New Vatican tribunal to deal with bishops who cover up abuse

[By Aaron Taylor] Following this week’s announcement that the Holy See will establish a tribunal to punish bishops who cover up child abuse, Pope Francis has accepted the resignations of two bishops from the United States accused of just that.

John C. Nienstedt, Archbishop of St. Paul and Minneapolis, and his auxiliary, Bishop Lee Anthony Piché, both resigned under a provision of canon law which requests early resignations from bishops who are unable to fulfill the duties of their office “because of ill health or some other grave cause.”

Nienstedt’s resignation comes as criminal charges are filed against the Archdiocese, which is accused by prosecutors of failing to respond adequately to “numerous and repeated reports of troubling conduct” by Fr Curtis Wehmeyer, now serving a prison sentence for child molestation.

News reports have raised serious doubts about the veracity of sworn depositions Nienstedt has given relating to the Archdiocese’s handling of abuse allegations, and he was last year also the subject of an internal church investigation relating to “multiple allegations” that he engaged in sexual misconduct with seminarians, priests, and other adult men.

The bishops’ resignations were submitted shortly after the Vatican announced it will establish a canonical tribunal designed to punish bishops for “abuse of office” if they fail to respond appropriately to allegations of child abuse. The tribunal will be a sub-department of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and Francis has made an exception to a Vatican recruitment freeze, in order to allow the new tribunal to hire well-qualified staff.

The tribunal does not take the place of any criminal proceedings brought against bishops by civil authorities. If a bishop’s mishandling of abuse claims constitutes a crime or a tort, he should be held accountable by local civil authorities. The tribunal is an internal church court: it will establish disciplinary penalties imposed by canon law, punishing bishops not instead of but in addition to civil penalties.

For an example of how the tribunal may work in future, take the case of Robert Finn, former bishop of Kansas City-St Joseph. Finn was criminally prosecuted and convicted in 2012 for failing to report suspected child abuse. He continued, despite a widespread outcry, to serve as bishop throughout his court-supervised probation and for several years afterward, until his resignation earlier this year. This is the kind of situation that the new tribunal, if it works well, could help the Church avoid. Whereas processes in church law have always existed (even if not properly employed) to deal with priests who commit abuse, there has never previously existed an adequate mechanism to punish bishops who cover it up.

The idea for the tribunal was suggested to the Pope by the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors which he established last year. A way of holding bishops to account for covering up abuse has long been requested by victims’ groups. Reactions to the move from victims’ groups this week ranged from skepticism to cautious optimism. “At best, most church abuse panels have been ineffective distractions. At worst, they’ve been manipulative public relations moves. We suspect this new one won’t make a difference either,” said Barbara Blaine, President of SNAP (Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests), while Terence McKiernan who runs the online resource called the establishment of the tribunal “a promising step.”

In effect, comments John Allen, Jr. at Crux, “the tribunal is an answer to the most critical question many abuse victims and other observers have asked for years about the Church’s official embrace of zero tolerance: What happens when a bishop ignores it?”

In another indication that Francis is determined to make episcopal accountability for the abuse scandals a signature reform of his papacy, the prosecutor of the Vatican City State announced this week that former papal nuncio to the Dominican Republic Jozef Wesolowski will face a criminal trial on abuse charges (see previous CV Comment on the Wesolowski case here and here).

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