An undated photo of St. Peter's Basilica. Pope Francis issued an edict on June 3 that puts bishops responsible for sex abuse on the frontline for accountability. Photo/Pixabay

It’s about time

  • June 9, 2016

Change comes slowly at the Vatican. On the issue of clerical sexual abuse of children, Rome’s methodical approach has caused Pope Francis to endure barbs for dallying on a pledge to get tough on abusers within the Church.

So it was good news on June 3 when Francis was able, at last, to issue an edict that puts bishops on the front line of accountability. By formalizing new rules that provide for the removal of bishops who fail to act, or who act insufficiently, when becoming aware of an abuser priest, the Pope has not only advanced the cause of justice for child victims and vulnerable adults, but has taken a small but important step on the long road towards repairing the Church’s wounded reputation. 

The apostolic letter is appropriately titled “As a loving Mother.” That is how bishops are expected to act — like mothers nurturing their children. Of course, the vast majority of them already do. Many individual dioceses have been way ahead of the Vatican in implementing strict guidelines and accepting responsibility on this subject.

But there has also been numerous cases of bishops, confronted by a guilty priest, who have protected, transferred or covered up for an abuser. Almost as much as the crime itself, that response appalled the general public and particularly horrified Catholics. A see-no-evil response also left many dioceses exposed to multi-million-dollar lawsuits while undermining trust and tarnishing the Church’s moral authority.

Now, under these long-awaited rules, bishops who turn a blind eye or deaf ear to abuse of minors or the vulnerable can be found negligent and removed from ecclesiastical office. Bishops will be held accountable if they fail to provide vigilant care or a “lack of diligence,” even if the bishop himself is guilty of no “grave moral fault.” In other words, bishops will be accountable for both their actions and inactions.

“This effectively lowers the standard necessary for a bishop to be removed from office when there is negligence with regard to cases of sexual abuse,” said a Vatican spokesman.

Bishops are being reminded to be proactive shepherds protecting their flocks, to stay awake, be vigilant and respond at the first hint of trouble.

As with any new rule, announcing it is one thing, implementing it quite another. In this case, the Vatican said it will create a “college of experts” to guide the Pope, and it expects that college to comprise cardinals and bishops. Hopefully, it will operate as transparently as possible and also include qualified lay people in order to deflect any suggestion of conflict. 

Overall, the apostolic letter gets it right. It represents a necessary step in bringing justice to victims, hope for faithful Catholics and some rehabilitation of the Church’s moral authority before the world.

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