LOS ANGELES — Seven years after a Vatican court convicted Chilean Father Fernando Karadima of sexual abuse, a papal investigation found that some Church leaders had covered up his misdeeds and that religious superiors in Chile had also shielded other clerical predators.

And now that the country’s 34 bishops have collectively tendered their resignation, Pope Francis must decide how far he will go to address the systemic problems outlined in his scathing 10-page letter to the country’s bishops.

But the news of the Chilean hierarchy’s unprecedented resignation en masse has sparked questions, skepticism and even pushback from canon lawyers and others with expertise in clergy-abuse cases and reforms.

“If the crisis in the dioceses of Chile is as serious as it is looking — and there is no reason to believe that it is not — there must be a thorough response to the problem, while recognizing that it is probably more complex than what we see in the media,” canon lawyer Ben Nguyen, canonical counsel and theological adviser for the Diocese of Corpus Christi, Texas, told the Register.

Nguyen expressed doubts, however, about the value of the Pope accepting all the bishops’ resignations. “It seems to me that it would be more effective in such a state of emergency and crisis to deploy apostolic visitors, or other Vatican representatives, to every diocese there and require the current diocesan administration … to work with that apostolic visitor and the Holy See.”

“A decision could always be made to accept the resignation of the bishop and others on his staff at a later time, if necessary,” he said.

Kathleen McChesney, a former FBI official who established and led the U.S. bishops’ national office for child and youth protection in the wake of the 2002 clergy-abuse crisis, said the Pope should evaluate each bishop’s record on an individual basis.

“It would be unfair to paint all the bishops in Chile with the same brush, and it also would not be productive,” McChesney told the Register.

“You have to look at each bishop or religious superior: what they did or didn’t know; what they did or didn’t do.”

In the aftermath of a crisis of this magnitude, she said, the local Church will depend on the leadership of bishops who adhered to the Church’s abuse protocols and protected their flocks, and a collective resignation would thus be “counterproductive.”



That said, McChesney made clear that the scandal underscored the need for further vigilance, starting with a consistent application of norms and practices that penalize abusers and protect minors and vulnerable adults. And she suggested that the crisis now engulfing the Church in Chile points to problems with accountability at both the local level and with the Holy See.

During the Pope’s apostolic visit to Chile earlier this year, Francis initially defended Bishop Juan de la Cruz Barros Madrid of the Diocese of Osorno, who had been accused of shielding Father Karadima. The Pope said no compelling evidence of the bishop’s guilt had been provided.

But later, news reports confirmed that one Chilean victim, Juan Carlos Cruz, had given a letter addressed to the Pope to Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston, head of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, an advisory body, and that the prelate had hand-delivered the letter to Francis.

Following this disclosure, and additional meetings with Chilean abuse victims, Pope Francis appointed Archbishop Charles Scicluna of Malta, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s former prosecutor of clergy-abuse cases, to conduct an investigation of the Chilean bishops’ handling of abuse allegations.

The papal letter that followed, dated May 15, outlined a shocking pattern of behavior by some dioceses and religious orders confronted with abuse accusations: from suppression of evidence to abusive priests quietly moved to new posts where minors were present and the placement of active homosexuals in seminaries and novitiates.

“The Vatican needs someone responsible for managing allegations from a process standpoint,” said McChesney. “Handing people letters is dramatic, but lacks accountability.”

“And around the world, what’s often missing is accountability. Who is making certain that each of these countries have procedures and policies in place, and what are the consequences if they don’t?” she said.


Canonical Procedures

The Code of Canon Law provides clear norms on how local bishops should respond to allegations involving the sexual abuse of minors and the possession of child pornography, among other grave crimes under the Sixth Commandment. 

When an allegation of abuse is brought to the local ordinary (usually a bishop), he must immediately begin an investigation, and the accused is usually suspended from ministry. If the accusation is found to be credible, the case is forwarded to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), with a recommendation from the local ordinary.

In most cases, the initial trial is conducted by the local tribunal, but in some cases it is conducted in a neighboring diocese with better resources, and occasionally in Rome.

The basic norms governing the local bishops’ response to abuse allegations “apply to all Catholic dioceses of the world and include things such as when it is required to refer a case to the Holy See, who can and must be involved in the investigation, and the handling of the case,” including when the statutes of limitations related to Church law should be lifted, said Nguyen.

He suggested it would be helpful for dioceses outside the U.S. to review the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People and the “Essential Norms” and other rules adopted by the U.S. bishops over the past two decades. 

Catholic dioceses in this country conduct background checks, offer safe-environment training and education, appoint specialists to primarily lay-run review boards to oversee the handling of allegations, and also offer victims’ services.

“In the United States, the ordinary is expected to immediately advise the civil authorities when there is any indication of civil law being violated,” Dominican Father Joseph Fox, the vicar for canonical services for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, told the Register.

“Normally, dioceses will advise the people in the parishes where [an accused priest] has been assigned and put an announcement in the parish bulletins,” while the accused receives a variety of help, including access to legal representation. After the initial canonical investigation and consultations with the lay review board, the bishop “sends the file to the CDF and indicates his opinion of the case and the penalty to be applied,” said Father Fox. “The congregation will decide the next step.”


Additional Measures?

Despite the scope of Church protocols that have already been approved, some analysts have also called for additional steps, like making the CDF — rather than the local diocese — responsible for canonical investigations. Other specialists have pressed for a new mechanism that allows victims to contact the Vatican directly with complaints, and some have proposed the creation of a central database that would track local compliance with norms and policies.

The Vatican Press Office did not respond to the Register’s questions about such proposals or related questions.

Ian Elliott, the chief executive officer of the National Board for Safeguarding Children in the Catholic Church in Ireland since its creation in 2007, emphasized the need for “independent monitoring of safeguarding practice in the Church.”

“A body should be created that has real powers and is appropriately resourced,” Elliott told the Register. “It should be independent of the hierarchy and should be run by experienced professionals who will not be influenced by deference.”

“This was what I tried to create in Ireland, but it proved too much for the Church here, and it did not happen,” he said, while noting his belief that the CDF and the Commission for the Protection of Minors also lacked the resources to manage this responsibility.



Another key issue that has begun to draw more attention is seminary recruitment and formation. Along with noting local concerns about the alleged practice of allowing active homosexuals to serve in seminaries and novitiates in his 10-page letter on the Chilean abuse crisis, Pope Francis returned to this subject during a subsequent meeting with the members of the Italian bishops’ conference. During this meeting, he warned that the acceptance of seminarians with established homosexual inclinations could end with “scandal.”

“If you have the slightest doubt” about whether seminary candidates have “deep-seated tendencies” regarding same-sex attraction, “it’s best not to let them enter,” he advised the Italian bishops, according to Vatican Insider.

Francis’ remarks are in conformity with the Congregation for Catholic Education’s 2005 instruction “Concerning the Criteria for the Discernment of Vocations With Regard to Persons With Homosexual Tendencies in View of Their Admission to the Seminary and to Holy Orders.”

The instruction stated that those who practice homosexuality, present deep-seated homosexual tendencies, or support the “gay” culture “find themselves in a situation that gravely hinders them from relating correctly to men and women. One must in no way overlook the negative consequences that can derive from the ordination of persons with deep-seated homosexual tendencies.”

Father Fox suggested that the reassertion of past Vatican policies that barred such men from entering the seminary “would be seen by many as a preventive measure — whether or not everyone would agree.”


Episcopal Appointments

Father Fox also pointed to another simmering problem that will likely draw even more scrutiny: Pope Francis’ 2015 decision to appoint Bishop Barros to lead the Diocese of Osorno, despite the fact that he had been accused of covering up Father Karadima’s abuse.

“In 2011, Karadima was removed, but victims claim that priests who witnessed them being abused and said nothing were later made bishops,” said Father Fox.

The victims protested the appointment of these bishops, who did not abuse but “allowed a priest to abuse,” he said, referring to Bishop Barros and three other bishops who were also close to Father Karadima and whose resignations are likely to be accepted by Pope Francis.

Further review is needed, he said, to understand how the episcopal appointments were approved despite the candidates’ alleged failure to report misbehavior.

“A mass resignation makes them look repentant, and that is very important,” Father Fox concluded. “But it does not dispel a number of unresolved issues still before the Holy See.”

The Pope will surely take further action in the weeks and months ahead, but whether he will go beyond accepting the resignations of some bishops and actually announce new reforms to address the breakdown in accountability is unclear.

But most experts contacted by the Register suggested that the problem in Chile, and in other contemporary clergy-abuse scandals, reflected a failure to adhere to established universal Church procedures.

“Crises such as these are rarely crises of law,” said Nguyen.

“We don’t necessarily need more law. We need good, objective and just implementation of the canonical laws and procedures that we have.” 

When we dismiss norms as unnecessary or apply “the law differently based on who you know, that’s when problems arise and boil over into terrible scandals that harm the most vulnerable, destroy people’s faith and tarnish the truth and beauty of Christ’s Church.”

Joan Frawley Desmond is a Register senior editor.