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Abuse summit day two: How to hold bishops to account

(CNS photo/Paul Haring)

The bishops discussed how to make themselves accountable, but will this be enough for the victims around the world?

(ROME – February 22nd, 2019) “Accountability”: that was the theme chosen for Day 2 of the meeting for the protection of minors taking place this week at the Vatican.

An address by the Archbishop of Mumbai, Cardinal Oswald Gracias, set the tone for the day. His Eminence focused primarily on bishops’ accountability to each other — in the key of “collegiality” — and spoke of the bishops’ need to engender and foster a sense of accountability to each other.

“Because we belong to the college of bishops in union with the Holy Father,” Cardinal Gracias said, “we all share accountability and responsibility.” He went on to say, “[D]o we really engage in an open conversation and point out honestly to our brother bishops or priests when we notice problematic behaviour in them?”

“We should cultivate a culture of correctio fraterna (fraternal correction) which enables this without offending each other[.]”

Whatever the merits of those concerns, they do not speak directly to the kind of accountability for which thousands of long-suffering and egregiously injured victims throughout the world, along with the sorely tried faithful insulted and aggrieved for their sake, are impatient.

Cardinal Gracias — who has been accused of seriously mishandling a 2015 case — did not appear before journalists on Friday at the press briefing following the morning session.

The President of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston — who was not a member of the committee Pope Francis appointed to organise the meeting, and whose name is conspicuously absent from the roster of speakers over the three days of sessions — was on the dais Friday.

Reminded by a journalist that Theodore McCarrick was the “reassuring face” of the US bishops in 2002, when they were summoned to Rome when the scandal of abuse exploded in that year, and asked what he could say to reassure the faithful that a similar episode could never repeat itself, Cardinal O’Malley said, “We are talking today about collegiality — about our obligation to each other — I would hope that any bishop, who is aware of this kind of misbehaviour, would certainly make that known to the Holy See, and not feel that in any way we should try to cover it up or turn a blind eye to it.”

McCarrick was on the Holy See’s radar as early as 1994.

Cardinal O’Malley’s response to the question came after the Archbishop of Chicago, Cardinal Blase Cupich, spoke to the same question. “The only thing that I can tell you,” said Cardinal Cupich, “is that I, and everyone else, has to be held accountable — and I’ve always believed that.” Cardinal Cupich went on to say, “[T]his is a matter, first of all, of accountability on my part: that I am going to live my life this way,” i.e. as a Christian disciple ought, “and then, to make sure that we are supportive of each other to live the Gospel.”

Cardinal Cupich was the second speaker at the morning session, and presented an outline of his “metropolitan” proposal, i.e. to use the Metropolitan Archbishop in charge of the ecclesiastical province or “metropolis” to investigate, prosecute, and try a bishop accused of negligence, coverup, or other malfeasance.

Reminded by a journalist that Theodore McCarrick was a metropolitan, Cardinal Cupich directed his questioner to the footnotes of his text, where he discusses the possible alternatives in such an eventuality. That discussion, by the way, can be found in note 6 of Cardinal Cupich’s text, available at

Another significant highlight during the press briefing was the discussion entertained over Point 15 of Pope Francis’s “reflection points” for the meeting participants, which he distributed Thursday at the beginning of the meeting. The point reads:

Observe the traditional principle of proportionality of punishment with respect to the crime committed. To decide that priests and bishops guilty of sexual abuse of minors leave the public ministry.

Journalists have noted the ambiguity of the text. It seems to call for prudential consideration of penalties according to the principle of proportionality — roughly, “let the punishment fit the crime”. It might open the possibility of applying permanent removal as the penalty for every abuse offence, or not. The second sentence seems to encourage bishops to apply the so-called “one strike policy”, but does not propose that the rule — already in force in many Anglophone jurisdictions — become universal law.

“I would advocate that,” i.e. the one-strike policy, “for everyone,” said Cardinal O’Malley.

What the Pope meant in saying it remains unclear.