The widely admired Irish clerical abuse survivor Marie Collins who resigned recently from the pope’s safeguarding commission in protest at Vatican obstruction was especially dismayed by two roadblocks in particular.
Both were the result, in her view, of the resistance to Pope
Francis by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF).
One was that the CDF had not agreed to respond directly to complaints
from victims. Collins believes that the pope asked for this, and was
“Last year at our request, the pope instructed all departments
in the Vatican to ensure all correspondence from victims/survivors
receives a response,” she wrote in a statement for the National Catholic Reporter, adding: “I learned in a letter from this particular dicastery last month that they are refusing to do so.”
In response, the CDF prefect, Cardinal Gerhard Müller, said he knew
only that the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors had
requested that his department write to victims to express their
closeness to them in their suffering.
But the CDF’s task in respect of abuse, he insisted, was to manage
the canonical trials; the task of responding to correspondence from
victims should fall to the local diocese or religious order, which is
responsible for their pastoral care.
“When a letter arrives, we always ask the bishop that he might take
pastoral care of the victim, clarifying to him or her that the
Congregation will do all that is possible to give justice,” he told Corriere della Sera, adding that if the CDF did more “it would not respect the legitimate principle of diocesan autonomy and subsidiarity.”
Collins clearly believed that the pope had agreed to her proposal,
and that if it didn’t happen Francis was being defied. Her resignation
interviews and statements refer more than once to anti-Francis curial
officials using this issue as a weapon of resistance - playing
ecclesiastical politics, as it were, with children’s safety.
Yet between the pope signaling his agreement and the implementation
of a new administrative policy lies what bureaucrats, and not just in
Rome, call “process”.
Sometimes, at the end of that process, it either
doesn’t happen, or happens in a different way, because the implications
have been studied and the proposal revised in their light.
This is clearly what happened in the other, far more important, issue
that caused Collins to resign - what she sees as the CDF’s refusal to
implement a tribunal for convicting bishops who cover up abuse.
The initiative was announced with some fanfare in June 2015,
following a proposal which Collins’s Commission made to Francis via its
head, Cardinal Seán O’Malley, at a meeting of the C9 cardinals.
Their idea was to create a special section within the CDF’s tribunal
for trying and sentencing bishops who had failed to act against an
abusive priest by neglecting to report him to the police, say, or
assigning him to another parish.
The lack of accountability of bishops had long been a major complaint
of victim groups, and was arguably the major safeguarding reform issue
that faced Francis after his election.
At a 2012 conference at the Gregorian University in Rome that led to
the creation of the commission, Collins - whose abuse at the hands of a
hospital chaplain aged 13 was followed by years of denial by the Irish
hierarchy - said there had to be “acknowledgement and accountability for
the harm and destruction that has been done to the life of victims and
their families by the often deliberate cover up and mishandling of cases
by their superiors.”
“You must not cover up, and even those who covered up these things
are guilty,” Francis told journalists on the plane back from the United
States in September 2015.
Yet more than 30 years after the first
national exposé of the sex abuse crisis in the United States,
the Church still appeared to lack a transparent and workable system for
standing down bishops who ignored or covered up such crimes.
So when O’Malley announced that the pope had given the CDF the
authority to “judge bishops with regard to crimes of the abuse of office
when connected to the abuse of minors,” according to a Vatican
statement at the time, there was considerable excitement.
It was wrongly reported as the commission suggesting the creation of a
tribunal, when, in fact, the CDF tribunal already existed; the
commission’s proposal was that it be used to hold bishops accountable
for abuse cover-up.
In approving the proposal, Francis and his nine cardinal advisers
pledged to provide the tribunal section with staff and resources, and in
early 2016, Cardinal O’Malley told the Associated Press that the pope
planned to appoint a secretary to take charge of it.
But it was clear the CDF had not been consulted properly before the
proposal had been approved, and it hadn’t been properly thought through.
If this were a crime of negligence, by what national or cultural
standard of action in response to allegations would it take as its norm?
Could an African bishop in a country where sex abuse of minors barely
exists as a concept end up being held to what is now considered normal
in the United States?
The same difficulties were posed by the passage of
time. If a bishop could be judged to have acted negligently in the
1990s according to the standards of 2010, was that reasonable and just -
and who, then, would be innocent?
Jurists asked other questions, such as, if it was an “abuse of
office” to act negligently over an abusive priest, why not, say,
financial malfeasance, which was also a delict in canon law?
After nine months, it was clear the “tribunal” was bogged down.
So rather than create a whole new section of the CDF tribunal, it was
decided that the objective of holding bishops accountable would be more
easily achieved by asking Vatican departments to carry out the
investigations, and reserving to the pope (who is supreme judge) the
task of standing down a bishop.
As Müller put it, “it was decided that we already have the
jurisdiction of the bishops’ dicastery, the tools and the legal means to
address any criminal negligence by bishops.”
Hence, a year after first announcing the “tribunal”, Francis in June 2016 issued a motu propio,
or edict, that tasks the four Vatican departments that have oversight
of bishops with looking into cases of possible negligence.
assessors examine the evidence and make a recommendation to the pope,
who declares the bishop guilty.
The crime is no longer “abuse of office” but (according to the edict)
“negligence of bishops in the exercise of their office, particularly
relative to cases of sexual abuse against minors and vulnerable adults,”
which makes it much easier to adjudicate.
Where the case is straightforward - that of Kansas City Bishop Robert
Finn, for example, who was convicted criminally of failing to report a
priest involved with child pornography - this “administrative process”,
as it is known in canon law, now allows for swift action: from the
preliminary investigation to the sentence, it could be a matter of
But some cases will be more complex, and involve disputed accounts
(the bishop may claim he is innocent, for example) in which case a
“judicial process” - a trial that examines the evidence - will be
Speaking on background, sources close to the CDF say that if the pope
sends such a case to the congregation they will hear it, which is
presumably what Cardinal Müller meant when he told Corriere that “the Holy Father can always entrust a special case to the congregation.”
In other words, the normal means of dealing with these cases will be
administrative, and involve the Vatican departments best placed to
garner the evidence, and in those cases where a trial is necessary the
CDF can handle it within its existing structures.
What happened, then, to the tribunal announced in June 2015?
Did it happen or not?
No, because the concept of a special section in the CDF was rejected
in favor of a more expeditious means of achieving the same; but yes, in
the sense that bishops can now be held accountable for cover-up and be
And the CDF can still try a bishop if the pope needs it to.
Does this mean, as was widely reported - and as Collins read it -
the tribunal was scrapped?
Or is it a case of an ill-thought-through but
well-intentioned proposal going through the Vatican sausage-machine and
coming out looking rather different - yet equally, if not more,
The answer depends in part on how well the system is now working, but
it’s too early to say.
The pope last year accepted the resignations of
two bishops, one in Brazil, the other in Mexico, who were accused of
turning a blind eye to abusive priests, but they predate the edict.
What matters now is not that bishops offer their resignations and the
pope accepts them, but that those who cover up are actively stood down
by the pope as a clear punishment, either after an administrative or a
Once that happens - and is seen to happen - we can finally put away
our magnifying glasses and declare that this mysterious case of the
missing Vatican tribunal is finally solved.