Matt C. Abbott
'Lost Shepherd': Pope Francis and the clergy sexual abuse scandal
By Matt C. Abbott
June 12, 2018

The clergy sexual abuse scandal that starting making headlines in 2002 has not gone away. Far from it. We see current headlines involving Chile, Pennsylvania and Minnesota.

Below is an exclusive excerpt (focusing on the clergy sexual abuse scandal during the pontificate of Pope Francis) from Catholic journalist Philip F. Lawler's latest book
Lost Shepherd: How Pope Francis Is Misleading His Flock. Mr. Lawler is an excellent journalist and commentator. Click here to purchase the book through Amazon.

Excerpt from Lost Shepherd

Coping with the Sex-Abuse Scandal

Vatican insiders may see financial transparency as the key to more responsible stewardship within the Roman Curia, but from the outside, it appears that the most urgently needed reforms are those involving the handling of sexual abuse accusations.

The tightening of disciplinary procedures for clerics accused of sexual misconduct began with the American hierarchy in 2002 and accelerated through the pontificate of Benedict XVI. But two related problems remain unaddressed. First, the Vatican has not yet ensured that the same "zero-tolerance" policy will be in force, and that abuse complaints will be promptly addressed, in every ecclesiastical jurisdiction throughout the world. Some bishops have lagged in their responses to the crisis.

Second, and more important, the Vatican has not yet established an effective policy for dealing with bishops who neglect their responsibility to deal with predatory priests. As I explained in my book The Faithful Departed, the negligence of many Catholic bishops – and worse, their deliberate efforts to mislead the faithful by covering up evidence of abuse – was more damaging to the credibility of the Church than the abuse itself. The sexual abuse of young people is a crime and a terrible sin, but the Church has a long acquaintance with individuals' sins. It was Church leaders' siding with the predators at the expense of their victims and lying to protect the criminals that shook confidence in the entire institution. If bishops would lie about such things, how could they be trusted on other subjects? And if the bishops were not trustworthy, how could we know that we were receiving the true Faith, passed down from the apostles?

During Francis's pontificate, the Vatican has been confronted by accusations of sexual abuse against two prominent prelates. Neither case has yet produced a clear result – although not through any lack of diligence on the part of the Vatican.

The first case involves Józef Wesołowski, a Polish archbishop and Vatican diplomat who in 2013 was accused of molesting boys while serving as the papal nuncio to the Dominican Republic. Recalled to the Vatican, Wesołowski was laicized in the first stage of canonical proceedings. Prosecutors in the Dominican Republic and Poland had expressed interest in bringing criminal charges against him, but the Holy See chose to continue its own proceedings with a criminal trial, reasoning that the former nuncio was immediately subject to Vatican law. The criminal trial was postponed, however, when Wesołowski – who was under house arrest at the Vatican – fell ill. He died in August 2015 before the trial could resume.

The second case is that of Archbishop Anthony Apuron of Agaña, in Guam. He too was accused of molesting boys and in June 2016 was relieved of his administrative duties and summoned to Rome. As complaints against Apuron multiplied, Archbishop Savio Hon Tai Fai, named temporary caretaker of the Church in Guam, announced that he had urged the Holy See to remove Apuron permanently from his post and appoint a successor. Taking a step in that direction in October, the Vatican named Michael Byrnes, an auxiliary bishop of Detroit, coadjutor archbishop of Agaña "with special faculties," indicating that he would take over the administration of the Guam archdiocese immediately and succeed Apuron should the suspended archbishop be formally stripped of his office. Meanwhile a Vatican investigation of Apuron's conduct was underway as of this writing.

In these two cases the Vatican demonstrated a stern resolve to discipline abusive bishops. Still the question remained: would the Holy See be equally firm in taking action against bishops who had not abused young people themselves but had been negligent in curbing abuse by priests under their jurisdiction?

Holding Bishops Accountable for Sex-Abuse Complaints

The pope's own record is not impressive in this regard. In 2015 he promoted a Chilean prelate, Bishop Juan Barros, over loud protests that Barros had ignored complaints of abuse by a priest who was his friend. Angry Catholics demonstrated at the cathedral in Osorno, where Barros was to be installed, and a delegation of other Chilean bishops visited the Vatican to question the appointment. But Francis held firm, insisting that Barros was innocent of misconduct. He was caught on film saying that the Chilean Catholics were "stupid" to believe the complaints against Barros.

Later that year, the pontiff appointed his ally Cardinal Godfried Danneels to participate in the Synod of Bishops. There was no evident reason for the retired Belgian archbishop to be given such an active role. Indeed, there were compelling reasons for excluding him from a discussion of family life. Several years earlier Danneels had been the object of a Belgian police investigation into sexual abuse that culminated in a raid on archdiocesan offices and a search of the cardinal's residence. No criminal charges were filed, but police had evidently suspected that the cardinal was concealing evidence of abuse. Indeed, Belgian newspapers published transcripts of a conversation, secretly recorded, in which the cardinal had urged a man to remain silent about the abuse he had suffered at the hands of another Belgian prelate. Confronted with that evidence, the cardinal's office could only offer Danneel's limp admission that "the whole approach...was not the right one."

In 2014, Francis intervened in the case of Mauro Inzoli, an Italian priest who had been stripped of his clerical status by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) after he was found guilty of molesing adolescents. The pope, responding to pleas from a few of his close advisers, overruled that decision, though he was forced to reverse his own decision and laicize Inzoli after an Italian court found him guilty of multiple counts of sexual abuse.

So would Francis approve a policy that holds bishops accountable for their negligence? He seemed to answer that question in June 2015 with new disciplinary norms for bishops who fail to act on sexual abuse complaints. Recommended by a special papal commission headed by Cardinal Sean O'Malley of Boston, endorsed by the Council of Cardinals, and conditionally approved by the pope for five years, the norms would subject such bishops to the jurisdiction of a new tribunal under the CDF. Francis also approved the allocation of "adequate resources" to staff the new tribunal, which would also assist the CDF in cases involving sexual abuse by other clerics, for which it was already responsible.

Then a curious thing happened – nothing. No tribunal was established, no staff was assigned, no office space was set aside. No steps whatsoever were taken to carry out the policy that Francis had approved.

A year passed quietly, and then at last Francis issued a new policy. As he had done with the Secretariat for the Economy – endowing it with sweeping powers that he later trimmed back because of internal resistance – the pope rescinded his approval of the new norms. In a motu proprio of June 2016, the pope declared that there was no need for a new tribunal to handle disciplinary cases against negligent bishops because the Code of Canon Law already provides adequate remedies. All that was needed, therefore, was a clarification that the existing procedures for disciplining bishops "for grave causes" may be applied to bishops who fail to curtail abuse of minors by clerics. In announcing this new policy, the pope did not even mention the old one. But the tribunal announced in June 2015 was clearly a dead letter in June 2016.

The new policy raised two obvious questions. First, if canon law already allowed for disciplinary action against bishops, why had a new tribunal been erected? Second, if the disciplinary mechanism had been in place all along, why had no bishops been punished? As Father Alexander Lucie-Smith, writing in London's Catholic Herald, concluded, "So it can be done. What is needed is the will to do it."

If that conclusion was somewhat cynical, Cardinal O'Malley unintentionally vindicated such cynicism when he remarked that the motu proprio conveyed "a sense of urgency and clarity that was not there before." Really? Had it taken fifteen years of catastrophe to arouse a "sense of urgency" sufficient for a clarification of canonical guidelines? If Cardinal O'Malley intended to be reassuring, he failed miserably.

A Commission without Support

In February 2017, the Associated Press reported on the work of O'Malley's commission. The news was discouraging. In a paragraph inexplicably buried at the bottom of the article, the story revealed that the commission's work was ignored: Francis scrapped the commission's proposed tribunal for bishops who botch abuse cases following legal objections from the congregation. The commission's other major initiative – a guideline template to help dioceses develop policies to fight abuse and safeguard children – is gathering dust. The Vatican never sent the template to bishops' conferences, as the commission had sought, or even linked it to its main abuse-resource website.

This shocking report followed close on the heels of complaints, aired by two members of the papal commission, that the group had been overworked and underfunded and that meetings were not held regularly. But the AP report was far more damaging, showing that the commission had launched two important projects, and neither had been implemented.

It was appalling that negligent bishops still were not being held accountable, though any recommendation for disciplining bishops was bound to face stiff opposition. But now it came to light that the papal commission had not even managed to post its own recommendations on its own website.

A few weeks later Marie Collins, a member of the commission who was herself a victim of abuse, resigned, complaining that the group's work had been thwarted from within the Roman Curia. A few days after her public announcement, Cardinal Gerhard Müller, the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith – which was the main target of Collins's criticism – defended the CDF and denied any foot-dragging on the abuse issue. Collins quickly shot back, rebutting the cardinal's arguments.

Bear in mind that Collins's resignation was not a bolt from the blue. She had frequently shown signs of impatience. Nor was she the first member of the commission to leave. Peter Saunders – who, like Collins, is an abuse victim – had been asked to resign in 2016 after issuing a series of angry comments. Refusing, he was placed involuntarily on an indefinite "leave of absence." Another member, Claudio Papale, resigned in September 2016 without any public explanation.

In her resignation announcement, Collins cited the scuttling of the tribunal for negligent bishops and the failure to implement worldwide guidelines as sources of frustration. But the "last straw," she said, had been the CDF's refusal to implement a recommendation from the commission that every abuse victim who contacts the Vatican receive a personal reply from Rome. Cardinal Müller's entirely reasonable response was that personal contact with abuse victims should be the responsibility of local bishops, not officials in Rome. The CDF hears hundreds of abuse cases, originating in dioceses all around the world. It seems unrealistic to expect that the CDF become familiar with every person involved. An American who appeals his case to the Supreme Court expects a fair hearing but not a personal note from one of the justices.

In his response to other complaints, however, Müller was less compelling. He characterized the tribunal for bishops as a mere proposal rather than an established fact. Yet Vatican Radio had announced in June 2015, "Pope Francis has created a new Vatican tribunal section to hear cases of bishops who fail to protect children from sexually abusive priests," and the Vatican press office had reported, "The Council of Cardinals agreed unanimously on these proposals and resolved that they be submitted to the Holy Father, Pope Francis, who approved the proposals and authorized the provision of sufficient resources for this purpose."

But of course the tribunal had not been set up, and now, months later, Müller explained the odd sequence of events. After the pope had approved the tribunal, Vatican officials discussed the plan and concluded that the disciplinary task could be handled by the Congregation for Bishops (and the Congregation for the Eastern Churches for bishops of the Eastern rites, or the Congregation for Evangelization for those in mission territories). So Collins's complaint was at least partially correct – the Roman Curia did block the implementation of the O'Malley commission's plan.

Still Müller could justifiably argue that the fundamental goal of the papal commission – the establishment of a means to discipline negligent bishops – had been achieved. Evidently Francis was convinced that the approach recommended by the Roman Curia was superior to the approach he had approved a year earlier. It was odd, however, that the Curia had apparently discussed that approach only after the initial proposal had been approved. In another display of the chaotic administrative style that has characterized this pontificate, the O'Malley commission, the Council of Cardinals, and the pope had instituted an important new policy without having consulted the officials most closely involved.

In her answer to Müller, Marie Collins produced other evidence that the O'Malley commission was not working closely with other Vatican offices. She complained that CDF officials did not attend the commission's meetings or respond to invitations for discussions. The picture that emerged was of a papal commission detached from the regular offices of the Vatican: a commission that could not persuade other Vatican officials to cooperate or even to post its recommendations on the Holy See's website.

Marie Collins charged that the Roman Curia was not in sympathy with the papal commission, and in his response, Müller indirectly lent credence to that complaint by implying that the commission did not recognize the realities of the work at the Vatican. So was the commission being unreasonable, or was the CDF being intransigent? In an important sense it did not matter. One way or another, two important Vatican bodies were not cooperating. And the failure of anyone to make them cooperate by clear directives from above suggested that – rhetoric aside – ending the sex-abuse scandal still was not a top papal priority.

In September 2017, Francis finally met with the commission that he had established in 2014. He acknowledged that the Church had been "late" in responding to the problem of sexual abuse and that the commission had been forced to "swim against the tide." The pope made the remarkable confession that he himself was "learning on the job" – learning, for example, to accept a "zero tolerance" policy fifteen years after the sexual abuse scandals had exploded. But while he encouraged the commission in its work and was pleased that some episcopal conferences had accepted the commission's recommendations, the pope offered no new promises. Marie Collins responded to the pope's remarks by saying, "Zero tolerance is the way to go, but it's toothless if there isn't a sanction for anyone who doesn't operate it."

© Matt C. Abbott


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Matt C. Abbott

Matt C. Abbott is a Catholic commentator with a Bachelor of Arts degree in communication, media, and theatre from Northeastern Illinois University. He also has an Associate in Applied Science degree in business management from Triton College. Abbott has been interviewed on HLN, MSNBC, Bill Martinez Live, WOSU Radio in Ohio, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel's 2019 ‘Unsolved’ podcast about the unsolved murder of Father Alfred Kunz, Alex Shuman's 'Smoke Screen: Fake Priest' podcast, WLS-TV (ABC) in Chicago, WMTV (NBC) and WISC-TV (CBS) in Madison, Wisconsin. He’s been quoted in The New York Times, the Chicago Tribune and other media outlets. He’s mentioned in the 2020 Report on the Holy See's Institutional Knowledge and Decision-Making Related to Former Cardinal Theodore Edgar McCarrick (1930 to 2017), which can be found on the Vatican's website. He can be reached at

(Note: I welcome and appreciate thoughtful feedback. Insults will be ignored. Only in very select cases will I honor a request to have a telephone conversation about a topic in my column. Email is much preferred. God bless you and please keep me in your prayers!)


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