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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

That sounds better, but what matters is how the words are translated into action.

Francis mentions "omissions".  One big "omission" to date in the USA is the continued presence of Robert W. Finn in the Kansas City - St Joseph diocese.  Francis can rectify this matter by removing Finn from office.  This action is long overdue.

I'm from Missourah:  show me.

I thought you were from Wisconsin. Maybe that can be the "Show Me, too!" state?

I agree that we haven't arrived yet.  But the words are still welcome.  It sounds like a commitment.  Don't think we've quite heard that before.  It's a step in the right direction.

I was impressed that he spent a private half-hour with each of the six victims.

I remember the first day of Francis' papacy - he went to visit the basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore and some newspaprers mistakenly reported that he had gone there to dismiss Bernard Law for his covering up of sex abuse ...

I was thrilled.  But then it turned out that he had actually had a friendly conversation with him instead ...

I won't be able to take what he says about bishops being accountable seriously as long as guys like Law and Mahony and Finn go unpunished.

I see that one of the abuse victims the pope met with asked him to have Cardinal Brady removed.  She really  made the point that bishops who have covered up in the past should be punished.  The pope's response ... Pope Francis responded that “it was difficult to make these changes"     :(

Natally, I'm from Wisconsin.  Politically and religiously, ah'm frum Missourah!

Yes, it can be difficult to make changes, particularly if you don't try.

Francis, like all senior RCC clerics, is way too much are product of the system.  So was John XXIII, but he had the strength of vision to start the changes, drastic though they were.

Francis:  the ball is in your court.  No more excuses, OK?

"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."

So far so good. But now what?

I am tempted to withhold skepticism once again, but what if I am disappointed again? What if those are just words with no commitment? Isn't it better to continue distrusting anything coming from church authorities regarding sex abuse, rather than take a gamble and risk being proved wrong again? Why should I trust pope Francis on this? I like him very much, and it seems awfully risky to hope that he will follow through - the risk being that he would let us down as well and that I'd lose my affection for him.

Rationally, it also makes no sense to trust this statement, given prior history.  We know bishops are not and have never been held accountable for mishandling sex abuse. What does make sense is to not pay much attention to this statement until we begin to see who is being held accountable where, when and how. For now, let's not let our hopes up. 

I've made my peace with the idea that clerical sex abuse is handled by secular justice and prevented by individual vigilance, keeping bishops out of the loop because of their ineffectiveness and unaccountability.

It makes me a bit sad to think that pope Francis can say that they "will be held accountable" and believe he has accomplished something by those words when, almost in the same breath, he also says that it is "difficult" to hold Cardinal Brady accountable.

I'm disappointed that some on this blog are now so self righteous. Francis has come further than any pope has on this matter.  This is a major step.  We should give him time because he has delivered so far. The pressure must be kept on. Yet credit should be given when it is due. 

I very much want to believe that Pope Francis will hold bishops , past and present , accountable.  My hunch is he may do that for current bishop offenders, but not for past ones.  The comments section on the NYT this afternoon about Francis' meeting with survivors, his apology and his promises was quite depressing.  Overall, few are buying the promises. 

Bishop Accountability praised it as an important step. They did ask that he meet with survivors from his former diocese which he had not done. Choosing the advisors was a herculean step in the right direction. Looks like this whole thing will be driven by that group. 

I don't know what is meant by the idea that Francis has done so much on the issue of clergy sex abuse.  He's met with survivors, but so did Benedict.  He has appointed a commission, but I don't know of any concrete actions they have taken.  The one bishop who has been disciplined for actual abuse, Wesolowski, was wanted by civil authorities in Poland and the Vatican refused to extradite him to their criminal investigation, and it's possible the only reason he was even investigated by the Vatican at all was because two UN committies urged it be done.

I was struck by the same thing Mollie was, "Gone is the defensiveness and complaining about the church being unfairly targeted." It's awfully easy for a pope to surround himself with like-minded people, and if it's really true that he's allowed his thinking to evolve then it's a very hopeful sign, on this and on other issues.

I wonder if Francis' problem with taking action is a combinationn of theology and canon law.  The Wesolowski case shows he can dismiss a bishop, but he did so only after an extended investigation, and surely the bishop had some right under canon law to defend himself.  

I also wonder about the theology of depriving a bishop of his diocese.  What's the history of such actions in the Church?  I would be very surprised if canon law doesn't protect bishops mightiliy.  On the one hand Francis is pushing collegiality -- the right of bishops to participate in the governing of the Church.  On the other he is being asked to move unilaterally.

As I see it, the overwhelming necessity at this point is to remove those bishops who have notoriously enabled abusers -- Finn, Brady, et al.  It shouldn't be necessary to prove they're guilty in Court before they're arrested, so to speak. (Wesolowski was not arrested before his trial -- he was allowed to walk around Vatican City and Rome.  Give the most clearly guilty ones their trial after their arrest as happens in civil law.  Remove them, then try them.

Are there any cannon lawyers on the list who could tell us what that lawrequires and disallows?  I bet it needs some changing.





Mark Preece --

Yes, the defensiveness seems gone.  I think that as much as we love Francis, we have to remember he's operating out of a hugely conservative culure.  His early actions in Argentina show that.  He never met with victims in Argentina.  I think this statement, which is undoubtedly late, shows that he's listening to the victims, and his empathy is powerful.  Let's pray that he trusts it.

Concerning removal of bishops, see

A hypothetical for Crystal, Ann and anyone else who takes it to be a good idea to remove accused bishops and then try them. Suppose the El Salvadoran military had decided to attack Archbishop Oscar Romero by having someone alledge either that he himself had  perpetrated some sexual abuse or that he had covered up some sexual abuse by some priest. Would you support his removal by Rome or some ecclesiastical commission on the basis of such an accusation? Whatever Pope Francis decides to do about this difficult mess, he cannot responsibly presume that all allegations that any government treats as credible are to enjoy the presumption that they are well founded.

I don't know what the pope should do. But I hope that he doesn't listen to simplistic solutions. If your solutions are not simplistic, please say why.

How long do you think it would take for any bishop to be removed from office who publicly called for a review in the church's position on artificial birth control? or stole money?

The bling bishop in Germany was gone in fairly short order but numerous bishops who enabled sexual abuse are still in office, retired in style, or in the case of Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, globe trotting on behalf of the pontiff; this despite the existence of these multiple settlement documents with more descriptions than this one:

·         McCarrick, wearing just underwear, got into bed with one of the priests: “Bishop McCarrick was sitting on the crotch of Fr. RC As I was watching TV with Fr BL [full names appear in the documents], bishop McCarrick was smiling and laughing and moving his hands all over Fr. RC’s body. Bishop McCarrick was touching Fr. C’s body, rubbing his hands from head to toe and having a good time, occasionally placing his hands underneath Fr. C’s underwear. [I was] feeling very uncomfortable while trying to focus on television, and Fr. B.L., started smiling. As I looked at the bed next to me, Bishop McCarrick was excitedly caressing the full body of Fr. R.C. At that moment, I made eye contact [with] Bishop McCarrick. He smiled at me saying, “Don’t worry, you’re next.” At that moment, I felt the hand of Fr. B.L. rubbing my back and shoulders. I felt sick to my stomach and went under the covers and pretended to sleep." 

Difficult? For whom? The pope is an absolute monarch, whose rulings are beyond appeal. Action is not difficult if one has the will to clean house. There is no lack of evidence on  


Theoretically, the pope is like Congress, the President and and Supreme Court, all in one.  He has authority over canon law.  He could enact a one-time exception to canon law in order to expedite a bishop's removal, if he wishes to.

I suspect that he wants to give the processes he's put in motion a chance to work.  Probably he thinks it's better in the long run if whatever reforms come about are recommended by his commission.  He needs to bring the church along with him as he institutes reform (and not only in the area of sexual abuse).  If he pursues a reform agenda at the expense of alienating the electors, they'll elect a restorationist in the next conclave.  I suspect that is one of the risks he's looking at.

The link above to Wikipedia for Bill Morris was broken. This should be better:

But apparently not ... sorry.


The bishops I'm thinking of ... Brady, Mahony, Finn, Law .... are *known* to have covered up abuse.  They have either admitted it or it has come out in depositions, etc.  (I can find some links if you want) so this isn't about removing someone on the basis pf what might be questionable allegations.

Crystal, The important thing is to have a fair regime of "due process." So much will depend on the condition of the criminal justice system in the territory of the accused. I have no problem with removing bishops who have admitted covering up abuse. They should either rresign or be forced out. In the U. S. allegations are subject to proof in civil criminal law. Obviously, allegations of sexual abuse of children ought to be handled by the civil authorities. In not a few other nations, there is reason to suspect that their criminal justice systems are anything bujt fair. The pope has to deal with that fact. In my view, he should set up procedures that, as best they can, provide anyone accused with a fair chance to establish his innocence. Until someone is found guilty, he or she deserves the benefit of the doubt.

What I've found problematic about some of your comments on this issue is your apparent willingness to have allegations against clerics immediately publicized, propr to any process to determine the validity of the allegation. There are cases in which priests have suffered unwarranted disgrace.

I realize that the press does report allegations of criminal activity of all sorts. That's unavoidable. But why should bisops, or anyone, not do what they can to protect an accused person until the accusation is proved to be justified? Wouldn't you or I trust that we would be accorded a fair hearing by our family members and friends if we find ourselves accused of some serious wrongdoing?

If folks copy the URL (including the non-hyperlinked text in parentheses) that Ann Schwartz and Greg Stephens provided, and paste it into a browser, the link works.

The case of Bishop Morris illustrates that the Holy See can oust a bishop.  But it may be that Morris's case isn't exactly parallel to the cases in question, as Morris seems to have been the subject of a doctrinal investigation.  The bishops of whom Francis has now spoken have a different type of issue: presumably they would be charged with the sort of malfeasance that we might think of as criminal activity or criminal negligence.  Morris's case seemed to follow a particular process in Rome (which we might agree could have been more transparent, but that's a separate issue).  If Francis follows through with the commitment he's now made, a different process might be brought to bear.  

I don't know what that process would involve.  I don't know if such a process already exists, or if the Holy See would need to create one.  One thing we've learned from observing the American bishops grapple with a process for clergy accused of sexual abuse is that the process they've implemented has some significant issues - it needs to be improved/fixed.  Hopefully, the Pope's commission will take this into account as it figures out a process for holding bishops accountable.

@ Bernard Dauenhauer:  You're still missing the point.  This is not about the hierarchs, guilty or not, ajudicated or not.  It is not about how feudal oligarchy comes to grip with its endemic corruption.  

The problematic elephant in the room hidding under the carpet is still the safety of children, and restoration and justice for the survivors.

I have said it before:  How can man rise to the rank of cardinal-archbishop of Buenos Aires, then get elected pope without the support of the most reactionary traditionalists in the hierarchy?  Many, if not most, of whom are seriously implicated and complicit in the greatest scandal to rock the church since the crusades and Inquisition!?!

How could we now expect Bergoglio to so easily turn his back on the very men who just over a year ago elected him pope?  It is not logical to entertain such lavish expectations.

If anything Catholics have learned from these decades, even centuries, of scandal and abuse is that the priesthood - the very way we Catholics do priesthood - must be completely reformed and renewed from parish to pope.  Nothing less will do.

Papa Francesco is first and foremost the premier politician in the world's oldest all-male feudal oligarchy.  I have the hope that he is desperately trying to turn the ancient "barque" around before it falls irrevocably over the cliff into the abyss of history into evolutionary oblivion.

The only segment of the Catholic Church that even has the capacity to reform the priesthood is the People.  Hence, LET THE PEOPLE DECIDE!

I don't envy Papa Francesco.  I pray for him every day.  The odds are stacked against him.  My best advice to him:  You must be as bold and fearless as Jesus - as did James, Paul and Peter, etc.

Easy for me to say ...

The change of tone is appreciated. It isn't sufficient, but dropping the defensiveness is a necessary condition for things to improve.

What I've found problematic about some of your comments on this issue is your apparent willingness to have allegations against clerics immediately publicized, propr to any process to determine the validity of the allegation. There are cases in which priests have suffered unwarranted disgrace.

Not sure if you're mixing me up with someone elde, but on this thread I've just advocated the removial of bishops who are known, through much evidence and sometimes their own admission, to have covered up sex abuse.  Btady, who was the bishop the sex abuse victim meeting with the pope asked to have removed, has admitted being part of a cover up ... ...  I'm asking why the pope won't remove guys like him, when he has removed other bishops like the one who bought an expensive home.

Bernard --


A case such as you propose is not germane.  I said that those bishops who are notoriously guilty of either abuse or cover-up should be removed before they can do further damage.  Archbishop Romero was not a notorious sinner in that respect.  So no, Rome should not remove him merely on the basis of allegations, especially not from enemies.  The notorious bishops are analogous to felons who beat others in public view, where the evidence (the beaten bodies and witnesses) are not matters of dispute. They should be arrested immediately and tried later. 


Consider the case of the bling bishop -- in that case there was public evendence (the bishops' palatial house) that he was guilty of excessive spending on himself.  


It's a matter of public evidence against them, such as their obviously lying depositions and the public fact of priests known to their bishops to be predators having been reassigned to different churches.


And, yes, Jim P. is right -- if Pope Francis acts too fast the next conclave will put in someone who reverses the good that Francis has done.  But some principles should not be compromised no matter what --  millstones, etc.


Yes, I'd expect a fair hearing from my family, but I certainly would not expect my family to ignore blatant evidence against me, and I would expect them to accuse me of wrong-doing, and I'd expect them to feel greatly ashamed of my conduct.  


Sure, there are rare cases where what seems to be conclusive evidence doesn't really prove guilt.  But those cases are rare, and society has to protect itself from apparent criminals.  Given a trial which proves them innocent, they'll be released.

"The bishops of whom Francis has now spoken have a different type of issue: presumably they would be charged with the sort of malfeasance that we might think of as criminal activity or criminal negligence."

Jim P. --

What on earth can you possibly *mean* --  "we MIGHT think of as criminal activity or criminal negligence"?  That's EXACTLY what we mean -- some of the bishops are CRIMINALS and belong in JAIL.  Sure they're entitled to their day in court, but the possibility that the most notorious of them are innocent is infinitesimally small.

It seems you STILL don't get why the laity is still enraged about certain bishops :-(






Ann, do you accept the notion of "due process?" We all have "know without doubt that x ought to be punished. And still we have not infrequently been proven wrong. Due process is slow and cautious, buy design. We ae all prone to "jumping the gun."

Bernard, there is no jumping the gun taking place when the facts are inevidence and the person in question has agreed to those facts.  Bishop Finn *did* have due process.  The others I mentioned -  Brady, Mahony, Law - have not been charged with crimes because what they did was either not at that time considered civily criminal or because it happened so long ago.  But for these guys I mentioned, there is no question of what occirred ... it's documented.

It is so naive to believe that the pope has absolute power.  Ever heard of the Roman Curia. If the pope had absolute power Ratzinger would have reformed the bank and not let those aroung him sabatoge him the way they did. The Curia stresses the absolute power of the pope when they want their things done. One thing that is non-negotiable is the privilege that cardinals and bishops enjoy. Many of them are working on sabatoging Francis now since he is pushing reform  They are just waiting for an opening. Already there is plenty of ranting in right wing circles. 

I do believe Francis will do the right thing. But things are not as simple as many of the arm chair quarterbacks here opine. 

Sean Brady failed in due attention to the seriousness of the threat posed by a pedophile priest 39 years ago, when he was the priest-secretary at a meeting. He is now a beloved pastor, and should not be dogged by this forever. We in Ireland have already lost some excellent, warm-hearted, intelligent and charismatic bishops such as Brendan Comiskey and Donal Murray, over sensational and insubstantial allegations of negligence, and they are not being replaced by anything better.

Why is the pope impotent over against the curia? Bishops sometimes call the curia “the bureaucracy of nothing”: it is possible to reform a mafia, a KGB, a CIA or any well-organized phalanx of bureaucrats, but how does one reform a mess? how does one give shape to jelly?

What on earth can you possibly *mean*

Ann, please unclutch the pearls :-).  I just meant that the church may not use that terminology of "criminal activity" or "criminal negligence".  


Joseph O, 



I think the title is wrong. It's not "Bishops who mishandled abuse will be held accountable" but "Bishops who mishandle abuse will be held accountable". It's not about righting injustice and removing the bishops whose continuing presence in positions of authority is causing scandal but about, at best, planning for the future. It's like fighting the mafia by saying that future mafiosi will be held accountable, but leaving current members of the mafia in place. How that's going to work is anybody's guess. 

I can't imagine a secular company keeping on employees who were publically known to have covered up the sex abuse of children and whose firing had been widely called for, as Brady's has.

Reform of the curia

Step 1: Appoint women as heads of specific congregations and diacastries.

Benedict has already said that this is possible. Governance of the organization is not necessarily and aspect of the sacrament of ordination although historically they have been.

Any executive, in any organization has the power of hiring and firing those in executive positions. Bishops are another matter and might be a little more tricky due to ecclesiology and canon law as Ann mentioned. But the curia is literally just the "court"

@ Bernard Dauenhauer:  How about some "due process" for the hierarchs that is roughly equivalent to the specious due process that they have afforded to survivors of sexual abuse and exploitation at the hands of their brother bishops and priests???

As Mitt Romney once famously said, "What's sauce for goose is sauce for the gander."  Would that be fair to your mind?

Let me just state that I strongly agree with Bernard in his call for due process and transparency, not only in any hypothetical investigations and trials of bishops, but for all church processes.  If the cases against some of the bishops named in these comments are "slam dunks", then a well-designed, well-functioning, transparent due process will bring about a just result.  And in cases where the facts and circumstances are murkier, these hallmarkes become essential.

 Finn had due process and was convicted.  Has the pope removed  him? 

It seems to me that there is a distintion between bishops who are convicted of a crime of covering up abuse, and those who just don't handle it well, but the results ought not differ too much. What should have happened in the case of Bishop Finn is that he shoould have been removed the day he was convicted.  Do not [ass Go.  Do not collect $200.  Just go. Others who have been less than forthcoming but not criminal, like the Archbishop of Minneapolis and his brother bishop of Newark should be subject to the same fate though it might not be automatic. I don't know all the rules, but it seems to me that any member of the epicopacy serves at the pleasure of the Pope, and can be removed by the Pope.  One shouldn't have to have been convicted of a crime like Bishop Finn.  If Pope Francis is displeased with someone's performance in dealing with this matter, regardless of the law, he can and should remove him.  If a bishop is convicted, it seems  to me that it should be pretty much automatic.  If I were Francis, anyone in that position would be told to resign immediately.  For others, I'd give them the opportunity to explain themselves, but it would have to be a pretty compelling explanation. 

Jim Pauwels,

Frankly I don't see the need for due process for bishops who mishandled abuse.  If the pope thinks they did a poor job, he has the right to replace them.  This isn't the same as removing them from the priesthood.  What it is is firing Bishop X from a job he isn't performing up to the boss's expectation.  Not sure why you need due process for that.  he is still a priest.  I guess he is still a bishop.  he just isn't the Bishop of Bridgeport any more.  Maybe you pack him off to a job in the Vatican.  Maybe he is the new pastor of St John's Church in Fairfield.  Maybe he is appointed auxilliary bishop of Portland Maine.  In any case, I think the important thing is that a bishop who did a bad job on this is no longer in his capacity as ordinary of a see.  That is very different for a bishop who has been convicted of violating the law in this matter.  In my view Bishop Finn should be removed from his see and subject to other penalties as well. 

It seems that the relationship between the pope and a diocesan bishop is inneed of some clarification. I'm not competent to provide it, but I'm inclined to think that therre is a theological issue at stake. Again, I'm not competent to state it.

I agree that Bishop Finn ought to resign. His conviction should make it clear to him why he should do so. It does not, though follow automatically from that fact that the pope ought to dismiss him. There may be theological considerations that weigh against the pope's doing so. It's not unlikely that popes, like the rest of us, just have to live with some messes.

Thanks, Jim Pauwels, for your strong words about due process. Absense of due process almost guarantees that some injustice will be perpetrated sooner or later.

Asking about the theology of removing bad bishops seems like a way to complcate things.  Imagine Jesus and the disciples .... Jesus learns that one of the disciples has covered up the sex abuse of children by another disciple and consequently more children get abused.  What do you think he would do?


Sorry for the B that got away. Bernard, what would a theological reason be for a pope being unable to dismiss a bishop? What branch of theology are you looking at here? Ecclesiology?
But there was nothing that prevented the dismissal of Bishop Morris from Australia or the dismissal of the notorious Bishop of Bling.