Let the bishops be judged: the departure of two cardinals leaves the Francis papacy at a crossroads05 July 2017 | by Jason Berry
Clerical sexual abuseCardinal George Pell’s return to Australia to face criminal charges has dealt a severe blow to Pope Francis’ reform agenda, making him the third consecutive Pope to find himself in a swamp over the long, aching crisis of clergy sex abuse.
Regardless of the allegations that he now faces, Pell’s record in Australia on sex abuse cases, particularly his approval of bare-knuckle legal counter-attacks on victims, should have disqualified him from a Vatican post. Yet Francis not only chose him to lead the clean-up of the Vatican’s murky finances but also asked him to join his circle of nine cardinal-advisers without regard for that past.
Shortly after Pell’s announced departure, Pope Francis declined to renew the appointment he inherited from Pope Benedict of Cardinal Gerhard Müller as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF). He should have done it sooner. Last year, Die Zeit reported that Müller as Bishop of Regensburg in 2007 sent a priest, who had a suspended sentence for abusing two boys, to a new parish, where he was subsequently charged with 22 cases of abuse. Müller had considered the priest “healed”, on a psychiatrist’s advice; he did not tell parishioners, and he violated the German bishops’ conference’s own directive barring reassignment of abusers. At the CDF, he stymied Francis’ request for a tribunal to oversee errant bishops.
Examples of bishops who protected paedo-philes, without facing the consequences, are rampant in the Church. The Holy See considers bishops as spiritual descendants of Jesus’ Apostles; the logic of apostolic succession carries a standard of soft-glove “fraternal correction” – a standard that has failed abominably. Under canon law, the Pope is a one-man supreme court; he can intervene in any canonical proceeding. The lesson from thousands of lawsuits, prosecutions and scandals since the 1980s is the failure of canon law in the realm of criminal statutes. Too many bishops have ignored or selectively enforced canon law to suit their deceptions.
Francis is at a crossroads. The Pope’s role as a moral statesman for peace and human rights will erode unless Francis (or a future Pope) orders the creation of an independent judiciary at the Vatican to deal with negligent bishops. The Holy See is a sovereign monarchy; but that does not preclude the founding of a genuine court, not a canon law tribunal, to adjudicate charges against bishops based on legal evidence from various countries and reporting directly to the Pope.
An independent court would be hugely unpopular among some cardinals and bishops; but the short-term jolts to an archaic ecclesiastical tradition stained by scandal would, in the long run, protect popes from making severe mistakes. How did we get here? Consider the background. In April 2002, Pope John Paul II, taking heavy doses of medication for Parkinson’s disease, summoned the American cardinals for an emergency conference on the clergy abuse scandals that had spread from Boston to other US cities, as well to Ireland, among other countries. John Paul declared that the priesthood was no place for those who abuse the young; a few minutes later, he was talking of the need for forgiveness and redemption. It was a conflicting signal about what policy – if any – should be applied in cases of priests convicted of abuse.
At that very time, John Paul was protecting Legion of Christ founder Fr Marcial Maciel, who since 1998 had been accused by eight men, in a CDF tribunal, of abusing them as young seminarians. Cardinal Secretary of State Angelo Sodano, a recipient of financial gifts from the Legion and friend of Maciel, blocked Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger from taking action. In late 2004, however, Ratzinger ordered an investigation, so that the next Pope need not inherit a scandal.
Five months later, Ratzinger emerged from the conclave as Benedict XVI. In March 2006, he banished Maciel from ministry. But the turning point in the larger crisis failed to arrive. The CDF laicised sex offenders (a process Ratzinger instituted), but the root problem – the bishops who concealed and reassigned them – was not addressed. With help from Sodano, Cardinal Bernard Law landed in Rome in 2014 on a six-figure annual salary as pastor of a basilica, while his former Boston archdiocese was selling churches to pay settlements for abuse cases that had happened under his watch.
How much has changed since then? In terms of accountability of bishops, not much. Sodano in his eighties is comfortably ensconced as Dean of the College of Cardinals. Francis has personally removed several bishops who abused youths, and eased out a few others for shocking behaviour in cover-ups. The CDF has a backlog of 2,000 cases for defrocking clerics whose files have been sent in by bishops, more than double the number pending in 2005. Peter Saunders and Marie Collins, abuse survivors formerly on the Pope’s youth protection commission, are right to accuse the Vatican of failure to deal adequately with the complicity of bishops in abuse cases.
The Congregation for Bishops, which vets priests who are being considered for ordination as bishops, has abdicated any oversight on the behaviour of prelates who shelter pederasts and approve legal tactics in an attempt to cow victims and those alleging abuse.
An independent Vatican court, above the sort of manipulations Cardinal Sodano used to stall the Maciel case, would assess the evidence in prosecutions or civil cases that include findings of fact about a given bishop, and his testimony under oath. A pivotal question is whether the Pope would be the final arbiter on punishment, or grant the judges that power. Open court hearings could have the impact of a truth-and-reconciliation commission if the survivors give testimony. The long-range benefit would be providing information on the dynamics of dioceses and religious orders to avoid future scandals when a given Pope decides on an appointment.
The Roman Catholic Church is the largest organisation in the world – a global faith, indeed; but the Vatican has no system of checks and balances that comes with a separation of powers. The information a Pope acts on in naming a cardinal from across the globe is often what Vatican staffers give him or what a few personal encounters suggest.
Cardinal George Pell is a native of Ballarat, where he served as episcopal vicar for education from 1973 to 1984, a period in which, The Washington Post reported, citing extensive coverage in the Australian media, “untold numbers of children were beaten and sexually assaulted by priests and nuns at the St Alipius Primary School”. For part of his time there, Pell had a roommate in Fr Gerald Ridsdale, a paedophile who was eventually sent to prison on 138 counts of indecent assault and child sexual abuse. Two of his nephews accused Ridsdale of abuse. Pell accompanied Ridsdale into court in a show of support, later claiming that he had no knowledge of his crimes.
By taking Pell into his circle of nine cardinal-advisers on church reform, and making him head of the Secretariat for the Economy, Francis replicated Benedict’s 2005 appointment of San Francisco Archbishop William Levada as prefect of the CDF. Levada at the time was up to his chest in abuse lawsuits against the archdiocese. When Levada got his appointment in Rome he had been sued, successfully, by a whistle-blowing priest who saw his pastor making moves on a boy. A former federal prosecutor, Fr Jon Conley called the cops. Levada’s response was to exile Conley to a seminary for insubordination. Conley sued. Levada later had to approve a settlement for the pastor’s victim and “prefunded” Conley’s retirement, a sum reportedly in the high six figures. How much did Benedict know of Levada beyond the young theologian’s work on his staff at CDF 20 years earlier?
A commission of Catholic constitutional scholars could establish the agenda and legal standards for a bishops’ court. There is a precedent. After years of Vatican Bank money- laundering scandals, Benedict in 2010 created a Financial Information Authority (FIA) with “full powers of supervision” over all Vatican offices, including the bank. It is a work in progress; but on 4 April, the Italian journal Il Sole 24 Ore reported: “The Vatican City is (officially) no longer a tax haven. The Holy See has entered Italy’s ‘white list for tax purposes’ … countries that allow an adequate exchange of information with Italy for tax purposes.”
FIA director René Brülhart has strengthened the Holy See’s standing with foreign bank regulators and the US Treasury. Betty Clermont, an indefatigable blogger on church finances at The Open Tabernacle, cautions: “Compliance with the financial authority is voluntary.” In 2016, the FIA reported 893 Suspicious Transaction Reports, of which 17 were submitted to Vatican judicial authorities. “The reports are secret,” notes Clermont. Nevertheless, the bank has been steadily closing out suspicious accounts.
Justice is imperfect in democratic governance, but responsible people make it work. An independent court with investigators and judges would have two overarching effects. Initially, the hearings would function as a truth commission, forcing the worst bishops to own up and face dismissal by the Pope. The long-term value will be to protect popes from preventable scandals of the kind in which Francis now finds himself, and to help chart a path for the Church consistent with his eloquent advocacy of the rights of the poor.
Jason Berry is the author of Lead Us Not into Temptation (1992), which first exposed the sexual abuse of children by Catholic priests; his latest book is Render unto Rome: The Secret Life of Money in the Catholic Church.