John Allen is a good reporter, but he doesn’t always ask necessary follow up questions. He interviewed Robert Oliver, who is the Vatican’s top prosecutor for sex abuse cases. They went over various questions, and concluded in this way:
Some will never accept that the church’s “zero tolerance” policy means anything until they see a bishop punished for failing to apply it. For instance, critics point to Bishop Robert Finn of Kansas City, who was convicted of failing to report abuse more than a year ago and still remains in office. What do you say to that criticism?
First of all, it’s important to say that whatever happened in the past, there are clear rules today for what bishops are supposed to do. We have norms that say when a bishop becomes aware of an abuse report, he has to look into it, and if it’s credible, he’s required to report it to us. He’s also supposed to report it to the civil authorities and to allow the criminal justice system to take its course.
Of course, what you’re really asking is what happens if somebody feels that a bishop hasn’t followed those rules, and I have to say it’s an underdeveloped area. For instance, there’s a question of what canon lawyers call “competence.” The code states that the metropolitan bishop is to investigate any abuses in church discipline in the suffragan dioceses and report to the Holy Father. It is not always clear, however, to somebody who wants to bring a complaint in a church court against a bishop for what you might call “negligent supervision,” what court do they bring it to? Who has the right to hear the case, and what process do you use? We often don’t really have clear answers for these people, and work in these areas needs to be done.
One point to make is that no matter what happens, there’s always going to be some local discretion. For instance, suppose a bishop gets a report of abuse and he takes it to his own review board, as well as relaying it to the civil authorities, and both come back to say there’s no evidence of a crime, so the bishop doesn’t move forward. He’s followed the process as it’s laid out, and in the end, it comes down to a local decision.
What if someone feels that decision was horribly mishandled?
Every member of the faithful always has the right by law to bring a complaint directly to the Holy Father. But that said, many people are telling us we need a better process, a better way of handling these situations.
Right now, there’s a broad conversation going on about reform of the Roman Curia, which includes taking a new look at the relationship between the Holy See and other levels of authority in the church, such as the episcopal conferences, the metropolitans, and so on. My hope is that a good response to this question [of episcopal accountability on abuse cases] will become a piece of that puzzle, because we’re well aware how important it is to many people.
Well yes, Oliver hopes that bishops can be help responsible for failures, but is in factthis being discussed? What sort of procedures would Oliver envision?
Pope Francis has talked about decentralizing church administration. There is no way the Pope can exercise effective supervision (episcope) over the thousands of bishops in the world, and in fact the popes have failed to discipline bishops. But decentralization may not work, unless bishops are willing to discipline other bishops, in something like a synodal structure. I do not know why the revival of the synodal structure is not being considered. It would make the Latin Church more like the Eastern Churches. However, synods can fail too. Bishops who have failures of their own may be reluctant to discipline other bishops for similar failings.