The Archdiocese of Chicago has made great strides in confronting the scandal of child sexual abuse by clergy.
But the Roman Catholic Church’s failings of the past, here and elsewhere — the way in which bishops looked away for decades — cannot be denied. Only when bishops are held to account as fully as the priests they supervise can there be confidence this scandal will never come roaring back.
On Wednesday, in a major step, Pope Francis approved the creation of a Vatican tribunal for bishops accused of covering up for priests who rape or molest minors. Until now, a bishop could be disciplined only by the pope — and no pope has even once demoted a bishop for failing to take seriously allegations of abuse.
It is an essential reform, 30 years overdue. Now let’s see how effective it will be. The Vatican has yet to work out important details, such as the range of punishments or whether there will be a statute of limitations on old cases.
But there’s no denying the pope’s actions represent a sea change for an institution that for too long did little or nothing as bishops shuffled along abusive priests instead of calling the cops.
The new Vatican tribunal is a potential backstop to the Chicago archdiocese’s own commendable efforts in recent years to address the abuse scandal here. Last year, the archdiocese released thousands of pages of secret documents on 66 abusive priests. More significantly, the archdiocese has created policies and systems designed to safeguard against future abuse — and against looking the other way. Background checks are standard, for example, as well as fingerprinting for school employees. All allegation of abuse must be reported to secular authorities.
It is ludicrous, though, that so much progress has been made on cracking down on abusive priests without, until now, holding their bosses — the bishops — accountable. In the documents released last year, you will find story after story of priests who should have been defrocked and handcuffed, but were simply reassigned or sent off for therapy.
The Vatican looks to be cracking down, finally, and so is the law. Prosecutors in Minnesota recently filed criminal charges against the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, accusing it of covering up abuse by priests. In 2012, a bishop of the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph in Missouri was convicted on a misdemeanor for failing to report suspected child abuse by a priest.
The Roman Catholic Church will only grow stronger thanks to Pope Francis’ latest wise actions.
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