  

US prisons are bursting at the seams with convicted criminals who were accorded all the protections that I'm calling for here, so clearly prosecutors are able to secure convictions in proceedings in which these rights are enforced.  Those protections are not a justice-avoidance scheme, and I'm not proposing them in that spirit. 

The church's track record for openness and transparency is not pristine.  I wouldn't want to see anyone get railroaded, not even a bishop.  That's all.

The pope has a significant say in who is made a bishop and where and when he is assigned to his see(s).  They aren’t implanted in their dioceses by a voice from behind a curtain in Oz.  They don’t move from see to see by virtue of democratic election for a specified period of time by a House of the Laity, a House of the Clergy and the House of Bishops.

The idea that bishops, as successors to the apostles, are somehow immune from discipline or removal except in the most egregious of circumstances is, at best, specious.  Just let an active bishop come out publicly in support of the ordination of married men or women, granting church-sanctioned divorces, ordination of openly gay men, etc. and see how fast he will become a man without a job.  He’ll be a bishop forever, but at best, an unemployable free agent.  That is why bishops don’t develop spines with regard to certain sensitive matters until AFTER they are retired.

I fully support what Jim Pauwels has been saying about due process.

One point about the criticism some of you have leveled at Pope Franci and at Pope Benedict. Some of the criticism has strayed from criticizing what one of them has done or what one of them has not, or not yet, done. That's fair. But some have gone on tocall into the credibility of these men. To question someone's credibility is to question their truthfulness, their worthiness to be taken at their word. In my view, this is very bad business, whether in Church matters or in political ones. Vigorous criticism need not get into casting aspersions on an opponent's character. The abominable state of political discourse in the U. S. leads to casting elected officials as contemptible. Far from being constructive, such criticism makes it very hard, if not practically impossible, for opponents or critics to talk with one another in any construtive manner.

I know that some of you have lists of bishops that you think deserve to be removed from their office. I do agree with you in some of these cases. It doesn't follow that because the pope has not done so, even though he has deplored child sex abuse and its coverup, that I am justified in besmirching his character.

Bernard - thanks, and I fully agree with your points about civil discourse.

 To question someone's credibility is to question their truthfulness, their worthiness to be taken at their word.

Their truthfulness, not necessarily. Their worthiness to be taken at their word, not exactly. It's not that they're "worthy" or "not worthy", it's whether I believe them or not, when words is all that they have to offer. It's as much about it as it is about them. With respect to words coming from the church hierarchy on the subject of episcopal cover-up of the sex abuse scandal, indeed, I am no longer ready to believe mere words, and it does not matter who they come from. It's not about individual worthiness, truthfulness, etc. Neither is it about "casting aspersions on one's opponent's character" ("opponent"!)

It's more that since the institution cannnot be trusted to do it, we are the ones who are in charge of protecting the youth from sexual abuse. Bishops won't do it: it's our common responsibility, then, and merely swallowing well-meant words about their being held accountable, with no evidence to back it up, would mean relaxing our vigilence by trusting without reason, and we, who are now the ones primarily responsible for the protection of the youth, would be remiss if we did that.



Claire, litmus tests in human relationships are generally unwise. Jane badly wants Jack to do x (something good) right now. Jack acknowledges that doing x would be good, but instead decides to do y (also something good) right now. If doing x amounts to a litmus test of jack's good will, then he fails. If Jane can accept that Jack may well have good reasons for doing y now, then therre is not litmus test, even though Jane may continue to disagree with Jack's decision to do y now instead of doing x now.

Are you administering a litmus test?

litmus tests in human relationships are generally unwise.  

Litmus tests in human relationships arise when one of the parties in the relationship has done something that has created mistrust to occurr. That means we need to go back and look at what that "something" is. In this instance that "something" is the deliberate, concealment of crimes that have occurred by clerics to children in their care.

I think that it is completely appropriate to draw boundaries surrounding conduct in the domain of human relationships. If my partner cheats, and we reconcile, it will take some effort before trust is restored and so maybe I may want to have access to cell phone records, maybe I might want some things within the relationship to change until the trust can be re-established. It would be the height of arrogance and naivete for the offending partner to say, I have changed, trust me, all is normal as before.

By analogy, I am not convinced that officials in the church appreciate the impact that this has had on Catholic worlwide and the credibility of Catholics to speak out on any number of social injustices. And, while there is some postive movements from the bishops and even Rome in this respect, it is slow and late in coming.

Pope Francis encourages hope for favorable outcomes to many problems  in our Church. But his pledge about bshops being held accountable for protection of children is empty without action. FrANCIS speaks of "ommssions"  by leaders. But they were responsible for "commissions" - coverig up and secretly transfering miscreant priests to mnew asignmnts. Canon 1395 mandates punishment for abise of chilren, not transfe nr subjeect him to therapy. Canon law is clear. These bishops "committed" violations of church law, not "ommissions".Francis declares bishops must be good pastors and "will be held accountable.Note that both clauses refer to the future.


Crdinals Law and Regali, poster boys of hiding and transferring abusrs, are now  safely enschonsed in the Vatican courtesy of JPII and B16. Bishop Finn is still bishop of KC-St Joseph after his conviction of neglecting his duties to protect childlren in 2008 nd 2011. H signed a contract that he wquldfollow civil law about notifying police about abusing priess. The diocise paoid 10 million in the past and nowhjas nbeen just assessed for $1.1 million for breach of contract the past month. Finn is still bishop of his diovcese.

Msg.HarryJ. Byrne JCD

Msgr. Byrne,
Thanks you very much for the input.

Some folks here seem to think that it would be a violation of due process to remove Bishop Finn and other patently guilty bishops who are still in positions where they can do more crime.. Civil law provides for putting some people in jail before trial. Why would'nt Canon Law? Or does Canon Law provide for immediate removal in some cases?

Could you please tell us something about tha Canon Law?

Please excuse any typos - this iPhone changes spellings even after the message is sent.

Bernard, I think George D has a good analogy. The relation between the church leaders and the people has been damaged. Maybe in your case the sex abuse scandal has not affected your attitude in a lasting manner, but for myself and many others, things have changed. The damage is done and cannot be undone. What was before cannot be again. A new balance must be found. We are working our way towards a different relationship to church authority. It's a new world. One may mourn the age of innocence, when a bishop could say: "I'll make sure everything will be all right, and you don't have to worry, just trust me", and his people took him at his word. But I hope the new order will be better, less blindly trusting, more responsible, more adult, and with more mutual respect.


Claire et al,

I'm in the midst of reading Cardinal Walter Kasper's "Mercy." It is a magnificent work. I cannot rightfully say that my comments here are fully in accord with the richness of his work. Nor do I think that the remarks here of those of you who disagree with what I've said are fully in synch with Kasper's work. What Kasper makes clear is that genuine mercy is in no respect in conflict with justice. At the end of the day, it is properly understood mercy that is fundamental to all efforts properly to apply the rerquirements of justice. As a practical matter, this means that we are never to give up on anyone, bishops, popes, or otherwise, even when we find ourselves required by truthfuulness to criticize their conduct. Similarly, this means that we always recognize the need to be self-critical about the ways in which we articulate our criticisms of others.

But enough of my attempt to summarize Kasper's achievement. As strongly as I can, let me recommend "Mercy." It's accessible to everyone who has commented here.




I am distressed by your headline:


Bishops who mishandled abuse will be held accountable

What you report:

"Today Pope Francis ...pledged to ... hold accountable those who mishandled accusations of abuse."

I note the use of the past tense "mishandled"

What the Pope says about past 'mishandlers':

"I beg ... forgiveness ...for the sins of omission on the part of Church leaders who did not respond adequately to reports of abuse"

For those who "did not respond" he asks forgiveness

What the Pope says about accountability:

"All bishops must carry out their pastoral ministry with the utmost care in order to help foster the protection of minors, and they will be held accountable."

Note the phrase "will be".  Accountability is to be a future policy

I do not expect  that any real accountability will be exacted on Law, McCormack, Mahoney, George, Myers, Egan, Rigali, Flynn, Nienstadt, Walsh, Finn and many others. Their actions provided extended careers to identified clerical pedophiles over whom they had jurisdiction. This resulted in horrific damage to thousands of innocent and defenseless children. 

Failure to act on their crimes seems a total dereliction of moral duty.

Your headline will lead many to believe that real justice is about to be served. 

My reading of the Pope's words leads me expect otherwise. 

Is there any possibility you will address what I consider a substantial misrepresentation?