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CDF to be given power to judge bishops in abuse cases

10 June 2015 | by Christa Pongratz-Lippitt , James Roberts

Following a proposal from the C9 Council of Cardinals this week, Pope Francis has approved a new system of accountability for bishops with respect to allegations of the sexual abuse of minors.

The system will give authority to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) to judge bishops “with regard to crimes of the abuse of office when connected to the abuse of minors”.

A new office will be established at the CDF that will work as a tribunal to judge bishops facing allegations connected to such cases. The system was proposed by Boston's Cardinal Sean O'Malley who as well as being a member of the C9 body that advises the Pope is head of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors.

The commission’s statutes, approved in May, describe it as “an advisory body at the service of the Holy Father”.

The announcement made at a press conference on Wednesday follows a proposal made to Cardinal O’Malley by the Vatican’s Centre for Child Protection that it should be made a crime under canon law for bishops to hush up sexual abuse. Such a change is urgently needed, the chairman of the Centre for Child Protection in Rome, Fr Hans Zollner SJ, said in an interview with the German Church’s website katholisch.de of 3 June.

Originally based in Munich, the Centre for Child Protection was established in January 2012 as the “Catholic Church's global initiative on the prevention of sexual abuse of children and vulnerable men and women." Following a three-year pilot phase, the Centre moved to the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome in February this year.

“At the moment there are no legal procedures available in canon law against bishops who fail to shoulder their responsibility and hush up sexual abuse in their dioceses. Behind this there is the general problem that there are no legal procedures or list of sanctions in canon law for bishops who violate canonical norms on sexual abuse,” Fr Zollner told the website. Fr Zollner said such cases very soon end up with the Pope without passing through proper intermediary legislative bodies. “The documentation concerned is, of course, run past the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Congregation for Bishops and the Congregation for the Evangelisation of Peoples but they cannot conduct judicial procedures against a bishop,” Fr Zollner explained. “In the eyes of the Centre for Child Protection, this situation is highly unsatisfactory and urgently needs to be changed.”

For this reason the Centre had suggested to Cardinal Sean O’Malley that covering up sexual abuse by bishops be made a specific criminal offence under canon law, Fr Zollner explained. Wednesday’s announcement of the new role and powers for the CDF, clearly a response to the Zollner proposals, did not specifically refer to cases where a bishop might have hushed up abuse by a priest, but the phrase “crimes of abuse of office when connected to the abuse of minors” appeared to cover such cases.

Vatican spokesman Jesuit Fr Federico Lombardi said on Wednesday that while the power to dismiss a prelate ultimately remains with Francis, the Pope will normally accept decisions of the tribunal. “If the pope says that [this is] the judgment and the competence of the tribunal, then normally the pope accepts the judgment of the tribunal,” said Fr Lombardi. From September onwards an annual course at the Gregorian for newly-appointed bishops would include instruction on how to deal with both the victims and perpetrators of sexual abuse. “We have high hopes regarding this project,” Fr Zollner said.

Above: CDF Prefect Cardinal Gerhard Müller. Photo: CNS



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