An article in the “National Catholic Reporter”, dated 17th June 2016 by Father Thomas P Doyle

An article in the “National Catholic Reporter”, dated 17th June 2016 by Father Thomas P Doyle

(Abridged and paraphrased by Brian Mark Hennessy)


(Dominican Fr. Thomas P. Doyle is a canon lawyer and longtime advocate for victims abused by Catholic clerics. He has givien support to the Comboni Missionary Survivors (also known as the “Mirfield 12 Group”) on many occasions and has encouraged them in their campaign for justice against the Comboni Misionary Order. Father Tom Doyle is also co-author of the 2006 book Sex, Priests and Secret Codes: The Catholic Church’s 2,000-Year Paper Trail of Sexual Abuse.” In the article below Father Tom Doyle draws some notable conclusions from Pope Francis’ recent Apostolic Letter on Bishop Accountability)

Pope calls bishops’ negligence a crime: this is important

When it comes to holding bishops and religious superiors responsible for the cover up of clergy sex abuse, Pope Francis’ Apostolic letter of 4th June on  ecclesial accountability is not only a distinct improvement over the proposal made a year ago to establish a tribunal to hold bishops accountable, it is possibly the most positive and hopeful signal to come out of the Vatican to date.


For the very first time the Catholic Church has acknowledged that

clerical sexual abuse is a crime.


The apostolic letter has some remarkable positive points that deserve mention:


    • Negligence can be punished if it has hurt individuals and/or the community. It is vital that the disastrous impact on the Christian communities because of the bishops’ actions of lack thereof be acknowledged for what it is.
    • The norms for removal do not demand that the pope have “moral certitude” of the culpability of the bishop. He can be removed or forced to resign for failure in the diligence required of him. This is a far cry from having to prove “grave moral culpability.” These factors can go a long way in eliminating the possibility of lengthy litigation or protracted appeals which many feared would be the undoing of a tribunal process.

The U.S. bishops were criticized for not including superiors of religious communities under the Dallas Charter and Essential Norms: The pope plugged that hole in his Apostolic Letter – making it clear that major religious superiors, that is, provincials and superiors general, can also be subjected to this process.


  • Unilateral removal is now a distinct reality and distinguishes between removal and an “invited” resignation. Victims, survivors and others have rightly criticized this pope because, rather than removing several U.S. bishops who were blatantly guilty of dereliction of duty, he allowed them to resign or retire. Everyone knew what was really happening yet it served as an insult to the victims and others so gravely wounded by these prelates’ intentional actions.


Looking at the bishops’ and popes’ histories one would be hard pressed to see this since the deeply engrained clerical narcissism has made it nearly impossible for the ecclesiastical leadership to see the “problem” and the victims from any other perspective than their own.

Critics of this letter and last year’s tribunal plan claim that the pope already has the authority to remove bishops at will. This is true. He can remove a bishop (and a Religious Leader) or to force his resignation without any kind of process and without giving a reason. Bishops are freely appointed by the pope and just as freely removed. Canon 1389 of the Code refers to abuse of authority and negligence in office. The actions of scores of bishops and cardinals clearly fall within the parameters of this canon.

What is so special about this latest development is the acknowledgement that the negligent and irresponsible actions of many bishops (and Religious Leaders) were willful and potentially criminal. This is a mind-blowing change from the past where every effort was made to protect and exonerate the bishops above every other consideration.

The change in attitude is radical and had to have been inspired by a source other than the Vatican curia. That source has to have been, without a doubt, the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors. The commission has been insisting that accountability of bishops is of top priority. Calling bishops (and Religious Leaders) on the carpet for neglecting to act properly in the face of sexual abuse by clerics has not only been a top demand from victims and non-victims the world over but it has been a demand that has been actively stone-walled since the crisis first became publicly known over 30 years ago.


A clear example of the deep-seated hypocrisy that remains is the opposition of U.S. bishops in several states to changes in state legislation that would be more favorable to victims of sexual assault. The archbishops of New York (Cardinal Timothy Dolan and Philadelphia (Charled Chaput)  are leading the other bishops in their respective ecclesiastical provinces in vicious battles to prevent any change that would benefit all sex abuse victims. At the same time, these bishops are making public statements about how they support victims of sex abuse.


The duplicity and dishonesty of these and other prelates is blatantly obvious to all. Yet there has been no Vatican intervention to tell them to cease and desist.


NCR columnist Michael Sean Winters wrote “The document helps confront the last, critical piece of the puzzle in any effective strategy to confront the scourge of sex abuse: episcopal accountability.” He is correct, but only to a limited degree. Thus far all the steps taken by bishops and popes have been administrative — promulgation of more protocols and processes. At first these were aimed exclusively at the clergy abusers but now the pope has set his sights on the bishops. That the papal sights should have been on the bishops since the problem surfaced goes without saying.

However, the last critical piece is not administrative or judicial. It is deeply attitudinal.

The most glaring and scandalous deficiency has been the almost complete lack of papal and episcopal leadership in the compassionate and pastoral care of the countless victims world-wide whose lives have been so deeply wounded not only by the sexual abuse itself, but by the dishonest, uncaring and destructive manner with which victims have generally been treated by the official church.

It will take more than papal pronouncements to bring about the changes in direction that are essential. It will take a fundamental change in attitude and this will not be evident as long as the hierarchy still believes that the church is a stratified society with the bishops on top and the vast majority of believers on the bottom, whose only duty, according to Pope Pius X, is to obey and docilely follow the bishops.

Taking actions against bishops (and Religious Leaders) is crucial. Yet it is equally vital to look deeply into the nature of the church and the meaning of priesthood to uncover the causal factors for the disastrous way the institutional church and the hierarchy have consistently and systematically mishandled this nightmare. To do so would mean taking very great risks because not too deeply beneath the surface the bishops and the church’s governmental system would have to deal with the toxic virus of clericalism. Pope Francis has clearly projected a fundamental attitudinal change with his remarks and actions that openly take on clericalism, a disease that has held the church captive for centuries.


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