VATICAN CITY – Pope Francis' proposed Vatican tribunal to judge bishops who covered up for pedophile priests is going nowhere fast.
Despite fresh focus from the Oscar-winning film "Spotlight" on how Catholic bishops protected priests who raped children, Francis' most significant sex abuse-related initiative to date has stalled. It's a victim of a premature roll-out, unresolved legal and administrative questions and resistance both inside and outside of the Holy See, church officials and canon lawyers say.
The surprise proposal made headlines when it was announced on June 10 as the first major initiative of Francis' sex abuse advisory commission. A Vatican communique said Francis and his nine cardinal advisers had unanimously agreed to create a new judicial section within the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to handle "abuse of office" cases against bishops accused of failing to protect their flocks from pedophiles.
But the proposal immediately raised red flags to canon lawyers and Vatican officials alike.
For starters, the congregation, which since 2001 has been the clearing house for all church abuse cases around the world, wasn't consulted or even informed. As is, the congregation is understaffed and overwhelmed processing hundreds of backlogged cases of priests who molested children, advising dioceses on how to proceed.
"In reality, the congregation knows nothing about this. The question has just been left there. It hasn't been dealt with," said the Rev. Davide Cito, canon lawyer at Rome's Pontifical Holy Cross University who has helped investigate abuse cases for the congregation.
The Vatican communique said a new secretary for the congregation and staff would be appointed, and adequate resources allocated. But nine months later, no appointments have been made. Francis recently repeated that he would appoint the secretary, but even once in place, he will be starting from scratch on an uphill battle.
"We're confident that the Holy Father's announcement of his intention to name a secretary for the Discipline Section is a clear sign that the implementation of his earlier decisions will be expedited," the head of the sex abuse advisory commission, Boston Cardinal Sean O'Malley, said in a statement to The Associated Press.
But to even a casual observer, the original announcement raised significant bureaucratic questions. It tasked three other Vatican congregations with conducting preliminary investigations into accused bishops, a hurdle in and of itself given their limited resources and expertise. In addition, the Vatican's various congregations operate as individual fiefdoms: By what mechanism would these three fiefdoms then turn their cases over to a new tribunal?
"When it was announced I knew it would be a problem," said Kurt Martens, professor of canon law at The Catholic University of America in Washington.
He said a key question that must be resolved is the negligence standard by which bishops would be judged. Would bishops be held to the same standard of reporting abusers to police when civil reporting laws differ from country to country? What about prescription and retroactivity: Could bishops who botched abuse cases five, 10 or 20 years ago be brought before the new tribunal?
"It's a huge issue," Martens said. "Where do you draw the line?"
Two church officials familiar with the proposal said there had been no follow-up since the tribunal section was announced. Two other church officials involved also said they too knew of no progress to date. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to comment publicly on a sensitive, papal-mandated proposal.
One of the officials, a canon lawyer, said some fundamental questions remain unresolved: Who denounces whom? Who decides that a trial is necessary? Canon law already says only the pope can judge a bishop. Why single out abuse of office for botching sex abuse cases when another abuse, financial malfeasance, is also a church crime?
More than any of his predecessors, Francis has said bishops must be held accountable if they moved abusive priests from parish to parish rather than reporting them to church and state authorities.
"You must not cover up, and even those who covered up these things are guilty," Francis told reporters Sept. 28 en route home from Philadelphia, where he met with abuse victims.
And so his decision to authorize a tribunal was met with jubilation — and heightened expectations — among abuse survivors and those who have been following the scandal. Recently, a top Vatican official, Cardinal George Pell, even suggested a prime candidate for the tribunal was his former bishop in Ballarat, Australia.
Anne Barrett Doyle, of BishopAccoutability.org, which tracks the abuse scandal, said survivors as well as ordinary Catholics began sending dossiers to the Vatican requesting investigations into compromised bishops as soon as the tribunal was announced.
"We know because some of the earnest people compiling these dossiers contacted us," she said. She said it was disappointing but not altogether surprising to learn that no progress had been made.
That said, under Francis' watch, two U.S. bishops who bungled abuse cases have resigned on their own: Bishop Robert Finn in Kansas City-St. Joseph, Missouri, and Archbishop John Nienstedt in St. Paul and Minneapolis. They weren't hauled before a Vatican tribunal, but were presumably pressured by the Vatican to step down after civil authorities got involved, to date the main way the Vatican gets rid of a compromised bishop.
But such arm-twisting resignations do little to "repair scandal and restore justice," which the church's penal law system is supposed to accomplish, Martens said. "It's almost as if you're guilty and you can pick your punishment and you're being given a way out."
U.S. canon lawyer Nicholas Cafardi similarly noted that it's not always easy to get a bishop to resign voluntarily, and that while canonical trials were always a possibility, now there is at least a specific proposed tribunal to do the job when Vatican pressure isn't successful.
"The request to resign now has more substance behind it than it had previously, which is an important effect of the new procedures not to be lightly dismissed," he said in an email.
But the whole proposal itself is somewhat problematic given the cardinal designated by the pope to push it through, the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, has a questionable past himself. When Cardinal Gerhard Mueller was bishop of Regensburg, Germany, he appointed a convicted pedophile as a parish priest in violation of the German bishops' own norms forbidding sex offenders from working with juveniles.
The priest, the Rev. Peter Kramer, went on to abuse more children in his new posting and in 2008 was convicted and sentenced to three years in prison plus psychiatric treatment.
At the time, Mueller defended his decision saying the church bore no responsibility for the actions of its priests, and that if Jesus can forgive sinners, certainly the church can give them second chances as well.
In a recent interview with German daily Kolner Stadt Anzeiger, Mueller decried the "bitter injustice" that Catholic clergy on the whole have suffered collectively because of the "immature and disturbed personality" of a few priests. He said he also has a real problem with what he called the "glib accusation of cover-up."
Mueller didn't respond to a request for comment on the status of the accountability tribunal.
Martens, the Belgian-born Catholic University canon lawyer, said the resistance to the tribunal isn't even greatest within the Vatican.
"If I were a bishop I would not be happy with this," he said. "Because it comes out of the blue and is completely unknown territory and no one knows what the standards and procedures might be. That might cause some difficulties and problems."
Follow Nicole Winfield at www.twitter.com/nwinfield