Pope’s Child Abuse Commission Is ‘Smoke and Mirrors’

February 24, 2016

Pope Francis, speaking to reporters on the flight from Mexico City to Rome last week, gave his strongest comment yet on the clergy sex abuse crisis.

Francis called such acts “a monstrosity,” according to the Associated Press. In the Holy See’s transcript, the pope went beyond current Vatican policy in stating: “A bishop who moves a priest to a different parish if he detects a case of paedophilia is without conscience and the best thing for him to do would be to resign.”

But the official church policy on such bishops remains unclear, and the Vatican reform on this issue, charitably put, is a lurching work in progress.

By using the present tense—“a bishop who moves”— Francis may be signaling a going-forward stance when new cases surface. But what is the policy on bishops with past transgressions?

The pope echoed a Vatican Radio statement earlier in the week by one of his key advisors, Boston Cardinal Seán O’Malley, who chairs the Pontifical Commission on the Protection of Minors: “The crimes and sins of the sexual abuse of children must not be kept secret for any longer.”

“We all have a moral and ethical responsibility to report suspected abuse to the civil authorities who are charged with protecting our society,” declared O’Malley.

But in the view of Peter Saunders, an international leader of the abuse survivors’ movement who was suspended Feb. 5 from the commission O’Malley chairs for giving candid media interviews, Vatican policy is “smoke and mirrors.”

“When I met with the pope and joined the commission [in December 2014] I thought Francis was serious about change,” Saunders told The Daily Beast from London in a wide-ranging telephone interview. “I don’t think so any more. I don’t see any major reform achievement.”

The Vatican historically has given de facto immunity to negligent cardinals and bishops. Francis personally has defrocked two bishops who abused children.

But in another case Archbishop Robert Finn of Kansas City, Mo. stayed in office more than a year after his conviction for a criminal misdemeanor. He had sheltered a priest who had child pornography and is now in prison for child abuse. Finn now ministers to a Nebraska community of nuns.

Former St. Paul, Minn. Archbishop John Nienstedt, who recycled abusers and resigned in a huge scandal, was working in a Michigan parish in January, according to the National Catholic Reporter.

“On the oversight of bishops, the Vatican has to set up rules regarding their conduct in response to wrongdoing,” Illinois Supreme Court Justice Anne Burke told The Daily Beast.

Justice Burke, a member of the Sovereign Order of Malta, was a founding member of the U.S. bishops’ National Review Board, which advised the prelates on reform measures back in the early part of the last decade. Burke has been critical of American bishops for failure to abide by their 2002 youth protection charter which announced “zero tolerance” for clergy sex offenders.

Finn and Nienstedt flagrantly violated the charter; the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops voiced no criticism of them, waiting for a Vatican response.

“They need world-wide rules for bishops’ conduct,” says Burke. “An archbishop over a given region needs rules that his bishops and he have to abide by. If they don’t abide by them, then there has to be a penalty. Catholics in pews must know what the rules are.”

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