The Pope has set up a special tribunal to deal with bishops who fail in their duties in dealing with questions of child protection. In so doing he is following the advice of the commission he set up to advise on matters of child protection and his own advisory commission of eight Cardinals.
It needs hardly be said, but this is very welcome news indeed. And for several reasons.
Firstly, it shows that the various commissions set up by the Pope, and the slow process of reform of the Roman Curia, are at last showing signs of producing useful work. This new tribunal, under the aegis of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, will mean that bishops who fail in their duties will be dealt with by a central authority, rather than, as before now, one of three separate congregations. The policing of the Church ought now to be much more effective, and not be divided between potentially rival authorities and competing fiefdoms.
Second, the fact that bishops will now be accountable for their actions before this tribunal gets to the root of the problem that has plagued the Church for so long. The problem was a double one: first of all there were child abusers in the Church; but this was compounded and made infinitely worse by the fact that the bishops, whose task is oversight, so often failed to tackle the abusers, or covered up for them. It was this second problem, the management problem, that magnified the problem of abuse, and in many cases, tragically, meant that abuse that could have been stopped was able to continue for years – all because the bishops in charge failed to confront it or take action. Now at long last someone is going to hold these bishops to account, and so we can hope, provided the new system works, that the bishops will now do their jobs properly.
We will begin to see this work when we see bishops follow their own child protection guidelines, and when we see bishops who have not yet introduced guidelines doing so.
But there is something else going on here as well, which is not specifically connected to child protection, but has something to do with Church governance. It is not just that this new tribunal will hold bishops to account and thus improve their management skills. This is presumably done to some extent already by the bishops’ ad limina visits, when they submit written reports to Rome and visit the appropriate dicasteries on a regular basis (though how effective that is, I do not know). What is interesting here is that this new tribunal has an impact on the long-running tension in the Church between periphery and centre.
It has been the custom for decades for a certain sort of Catholic to complain about over-centralisation, and to lament the fact that the supposed vision of Vatican II, allowing more power to individual dioceses, has not been realised. These Catholics love to point out that the Pope is not the only bishop in the world, and that Jesus gave the power of the keys to the college of the Apostles, and thus every bishop in the world shares in the power of administering the Church. (This incidentally is true, but Our Lord gave the power of the keys to the Apostles as a body: bishops only exercise this power in communion with the successor to St Peter, never in isolation.)
Then there are other sorts of Catholics, of which I am one, who say Ubi Petrus, ibi ecclesia. We want power to stay at the centre, and view the idea of national episcopal conferences arrogating the powers of the papacy to themselves with horror and dismay. We look upon the successor of Peter as the one who will save us from the folly of local prelates. Hence when the German bishops have ideas that they think they can put into practice in a way that is at variance with the Universal Church, we rejoice at the thought that Rome will rein them in.
In this present case, we will undoubtedly rejoice that when local bishops fail in their duties, Rome will correct them, and, most important of all, enforce the correction. This is as it should be. This is the Catholic way. And, despite all the current talk about empowering the periphery, here we see another example of useful and profitable centralisation. Indeed, the periphery can only flourish when the centre is strong.
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