VATICAN — Pope Francis has created a new panel of cardinals and bishops who will work within the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) to help address the backlog of clergy-abuse cases awaiting appeals.
“Because of the number of appeals and the need to guarantee a more rapid examination of them,” Pope Francis has established a “college” within the CDF that will help streamline the process, explained a note from Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican secretary of state, which was disclosed when the Vatican confirmed the news at a Nov. 11 press conference. The panel will also address other serious cases, including those dealing with the violation of the seal of confession.
According to the papal order, or “rescript,” that directed the creation of the new panel, the Pope will name “seven cardinals or bishops” to the body.
The Vatican has not yet clarified whether the Pope will choose appointees who possess expertise in canon law or have other in-depth experience dealing with such cases.
The news about the CDF panel underscored Pope Francis’ continued focus on pastoral and canonical policies designed to address the scourge of clergy sexual abuse.
Experts welcomed the Pope’s new effort to streamline the appeals process, while affirming the “competence” of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to handle such cases. But there were also expressions of concern that the goal of reducing the backlog of cases should not be achieved at the cost of justice.
“This is a good sign Pope Francis is giving: He is basically saying that the CDF remains competent and gives them an extra instrument to promptly deal with a specific type of appeal against decisions, namely recourses against administrative decrees,” Kurt Martens, a professor of canon law at The Catholic University of America, told the Register.
“That is very good, since the CDF has built up competence in these cases and is very much aware of the problem of sexual abuse and takes that very seriously.”
Justice Is Essential
Martens also emphasized that the panel members should not only be concerned with expediting such appeals, but also make sure that justice is served.
“We have to be extremely careful when talking about simplifying procedures,” he noted.
“Procedures create a certain distance between facts and players and also provide a path to finding the truth. Simplifying procedures [may be] popular, but justice and the truth are not always well served by such simplification.”
“It is important to instruct cases properly, so that the rest of the procedure can be done smoothly,” Martens added.
Since his election, Francis has created a commission that advises him on the pastoral issues linked to clergy abuse. The commission is led by Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston. The Holy Father has also expressed his intention to hold bishops accountable for abusing children or for failing to effectively respond to allegations against priests under their supervision.
Earlier this year, a former nuncio to the Dominican Republic was tried by a Vatican tribunal, found guilty of sexually abusing minors and laicized.
And during a November interview with CBS’ 60 Minutes, Cardinal O’Malley said the Vatican commission on clergy abuse was “looking at how the Church could have protocols of how to respond when a bishop has not been responsible for the protection of the children in his diocese.”
But as Pope Francis presses ahead with his campaign to establish a zero-tolerance policy beyond the U.S. and restore the moral credibility of Church leaders, the backlog of clergy abuses cases has remained a stubborn concern.
The Current Process
At present, once an accusation of sexual abuse involving a minor is leveled against a priest, his bishop and others conduct a preliminary investigation to establish whether the allegation has “the semblance of truth.” If it does, the case is immediately referred to the CDF, which decides whether the CDF will handle it or send it back to the bishop. The CDF also decides whether there will be trial or an administrative procedure, which usually involves less complex cases.
Once a ruling has been issued, the accused can appeal the decision within 30 days. If there is an appeal, the CDF must decide whether the congregation will hear it in Rome or forward it to an appeals court in the U.S.
Occasionally, a case will be sent directly to the Pope, who will rule on whether the accused should be dismissed from the priesthood. And if he takes that step, the decision cannot be appealed.
In the immediate aftermath of the 2002 clergy-abuse crisis, the CDF office responsible for prosecuting such cases was overwhelmed with a flood of litigation. But within six years, then-Msgr. Charles Scicluna, the Maltese priest who led the prosecution of such cases, said his office had effectively addressed the burgeoning caseload.
Still, the news that Pope Francis has created a new “college” within the CDF to help streamline its caseload underscores the need to shorten the timeline for appeals, so that accused clerics, who are suspended from ministry until their cases are decided, need not endure lengthy waits.
Joe Maher, who leads the priests’ support group Opus Bono Sacerdotii, approved of the Pope’s effort to step up the appeals process. But he echoed Kurt Martens’ concern that a streamlined process be tailored to the requirements of justice.
“If setting up the ‘college’ means they are going to hire other competent canon lawyers to help with the process, that is a good thing,” Maher told the Register.
“But if they are trying to find a way to streamline the process with the current staff at CDF, my concern is that they will be looking at these cases quickly but won’t take time to really understand them.”
Fairness for Priests
Opus Bono Sacerdotii was founded in 2002, the year the U.S. bishops approved the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, which instituted a zero-tolerance policy for all priests credibly accused of the sexual abuse of minors.
Maher estimated that thousands of priests have sought help from his organization, with legal cases fighting allegations of abuse, though few, perhaps 100, have been exonerated.
Said Maher, “We want priests to get a fair shake.”
Joan Frawley Desmond is the Register's senior editor.