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Pope’s plan to hold bishops accountable for child abuse is promising

June 11, 2015

Staff at Family & Children’s Place applauds the move by Pope Francis to hold bishops accused of covering up or failing to act in cases of child sexual abuse by priests accountable.

This week, the Pope approved creation of a Vatican tribunal that will investigate and render some judgment against the guilty. It’s unclear how the tribunal will conduct inquiries and proceedings, or what punishments it might impose, but it’s the right move and a strong signal how seriously Pope Francis takes child abuse within the church, a three decade-long  issue.

Before approval of this process, bishops could be disciplined only directly by the pope, and before Francis, no pope had taken any action against bishops accused of gross negligence. Though his predecessors, Pope Benedict XVI and John Paul II, defrocked about 850 priests for sexual abuse and penalized about 2,500 more, there was no similar judicial mechanism for bishops. This action closes that gap.

According to the Vatican, the tribunal’s investigations would include not only overt acts, but also questions of omission:  “what one should have done and didn’t do,” which has long been seen as a shortcoming in prior child abuse investigations within the church.

Francis’ move will reportedly be applied to bishops around the world, even to the church in Latin America, Asia and Africa, where the topic is still largely taboo. In the United States, where the issue has been prominent for some years, there were 37 allegations of sexual abuse made to the church last year by minors, and another 600 “historical allegations” made by older accusers. Six of the allegations made last year were substantiated, and other cases remain open.

We have concerns – the tribunal relies on church officials to judge other church officials – but we have optimism, too. This is the most promising step the Vatican has taken to confront child abuse in the Roman Catholic Church.

It provides an opportunity not only for much needed accountability, but for transparency, too.  And it is a promising step in ensuring the church is a place of sanctuary, of safety and security, where everyone is welcomed and protected, especially children, the most vulnerable among us.

Family & Children’s Place supports all faiths examining this devastating issue.